I’ve been thinking about marriage a lot lately. Our first child to reach adulthood, our son, was married two years ago. Then this past year our eldest daughter married. Almost as close to home…almost…we will attend our nephew’s wedding next month. Weddings are an awesome time to see the beauty of marriage in all its glory. But weddings are just a snapshot. Is it possible for such marital bliss to remain?

It doesn’t seem like it, does it? With celebrity marriages lasting months now (rather than the short number of years we used to expect) and the divorce rate in the church not being much better than the world’s, one would think this is an institution to be avoided at all cost. I mean who signs up to fail?

If you haven’t checked out this video of Ian and Larissa yet, I’d encourage you to. While it may not represent the norm, it certainly gives us something to aspire to…an example of the beauty and the mystery of marriage…a picture of selflessness…and a story that illustrates the things that matter most about marriage and relationships in general.

My wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary this year and I’ve gotta say that it just keeps getting better. We are SO looking forward to the next 25. Things haven’t always been perfect but they’ve always made us better and stronger. We decided a long time ago to stay together no matter what and to work through any difficulties or even tragedies…together. When we made that decision it was pollyanna at her best. We had no idea how many curveballs life could throw or just how much it could sometimes hurt…or how much we could hurt each other. Financial calamities, unsought career changes, the loss of children, dangerous health concerns, heck, even deportation by foreign governments. Life is a roller coaster…full of peaks and valleys. In the end though, there is nothing sweeter and no moment more restful to my soul than walking that path with my soulmate, holding hands, snuggling together, and smiling at each other. I see that same joy and peace in Ian and Larissa against even more stark circumstances.

Yep, marriage is beautiful…and mysterious. Ian and Larissa reminded me of that today. May the Lord continue to bless their marriage…and ours.

Right now I’m looking out my window at work, and I see sunny skies, green leaves, and people busy all around. It’s a good reminder that summer is almost here. And the coming of summer usually results in one of the more common questions in small-group ministry: Should we take a break over the summer months, or should we keep meeting right on through?

There are a lot of factors to consider when you think about that question. People go on vacation during the summer months, and many small-group veterans are used to having a break from regular group meetings June through August. On the other hand, people need community during the summer as much as other seasons. People need accountability and prayer and deeper encounters with God’s Word.

So, what should you do? I only have a couple pieces of advice to offer.

First, I recommend you don’t make a unilateral decision. You’re the leader, yes, but you don’t have to accept all the pressure of that particular decision. Talk to the people in your group and see what they think. Are they feeling on a roll, spiritually? Are they drained? Will half your group be in the Bahamas for six weeks? Are there several guests that might visit during the summer?

Getting some answers to those questions will probably reveal which way the group as a whole is leaning, and then the decision is easy.

My second piece of advice is this: If you stop meeting for the summer, don’t stop meeting. In other words, even if you take a break from regular group meetings every week — complete with Bible study and prayer and all that — you should still make an effort to have your group get together multiple times throughout the summer. Have a couple barbeques. Meet in a park for some frisbee golf. Identify a couple service projects that your group could accomplish together.

In other words, work to maintain the connections within your community until you start regular meetings again.

Have a great summer!

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (available now from InterVarsity Press!) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Last week we explored why silence is an unexpected friend for most small-group leaders. Now we need to take a look at an even more sinister landmark of the small-group experience: Conflict.

Happens to the Best of Us
Let’s get one thing straight: All groups experience conflict. It may be subtle — it may simmer below the surface and never boil over — but any time you gather imperfect people together and ask them to “do life” together on a regular basis, conflict will happen. People will get frustrated. Personalities will clash. Priorities will be questioned. Relationships will get strained.

Surprisingly, these kinds of conflict aren’t always a negative occurrence in a small group. In fact, conflict can often produce growth and deeper relationships.

When it’s handled correctly, that is.

