2 |  Focus on Vibrant Faith

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
                                                                                                                                                                                                  Deuteronomy 6:4-9


Vibrant Christians
and Vital Congregations Laying a foundation for the cHaNGe Process
Vital congregations are made up of people who possess and practice vibrant faith. most of us can name the individuals who inspire us in our life and faith journeys. They have a way of bringing out the best in others and of finding ways to make God the subject of their conversations. They are aware of God’s presence in their life and point others to Jesus through their words and actions. They regularly model the characteristics and spiritual practices of being authentic, available, and affirming.
an elderly woman by the name of myrtle comes to mind for me. myrtle was a retired elementary school teacher who was passionate about children and youth. She used to stand outside the main entrance of a congregation i served and look for anyone under forty-eight inches tall. She would greet these young people, introduce herself to them, and offer them a small treat. in the process, she’d get to know their names, learn about their family members, and find out their interests. Then she’d remind them that she would be praying for them during the week, and that she’d be looking for them the following Sunday. as her Sunday morning ritual continued, we’d hear comments from parents stating, “We thought about skipping worship this morning but our kids told us that we had to go so they’d get to see myrtle.”
myrtle was one of those individuals who practiced being authentic, available, and affirming. She modeled what it meant to be a lifelong follower of christ who practiced her faith every day, everywhere. i wished we could clone her, because of the way she affected so many young people’s lives. We knew that wasn’t an option, but we could encourage members to be a myrtle in their own way.

Living as AAA Christians
The change leaders desire for our congregations begins when we personally commit to living a life of discipleship where we center ourselves in christ and learn to practice our faith and the presence of God at all times and in all places. This orientation guides people toward living their faith rather than liking their faith, focusing on helping people
immerse themselves in God’s grace through faith practices such as prayer, worship, reading and reflecting on Scripture, serving their neigh-
                                             “We thought about skipping
worship this morning but our kids told us
that we had to go so they’d get to see
bor, and giving generously of time, talents, and treasures. for more ideas on how to live a life of discipleship, go to one of the ways Vibrant faith ministries encourages people to
practice their faith is by learning to be authentic, available, and affirming—aaa christians—in our
daily encounters.
Being Authentic
authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and

embracing who God made us to be. The foundation for being authentic is understand- ing that we are children of God who are loved unconditionally by our creator. it leads us to name our imperfections and have the courage to be vulnerable.

Being authentic shows up when
  • we share our joys and sorrows, our dreams and disappointments, our achievements and our challenges.
  • we invite people into our homes even when they have that unkempt, lived-in look.
  • we wear clothing that we’re comfortable in but may not be fashionable.
  • we no longer pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t.
  • we open ourselves to being attacked or criticized when leading.
  • we voice unpopular opinions or confront inappropriate behavior.
  • we turn off the mental tapes that try to convince us that we’re not good enough.
  • we quit making decisions based on how others will perceive us.
  • we acknowledge that life is messy and imperfect.
  • we step out of our comfort zones, refusing to play it safe.
  • we choose to be real rather than liked.
  • we view everyone as a beloved child of God.

Being authentic gives us permission to experience and express a full range of emotions— from joy to sadness, from love to anger, and from hope to disillusionment. We are being authentic when we refuse to numb the pain that often comes with many of these emotions. in a TedTalk presentation ( on vulnerability, Brené Brown shares that when we numb pain, we also numb our capacity to experience joy. She challenges her audience to live “wholeheartedly,” having the courage to reveal our true selves.
Practicing authenticity is not about being right, it’s about being real. it’s not about having the license to say things that are hurtful to people but rather to speak truth in ways that are clear, honest, and life-affirming. choosing to be authentic
can be both life-giving and life-draining. it can be a liberating experience when we express our real selves to others without pretense—in essence to let it all hang out. resisting what society tells us what we should think, buy, believe, and value can be exhausting. Putting our true selves out in the world is risky, but hiding ourselves and our gifts to the world is even riskier. authentic people speak their truth, they don’t swallow it.
one of the roadblocks for people seeking to be authentic is perfectionism. When we choose perfectionism, we buy into the belief that our worthiness is connected to how perfectly we live, look, and act. our perfectionism becomes a shield that prevents others from seeing who we really are. our perfectionist tendencies often show up in our language when we say things such as
  • “I need to lose ten pounds”
  • “I should have known better than to . . .”
  • “I have to spend more time . . .”
  • “I ought to sign up for . . .”

