I found missing pieces for my group leadership puzzle


David Goodman, c. 1970

by David Goodman, Entrust CEO


Some experiences defy explanation. This was one of those. 


To understand how it transformed my approach to teaching, you would have to journey back to 1970. The average cost of a new house was a little over $23,000. Naomi Campbell and Tina Fey were newborns. 


At that time, most churches would not even consider launching a small group program. Common wisdom was that such groups would see people wandering leaderless into all sorts of doctrinal error and congregational unrest. In some cases, those fears proved true. In other cases, small groups failed for lack of good models or skilled leadership.


In my own attempts at leading small groups, I had struggled. It was hit and miss. Sometimes my questions would lead to an exciting interchange but were just as likely to produce an awkward silence. I got better at coming up with successful questions, but I wasn’t certain why some questions worked and others did not. 


That was when I stumbled into a seminar that changed my entire perspective on learning. As a pastoral intern who did just about anything the pastor asked me to do youth ministry, teach adult Sunday School, even, in an emergency, direct the choir I probably went because a friend was excited about it. All I knew was that the creator of Serendipity and a pioneer in small group leader training named Lyman Coleman was leading. So I went.


For two hours, I was transfixed. Lyman Coleman did not waste time explaining the dynamics of small groups. Instead he gave us a life-changing experience of them. Dividing the 50 participants into groups of six or eight, he led us through participative learning exercises. I found myself totally engaged, fascinated by how the scriptures came alive as I glimpsed the Spirit of God speaking to me through others in the group. 


Never again would I be satisfied to lecture youth or adults without utilizing interactive methods. Coleman produced highly creative small group Bible study materials that I devoured as I experimented with the church youth group I led. 


Later, I found innovative curriculum from Gospel Light for the adult classes I was assigned to teach. And I began to see that adults would come alive when they were engaged in “discovery learning.”


As I spent less time talking and more time facilitating learning activities, group members seemed to learn better and enjoy it more.


Not only was my teaching impacted, but also my preaching. Apt questions, the common element between leading small groups and interactive teaching, proved applicable to preaching. Unless I could engage a congregation with questions they felt mattered, their minds naturally wandered to subjects more important to them. As I studied a scripture portion, I was constantly asking, “Why did God include this in scripture and how might it change my life and the lives of the congregation?” I found that coming to an understanding of that not only brought conviction and excitement to me as a preacher or teacher, but it also shaped my sermon introductions, leading me to raise questions that motivated the listeners to hear those life-changing answers for themselves.


At one point, as a senior pastor, I was asked to lead a sack lunch Bible study in the Chicago loop. This stimulating group of businesspeople was already motivated to hear an exposition of the scriptures, but the group became supercharged when one of them was able to make an apt interpretation or application of scriptural truth individually. It all came down to me asking questions that could focus their observation, interpretation and application of scripture. 


By this time, small group theory was an integral part of American culture, yet most Bible study materials still focused on observing facts about the text which often were so obvious they were an insult to the group’s intelligence. It was not easy to emulate the discussion questions that really worked in the Serendipity materials and other creative curricula I had found.


Then I came to Entrust. They told me I had to take a course on small group leader training. Not wanting to appear arrogant, I went along with it, knowing it would be good for me to experience what everyone else did. To my surprise, I found a number of missing pieces in my own small group leadership puzzle.

David Goodman, third from left, enjoys small group interaction

I came to understand more clearly the educational theory behind group dynamics. I learned the skills of managing group interaction without domineering, I learned how to construct a lesson plan for scripture, books or visual media, how to deal with overly dominant or overly quiet participants, but most of all I learned how to craft the sort of questions that make a group come alive and allow God’s Spirit to move in a life-changing manner.


Lyman Coleman’s seminar in 1970 convinced me that life-on-life participative learning should be an essential part of the church’s transformational strategy. Yes, churches should continue preaching and teaching classes, but the small group, executed skillfully, is an essential component for transformation. There is a reason that when Jesus came to establish his church on earth, the majority of his leadership training utilized a small group process.


Entrust’s Facilitating Relational Learning is a unique mix of theory and practice. Whether you are a neophyte or experienced practitioner, by the end of this immersive week-long experience you will emerge a much-improved facilitator. I experienced the necessary failure and success that shaped all my subsequent facilitation. Building on many hours of advance preparation, the training itself includes both expert modeling of facilitation and learners practicing facilitation in a supportive environment. The group grapples with best practices and the reasoning behind them.


Now one of my favorite things to do is co-facilitate Entrust’s FRL modules. I love seeing beginning facilitators discover success and experienced leaders being surprised at how much they grow. Few things are more rewarding than seeing people equipped to train others in transformative, life-on-life facilitation.



Questions for thought and discussion


  • What aspect of Dr. Goodman’s story most resonates with you, and why?

  • Why might it be that adults learn well through discussion?

  • What do you sense as a possible missing piece in your own leadership of small groups, or of group discussions?

  • Who could you consult for helpful input about your small group leadership skills?


Discover more about Entrust's Facilitating Relational Learning here.


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