Group Leader Skills: Why Silence Is Your Unexpected Friend



Image courtesy of Thinkstock

Here’s a scenario most small-group leaders have experienced: You think of a great question as you’re preparing for a group meeting during the week. It’s a real doozy of a discussion starter—deep, poignant, and winsomely phrased. You simply can’t wait to unleash this momentous query the next time your group gets together.

When you actually ask the question, however, the group hits you back with a wall of silence. Nobody says anything. If your group meeting were made into a TV sitcom, there would be cricket noises in the background. (Play the video below to see what I mean.)

As the seconds tick by, you begin to wonder: What went wrong? Why doesn’t anyone say anything? What should I do now?

What They Need to Do
Try this little experiment before we go any further. Find a clock (or use the stop-watch on your fancy phone, if you have a fancy phone) and give yourself 30 seconds of silence. Just sit without doing or saying anything for 30 seconds. Go ahead and try it now.

Thirty seconds is a long time, right? But as small-group leaders, we need to give our group members at least 30 seconds of silence in order to answer our deepest questions. If that seems crazy, consider everything your group members need to do after you ask a discussion question:

  • They need to process your question and make sure they understand what you’re asking.
  • They need to come up with a potential answer to your question.
  • They need to cross-reference that potential answer with their personal experiences.
  • They need to cross-reference that potential answer with the Scripture passage or other reference that sparked the question in the first place.
  • They need to confirm whether their potential answer is in fact a good and helpful response to the question. (And if not, they need to start the process over again.)
  • They need to figure out the best way to phrase their answer in a way that is clear and concise.
  • They need to adjust their answer based on the responses of other group members who may speak before they are ready.

That’s a lot of work. And that’s why your group members need time. They need time to process. They need time to think. And they’re probably going to be silent when they do so.

So get used to it.

What You Need to Do
Back to the scenario from earlier in this post. If you ask a discussion question and receive a wall of silence in response, that’s probably a good thing. That probably means your people are thinking deeply about deep issues.

So the last thing you want to do is interrupt their thought processes by making an awkward attempt to clarify your question or “break the silence.” Actually, the last thing you want to do is answer the question yourself, because then you’ve communicated that your people aren’t smart enough to understand what you’re asking and think of an answer.

Instead, you just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy the silence. If people really don’t understand the question, they’ll tell you. If it’s a bad question, you’ll know when people try to respond.

But give it a chance. Let your group members have the time they need, and you’ll quickly understand why silence is your unexpected friend.

Sam O’Neal is a Content Editor on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at LifeWay. He has a passion for seeing discipleship and full-bodied Christian education done right in the local church—especially in the context of small group communities. Sam is also the author of “The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders“. You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamTONeal.

Icebreaker Activities for Small Groups

We’ve had several discussions on the importance of icebreakers in small groups to facilitate getting to know each other, people hearing their voices, breaking up the normal routine, and just having fun. In fact, “icebreakers” continues to be among the most popular topics on this blog. Many of the icebreakers we provide come in the form of questions to ask, but today the focus will be on icebreaker games that add a layer of  activity to the question.

Winter Icebreakers

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

1. Personal Postcards

This icebreaker allows people to express themselves in a more creative way than they might typically do on their own.

It requires a bit of thought, so it’s best to start with your group sitting around a table if possible. Next, lie out the postcards or images in front of them on the table in no particular order. It’s best to have about double the amount of postcards as there are people.

Next, everyone picks one postcard that best describes something about themselves. It could be something they’re good at, or it could be something they like. The group then goes around the circle and explains why they chose their card.

This activity is especially helpful for the visual learners in your group. Some will love the opportunity and some will find it challenging but that’s OK because they can give as much detail in their response as they would like.

Materials Needed: postcards, images from magazines or newspapers, or random images printed from the internet.

2. Spider Web

A fun icebreaker that will help your group find out a number of things that they have in common with one another.

To start with, you’ll need your group to be sitting in a circle. From here you will give one of the members in your group a ball of string. This person will hold on to the end of the string then say their name and one thing about themselves (ex. “I have a brother” or “I like playing football”). Any member of the group who has that thing in common needs to put their hand up. The person with the string chooses a person and the ball of string then gets tossed to that person. The cycle then repeats until everyone has had the ball of string tossed to them.

At the end of the activity you will have created a spiders web between members of the group, showing all of the different ways in which your group is interconnected. This will hopefully create a sense of unity between your members, as it visually depicts a number of commonalities that your group shares.

