Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Finding the Flow of a Successful Small Group

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • 2009 19 Mar
<i>Finding the Flow</i> of a Successful Small Group

Editor's Note

: The following is a report on the practical applications of Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers' new book,
 Finding the Flow: A Guide for Small Group Facilitators (InterVarsity Press, 2009).    

Small groups are at their best when they meet two key needs: people’s need to be known, and their need to be connected to something bigger than themselves. But too often, small groups focus on just one of those needs and neglect the other.

If your small group focuses just on relationships, it will eventually implode because it doesn’t address people’s hunger for God. But if your group focuses just on Bible study, it will fail to change people’s lives since it doesn’t help them live out their faith through relationships with God and each other.

So build a small group that encourages people to study Scripture in a relational way, and you’ll find the flow that will unleash God’s Spirit into your group. Here’s how:

Get to know your values, and live them out in the group. Think and pray about what you value most as a group leader: holding to the stated agenda, spontaneity, advance planning, powerful moments, vulnerability, sense of humor, intellectual depth, etc. Identify your real motives for leading the group, and ask God to purify them. Rather than trying to imitate another group leader who’s been successful with his or her group, be yourself and lead from your strengths. Instead of trying to use a formula to lead the group, facilitate it in a way that honors your values and uses your gifts.

Make your group emotionally intelligent. Get to know your emotional triggers, biases, and tendencies, so you won’t allow them to interfere with your group. From a lack of self-confidence that prevents you from taking risks to a drive to prove your worth that comes across looking like arrogance, emotions can prevent you from being effective as a group leader if you don’t notice and identify them. Try these emotionally healthy practices when leading your group: Be willing to be uncomfortable and discuss difficult emotions; Don’t pressure yourself to have it all together; Bounce back after a negative experience; Don’t take too much control; Don’t keep the conversation theoretical but bring it down to a real level; Deal with all necessary business that relates to the discussion topics; Fill your own weak spots in leadership with other group members’  strengths; Be willing to change when it’s best to do so; Deal with conflict among group members promptly; Set a positive example as a leader; Don’t take complaints personally or let your frustrations interfere with the group’s progress; Establish enough time for relationships to develop before reaching the group’s objectives; and Reveal personal struggles at the right time and in the right ways.

Move your group through its natural life stages well. Throughout the course of each small group’s life, it’s natural for it to move through various developmental stages. In the gathering stage, people want to figure out what they’re here for and whether they can trust others in the group. If you encourage people to risk sharing their thoughts and feelings honestly with each other and discover and express their values from the beginning, you’ll likely get through the gathering stage well. In the negotiating stage, people are wondering who’s in charge and how they fit into the group. Create an environment for people to say what’s really on their minds and give them a chance to be heard. Validate and respect their opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. In the momentum stage, the group is rolling along comfortably. But you need to be careful that people don’t get too comfortable. If nothing new or interesting happens in the group, members may start to get bored and pull away from participating. Keep adding fresh energy to the group, either by inviting new people or adding new activities. Make sure that everyone in the group still feels a sense of belonging. In the serving stage, group members want to accomplish a mission outside the group to make a positive difference in the world. Pray together about how God may want your group to serve. Once you’re clear about what specific type of service to pursue, put your faith into action and give every group member a chance to contribute. In the closure stage, it’s time for people in the group to move on because the group has accomplished its purpose. Instead of just letting the group fade away, reminisce – sharing stories, learning from mistakes, and celebrating how God has worked in your lives and all that you’ve accomplished together.  Talk about new directions for the future in each of your lives, and bless and encourage each other.

Learn how to listen. Do your best to recognize God speaking to people in your group. Regularly ask yourselves what God wants to reveal and where He is at work. Be sure to value God’s agenda above your own at all times. Listen carefully to what the other people in the group have to say. Give them your undivided attention, ask them questions to draw them out and clarify what they say, and summarize what you think you understand them to say. Listen to more than just the words they say; also listen to the feelings behind those words. Be careful that your own emotions and judgments don’t get in the way of really hearing what people are trying to tell you. Encourage heartfelt conversations, in which people feel connected and heard. When reading the Bible, listen well to the text by bringing your senses, experiences, and intuitions to it. Engage with Scripture by letting its meaning sink deeply into your soul. When reading a particular Bible story, ask: “Why is this story important to us?”, “Why is it important to God?,” and “What is God communicating to us about Himself?” Then respond to it in the way you sense God leading you to respond.

