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August 23, 2012

Three Ways to Kill a Small Group

Avoid these sure-thing saboteurs


You’ve worked hard to prepare for your first small group: the invitations have been sent, the curriculum selected, the brownies baked. Everything you need for an amazing small-group experience! Except…it’s not that easy. It takes much more than good marketing to make a small group actually thrive. And if you aren’t careful, you can kill yours in three easy steps:

Step #1: Misread Purpose

Kill your group fast by misreading its purpose. Take a bunch of women who’ve never met and expect them to be really vulnerable in the first meeting. Or take a group of women who’ve never studied the Bible and ask them questions using words like “atonement,” “predestination,” or “lexicons.” Or you can take a group of thoughtful, educated businesswomen and tell them you’ll be making a magnet craft with puffy paint every week.

Step #2: Don’t Prepare

Another easy killer is to spend more time preparing the brownies than your content. Use poorly written curriculum on topics that don’t interest or challenge anyone. Better yet, don’t prepare at all—just read the questions out of the book as you go along. Nothing says, “I care about you being here” like a leader who clearly hasn’t done any work in advance.

Step #3: Go Desperate Housewives

Proverbs 18:8 says, “Rumors are dainty morsels that sink deep into one's heart.” There is a part of us that responds to juicy information. But there is a part of us that knows this kind of talk doesn’t bring life at all. If you want to kill your small group, allow a gossip to dominate the conversation. Let her disguise her complaints about others in the guise of prayer requests, and even when you don’t like it, allow it to continue.

If you don’t have the gossip problem, you can still kill the group. Just allow anyone to dominate the conversation. Whether it’s a prayer request or a continual problem relationship, allowing a small-group member to become the focal point of your time doesn’t just distract others—it actually detracts from the group by taking your focus off Christ.

Good News

Before this article makes you give up on small groups forever, take heart! The good news about these killers is that doing the opposite can make your small group great.

The first small-group killer is to misread its purpose—the first secret to thriving is casting vision. What is the purpose of your group? Is it for growing relationships? Learning more about God through Scripture? Group therapy? (Couldn’t resist.) Small groups can be tricky because they can be any number of things. The secret to making yours thrive is to be clear with the expectations of the group.

The second small-group killer is lack of preparation—the second secret to thriving is deciding to lead. In my experience leading in ministry, I often find that women underestimate their importance as leaders, which undermines their confidence. Yet when you decide to lead a group, in some ways you become a pastor. You shepherd, teach, counsel, and encourage. Do not make light of this call! Instead, you should “lead a life worthy of your calling” (Ephesians 4:1). If you take this call to lead seriously, you will pray for your group. You will plan for them by being at least a week ahead of the group in content. You will spend time thinking of ways to apply your lesson. You will think through the flow of each meeting and make sure you are facilitating each lesson well. You will ask for feedback. And you will grow. This is the blessing of leadership, and it’s worth the work.

The final small-group killer is allowing gossip or one dominant individual to run the show. But you can encourage your group to thrive by making time for everyone. This might mean gently redirecting the group by saying, “Thanks, Mary, for sharing. Let’s get back to it in a minute after we’ve heard from everyone.” This may mean going directly to prayer and not stopping at prayer requests at all (which can often derail the group). It might even mean talking with “Mary” individually. But it does mean dealing with the situation as creatively as necessary to allow others to be active members of the group.

Leading a small group is hard work—but it can also be one of the most rewarding leadership opportunities of your life. Don’t let one of these killers detract from the life-giving experience that small groups can offer!

Your turn: What small-group “killers” have you experienced? How can they be avoided?

Nicole Unice is a ministry leader at Hope Church in Richmond, VA, and the author of She’s Got Issues (Tyndale). Her personal mantra is “no more awkward small groups!” and the DVD group experience that accompanies her book works hard to create an honest, real, and refreshing experience in God’s Word. Learn more at

Related Tags: friendships, small group, women's ministry


Our small group is 22 members strong. It began over 35 years ago with about 5 people, 2 of us who are still in it. We operate on two major premises.
1. I don't teach a subject. I teach people and any time a legitimate question comes up, I try to address it there and then.

2. We all make a concious effort to make newcomers feel a part of the group. Among other things we have a welcome ceremony in which we ask them to tell us three things about themselves they'd like to share, and invite them to ask us any questions they'd like. This some times helps us learn things about the "oldtimers" we didn't know. We also celebrate everyone's birthday.

3. I frequently refer to the idea that we are not just a Bible study group, but a fellowhship of Christians caring and praying for one another.

I've led many small groups and while I prepare for each session, my main job isn't to "teach" but rather to ask provocative questions about the material that encourage others to share their thoughts. In a group of 10 Christian adults, you can easily have more than a century of Christian experience. You want to mine that resource.

I changed churches due to a difference with teh leadership of our previous church who had decided to teach that homosexual activity that I considered to be forbidden by Scripture was not so forbidden and in my "new" church I joined a small group of around 8 from whom we lost 2 due to moving and to which we have added 2 regular and another occasional member.

I agree that my aim is not to teach but rather to facilitate learning from each other, when we consider the topic-centred aspect of the group. There are also two other focuses that we need to consider: individual and group. We have to have a group identity so that people feel a want or a need to come to the group, and also we need to be aware of the feelings of individuals and to look out for those individuals when there are other church meetings and events, for example phoning to check that Mavis is OK when she was not in church on Sunday morning, and otherwise helping others in the group where we have the ability to do so.

The other small group in the church is larger than this one, and consists of didactic teaching with little discussion.

When the minister will say that the purpose of the sermon is not to teach but to proclaim the Word, and that teaching should happen in small groups, but he will never encourage people to attend the small groups from the pulpit, the small group leaders in our group feel that they have an uphill struggle.

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