  Authentic people speak their truth, they don’t swallow it.
One of my favorite quotes is from a commencement speech Newsweek columnist anna Quindlen gave at mount Holyoke college in 1999: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming your- self.” When we choose to be authentic, we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, to be transparent, to be unique, and to be who God made us to be. A key element in the practice of being authentic involves living into our vocation or calling. The idea of vocation is central to the christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. Living into our christian vocation challenges us to use our God-given gifts in our profession, our family life, our congregation, and our community for the sake of the greater common good. The catechism of the roman catholic church states, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” Living into our vocation is about learning to be an expression of God’s love every day, everywhere, with every person. Living into our vocation is about participating in the priest- hood of all believers. in Volume 6 of Luther’s Works, the
reformer declares that “Through baptism we all have been ordained priests.” as priests, we are charged with praying for others, proclaiming the word, confessing our sins to each other, and sharing the love of christ wherever we go. it’s how we live as children of God. Living into our vocation is a spiritual discernment process where we first understand that we are called to enjoy God’s presence in and among us, and then are sent into this world to deploy our God-given gifts, talents, life experiences, and passions for the sake of the
kingdom. Experiences that have helped me discern my vocation and identity in christ include meeting with spiritual directors, taking monthly retreats at a local catholic monastery, participating in a “discover Who You are” LifeKeys course at my home congregation, and then helping others discern theirvuniqueness in christ. i’ve been blessed with many spiritual mentors and faith parents throughout my life who have helped me discover and develop my gifts, identify my passions, and pursue my callings. i invite you to consider what individuals, experiences, or settings might support your efforts in living into your vocation.

When we choose tovbe authentic, we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, to be transparent, to be unique, and to be who God made us to be.
If you’re a golfer, you know when your club head connects perfectly with the ball. it just feels right, and typically the distance and direction of the ball prove it as well. my goal as a
golfer is to hit this “sweet spot” as many times as possible throughout a round of golf. in life, i also try
to connect as frequently as possible with my sweet spot
where i’m doing the right work, with the right people, in
the right place, at the right time. By focusing on our sweet
spots we are able to live more fully into our vocation. This is what
author and pastor John ortberg calls, “living in the flow.” Take a few
minutes to review Tool 1, “How Has God Shaped You,” in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit. This is a form that i use regularly—both for personal reflection and for getting to know and better understand the gifts and graces of my colleagues in ministry.
Being Available
a number of years ago, i attended a community organizing training event in chicago through the Gamaliel foundation. as part of the training, participants had to sit down one-on-one with other participants and learn each other’s backgrounds and stories. What started out as a relatively stiff and awkward exercise quickly grew into very meaningful and authentic encounters with each other. By the end of the week, we knew each other’s ups and downs in life, beliefs and values, and hopes and dreams. at the end of the training a fellow participant commented, “i know the people in this room better than my own family members—but that’s going to change!” His action plan upon return- ing home was to take his wife out for a leisurely date and start asking her some questions he had never bothered to ask before. He was going to meet one-on-one with his direct reports—not only to discuss their business plans but also to learn about their back- grounds and family members. He was going to start having meaningful exchanges with bank tellers and grocery store clerks with whom, by his own admission, he had rarely ever made eye contact.
To be present is far from being a trivial task. it’s one of the hardest assignments i was given by my spiritual director while in college. Some of the questions she asked me included these:
• in what circumstances, and with whom, are you able to be fully present? • do you know others who maintain a high degree of being present?
• What prevents you from this state of attentiveness?
• What techniques do you use for being fully present?
• are you fully present now?
“Wherever you are, be there.”
Being available to others involves practicing being fully present as Jesus was with the woman at the well. a pastor i know closes team
meetings with the phrase, “Wherever you are, be there.” another pastor, someone i coach, recently commented, “i wonder how
far i can stretch myself before i’m no longer there?” Being available for others requires establishing adequate margins in our life to ensure that we’re not rushed and preoccupied. it requires letting go of the pride we exhibit when talking about how busy we are, as if our busy-ness indicates our self-worth. it requires slowing down to the speed of life so that we can find moments of sabbath—to be refreshed, reenergized, and centered in what God is calling us to be and do. If you struggle with what to invite into your life and of what to let go, consider reading the book, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life by Richard Leider and David a. Shapiro. for further insights, complete Tool 2, “Taking Time for Sabbath checklist,” found in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit.

Being Affirming
Being an affirming presence in the lives of others begins with internalizing God’s mes- sage of unconditional love for us. only when we embrace God’s unconditional love for us can we extend that same message of grace to others.
after walking Joey, our neighbor’s dog, my youngest son said to me one day, “Peo- ple need to be more like Joey.” He was referring to how dogs race up to people, wagging their tails, obviously excited to be in the presence of others. every time i read the prodigal son story, i’m challenged to consider how i might be filled with a generous and welcoming spirit, extending unconditional love to others. Take a moment to view the “Thirty-three Simple Ways to affirm others” form, Tool 3, and explore ways to expand your capacity to affirm others.

Dr. Stephen Lundin, a professor at metropolitan State university in minnesota and coauthor of the book and video FISH!, used to show this video in the business class he taught. To learn how to energize and engage customers he advocated using the four basic messages taught to every employee at Seattle’s Pike’s Place fish market:
• Play!
• Be there.
• choose your attitude. • make their day.