Ask good questions. Leading a group isn’t about having the right answers; it’s about having the right questions to help people discover truths for themselves. If you prepare good questions before each group meeting, you’ll help people engage with the topic at hand and contribute valuable insights to the discussion. Create an environment where it’s safe for people to ask hard questions, no matter how inappropriate they may seem. Remember that most of people’s real knowledge of God comes through wrestling, wondering, questioning, doubting, dialoguing, risking, and even sometimes making fools of themselves.  Allow your group members to go through that process so they can ultimately grow closer to God. When you study any passage of Scripture, write out some open-ended questions that could get group members started talking about it. Design your questions to encourage people to think for themselves and contribute to a lively discussion. Remember that good questions: take people deep into the heart of a matter, result in change and growth, are simple and direct, build self-awareness, aren’t easy to answer, stir emotion, instill self-confidence, send people looking for an answer of direction, invite introspection, cause people to stop and think, lead to deeper creativity and insight, challenge people’s thinking, and help solve problems. Build trust and openness in the group as you all listen to the Holy Spirit and each other together.

Navigate group conflict.  Conflict is inevitable in any group of people, and when it occurs, it has a purpose. So instead of avoiding it or circumventing it, walk through it with a vision of what could be after you deal with it well. If conflict is present in your group, that means the group is deepening. Conflict can lead to many good results in your group members’ lives: growing them into better people, deepening their relationships, testing their strength and character, and leading them toward maturity. If you don’t deal with conflict, it will come out in unhealthy ways, like gossiping, self-protection, hard hearted behavior, passive aggressiveness, and sarcasm. But if you do deal with conflict, you’ll notice more about how God is working in the group members’ lives and have a valuable opportunity to engage in His work of transformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. So help members work out a conflict by: setting ground rules for the conversation, describe the behavior that led to conflict, describe the impact of the behavior (what need isn’t being met), make a request and generate possible solutions, choose a solution that works best, confirm the group members’ agreement to make sure there aren’t any misunderstandings, and make up with each other and validate mutual respect for each other.

Develop new leaders.  Identify people in your group who show promise as potential future group leaders. Regularly give all group members opportunities to lead a discussion or activity so you can observe their skills and give them a chance to develop and stretch. Study what the Bible says about spiritual gifts, and help group members discover their gifts and put them to use. Delegate some responsibilities to others in the group, either as a one-time task or an ongoing responsibility. Consider responsibilities such as: a hosting a group in their home, bringing food, welcoming new people, planning a service project, planning a social event, organizing childcare, incorporating art or music, praying aloud, facilitating the sharing time, and facilitating the discussion time. When looking for someone to take over leading the whole group, look for a person who shows spiritual maturity, personal maturity, and the humility and openness needed to learn. Coach a potential new leader by using these principles in order: “I do, you watch,” then “I do, you help,” then “You do, I help,” then “You do, I watch,” and finally “You do, someone else watches.” Debrief the leader you’re training regularly, asking questions like how he or she felt about the time and what he or she would like to see different the next time. Consider multiplying your small group if: more than 12 people attend regularly, the house is starting to feel crowded, scheduling is becoming a problem, two different ideas are emerging about group direction, some group members are driving too far to attend and participate fully, people are beginning to attend sporadically, apprentice leaders are trained and functioning, members hesitate to bring anyone new due to size, or leaders are feeling burned out.

Invite God to transform lives through your small group. As a leader, engage in your own spiritual transformation so you can best encourage others to pursue transformation in their own lives. Spend time in prayer regularly, asking God to do His work in group members’ lives. Encourage members to reflect regularly on their experiences to gain wisdom from them. Discuss those experiences so others can contribute their perspectives on how God may be at work in various members’ lives. Ask God to help you express love and grace to others. Remain curious about what God might want to reveal about Himself to group members, that they need to see. Urge members to become aware of their sin and honestly confess it and repent of it regularly. Encourage them to rely on God’s unlimited strength rather than just on their own limited resources – both in crises and in everyday life.

Published on March 19, 2009

Adapted from Finding the Flow: A Guide for Small Group Faciliators, copyright 2009 by Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill.,  
Tara Miller is a writer and resource developer for CoachNet International Ministries. She was formerly the small groups pastor at Pathways Church in Denver, Colorado.  She was formerly the small groups pastor at Pathways Church in Denver, Colorado. Jenn Peppers is the founder of Verge Coaching in Denver, Colorado, where she provides coaching to people desiring personal and spiritual growth. Peppers is also an elder at Pathways Church in Denver.  Together, Miller and Peppers founded Flow (, whose mission is to resource emerging leaders who facilitate group conversations that lead people closer to God.

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