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5 steps to small-group facilitator success


By Clay Morgan

Since the first followers of Jesus began meeting in houses, small groups of people who meet regularly have reinforced relationships and strengthened the church.

Stepping up as a small-group facilitator is a great way to develop leadership skills, but it can also be intimidating. The good news is that effective facilitators don’t have to know everything.

In the past, we’ve written about free tools to help manage small groups. Here now are five fundamentals of facilitation for anyone who wants to improve as a small-group leader or coach.

“Tell the audience what you're going to say; say it; then tell them what you've said.” — Dale Carnegie TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

Step 1: Plan and prepare well

You can’t relax when you procrastinate. Prepare early so you can lead with confidence and focus on the people instead of the plan.

Here’s a checklist to review as you prepare your session:

  • Develop a clear idea of what you want to achieve during your meeting time.
  • Find or create appropriate resources such as study guides.
  • Consider activities that will engage the group.
  • Come up with lots of good questions to ask.
  • Brainstorm personal experiences you can use to make the topic relatable.
  • Rehearse difficult or key parts of your session if it makes you more comfortable.
  • Create an outline. Don't memorize a script, but know your material and make your delivery look natural.
  • Arrive early. Know the room, including technical needs such as outlets and the Wi-Fi password.

Step 2: Set the hook and establish expectations

Grabbing someone's attention can feel like trying to pull a minnow from a lake with your bare hands. People are busy and often distracted. Facilitating is like fishing because the task is much easier if you have a great hook.

Here’s another list to help you draw people into discussion:

  • Provide participants with an overview of the session.
  • Plan an icebreaker.
  • Project a positive and welcoming image (smile, move around, use hand gestures).
  • Position yourself as a fellow participant, learning from the wisdom of others.
  • Discuss both sides of controversial issues and let people reach their own conclusions.
  • Make it clear that your views are open to further discussion.
  • Never let them see you sweat! Be confident to gain the confidence of your audience.
  • Build what learners say into the discussion.

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Step 3: Engage your group

Remember that facilitating interaction is different than presenting or lecturing. Small groups should be comfortable and informal. Listening to what others have to say is as important as speaking well. Listen actively and nonjudgmentally, encouraging other learners to do the same.

Review these points to ensure active participants:

  • Ask plenty of open-ended questions.
  • Pause regularly to check in, ask for feedback or invite comments.
  • Plan activities that increase everyone’s involvement.
  • When in doubt (especially with adult participants), ask if anyone would like to share a personal experience or testimony.
  • Use handouts or any other helpful tactile resources.

Step 4: Guide participation

At the other end of the spectrum from a disengaged group, you might occasionally encounter participants who are a bit too zealous. At times, you may have to quiet or redirect individuals who are disrupting the experience.

As small-group leaders, creating a safe environment for participation should always be at the front of your mind. Here are some things you’ll need to do to create that kind of healthy environment.

  • Correct misinformation respectfully.
  • Ask for clarification and encourage learners to do likewise.
  • Help participants reframe their ideas and comments, when needed.
  • Help participants focus or expand their ideas, as needed.
  • Keep discussion on course.
  • Address the unwanted behavior and not the person.

Step 5: Translate, activate and close

Your ultimate success is about one thing: contributing to life-giving gatherings. Ideally, group members will learn new things about themselves, others and God. As you conclude your meeting, come up with a follow-up idea or two about how participants can review and apply key points.

Here’s a final list to keep in mind as you translate everything that happened during your meeting and wrap-up.

  • Clearly restate what was covered.
  • Give a call to action, with at least one thing each person can do following the meeting.
  • End on a positive note.
  • Finish strong.

Periodically, ask small-group participants to provide feedback about the experience. Just be sure you know how to give and take criticism with an open heart and mind before deciding what to do with that information.

If we plan well, we will create engaging meetings in safe environments where group members can deepen relationships.

Clay Morgan

Clay Morgan is an author from Dallas, Texas who spent a decade teaching college courses in the social sciences before becoming a consultant in communications and organizational strategy. Clay enjoys writing at the intersection of culture and spirituality. He has done ministry with college students for years and loves finding creative ways to engage millennials.