Take a break from this workbook to view the hilarious and insightful FISH video footage on YouTube and then consider what might happen if every christian began each day with a prayer like this:
dear Jesus, help me to be fully present for each person i encounter. Give me a spirit of playfulness, an attitude of gratitude, and a servant’s heart. Show me how i can be a blessing to others while building your kingdom.
i often wonder whether the church might be perceived differ- ently if we gave more than lip service to those same messages. i think our congregations need to become more like the bar on the television show Cheers, places where people know
our names and are genuinely glad to see each other. Living as aaa christians is something we work
toward every day but never fully achieve. may we cel- ebrate when the aaa practices are fully present in our words and actions, and may we offer grace to ourselves and others when they seem lacking.
Becoming Vital Congregations
“I wonder how far I can stretch myself before I’m no longer there?”
Vital congregations are made up of faith-filled christians who strive to
be authentic, available, and affirming every day, everywhere. as congrega-
tional members, they understand that they don’t belong to a church—they are the  church! Through their words and actions, they make a world of difference unleashing the collective gifts of the faith community to love God and love neighbor. Leaders of vital congregations frequently ask, “How are lives being changed as a result of what God is doing through us?”
my oldest son recently asked me what kinds of ministries i’ve been involved with over the years. i shared with him the times i prepared meals and stayed overnight at homeless shelters. i recounted the number of homes i helped build on behalf of Habitat for Human- ity. i showed him pictures of short-term mission trips i had participated in through Lutheran disaster relief as well as trips to ada, minnesota, to help people affected by the 1997 red river flood, and to St. Peter, minnesota, in 1998 and Siren, Wisconsin, in 2001 to help residents recover from tornadoes. i gladly shelled out money, donated the use of my van, and gave of my time because the ministries made a difference and were worth supporting. How would the people of your congregation answer the following questions?
• What difference does our congregation make in the lives of our members? • What difference does our congregation make in this community?
• What are the indicators that our ministry is worth supporting?
Vital congregations are made up of people who are committed to making a difference for the sake of the gospel. They are so passionate about the work of the Spirit blowing in and through the congregation that they can’t help but tell their neighbors, friends, and co-workers. a congregation needs a compelling reason for people to willingly invest their time, talent, and treasure in its mission and ministries. That reason needs to address how lives are being changed as a result of their efforts.
                                                       We need missionaries, not members.
Raising Up Missional People
congregations worth supporting provide a clear vision and multiple pathways for people to become mature in christ and to partner with God in fulfilling
God’s mission for the world. These congregations help people live as missional people, demonstrating what God plans to do in and for all of God’s creation. With God indwelling them and flowing through them,
they collaborate with their faith community and others to positively affect society, letting the light of christ shine everywhere. understand- ing themselves as missional, Spirit-led communities of worship, congre-
gations worth supporting tend to ask the question, Where is God leading us? Helping people wonder what God is up to in their lives and to view worship as a way of life, they equip people to be everyday missionaries, using their homes as mission outposts.
Embracing CHANGE to Develop a Ministry Worth Supporting
We’re moving away from a “come and see” model of ministry to a “go and tell.”
The six-step cHaNGe process described in subse-
quent chapters is about helping leaders make the
necessary transitions that lead to spiritual vitality for
individuals and congregations. The process helps leaders
define their congregation’s current reality and discern God’s
preferred future for their faith community. it will help leaders
develop a roadmap for moving toward God’s preferred future and to deploy the gifts of their faith community to realize that future. Here is a brief summary of each step:
1. connect: developing trusting aaa relationships through caring conversations.
2. Highlight: identifying the most pressing issues for your congregation.
3. align: ensuring that structure, strategy, language, and resources support desired
4. Navigate: creating a roadmap and timeline for moving ministry forward.
5. Guide: monitoring progress, celebrating wins, and making course corrections.
6. evaluate: Gaining insights from the past to reimagine the future.

  • Who were the “myrtles” in your life, people who were authentic, available, and affirming for you?
  • Who are the “myrtles” in your congregation? What exactly do they do? How might you and others learn from them?
  • What are some ways your congregation is already like the bar on the TV show Cheers, “where everybody knows your name”? What are ways you could become more like the bar Cheers?
  • What stories are told in your congregation? What is the significance of these stories? Why do they continue to be told?
  • What stories would you want a guest to know and experience when visiting your congregation?


How large are small groups?
Generally, small groups are 4-12 people in size. If the group becomes larger than 10-12, small group leaders usually create smaller sub-groupings for deeper conversation. Small groups often include time and space for building deeper friendships, praying for each other, learning or serving together, and celebrating turning points and transitions in life.

What kinds of small groups are there?
There are a wide variety of small group approaches, and the form they take is determined by the function they are performing. Examples include:

1 | Accountability Groups: Churches often call these discipleship groups or Wesleyan groups. They focus less on a training component in the form of a teaching time and more on equipping and encouraging accomplished through a mutually agreed upon covenant which may include spiritual practices, worship, service, giving and discerning calls. They are usually longer-term relationships that allow adequate time to build trusting relationships.

2 | Affinity Groups: These are groups that meet based upon some area of common interest.
 Common affinity group include:
  •  Adventure Groups (bouldering, hiking, birding).
  • Bible Study Groups (book of the Bible, spiritual practices, watch and discuss a Bible-oriented video).
  • Dinner Groups ("Dinner for Eight" groups, dinners focused on a particular theme).
  • Discussion Groups (book clubs, enneagram assessments, environmental issues, social issues).
  • Fitness Groups: (walking,  jazzercise, swimming, yoga, aerobics).
  • Group Spiritual Discernment (led by a spiritual director).
  • Hobby Groups (cooking, gardening, wine tasting, knitting).
  • Out and About Groups (ethnic restaurants, plays, movies, museums, concerts).
  • Parenting/Grand parenting/God parenting Groups.
  • Service Group (soup kitchen, food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, river clean up days).
  • Sports Groups (cycling, bowling, golfing, pickle ball, kayaking skiing, hiking, frisbee golf).
  • Theology on Tap Groups (Beer and Bible Study).
  • Travel Groups (daylong excursions, road trips, bus tours, extended travel).