How to Harness the Power of Conflict
Obviously this is a big topic, and you don’t want to intentionally create conflict within your group for any reason. But when conflict occurs, there are a few things you can do to take advantage of the situation.

First, don’t attempt to eliminate conflict when it makes an appearance. That’s a common response for group leaders. If people start getting a little chippy or angry, many group leaders attempt to change the subject or somehow mediate the discussion in order to calm things down. But that’s not always the best response.

Conflict usually happens because people are experiencing strong emotions. And strong emotions are a great catalyst for growth — they give the Holy Spirit some “purchase” to work with in a person’s heart. So, by squashing a conflict at the very beginning, you eliminate any chance for your group members to make use of their strong feelings and reactions.

Second, help people examine the roots of their strong feelings. Once you see that two or more people are reacting strongly to a topic, idea, or conversation, one of the best things you can do is simply point out what’s going on. “Rob, it seems like you’re passionate about this conversation. Why is that?” “Tina, I get the impression you’ve thought about this subject quite a bit. Is that right?”

By giving your group members a chance to explore and articulate why they feel strongly about something, you can often diffuse a potentially painful situation. (People are less likely to argue pointlessly about something like alcohol, for example, when they know that someone in the group had an alcoholic father.) You also help group members get to know each other on a deeper level.

Third, don’t be afraid to step in when necessary. As a group leader, one of your main responsibilities is moderating a discussion. And sometimes that means stepping in to “table” a conversation until a later time. If group members are starting to argue pointlessly about a subject, don’t try to extinguish their conversation. Rather, ask them to continue it at another time so that the group can move back to the topic at hand. Again, this allows people to discuss deeper issues in private, which can increase relational bonds.

Once again, I am not encouraging you to seek out conflict within your group. I also think there are times that conflict can be damaging — especially when people start to get mean or insulting.

But for the most part, conflict isn’t something you should fear. Rather, it’s an event you can harness to improve the overall health of your group.

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (available now from InterVarsity Press!) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.


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 above 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 author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

There are a lot of good people writing about small groups and small-group ministry these days, which means there’s a lot of great content available for the good and courageous folks who’ve chosen to lead a group. I’m thankful for that.

But one message is mostly missing from the mountains of material: Small groups should be fun. Just like alliteration is fun. (See what I did there?)

I’ll repeat that: I think the presence of fun is a vitally important element of a successful small-group meeting.

Why?
There are two reasons why fun is crucial to a small-group meeting, and everybody understands the first one. Namely, it’s fun to have fun. People like having fun. You, me, your group members, and anyone who might eventually become one of your group members—we all enjoy a good time.

Having fun in a small-group setting creates positive associations. It helps people open up and speeds up the process of building relationships. At the very least, it gives people a concrete reason to come back even if other parts of the group meeting don’t go very well. (Of course, the opposite is true for boring or overly serious group meetings.)

But there’s a second reason why having fun is important for small groups, and that one is a bit more surprising. Namely, fun is a key component of spiritual growth.

If you don’t believe me, check out your Bible. How many feasts does God command the Israelites to celebrate throughout the Old Testament? How many parties did Jesus and his disciples attend? How many times did the members of the Early Church break bread together?

God is a community, after all, and He created us in His image. He wired us to be our best selves when we are part of a network of believers who learn together and work to advance His kingdom together, yes—but He also wired us to enjoy each other (and enjoy Him!) along the way.

How?
That raises an interesting question, though: How does a group leader incorporate fun into the group?

There are a number of things that work for me, but I’d rather open this question to the wisdom of the crowd rather than give any more personal opinions. So, what’s been a fun activity or experience in your group meetings? Or, what would you like to try in order to add a spark of entertainment?

Add your ideas in the Comments section below, and then get out there and have some fun!

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

I recently came across this fascinating video about a World War II propaganda poster from Great Britain. The poster features a burnt-orange background and an outline of the royal crown, along with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Designed for distribution during times of attack or invasion, the poster was never actually circulated to the public. In fact, nobody would even remember it existed if not for the owners of a store called Barter Books in northeast England. They liked the poster, had it framed, and hung it on one of the walls of their store.

