Multi-person discussions naturally meander. You don't want to be too rigid, but you also don't want to have a meeting full of rabbit trails. Try to keep the balance between tight focus and some wiggle room. A helpful analogy is sailing. A sailor doesn't hold on tightly to the rope, locking the sail in a single position. This actually gets the boat to the destination slower than if one held on loosely to the rope, letting the sail fully catch the shifting winds. Each small group moves at its own pace and rhythm based on its unique chemistry. Discern what your group's pace and rhythm are and direct the study and discussion accordingly.
Here are some pointers that can help groups that have trouble staying on topic.
1. Prepare realistically for the meeting. Begin with the assumption that you'll be able to cover only half of the questions presented in any prepared study guide. Ask yourself: "Which half of these questions will work best for my group?" Then cover that half and if time allows you can cover the remaining questions. This allows you more focus for what you want to cover and means you'll prepare an appropriate number of questions for the discussion time.
2. Outline what you want to do at the beginning of the meeting. Avoid sharing this as if it's an agenda. Rather, chart the course and explain to the group why it would be good for you to cover the questions prepared for the gathering. Set a goal for the group. For example, you could encourage them by saying, "In this meeting, let's explore …" or "What I hope you'll walk away with by the end of our meeting is …" With goals in mind, your group knows they're travelling toward a destination.
3. Try to discern a pattern. Does the group tend to get off topic at generally the same time at each meeting? Does something trigger it getting off topic? It could be an individual or a way questions are phrased. Pay attention to see if there is a pattern to when and why the group gets off track. How might you avoid this pattern?
4. Ask the group if they're happy with the study you're doing. When a group continually gets off topic it might be a signal that it's time to abandon the study you're doing. That's completely acceptable! People might be bored or disinterested in it. Discuss this together. Check in from time to time with your group and ask them if the study you're working with is working for them.
5. Try to link "wandering talk" back to the topic at hand. Look for opportunities to jump in, graciously segue, and take hold of the steering wheel again. You don't have to bring an abrupt halt to someone's aimless chatter—look for the right moment when you can gracefully harness it and relate it to the group's focus of study.
6. Invite your coach to attend a meeting to see if he or she can give you insight. Having another perspective can be critical in these situations. Your coach may notice a pattern that you are oblivious to or suggest something new for you to try. Coaches are there to help you; tap into their wisdom.
7. Ask trusted group participants to help keep the study on track. Sometimes it can be beneficial to enlist the help of other group members. Ask one or two group members to pay attention to when you get off track and say something like "What was the question again?" Not only will you have help, but also the group members helping you will feel more ownership of the group.
—Reid Smith is the Community Life Pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the founder of the 2orMore small-group leadership training and resource ministry.