What's unique about small groups?
All of the groups listed above are by definition 'small groups' since they are typically comprised of a smaller number of participants.
In addition to staying within a certain size range, small-groups often include:
  • Discussions about the purpose and outcomes for the group.
  • A group covenanting process that ensures safe space, confidentially, and appropriate behaviors.
  • The setting of a specific start and end dates along with specific dates and times about when they'll meet.
  • A designated  convener/facilitator and/or a designated contact person (who also keeps everyones contact info).
  • A check-in and prayer time (i.e. activities that deepen relationships and draw people closer to God).
  • A discussion about whether or not to be an open or closed group.
  • Opportunities to encourage people to hold them accountable to live into their intentions

Why are small groups important?
There is a lot of conversation with churches and especially within discipleship systems advocates about the value of having small groups or even "being a church of small groups." Note the emphasis of the latter. Most denominational structures are advocates for small group ministries and even focus support on the development of resources for small groups.

One of the key factors in keeping people in a local congregation "engaged" (to use the term the Gallup Organization employs) is the development of strong personal relationships with others from the congregation. The implementation of a small group ministry is not the only way to get people connected relationally, but it is one of the easiest and most effective approaches. For many congregations, the small group is THE place where the most significant development as disciples of Jesus takes place. It is not the only place this happens, but it is usually within the context of the small group that people are trained in the areas of discipleship (spiritual practices, worship, hospitality, partnering, service, and generosity). It is also the small group that provides the most common forms of intentionality and accountability.

How do small groups support the ministries of the church?
There is a rule of thumb that comes out of faith-based research: When a church has 50% or more of
the congregation involved in some type of small group, it is almost a guarantee that the church will experience growth in worship and membership. In addition, small groups:
  • Help grow a culture of discipleship, where people are equipped to live like Jesus, often happens in the ministry of small groups.
  • Maturing disciples attract those who not yet disciples because of the lives that they live. Small groups are a form of invitation to those outside the church to experience the love of Jesus demonstrated by the followers of Jesus.
  • Pastoral care needs are best met by the people closest to the person in need. These people are often members of the same small group.
  • The visibility of the church serving the needs of the community is greatly enhanced by an effective small group ministry, since small groups ideally serve together to meet needs in the community.
  • The level of prayer experienced in the local congregation is greatly enhanced as small group gatherings pray for one another and the needs of the congregation and community.
  • Member follow-up is best accomplished when members of a small group miss one of their own in worship and call to check on them.
  • Worship participation levels are usually stronger as small groups encourage one another and check up on one another.

  •  What is the experience of your congregation in offering small group ministry opportunities?
  • What is your personal experience as a participant in small groups? How did these experiences impact your life as a disciple? How did these experiences impact the relational connections you made in the congregation?
  • Which of the small group formats does your congregation currently offer?
  • What caught your attention as you considered the impact of small groups on the life and ministry of a congregation?


Leadership matters.  This is especially true in selecting leaders for small groups. Effective small group leaders usually exhibit the following characteristics:
  • They are relational.  What is the relational capacity of the person? Do they engage others warmly? Do they connect easily with new persons? Is there evidence of deep relational connections with friends?
  • They are spiritually mature:  What evidence is presented that this person is a growing, maturing disciple? Are they regular in worship? Do they have a strong personal devotional life? Are they generous in supporting the ministries of the congregation? Do they engage in serving those beyond the congregation? Are they inviting friends/acquaintances to church or church events?
  • They are self-aware:  A good small group leader/facilitator has a high level of self-awareness. They know their strengths, baggage, and behavioral preferences.
  • They are group-aware. They can read the room. They observe people's body language and tone of voice. They note who's talking and who is not. They note who is engaged and who is not. They adapt their style and approach based on what's in the best interest of the group.
  • They advocates for others. Does this person find joy in helping others be successful?
  • They are good listeners. They have the patience to allow other people to talk and to listen to what those people are actually saying.
  • They are good communicators. They have the ability to keep the group focused by homing in on the essential points of the conversation and keep the discussing from veering off into the weeds.
  • They ask good questions. They are genuinely interested in others. The ask open-ended questions that provoke new perspectives and possibilities as they draw upon each person's wisdom.
  • They are humble. They are focused on the welfare and growth of the group's participants. They are supportive of the greater vision of the congregation of which they are a part.
  • They are organized. They can keep the group on task because they can keep themselves on task. They are disciplined in communicating to group members and running the meeting in an appropriate fashion.
  • They are grace-filled yet direct. They are willing and able to confront inappropriate behavior and deal with the dynamics and tensions within their groups.
  • They exude playfulness and positivity.  Their positive demeanor engages and energizes the group.