Materials Needed:  a ball of string

3. Share Your Story

This is an excellent icebreaker to begin sharing a little more deeply about each person’s life by sharing personal stories. This activity gives everyone a chance to share a piece of their story that has special meaning to the group. To facilitate this, you’ll want to communicate prior to the next gathering that each person will need to bring a personal item with them that has a special meaning.

Begin this activity by asking each person to show the item they brought and, in a minute or two, tell the group the story behind that item such as, “Why did you choose that item?” or “What special memory does it elicit for you?”.

Materials Needed:  nothing but remember to communicate with participants beforehand. They will need to bring a personal item that means something special to them to the group meeting.

Phil Davis has worked in small group ministry for the past eight years and is deeply convinced that transformation and healing occur best within the context of authentic community. He is the Executive Director of Abba’s Way, a ministry that creates intentional and deep connection for fathers and their children. Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilBDavis.

Icebreakers for October

Icebreakers can be just the right thing for a small group, putting people at ease and creating fun or meaningful conversation for group members.

Icebreakers for October

Here’s a few icebreakers to start your group off this month:

1. Last week some people celebrated “World Vegetarian Day.” When you were a kid, what vegetable did your parents force you to eat that you decided, “When I’m an adult I’ll never eat that again!” and how did your parents get you to eat that vegetable?

2. What picture do you own that brings you the most joy? Who’s in it, where was it taken, and what was the circumstance that brought everyone together?

3. If you could build a relational bridge to anyone from your past, who would that person be and why did you choose them?

Rick Howerton has authored many small group studies, is a highly sought after trainer and speaker, and is the author of Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual and A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rickhowerton.

Group Leader Skills: How To Ask Good Questions

I’m in conversations all the time about “deep” Bible study. Educators and group members alike refer to the “meat” of any stream of content and how they want to go “deeper” in their devotional lives and biblical knowledge. Hopefully this is true of all growing disciples. That is, that we strive for a point in which our knowledge of God is, as Isaiah claims, as water covers the sea. But what does “deep” really mean? Unfortunately, most often it becomes commensurate with facts. Only the most insightful and mature of us know about the “urim and thummim” or “the synoptic problem,” right? Without a doubt, the facts—historical timelines and dates, precise language, the backstory of biblical personalities, and historical context—are good in and of themselves. But are they transformational? 

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Within the context of church education, curriculum, and group life, I believe the facilitators of transformation are best articulated as knowledge, community, practice, and modeling. Knowledge of the Bible, particularly Scripture and Scripture memorization, is inherently transformational. The same can be said of relationships developed and played out within redemptive community. Although practicing spiritual disciplines and belonging to a disciple-maker/disciple relationship are also effective transformational tools, for the sake of this post I want to stick with knowledge and community as they relate to the importance and art of asking great questions.

In my role at LifeWay we put a great deal of emphasis into the questions in the content. This aspect of group bible study is crucial because, ultimately, it points group members to biblical truth. Additionally, a great question generates discussion and conversation that leads to the kind of community that best facilitates transformation. Here are a few things I’ve learned about asking great questions. Some of these will only be reminders while others, I hope, will bring new approaches to group discussion.

Right away you’ve got to cut out any trace of the yes/no question. We all know these questions absolutely kill discussion, yet I’m always surprised at how often they still show up. Another easy one is the question that has one answer. These are sometimes called “closed” questions. The opposite is an “open-ended” question. This is the difference between “What was Paul’s occupation?” and “How do you think Paul’s occupational choice as a tent maker applies to us today?” We coach our writers to consider the desired discussion first and then craft a question that drives the group to that conversational destination. We call it Small Group Engineering.

When engineering a group Bible study I start with the 4 question types:

  1. Observation Questions ask: “What is the action of this passage?”
  2. Interpretation Questions ask: “What is this passage revealing to me?”
  3. Application Questions ask: “How can I incorporate the truth of this passage into my life?”
  4. Self-Revelation Questions ask: “How am I doing in light of the truth of this passage?”

Knowing the 4 types of questions will help you manage the content, navigate time, and move the group toward a given conclusion. For instance, if you have too many observation questions the group time becomes mechanical and rote. Too many self-revelation questions, on the other hand, leave people exhausted and looking for an escape route. One or maybe two of those and you’re hitting the right notes. It’s helpful to plan your questions ahead of time using the question types as a way of keeping the discussion fresh and interesting. Diversity is important.

I have, however, invariably found myself “stuck.” That is, for the life of me I just can’t find the right question that meets all my expectations. This happens for various reasons. When I find myself here I’ve learned to begin with the question that I would least like to be asked in this moment. It requires the emotional commitment of projecting myself into the group space, which is admittedly demanding. Rarely is the result of this exercise the question that I use, but it does get the ball rolling toward a sound solution.

