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.


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.

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.

Aware of my fascination with Walt Disney mythology, my wife presented me with three DVDs that chronicle events that have been significant in the company’s history: Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Sherman Brothers’ Story, and Walt & El Grupo.

Over the holidays I was able to watch Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary that tells the story of how Disney’s animation studio rose the brink of collapse—can you imagine the Disney animation studio going out of business?— to go on an unprecedented run that began with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and continued with The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin.

The general situation and overall economic forecast for the Walt Disney Animation Studio in the early-to-mid 1980s was bleak. A string of box-office and critical failures combined with stiffer competition had culminated when the story begins. After bringing in Michael Eisner the next step was finding the right person to lead the animation studio out of the pits and into a new era of prosperity. That person was Jeffrey Katzenberg. Early in the movie Katzenberg makes this statement: “You’ve got 90 days to change culture before it starts changing  you.” So Katzenberg, Eisner, and a few other key figures took the reins and charged out into the vast and unpredictable future with the not-so-small goal of re-directing the course of one of the most storied companies in American business and popular culture history.

Because it’s January and many of you are beginning new groups or starting campaigns or even looking at beginning a small-group ministry in your church, I thought it would be a good time to reiterate the broad strokes of culture and organizational change that Waking Sleeping Beauty brings to light.

Sense of Urgency – A friend of mine used to say, “It always takes longer than it does.” I have no idea what that means, but somehow it makes sense in that we must be intentional and persistent. That is, nothing manages to “just get get done.” At least in the early stages, a leader must stay on top of the details and be sure that the process remains in motion. There’s a line in the movie Elizabethtown that I love: “All forward motion is progress.” Something to keep in mind when things aren’t moving as fast as you’d like.

Cast the Vision – Included in this aspect of culture change is building consensus. In order to cast the vision you, of course, need a vision. This is accomplished through prayer and careful, diligent planning. Invite a couple of people along for the journey. Remember that change begins and infects from from the center, but also from the edges. So work from the center, casting the vision from within the inner circle. But also be strategic in working from the periphery back to the middle. There’s a multiplying effect in using this strategy.

Permeate – To change a culture the vision must run throughout the community and permeate the DNA of the organization. “Of course,” you say, “but that’s easier said than done.” I won’t dispute that. A mentor of mine put it best on the subject: “You know the message is beginning to stick when it becomes a punch line at the water cooler, in the hallways, and during meetings.” I realize that the last thing anyone wants is to be a punch line, but the point is to have the new message so top-of-mind that it becomes like “It’s a Small World”—a message with a peculiar yet endearing staying power. Take every opportunity to drill a slogan, message, key word, or visual image deeper into the cultural ethos.

Push – According to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the studio had grown soft. They were a bunch of kids with a lot of talent but lacking a force—or motivation—sufficient enough to forge them into a cohesive team with a sense of purpose. The leadership team that came in included Eisner, Katzenberg, and John Lasseter. They combined with the already-present Roy E. Disney (imagine that) and Frank Wells. Where this team was putting out only a handful of films, most of them bad, every few years, the new leadership instituted a production pipeline of one animated feature per year—a demanding schedule. Changing culture means … wait for it … change. It means pushing people. What athlete doesn’t appreciate the coach that makes him the best he can be? What teachers do you tend to admire most? The truth is we like to see what we’re made of. Change leaders can’t shy away from expectation.

Inertia – It has always fun to watch how an event can take on a life on its own when I’ve been responsible for the planning, executing, and managing events. There’s so much going on in the days and weeks and even hours right before an event begins, but once it does it is almost like it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The same thing is going to happen when you implement new groups or a new small-group ministry. At this point you’ll want to pay very close attention to the nuances of what is happening.

I don’t know if Katzenberg is accurate with his 90-day mandate, but at some point a leader endeavoring to change culture will be, as my grandmother would often say, “swallowed whole.” For sure this is an incomplete list. There are entire books on the subject. I would recommend the Waking Sleeping Beauty documentary for any leader, though. Not only is it entertaining, but there are some great lessons for changing culture. Being a change agent or change-leader certainly not for the feint of heart—but it always makes for a good story.

Earlier this week Rick Howerton posted a Q&A with Alan Danielson. In his post, Alan answers questions about Triple Threat Leadership, a book that he has recently published on leadership, and the broader application of Triple Threat Solutions. Although the principles developed in the book are not limited to small-groups, it certainly seems to be something you’ll want to investigate as a small-group pastor or leader. As I prepare to begin leading a new group I found this blog post itself to be simple, direct, and very helpful—especially when Alan addresses the issue of strategy. And even though we are aware of the importance of vision and vision casting, one can never be reminded too often. It looks like anyone even remotely associated with small groups could stand to gain quite a bit from Triple Threat Leadership.

I’ve always been close to the guys I grew up with in a small Western Kentucky town. I realize that more of us develop their most cherished relationships with people they met in college as opposed to high school. But that’s not the case with me. Maybe it was the rural, agrarian lifestyle that makes my hometown friends and I so kindred. Maybe it’s the fact that, typical of a small town, the lack of new additions made us more like brothers than friends. That is, we were stuck with each other and had to learn how to love one another because of our flaws, not despite them.

Just last week the mother of one of these “brothers” passed away. She had struggled with cancer for the better part of a year. She refused all but the most basic treatments; instead choosing to pass this life on her own terms. It’s no surprise that as gracefully as she died, she also lived. For my own part, I just remember how welcome she made me feel any time my life took me through their living room—a welcome respite for a child of divorce. There was an overwhelming sense of warmth associated with the home she built as well as the family that lived in it.

So another friend and I drove to the service from Nashville. It was nice. We sang hymns and listened to several people pay tribute to her. When the service was over we filed out into a receiving line to meet the family. I knew the step-father but that was about it. My friend was one of the last people in line—a wait that must have taken more than an hour.

When my part of the line finally got to him, although I had prepared in my mind what I thought were wonderful words about his mother’s legacy and what she meant to me and how sorry I was to see her go, I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t muster a word. Which is ridiculous since words are pretty much my business. But in that moment I realized that, really, I had nothing but my presence to offer; that whatever words I might conjure would diminish the sentiment I wished to impart; that ultimately I actually contributed more to the moment through the things left un-said.

There will be times during our small-group meetings and in the lives of our small groups when silence happens. Speaking from experience, there is the strong inclination to fill those moments with … something. Anything. Like I said, words are my business. And sometimes that’s appropriate. But there are also times of silence when the silence speaks more plainly and with more weight than any and all of our words. Of course we won’t always know which is which. But I think the point here is that when true redemptive community is at work, the perceived need for words should come under greatest scrutiny. And it’s more than OK to let the moment speak for itself.