Use these characteristics as a screen for discerning who are the best candidates for leading your small groups. Create a job description (see sample in the appendix) for your small group leaders and customize it to reflect the uniqueness of each group. Give or send a job description to potential small group leaders. List or verbalize the primary purpose of the group, why it matters (how it leads to people's transformation, and why you felt that they were best candidate for the role you're asking them to play.


  •  What would be disqualifies for someone serving as a small group leader?
  •  What expectations do you have for when, how, and how often small groups leaders connect with members beyond the meeting time?
  • Have you considered having 2 small group leaders for each group?  If you have, how would they differentiate their roles?


Small group leaders play the role of a facilitator more than a teacher. Effective facilitation literally makes it easier to build trusting relationships within a group, draw our people's wisdom, tap into one's hopes, dreams or challenges, and navigate difficult conversations. In essence, they do whatever it takes to make conversations and the personal connections easier.

1 | Establish personal connections among members.
One of the most critical factors influencing whether people will be engaged in the conversation is whether they trust the other people in the group. Even discussion around a familiar biblical topic may be intimidating if you are not sure people will respond well to your observations. To help build trust, keep meeting over a long period of time, so that trust develops as people grow in relationship with each other. Have the group engage, at least for a few weeks, in relationship building activities. Here are just a few examples of what small group leaders do:
  • Have a display of common items (pen, comb, newspaper, light bulb, etc.), and ask each participant to select one of the items. Then have each participant share their own personal story using the item selected as a prop.
  • Invite participants to share with a couple of others in the group "two truths and a lie" about themselves (two truths that people wouldn't know). Invite the groups to try and detect the lie statement.
  • Pilot using "30 Second Mysteries" cards to spur people's imagination and deepen engagement.
  • Show your scars! Have each participant tell a story about a scar they have and how they got it.
  • Give the group a couple of questions and invite them to find a partner and share responses to a few questions.
  • Establish a "Parking Lot" where ideas are parked until more appropriate for discussion.
  • Engage people in physical activity when possible. Pair up people for a "walk and talk" activity.
  • Give people newsprint sheets and have them draw a picture or identify bullet points for a given activity.
  • Let people share with someone in the group the results of some form of personal assessment (e.g. 16 Personalities,  Enneagram, etc.).

2 | Form a cohesive, trusting group
It's not uncommon for newly-formed groups to create a behavioral covenant with one another. This covenant describes ways that the group will interact with one another:
Groups may decide that only positive responses to others are acceptable behaviors - no judgment or put downs, etc. Group usually agree that what is shared in the group setting is confidential and not to be shared beyond the group setting.

Stages of group formation
  • Stage 1 - Forming. People are polite and are unsure what to expect. They wonder what they will get out of the experience and if it will be worth their time. During this stage, facilitators provide structure and direction. They set a positive, safe tone. They discuss the importance confidentiality and create relationship-building opportunities.
  • Stage 2 - Storming. This stage is usually the messiest. Individuals are seeking to finding their role and identity in the group. They may still be deciding if they remain in the group or leave.  Without clear norms and structure, participants may engage in side conversations or talk over each other. They may exhibit anger, frustration and  passive, aggressive behaviors. In this environment, some people may withdraw if they become uncomfortable. Facilitators keep the conversation flowing, use active listening skills, and may need to address "problem" individuals outside of group setting.
  • Stage 3 - Norming. This stage is when the group seems to gel and when you'll see the greatest amount of group cohesion. People are comfortable sharing more often and at deeper levels. Facilitators provide activities to build group, and ask questions related to "What? So What? and Now What?":
  • Stage 4 - Performing. This stage exhibits the greatest amount of interdependence among members. People are more open to being accountable and holding others accountable. Facilitators provide activities to interact, reflect, and debrief shared experiences and help members apply learnings to their daily life

3 | Design settings that promote caring, consequential conversations.
What kind of setting is most likely to create an atmosphere conducive for the type of group you are facilitating?
Is the group primarily a classroom experience? Is the purpose to have people listen to you and engage you, or is it more of a discussion focus where you want people to be engaging with one another? If it is the latter, you probably don't want to have the room arranged with chairs in rows where people will have their backs to one another.
Is the space one that conjures up images of sitting in class, even if the chairs are arranged in a circle? That might be counter-productive if you are trying to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust. Might a space designated for more casual fellowship and interaction be a better location than the traditional classroom? Or might the group find that the more informal feel of a participant's home to be advantageous as a meeting place? Will the group be meeting for an extended period of time (e.g. longer than 45 minutes to an hour)? If so, find something more comfortable than traditional folding metal chairs. Is there an adjustable thermostat where the room can be kept at a comfortable temperature?

Have you designed the meeting time to allow for participants to build relationships? Do your meetings that have a balance between structured time when the work or desired outcomes get addressed and looser time in which people become acquainted?  Will food or beverages be provided? Will there be breaks for eating or stretching? Consider adding group builders. Consider enlisting volunteers to host refreshments. It gives the facilitator a break and allows participants the opportunity to serve one another.  Is there a general "catch up on life" time where people have an opportunity to share and engage others? How will you provide a time for the sharing of prayer concerns and the opportunity to pray for one another as needed?