In his book, Field Guide for Small Group Leaders, Sam O’Neal gives us some additional question types that will be helpful to know:

  • Emotional Questions ask group members to consider how the text makes them feel.
  • Thoughtful Questions are questions that pass the “5-minute rule.” That is, this is a question that a person could possibly explore for at least 5 minutes.
  • Follow Up Questions come after someone makes a point. An example would be “Dave, I hear you saying that James is using hyperbole throughout these verses. Does everyone agree with that idea?”

These are just a few tools for you to have at your disposal as you create group experiences. As an additional resource, I encourage you to check out Sam’s book. It’s a great resource for more than just asking great questions.

Brian Daniel is a Team Leader on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at LifeWay. He and his wife Karen live in Nashville, Tenn. You can follow Brian on Twitter @BCDaniel.

Fall Icebreaker Activities

The weather has turned colder, and you can already see a touch of color in the leaves. It’s the season of fall, and there’s change on the wind.

Use the season to your group’s advantage with these icebreaker activities.


Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Fall Memories

Did you know food and distinct smells both have a strong connection with memory? It’s true. Take advantage of that connection as a way of helping group members share a bit of their stories.

Before the group meeting, prepare a beverage or snack that is particularly connected to the fall season. Examples include mulled cider, apple cider, apple pie, pumpkin pie, maple cookies, snickerdoodles, cobbler, and so on. As you serve your group members, encourage them to share what they enjoyed most about the fall season when they were growing up.

Fall Roast

What could me more appropriate to the fall season than roasting marshmallows over a fire? If you have an appropriate space and the time to make it work, consider setting up a fireside roast for your group members. You could even conduct the entire group meeting around the fire.

Remember, diversity and fun are important elements in any group.

If you’re stuck inside, however, you’re not out of luck. Grab some skewers, or even a long-handled fork, and encourage your group members to roast a few ‘mallows over the gas or electric burner on your range. (You can also use candles, although you’ll need to compensate for the wax and make sure nothing will burn if one of them tips.)

Again, fun and creativity are great ways to make lasting memories in your group. So take a chance!

Sam O’Neal is a Content Editor on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at LifeWay. He has a passion for seeing discipleship and full-bodied Christian education done right in the local church—especially in the context of small group communities. Sam is also the author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders. You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamTONeal.

Group Leader Skills: Conversations Between Meetings

The amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place during the small group meeting is directly related to the amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place between meetings.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

The amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place during the small group meeting is directly related to the amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place between meetings.

I am asked all the time to teach on the small group meeting. The real question seems to be, “How can our group have a life-changing, biblically-driven, story revealing conversation when our small group gets together?” I always go through a list of well-known, often written about ideas:

  1. Be sure to do ice-breakers as they create a conversational environment.
  2. Be sure that as group members arrive you greet them well making them feel welcome and converse with them about their day and what is taking place in their lives so that you deal with those surface conversations before the real meeting even begins.
  3. You as a leader should model vulnerability and transparency so that the conversation goes past surface discussions into real life.
  4. Be sure you’re asking open-ended questions that lead to conversation rather than closed-ended questions that shut down the conversation, etc.

But in almost every instance someone says, “I do all of that but my group members still won’t talk.” My next question, “How much do you and your group members communicate between meetings?” And, in almost every instance, there is a revealing silence. I then state, as I did earlier in this post, “The amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place during the small group meeting is directly related to the amount of and the substance of conversation that takes place between meetings.” Communicating between meetings can take place in multiple ways.

  • Twitter. If group members are tech savvy, and each group member tweets ongoing, group members will know some of each other’s journey throughout the week. Being aware of life-stuff ongoing helps individuals continually sense some level of connection.
  • E-mail one another. E-mail has become an acceptable and appropriate way to share quick thoughts, ideas, opinions, and to pass on jokes, videos that capture our attention, and to communicate prayer requests. In most instances group members will respond in some way. A warning, if your group is made up of 20 somethings or younger they may see e-mail as an old and slow way of communicating with one another.
  • Text messaging. Texting between friends is an amazing way to pass on prayer requests, group member’s opinions about a movie you’re considering seeing, and to just ask another group member how their day has gone. Connection at any level between meetings is better than none at all.

