Expert Advice for Small-Group Facilitators

Why obedience and a caring heart are all you really need

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Small-Group Facilitator Orientation Guide.

Steve Gladen is pastor of the Small Group Network at Saddleback Church, where he oversees 2,500 adult small groups. In that capacity, he loves watching a big church become small through true community developed in group life. Steve is the author of several resources, including 250 Big Ideas for Small Groups and Don't Lead Alone.

How would you describe the role of a small-group facilitator?

First, a facilitator needs to be obedient, and I say that thinking of the 12 disciples. When Christ came and chose the 12 disciples, he didn't pick the most popular people, the most influential people, the people in the know—he didn't even pick the most biblically literate people. He looked for ordinary people willing to do extraordinary things if they'd follow him. When they followed in obedience he took them to doing extraordinary things.

So a facilitator is someone who says, "I don't have my act together, but I am obedient, so I'm willing." That's an important step because so many times people think, I have to be a bible scholarbefore I can lead a Bible study. But God doesn't call the equipped; he equips the called. And so the primary thing facilitators need to have in their DNA is obedience.

The second characteristic of a facilitator is just someone who cares. That's it. If you care about people and you're willing to facilitate, you can do it.

Functionally, how does facilitation of a group discussion differ from other "teaching" roles in the church?

On a macro level, whoever's running point in a group discussion—whether it's a leader, a host, a facilitator, or whatever you want to call them—they need to understand that they are not dispensing information, they're facilitating transformation. A lecturer or a Sunday school teacher dispenses information—they speak, you listen. But in a group, the facilitator is simply guiding, or shepherding, the people in the group so that they experience life change.

So the big distinction between the roles is: are you dispensing information—which we try not to have facilitators do in small groups—or are you facilitating transformation?

In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges that facilitators face, particularly new facilitators?

Boy, I can think of a number of them, so I'll just rattle them off. At the top of the list would be an inability to stay focused. There's a great book out called Deadly Detours, and it lists seven or eight little things—and they can be good things—that tend to detour a church from its calling.

In the same way, the biggest challenge for facilitators is staying focused on why the group has gathered together—to grow and develop people. It's all about people. It's not about your agenda; it's not about the great lesson you wrote; it's not about all of the social things that the group likes to do. It's about life-on-life learning. So the facilitator has to help the group avoid getting sidetracked by knowing that there are a lot of good things and bad things that can hijack group discussions, but the group has to stay focused on helping people. You've just got to nail that one down first.

Another big challenge is fear. That's one of the biggest forces the enemy uses to stop us from taking a risk. The great thing about fear is that once you've taken a risk in the face of it, your faith grows. And that growing faith helps you to face the next opportunity with less fear. You can be scared that nobody will show up for the group meeting, for example. But if you take that risk and just one person shows up, faith tells you that's the one person God wants you to spend time with. Or you can be afraid that you won't have your act together during the discussion. But taking that risk gives God the opportunity to build your faith by demonstrating that He always has his act together.

free newsletter

Sign up for our free Small Groups Newsletter newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Create Sermon-Based Bible Studies
How to write engaging group studies that tie into your pastor's sermons
Top 10 Small Group Training Tools of 2014
You'll want to check out these popular resources!
Theological Discussions for Everyone
Get everyone involved in meaningful, fruitful discussions.
Are You Engaging Everyone?
Don't leave any of your group members behind.
Find the Right Study for Your Group
Practical tips so you'll never dread finding a study again
Give Your Study Some Context
Help group members understand the Scripture you're discussing