4 | Create a small group facilitators toolkit that's easy to transport (if your group moves around).
What tools might you need as a facilitator? Which high tech and low tech tools will enable your facilitators. Common equipment, tools, and supplies include:
- Tech gear: laptop, projector, screen, monitor, speakers and access on internet
- Office supplies: pens, markets, post-it notes, newsprint pads, index cards, etc.
- Team building tools: Visual Faith cards, legos, tiny props, deck of cards, talking stick, TalkSheets, etc.

5 | Plan in advance how to deal with challenging members.
Since small groups in real churches are composed of real people, it is inevitable that you will face challenges in managing the group dynamics. For those of us who facilitate small groups, it is a question of when - not if- you will deal with the problem of someone who complicates the group interactions and creates situations that make other group members feel uncomfortable. Listed below are unhelpful behaviors that of show up in small group settings
  • Monopolizers. Over talks. Wants to be in create 'time limit.'  has all the answers. Facilitators need to interrupt and point out what is going on.
  • Personalities that create team conflict. This includes subversives, manipulators, passive aggressives, explosives. hyper-avoiders.
  • Derailers. Attempts to derail team efforts behind the scene or underground. They may use negative emotions such as fear and anger to get their own way. They seem agreeable but are not- will answer 'yes' when meaning 'no' - then not follow through. They will not confront any issue - smiles that everything is okay.
  • "Me" focused rather than "we" focused. Steers conversations toward their personal agenda; not interested in team as a whole.  Wants to control outcomes using manipulative tactics.  May control members using anger, fear or playing the role of a victim. 
  • Non-contributors. They don't want to get Involved, take a risk, act with courage to get things done. Does not want to be part of the team or be in sync with the team objectives. Call it as soon as discovered; confront the individual. Point out what is happening-call it tor what it is: manipulative behavior. Confront the lack of follow-through and the inconsistencies between word and deed.  

6 | Design and be willing to adapt your meeting format.
While every small group has its own personality, and you can make adjustments which account for the context of the group you are facilitating, there are some basic principles which will greatly enhance the effectiveness of any group if they are practiced consistently.
  • Make sure the group members have the needed resources for the meeting: Books/workbooks Additional resources (articles, video clips, etc.).
  • Encourage group members to be prepared for the conversation: Outside assignments, Reading/reflection on materials, Devotional readings.
  • Provide regular communication to group members: Meeting reminders with emphasis on preparations, Summary of prayer requests from the group, Any logistical considerations (planning activities).
  • Have a plan for following up when a group member is missing in action
  • Have a defined time frame for how long the group will meet. The optimum for effective small group discussion is 60-90 minutes. Respect the obligations of the group members by starting and ending gatherings on schedule.

A typical small group meeting experience usually includes:
  • Gathering time.  A few minutes of informal conversation between group members, usually with some light refreshments provided.
  • Connect time.  A few minutes at the beginning of the meeting devoted to "catching up" on life, following up on commitments made in previous sessions, and building of relationships.
  • Discussion/Reflection. This constitutes the majority of the meeting time and may involve watching a video, having a discussion around prepared questions, conversations beyond prepared questions, etc. 
  • Next Steps. Invite participants to consider what they will do with what they are discovering in the teaching/discussion. What actions will they take and be accountable for?
  • Prayer. Take time for pray for one another's prayer concerns. Make a list of prayers and email to participates so they can pray for each other between small group meetings.

7 | Continuously find ways to enhance the group experience.
If a group is to grow to its fullest relational potential, it is important that group members have opportunities to bond in common cause and fellowship beyond the boundaries of their regular meetings together. There is something about moving beyond the strictures of your regularly scheduled get-together that frees people to get to know and appreciate one another in new ways. In an informal social setting, some people who are shy during small group discussions really shine; or if you are on a service outing, someone who is handy or a natural extrovert can really open up and be themselves.
  • Sharing meals together: Groups often find that sharing a meal together (regularly or periodically) is a great way to build relationships and trust within the group. Camaraderie and trust are, of course, the foundational elements in creating space for deep, transparent, and vulnerable conversations that transform lives. The group may go to a local restaurant or may choose to do a 'pot luck.'
  • Serving Together: Every group is encouraged to find a way to serve together periodically (every month to six weeks is recommended). This provides a safe place for participants to explore how they are gifted to serve, as well as providing another great opportunity to build relationships within the group. It also expands dramatically the witness of the church in the local community.

  •  What do you see as the essential elements of a small group meeting? What would you add or modify from the suggested meeting flow found in this chapter?
  • What would be some questions you'd ask a small group leader to help them reflect on and improved their facilitation skills?


Most of the time when we talk about equipping small group leaders, what we mean is that we are going to focus on preparing them to teach the materials. Research shows that the retention/application rate for an instructional model of leading a group is somewhere between 20-40%. Contrast that with a facilitation/coaching approach where, in partnership with the participants, we help individuals discover connections with what they already know, benefit from new knowledge and perspectives they acquire as part of our work together, and challenge them to match their lifestyle to what they've learned. Using this model, the retention/application range is 60-80%.