But the best way to make the conversation all it should be when your group gets together is to hear one another’s voices via telephone or even better, face-to-face. Use Twitter, e-mail, or texting to let your group know where and when you’re going to be eating dinner out and invite them to join you. Invite group members to your home for a night of Wii bowling or playing cards of to watch the last episode of your favorite TV show. Find ways, and utilize them, to connect with group members between meetings. This effort between group meetings will greatly enhance the group experience itself.

Rick Howerton has authored many small group studies, is a highly sought after trainer and speaker, and is the author of Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual and A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rickhowerton.

Ice Breakers for New Groups

Icebreakers can be a great way to have a little fun while allowing people in a group a chance to get to know each other a little better. It’s also a great way for each member to begin to hear their voice in the group setting, making it easier for them to share during your discussion time.

Image courtesy of Thinkstock

The following icebreakers are especially suited for new groups or groups that haven’t spent a great deal of time together. Even if your group has been together awhile, there’s always new things to learn about each other. Begin your group time with one of these activities and enjoy the fun as your group grows closer together.

Question Game

Each person writes down a question they want answered in the group. Roll up the questions into a ball. Each person throws his or her question to someone else. Take turns answering the questions. You can have more than one round and ask group members to ask questions that increase risk. (It’s a good idea to briefly discuss positive risk taking and getting to know people in the group).


Divide the your group into pairs (be sure to ask couples to match-up with someone else for this activity). Ask them to take three minutes to interview each other. Each interviewer has to find 3 interesting facts about their partner. Bring everyone back to together and ask everyone to present the 3 facts about their partner to the rest of the group. Watch the time on this one, and keep it moving along.

Group Bingo

Make a 5×4 grid on a piece of paper and make a copy for everyone in your group. Supply pens or pencils. Each box contains one of the statements below. Encourage the group to mix, talk to everyone to try and complete their card. If one of the items listed on the bingo card relates to the person they are talking with, have them sign their name in that box.

End the activity after 10 minutes and review some of the interesting facts the group has discovered about each other. You can revise or add your own statements appropriate for your group.

  • Has brown eyes
  • Has made the longest journey
  • Has eaten the weirdest food
  • Plays Tennis
  • Is wearing blue
  • Speaks a foreign language
  • Plays a musical instrument
  • Has 2 or more pets
  • Has been to the most foreign countries
  • Hates Brussels sprouts
  • Has 2 or more siblings
  • Name begins with an ‘S’
  • Loves Mexican food
  • Loves to snow ski
  • Knows what a quark is
  • Loves lacrosse
  • Likes to get up early
  • Someone who’s favorite TV show is “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”
  • Someone over 6 ft tall
  • Has read “Gone With the Wind”

Phil Davis has worked in small group ministry for the past eight years and is deeply convinced that transformation and healing occur best within the context of authentic community. Phil is also the Executive Director of Abba’s Way, a ministry dedicated to helping turn the hearts of the father to their children and the hearts of the children to their father.



Small Group Checklist

With Labor Day behind us and groups getting started in earnest, now is a good time to go over a small group checklist to make sure you have all your bases covered as a group leader.


Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

  Connect with each person. Whether you’ve been meeting for weeks or just getting started, you’ll want to be sure to connect with each person in the group personally at least once a month. This is a great way to affirm the people in your group and let them know that they matter. You will get much greater commitment from each person when they know you have a commitment to them.

〈  Assess the group dynamic. Is everyone sharing? Is anyone dominating the conversation? Are group members coming prepared? Can you see that each person is “getting” the key principles being discussed? Once you’ve accessed the dynamic, take appropriate action on areas that need improvement. If you are just beginning to meet, be aware of the dynamic during your first few group meetings and adjust as needed.

〈  Model authenticity. If you want everyone in the group to share authentically and get beyond the superficial, you’ll have to lead out in that respect. Your group members will need to see you be authentic and share the “real” you before they will feel safe sharing what’s really going on inside them. You will set the tone for the level of sharing people feel comfortable with. Remember, however, that healthy groups experience “progressive intimacy”. You don’t share your deepest feelings immediately but gradually share more over time so sharing authentically becomes the expectation of the group, not the exception.

〈  Evaluate the environment. Does the place you are meeting provide the right environment for the group to grow and be transformed? Make sure the basics are covered: temperature set to 68, animals put away, comfortable seats for everyone, pens available, etc.

〈  Look ahead. Take the time to look ahead to the next three weeks of your bible study and make sure you’re prepared and familiar with the content. There may be special supplies needed or you may find something that is unclear to you and requires extra study or possibly asking your  pastor or small group coach for input. You don’t want to walk into group time unprepared or feel rushed trying to clarify an issue. Review in advance so you can lead with confidence.