In the years since, the poster has become one of the iconic images from the 20th century.

“Keep Calm and Carry On.” I think that would’ve been a great slogan for a war-torn world more than 70 years ago.

And I think it’s a great slogan for small-group leaders today.

Bad Stuff Will Happen

If you happen to lead a small group, or if you’re thinking about leading one in the future, there’s at least one thing I can promise you: Bad things are going to happen.

Not terrible things. You won’t need to contend with murderous Nazis or anything like that. But bad things will happen for sure.

People in your group will experience conflict, for example. Or you’ll spend a lot of money buying a curriculum series that bombs. Or someone you really like will leave the group because they’re “not being fed.” Or your church will decide that your group has become too large and needs to be split.

Or all of the above.

When those things happen, you’ll be tempted to throw your hands up and walk away. Maybe you’ve experienced that temptation in the past. Maybe you’re experiencing it now.

You don’t have to be pushed around by those negative circumstances, though. You have the ability and the capacity to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Because the success or failure of your small group is not dependent on your abilities as a small-group leader.

It’s Not Up to You

That’s worth repeating: The success or failure of your small group is not dependent on your abilities as a small-group leader. In fact, if it were up to us to produce healthy and growing small groups, we would always fail.

Think about it: You are not able to transform ten people from spiritual infants to spiritual giants by meeting with them once a week. You are not equipped to change peoples’ lives by cooking up some nachos and writing a few discussion questions. Billy Graham is not equipped to do that.

Rather, any spiritual growth that occurs in a small group has its source in God. It’s the Holy Spirit that transforms people and conforms them to the image of Christ. Not you. Not your ability to purchase the perfect Bible study.

In other words, any success that your small group experiences can be credited to God. It’s not up to you.

So, when those bad things happen, you don’t have to worry that they will prevent people from growing spiritually. You don’t have to worry that your failures will somehow damage the people you care about.

You are free to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. Releases May 1.

Springtime is here! Unofficially of course since we have a couple of weeks before the equinox announces the official beginning of this time of year. LifeWay Small Groups has been very busy over the last few months producing some of the most dynamic and transformational resources we’ve released. Gospel Revolution, Stolen, Group Insights, and Rooms are all small-group Bible studies we that we encourage you to check out.

We’ve also been working to deliver an entire new strategy for men’s ministry for your church. It’s no secret that where men’s ministry is concerned, we’ve been in crisis mode for some time. In May we are releasing Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. This “men’s ministry in a box” provides everything a church needs to launch a men’s ministry or provide a greater, more effective, context for what you are already doing. We’ll post more on this later, but this is the first men’s ministry model that puts men on an intentional spiritual path that culminates with an “activated” man on mission for God and your church’s vision. Kenny’s model is not only church-tested over the last decade, but works for any size church. Nor does this approach require you to add staff or even additional ministry layers. The intent here is to wake the sleeping giant in your church. For more information click here.

And I’m pleased to announce that former editor of smallgroups.com and current LifeWay editor Sam O’Neal will be posting as a guest blogger every Thursday until the release of his new book The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders. Sam plans to dive into various principles of small group leadership with greater detail, but the book addresses several key for leading transformational group experiences, including:

•    How learning styles impact both group leaders and group members
•    How to craft discussion questions that actually spark discussion
•    The art of leading a group discussion
•    What to do when things don’t go as planned

Be sure to look for Sam’s posts beginning March 8. I have had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him over the last few months and can say with certainty that you’re  not going to want to miss what he has to say. (Unless you’ve got some time on your hands, just stay away from topics like the Chicago Bears or NFC North.) And stay tuned for more on Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck as well. We need to rally the men of our culture with a fresh new message for greater godliness and more effective disciples.

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