This kind of partnership reflects a coaching approach to transformation. While this small group training guide is obviously not an in-depth resource to equip you for a professional coaching certification, there are some basic coaching skills that can be adapted to your small group leadership. If you can adjust your basic approach to a coaching mindset, the results can be dramatic.  Consider the following definition, using the word COACH as an acronym: 
  • C - Comes alongside.
  • O - Observes carefully.
  • A - Asks questions wisely.
  • C - Communicates options and resources.
  • H - Holds accountable (and cares for the heart).

A good coach will fulfill all the conditions spelled out in that acronym, but this ability to COACH doesn't happen by accident. While some people are naturally gifted with the qualities that enable this skill set, everyone can learn more about the tools and habits that underlie fundamental coaching techniques. And everyone who is going to facilitate a small group should do so.  Here is a breakdown of the basic coaching skill set and a further dissection of each of those skills as they might be applied within the small group leader context.

Active listening is the ability to focus completely on what is being said, as well as the sensitivity to understand what is not being said. It is the ability to understand the meaning of what is being said as a reflection of the speaker's needs and desires, while reinforcing the speaker's confidence and self-expression.  The characteristics and attitude that define an active listener are beneficial both in the context of one-to-one mentoring, as well as in a group discussion (or for that, matter in any conversation in any relationship or context).

What is active listening?
Being curious. Being fully present. Creating a safe space. Conveying value. Exploring possibilities. "Getting" someone. Active Listening is the function of specific intentional practices on the part of the listener (in this case the small group leader who is facilitating/guiding the conversation):
Reflecting: Making observations which build on the speaker's comments by highlighting specific points and expanding on them.
Paraphrasing: Repeating back what the speaker has said in slightly different words to clarify meaning.
Truth telling: Pointing out obvious gaps in the speaker's reasoning, as well as statements that are clearly incorrect or in some way non-productive.
A small group facilitator can also have a dramatic impact on the group discussion by displaying clear non-listening behaviors (the polar opposite of active listening):
Pretending to listen: This is more obvious than you might expect. You might think you're getting away with faking interest, but people can tell when you are not engaged.
Sending messages (whether wrong or right). You can listen a little too attentively by communicating with expressions or gestures that disagree vehemently with what the speaker is saying. Try to retain a neutral listening posture. If something needs to be challenged (via truth telling), do it with your words, not your body language.
Hijacking the speaker's message. This is a gone-rogue version of reflecting in which we intentionally flip the speaker's words to make a point they didn't intend, tweak them to make a point that's near and dear to our own perspective, or use them as a jumping off point to launch another topic or stir up the other group members. We should respect a speaker's words and sentiment for what they are, not what we wish them to be.
Looking at your phone. That's an obvious one, but we all are subject to the fantasy that we are the sole person on the planet who can successfully multi-task in a way that's not obnoxious or obtrusive.

Encouragement is one of the most powerful coaching skills in the toolkit. Most people do not get enough encouragement in any aspect of their lives.
People blossom and thrive when they are encouraged. Nancy Kline, in her book, Time to Think, asserts that encouragement (also termed appreciation or acknowledgment) is important not because it feels good or is nice, but because it helps people to think for themselves on the cutting edge of an issue. It is suggested that coaches/facilitators aim for a 5:1 ratio of encouragement to criticism.
Encouragement is offered in these ways:
Speaking hope.
Approving the excellent.
Seeing potential.
Using "and" more than "but."
Genuine encouragement should reflect these qualities:
It should be authentic.
It should be unequivocal—no "maybes."
It should be enthusiastic.
It should be specific.
It should be substantive—reflecting not just "what" but "who" the recipient is.

Powerful questioning is the ability to pose insightful queries that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to move a conversation forward or help an individual probe an issue.  Dorothy Leeds, in The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and at Work, suggests that such queries will always do one or more of these things:7
  • Powerful questions demand answers.
  • Powerful questions stimulate thinking.
  • Powerful questions give powerful information.
  • Powerful questions lead to powerful listening.
  • Powerful questions get people to open up.
  • Powerful questions get people to persuade themselves.

Avoid questions that cause people to get caught up in the weeds, focusing on small details at the expense of the greater discussion. Avoid rehashing the past or blaming others. Avoid conversations that lead to an "us vs. them" mindset. Engage people in purposeful questions that help people stay connected to what's most important. Engage people in conversations that look towards the future and imagine the possibilities that change and new ideas can bring.  Keep your focus on the people in the room. Seek to draw out their experiences and challenges.

QUESTION STRATEGIES that move the conversation forward:
  • Ask open-ended questions:  Avoid "yes or no" questions. Use as a guideline the old journalistic formulation of "who, what, when, where and how," if it's helpful, but try to ask questions that require detailed, thoughtful responses.
  • Avoid solution-oriented questions. These are questions that are formulated in such a way that you are really just forcing the speaker to provide answers you were already looking for. Your questions should instead be genuinely curious and allow for honest expression.
  • Try zooming in /zooming out.  Harvard's Rosabeth Moss Kanter's metaphor about the need to take a wider perspective, while sometimes zooming in on the details. It's an important skill to know when each view - wide angle or microscopic - is valuable (particularly at knowing which details are the critical factors in a discussion or a decision).

