I love the role I get to play in leading my 11th grade girls in a discipleship small group every Sunday night. (I've been with them since they were in 7th grade.) It's been a blessing to see the girls growing so passionate about their faith life. Having run groups for years in a clinical setting as a licensed counselor, many of the characteristics of running a successful discipleship group are quite similar.
Yet, there are some that are unique to leading students in meaningful spiritual growth.
Here are seven characteristics of running an effective small group (I'd love to hear your thoughts on any characteristics you have found to be effective):
Trust is the foundation of any group. Trust means being comfortable enough to be vulnerable. As one of our girls once said, "trust is like the oil that keeps things running smoothly." Early on as a group, we would actually take the time to state aloud the fact that we trusted each other. We would regularly remind each other that there should be no hesitation about sharing information within the boundaries of our group because we knew it will stay within the group. Of course, by now, trust is well established. But growing trust is essential for any group.
Commitment is key in effective small groups. This means a commitment to your stated goals, commitment to attend, both for you and for your students, as well as a commitment to keep up with any curriculum requirements. If trust is the foundation of small groups, commitment is the glue.
Good communication practices during the week can do as much to grow your group as just about anything. The girls in my group keep me updated on prayer requests, praises, or just information they want to share with me. We do this through texts, emails, and phone calls. As a leader, you can have a huge impact in keeping communication open during the week.
This is one we honestly sort of stumbled on, but that has been really great for us. As each year progresses, we choose a verse that we'd all commit to memorizing by the next week's meeting. It has been great accountability. But, it's also been cool to hear how the Holy Spirit brings the verse to each of our minds during the week, how we may have shared it with others, or how it brings comfort as individuals. We all agreed it has drawn us closer to the Lord as a group.
We make it a point to assist those in need, as Scripture commands. Over the years we've cleaned up the litter and debris in an especially underprivileged neighborhood, made visits to a local center that houses women (and their children) who've struggled with addiction, and planned a Summer fund raiser where we sold friendship bracelets the girls made themselves, taking the money to give to an organization that educates HIV/AIDS infected people in Africa. Working together on these projects has brought a deeper level of connection between all of us, and given our group deeper meaning.
We put a high premium on encouragement. The girls really have grown in this area. When one of the girls shares a problem, the other girls do such a good job of listening, asking questions, and sharing their perspectives. Even though not all the problems are "solved," our group has done a great job of offering encouragement and support.
From the beginning, we established rules for our group. Many of our "spoken" rules come out of the characteristics I've already mentioned. Some of the unspoken rules are respecting me as their leader, listening to me when I talk, and just being kind and considerate to each other. Rules are important. But, it's small group not boot camp. We have a good time. And believe it or not, respect for the rules actually helps this happen.
These aren't the only characteristics of effective small groups, but they have worked for me.
What characteristics would you add to this list?
(Originally posted September, 2011. Updated for reposting.)