Note: This article is excerpted from the training tool Effective Small Groups.
The closing prayer has been said, students have gone home, and everything is cleaned up. Another successful youth ministry gathering has come to a close. Nothing left to do but start thinking about next week, right? Yes and no.
As a youth minister, I want you to know that I love youth ministry volunteers! I especially love those volunteers who are willing to lead students on the journey we call small groups. My first venture into youth ministry was as a small-group leader for a group of seventh grade boys. Today, a lot of my focus during our weekly gatherings is on teaching, but I think the real work is done in the student small groups that meet together every week. The work you do during the time you spend in group together is priceless.
If you're reading this, chances are good that you're a dedicated group leader. But whether you're brand new to this role, or you've been doing it for years, there's one important thing you need to remember—your role as group leader goes beyond the time you spend together in group. Small-group ministry happens even when the group isn't actually together.
This concept always shocks my new volunteer leaders. They say, "I didn't sign-up for that! You said you needed volunteers for Wednesday nights."
When I first started leading a student Small Group, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was good at asking questions, and I liked to have fun with the boys each week. But I didn't do much beyond the 20 or 30 minutes we met together at church. I've made plenty of small group mistakes over the years, but those mistakes have compelled me to learn how small groups work most effectively.
The most effective small-group leaders are prepared, prayerful, and personal. These traits, while simply worded, actually take some work—more than the time your weekly meeting allows. Here's what that looks like:
There are many levels to this. First, being prepared means preparing for your weekly group meeting. You should have a grasp of what you're going to be doing long before you pull into the church parking lot. Spend time reading through the passage for the week, and let God work on your own heart first. This doesn't mean days of work, but it does require an hour or two of investment. Of course, the only way you can prepare is if your youth minister gives you notes and materials in advance. If this isn't a regular practice in your ministry, talk to your leaders.
Working through the material on your own ahead of time will allow you to speak on the topic authentically. If I've learned anything over the years, it's this: students can sniff out "fakeness" with great ease. Your small-group members can tell if you're not prepared, and they can tell if you're just going through the motions. If you're not taking the time to really value the material, why should they? When you can come into your small group with a plan, you're prepared to take your discussion to deeper levels, and everyone will benefit.
Being prepared also means being relationally prepared for your small group. Deep friendships and connections are strengthened through small groups, but building new connections takes time and investment that a couple of hours a week won't give you. Find ways to keep your group connected throughout the week. Attend worship services together at your church. Connect on social media. Encourage group members to connect at school.
When was the last time you prayed for the each of your group members by name? The Bible calls us to "pray continuously." For some reason, prayer is one of the most confusing and intimidating parts of the Christian life for many people. One of the best things you can do as a leader is pray for your group members on a regular basis. Schedule it into your day. Put a reminder on your phone to pray at a certain time. Go and pray at the school(s) your group members attend. Collect prayer requests each week, and (here's the big part) actually pray for them throughout the week. Let students know you are praying for them.
There's no right or wrong way to pray for your group members, but know that prayer makes a difference. Watch God do big things in the lives of your small-group members. Watch God do big things in your life as a small-group leader.
How well do you know the students in your small group? How well do they know you? Earlier I mentioned being prepared by doing things to keep your group connected throughout the week. Being personal means building individual connections with group members.
I often talk about drive-through and sit-down relational experiences. Sometimes life is busy, and all you have time for is a quick trip through the drive-through. It isn't the best meal in the world, but it will sustain you for the short-term. Strive to make weekly personal drive-through connections with your group members—quick little reminders to students so they know they matter to you. This might be a quick text, stopping into the place they work, or just having a short conversation between services on a Sunday morning. These simple reminders help sustain your personal connection.
We can't, however, live on drive-through all the time. We need to have actual sit-down meals when we take a little longer in order to have a more beneficial experience. Go to a student's soccer game, band concert, or play. Attend important events like graduations, Boy Scout achievements, or scholarship nights. What if you had a sit-down experience with each student at least once a semester? How about once a month? This type of personal connection requires a bit of planning, but the result is well worth the investment of time.
Small-group leader, you probably don't hear it enough, but you matter. A lot. The work you do is incredible. The ministry you are part of needs you more than you realize. Youth ministry is stressful at times, but thank you for sticking with it.
I know that there is more to your life than the students in your small group. I know that it may seem impossible to find open space in your calendar to invest in them more than during your weekly meetings. But let me ask you this: Why did you want to lead a small group?
Seriously, why did you get into this role? I'm guessing it had something to do with wanting to help young people navigate the crazy world we're living in, and helping them find and follow Jesus Christ. Isn't the kingdom of God worth our time and attention? I want to challenge you to see the potential your role offers, to dig just a little bit deeper and try something new. Take the first steps to be prepared, prayerful, and personal, and see what God does with your efforts.
—Ryan Schaible is the Youth Ministries Director at Hosanna Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Illinois; copyright 2015 by Christianity Today.
1. How much time do you spend preparing for your group time each week? Is it sufficient?
2. How can you make it a regular practice to pray for your students by name?
3. What are some ideas for making personal connections with your students?