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Small groups: two pastors provide valuable insight

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Equipping Christian Leaders feature article: winter 2020

Small groups foster deep relationships

by Ken Bohney, Salem Evangelical Free Church, Moorhead, Minn.

Something happens when the people of God gather around the word of God in groups for fellowship and learning. We tend to go deeper, grow faster, become more aware of our shortcomings and experience Christ in life-giving ways. Our mission at Salem is to live lives of love with God, in community and on mission. We would love to see every member of our church family in healthy, Christ-centered community.

As the campus pastor of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Moorhead, Minn., I have responsibility for shepherding our small group ministry. I was first introduced to the concept of small groups in 2001. I attended my first small group training at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., in 2003, prior to launching a small group ministry in a non-denominational church of 200 people in 2004 in Salt Lake City. Since then, I have been responsible for starting and overseeing small group ministries at two other churches of 1,100 and 700 people in different parts of the country.

I have received small group training in various settings, including Rockbridge Seminary, Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Church. Most of the training I received had to do with structuring, marketing, organizing, forming, recruiting and leading different aspects of small groups. We studied the purpose of small groups, different curriculums, planning your time well, being hospitable and dealing with difficulties.

But there was something different, something tangible, something helpful, something energizing about the training I received while going through the Facilitating Relational Learning course with Entrust. We got into the nuts and bolts of creating good questions that foster great conversations, and creating group guidelines. Learning and practicing these skills has been a game changer. Through this training, I feel we are really able to help our leaders succeed. We are giving them tools and ways of thinking that should lead to healthy, dynamic Bible-centered discussions.

Establishing mutually-agreed-upon group guidelines at the outset with a group, a skill we gained in FRL, is one have we practiced in the context of small groups, and have even applied to our church staff meetings. We have a staff of 14 people that meets on a weekly basis, and we recently decided to pull the team together to collaboratively create group guidelines. It was eye-opening to learn some of the things that made people feel safe or unsafe in our group gatherings. It was fun to work together to decide what our meeting should be about and the guidelines that would make them safe and productive. I anticipate that this will also create a culture of buy-in and shared responsibility for everyone on our staff, holding one another to the guidelines. I am guessing we will have even better meetings in the future.

One of the true joys of participating in this training has been the relationships I developed with my colleagues who also participated. We grew closer to Jesus and to one another. My appreciation for their giftedness and their wiring expanded. It was fun to learn with and from them. We are now sharing what we learned with our church community. Our hope is to help all our group leaders feel and become equipped to have life-giving, engaging conversations centered around God’s word.

In a conversation with one of our elders who serves as a life group leader, he said, “Who hasn’t been victim of the bad question?” It’s so true. We have all heard the crickets when we asked a question that went nowhere. A question that shut down the conversation. Sometimes silence is a good thing to allow people to gather their thoughts, but sometimes we just don’t ask very good questions. Experiences like that lead to doubt and hesitation. Experiences like that cause people to be fearful of leading. I believe this training will not only help eliminate those types of questions but will also give our leaders tools to rephrase questions to get the conversation going again.

As a side benefit, I believe God orchestrated the timing of this training to give my counterpart and me the opportunity and structure to further our relationship. Neither of us knew going into this training in the spring of 2019 that our senior pastor would soon be leaving, and it would be critical for us to build a strong relationship. One of the biggest blessings of this training has been how we have gotten to know one another better and respect each other’s giftings more.

Our hope at Salem is to foster deeper friendships with one another and with Jesus. Healthy small groups are one of the best ways I know to see those hopes come true. Well-equipped leaders are much more likely to have vibrant, authentic, Bible-focused conversations that help us to learn more about ourselves, our God and others. May we continue to learn and grow in this area and may we help people connect to Jesus and people through our gatherings.

Personal application

  • In what circles of your life might mutually agreed-upon guidelines serve a useful purpose?

  • How do you see an open-ended question facilitating group learning, in contrast to a yes/no or a leading (try to guess the answer) question?

  • What are some ways your own small groups/ministry groups could benefit from and implement these kinds of changes?