〈  Know what’s next. If you begin looking for your next bible study during the last week of your current study, you’ve waited too long. You should know what the follow-up study will be and have the materials available for each group member with two weeks to go in your current study. Many group leaders will map out the next two to three studies to make sure they complement and build off each other. Of course, you always want to leave room for the Holy Spirit to guide you when a life situation arises that needs a sudden focus. But for the most part, you’ll want to be intentional and ready to move forward once a study has ended.

〈  Celebrate. One of the best things you can do as a group leader to connect and engage with the members of your group is to celebrate together. Look for opportunities to celebrate such as birthdays, new jobs, promotions, milestones, etc. Ask someone to bring treats or prepare them yourself, but take a moment, or even the whole group time, to pause and celebrate together. You might be surprised at how acknowledging and celebrating good times can bond your group together.

〈  Pray. The greatest thing you can do to help facilitate transformation in a group is to pray for each member of the group daily. By name.

Phil Davis has worked in small group ministry for the past eight years and is deeply convinced that transformation and healing occur best within the context of authentic community. Phil is also the Executive Director of Abba’s Way, a ministry dedicated to helping turn the hearts of the father to their children and the hearts of the children to their father.


Icebreakers to Kickoff the Season


Photo courtesy of ThinkStock.

Are you ready for some football? Whether you prefer college or professional, the season is about to get rolling. And even if you’re not a big football fan yourself, chances are pretty good that a number of your group members appreciate the gridiron.

So make good use of the season’s momentum by using one of these football-themed icebreaker activities during your next group meeting.

Remember, the goal of these activities is to help group members engage one another, loosen up, and transition into a discussion experience.

Name Challenge

Consider this a modernized version of the old “sword drills” from back in the day. Challenge your group members to think of NFL team names that are mentioned in the Bible.

There are 11 total, according to the HCSB translation:

If you have time, you could give extra points to those who are able to find specific references to these teams in the Scripture text.

Play Catch

It’s an unfortunately reality that hands-on learners (also called kinesthetic learners) often get overlooked during group meetings. Hands-on learners prefer to process information by occupying their bodies—especially their hands. Working their fingers seems to open connections in their minds and mouths, which means they often get fidgety or bored during a solid hour of sitting still and talking.

So, if you have group members who appreciate physical activity, consider playing a game of catch during your group discussion. Instead of sitting around and talking, stand up and talk while tossing a football back and forth.

You may be surprised at how quickly the “quiet person” opens up and joins in the discussion if he or she is a kinesthetic learner.

Note: you’ll probably want to use a soft football if you’re inside. But there’s no reason you can’t take the discussion outside, if the light and weather make it possible.

Sam O’Neal is a Content Editor on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at LifeWay. He has a passion for seeing discipleship and full-bodied Christian education done right in the local church—especially in the context of small group communities. Sam is also the author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders.


How to Make a Great First Impression


With schools opening their doors again and football kicking off at long last, that can only mean one thing–Fall is approaching. And just like these traditions of the Fall, this is when many churches launch new small groups as well. For those group leaders who will be hosting a new group, it’s always important to make a great first impression to the new group members. While you may know a few of the people in your group, preparing for the first meeting of a new group can be a bit nerve wracking, even for even the most seasoned group leader. In an effort to help coach you for that first meeting, here are the Top 5 Articles that will help you kick-off your first group together like an All Pro.

1)  Ten Steps to Help Group Members Connect

Getting complete strangers to not only talk to each other but make it seem unforced can definitely be challenging, however, this article provides practical tips that make connecting group members simple and fun.

2)  Ten Ideas for a Great First Small Group

Good coaches will often “script” the first few plays of a game to help the quarterback feel prepared and get a feel for the game. This article will give you an easy game plan for making your first small group gathering a great one.

3) Five Tips for Leading Your First Bible Study

This is another article to help prepare you for the first group meeting. This deals more with setting expectations and the desired outcomes during the first group meeting.

4) Two Reasons to Create an Experience with Your Group

Inexperienced group leaders will focus on merely managing the meeting, staying on time, and answering all the questions from that week’s bible study. The group leaders that excel understand group time is more than a meeting, it’s about creating an experience. This will help you understand why that’s so important.

5) Three Things Your Group Wants You to Know

If you’ve ever wondered what the members of your group are thinking, this will help bring those thoughts to light. This will provide you with invaluable insight into what the people in your group might tell you, if they weren’t too afraid to say it.

What are some tips you have for making the first group meeting successful and helping the group leader make a great first impression?