When I finished leading the third week of my new small group, it hit me—I really enjoy leading small groups. It's such a privilege. We get such a unique front-row seat to watch new friendships forming, people pushing themselves out of long-standing comfort zones, and God slowly but steadily transforming people's lives.
I always want leading a small group to be part of my life. And I want to keep getting better leading. A big key to improving in our leadership skills is learning from mistakes—both our own, and others'. Let's examine a few of the most common mistakes small-group leaders make and do some self-assessment to see whether we fall into these traps:
1. Allowing an Unsafe Environment
For small groups to be as impactful in people's lives, the conversations must move below the surface into deeper sharing. This allows the relationships to grow in authenticity. But this absolutely cannot happen if the group is unsafe. If it's not safe to share—people won't.
Unfortunately it's easy to let the group drift into an unsafe environment. If group members share something personal and confidential, and then hear their story told by someone not in group—the group becomes an unsafe place for sharing. The response within the group to sharing can also make the group feel unsafe. For instance, if a group member shares an honest struggle and the responses from others are full of advice-giving, criticism, and disagreement, the group member will second-guess sharing the future. Or if a group member gets emotional while sharing and others in the group don't respond in helpful ways, the group member will likely shut down.
Leaders, it's up to us to create a safe environment for sharing. We have to consistently remind our group members to keep what's shared confidential and to give space for people to open up and be vulnerable (and yes, even cry sometimes). It's up to us to ensure that group members are getting better at listening without always giving advice, turning the conversation toward their own story, or being dismissive and trite. And even though it can feel biblical, we can't let people resort to piling on Christian platitudes and throwing verses at people who are trying to share honest struggles.
Often our best response in those moments can be, "We're so sorry that happened to you" and "Is it okay if we pause and pray for you right now?" When someone shares openly, I like to respond with, "Thanks so much for being vulnerable and sharing that. It's so important for our authentic relationships and it inspires others to share." People desperately need safe places in their lives, places where they can be "real." Your small group could be the only safe place some people have—if you work on making it safe.
2. Moving at the Wrong Speed
Finding the right study for your group can be tricky, but it's not the only thing to consider. We also need to learn how to move at the right pace through the study. Whether you're reading straight from the Bible and discussing it, or working your way through a purchased curriculum, it's important to move at a speed that allows group members to process the information and put it into practice.
I was in a men's group once where we were studied two verses from Romans a week. Though there is a lot to discuss in Romans, our pace felt too slow and even a bit repetitive. On the other hand, I've been in groups where the leader's number one priority was to complete all of the curriculum for the night. Even if there was great discussion beginning on a particular question, we had to cut it short and move on so we could get through every question in the curriculum.