Rules don’t have to be constricting–they can be freeing when made with the goal of creating trust.
I love my house group. We have a great set of people who come faithfully: a couple of therapists, homemakers, entrepreneurs, theater people, office workers, musicians, teens, adults. We laugh together, we eat together, we learn together, we have fun together, we stretch and grow together. Even though it can be hard for this introvert to handle 2.5 hrs of on-going people interaction, I hate to miss my group. We love each other and what made that possible was the fact that we trust each other.
I’m our group leader and I love it. That is mostly because of the amazing people in our group who seem to intuitively know how to be good group members. As I’ve led, I’ve been able to pin down the reasons why our group works so well and trusts each other–and that has to do with good groundrules. These rules have rarely been spoken aloud, but they have guided our conversations and made us into safe people and therefore a safe group for people to share their fears and challenges in.
Here are my groundrules for small groups:
Keep confidences. I go to a small church. We all know each other’s business. In that kind of environment, it can be really hard to keep confidentiality but that makes it especially important that there be places for someone to go, say something and know it will not end up all over the church. Truthfully, this is something my group needs to do better on! That being said, anyone in the group can share a request and say “please keep that confidential,” and they know it won’t go beyond the group. That is really important for making everyone feel safe and build trust.
Clarify, and judge not. There will be times when someone takes a passage out of context or hears something in a way that seems backwards or wrong to you. Make sure you understand what they are saying by asking good clarifying questions. As long as it seems they are genuinely hearing from the Lord and it’s not contrary to scripture, let it stand.
The leader is the course correcter.Taking the example above, if what your group member is saying seems off base theologically, either mention it to them in private, or, if the group needs to hear the correction (please take into account the person offering the comment!), say something like “It sounds as though that’s really important to you right now and I want to affirm that. Just be aware if you take that thought to its logical conclusion this is the result.” There will be times members of your group will want to do this for you. Explain that it is your job as group leader, not theirs–preferably in private. If they are some kind of authority, see if you can work with them to offer perspective when asked. The real key is that you do not want the person offering the comment to feel as though they are always wrong and therefore shouldn’t speak in group.
No fixing.When someone mentions a difficult situation, often they just need to air it. Offering “solutions” can turn into a feeding frenzy, overwhelming people in already difficult circumstances and causing shy folks to feel unsafe. Your small group is not a therapeutic environment. Pray for people in need, name their specific need, but avoid offering solutions or sermonizing over them in prayer.
Everyone contributes.You are always going to have a shy violet who does not want to say anything in your group. You need to let that person know that you expect them to have something to offer just like anyone else. God speaks to us all. (I Corinthians 14:26)
Create space. [Optional, depending on group.] People can often be uncomfortable with silence, but I love it, especially in groups. I build silence into my small group by the frequent practice of lectio divina. Once we’ve done that as a group I break the silence and ask people to share what they’ve heard. Since they’ve already slowed down it’s easier for them to leave space around what others offer. This avoids the “pile on” effect you can get in groups sometimes, where everyone is eager to share but don’t really listen to each other. Encouraging silence allows the Holy Spirit to guide the conversation, not the human beings in the room.
These are my base rules. I may add others depending on the function of the group–say, a prayer group versus a Bible study. They are not hard and fast, though I have to have a darn good reason for deviating from them. Agreeing on and adhering to a good set of ground rules will set up your group for authentic love, fellowship and trust. The perfect environment for God to show up.