Direct communication (responding) is the ability to communicate effectively during coaching sessions and to use language that has the greatest positive impact on the conversation and its participants. Responding includes:
  • Truth-telling. Sharing what you are seeing from the facilitator's perspective.
  • Feedback. Giving honest assessments and opinions (this is non-directive, e.g. consulting).
  • Insights. Sharing intuitive thoughts.
  • Interrupting. Masterful interrupting is truly an art and holds great benefit to the coachee, bringing them back on track or helping them get to the point.
  • Advising, While the focus of a coaching conversation is to tap into the expertise of the coachee, there are also times when the coach has expertise and experience that can have a positive impact on the progress of the coachee. The key is that the advice must be appropriate and asked for.
  • Directing. This is a technique for steering the conversation back toward the stated goals for the session or relationship.
  • Messaging. This is the speaking of a 'truth' that will help the coachee to act more quickly.

Negotiation describes the process by which the coach helps the coachee move from thinking about an issue to taking active steps to do something about that issue. Sometimes, this will occur in the context of the accountability portion of your small group sessions. Sometimes it will happen one-to-one. Occasionally, you will find this skill helpful for leading the small group itself toward corporate decisions. Here are some negotiation techniques:
  • Determine action steps. What's next?  What specific thing are you/we trying to accomplish? What resources do you/we need?  What will you/we have to have in place in order to make this happen?
  • Remove obstacles. What could stop you/we from doing this?  What are the obstacles that could stop you/us from moving ahead? What could go wrong? If you/we move ahead, what is the worst case scenario for how things could derail?
  • Gain commitment. What could you/we do? What are the possibilities? What will you/we do? Let's pick a specific course of action and commit to it. When will this be done? Let's don't leave it hanging out there amorphously. Let's pick a date and commit to it.
Practical tools for negotiating:
  • Small steps.  Having identified a goal, what are the small steps that will be necessary to get
us going on the journey?
  • Backward planning. Let's "begin with the end in mind," and chart out the steps that will be required to get us to the destination.
  • Creating structure. Let's come up with a framework for how the steps will be managed and accomplished.
  • Anchoring. How do we reinforce our core values as we move forward? How do we stay anchored to the core idea that empowers our goal?
  • Daily actions. What daily to-do items will move us forward toward the goal. As we're breaking things down into "small steps," what recurring actions will keep us accountable to making those steps happen.

The GROW model provides a useful structure for coaches to help their coachees move forward in tangible ways (in whatever area of their life - work, relationships, personal growth - in which they wish to move forward. In the small group context (and if you find yourself at some point in a Mentor or Spiritual Guide context), the GROW model can be very effective with guiding accountability discussions. The elements of the GROW model can help focus the group discussion for defining accountability among group members, and it can be an incisive tool for helping individual group members who are interested in growth identify goals and ways to meet those goals.  The GROW model was developed by John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership and identifies four areas of focus for moving forward in a positive direction.  Here is a textual breakdown of these principles, as used in a standard coaching conversation (the kind you might have with someone for whom you are acting as a spiritual mentor):

GOAL: Where are we headed?
  • How can I be most helpful to you today? What do you need to get the most out of this conversation? What role do you need a listener or advisor to play?
  • What topic should we concentrate on during this session? What is the one topic on which we could focus today that will have the most impact on moving you forward in a meaningful direction?
  • What are the issues that you face today? What are the most important items that are holding you back, giving you grief, or sapping your energy?

REALITY: Where are we starting from?
  • Tell me about your current situation. Describe it as honestly as you can, yet as objectively as possible.
  • What are the difficulties that you face? Name the obstacles and how each is impacting your attitude.
  • How are you resourcing yourself around this issue? In what ways have you sought to gain advice or consult expertise to work through this issue?
  • What is your biggest area of discomfort about this issue? What is the one thing that is causing you the most stress and anxiety?

OPTIONS: How can we get there?
  • Tell me what you think are some options for a solution. List them, without preemptively dismissing possibilities.
  • What else? Probe more deeply around all angles of the issue. What are you missing? 
  • What other options might present themselves as you take on other perspectives?
  • If there were no obstacles (like money or people) what else would you consider?
  • If all options were possible, what would be the best path forward?

WHAT WILL YOU DO? What will it take to get there?
  • What do you need to do this? Having decided to move forward with a defined strategy, what are the specific things you will need to make it happen?
  • How will you prioritize your options? How will you decide what needs to be done first and what can wait till further in the process?
  • What one thing can you accomplish this week that will move you in the right direction? Commit to taking that action fearlessly.   How can I pray for you this week?

  •  How will thinking like a coach (rather than just a teacher) change your small group dynamic?
  • Which of the coaching skills (listening, encouraging, asking powerful questions, responding, negotiating) do you find most natural and which do you find most difficult?
  • What do you find most challenging about being a good listener when you are facilitating a group discussion? What frustrates you the most?
  • How can inspire/lead other participants in your group to also emulate these coaching skills?
  • What insights did you gain from learning about the GROW model that you can use in facilitating group growth?