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7 Totally Doable Steps To Leading A Life-Changing Small Group

7 Totally Doable Steps To Leading A Life-Changing Small Group
I'm Stephanie May Wilson!

I'm an author and podcaster and my specialty is helping women navigate big decisions, life transitions — creating lives they love.

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Just a few months into my life as a Christian, I was asked to lead my very first small group.

I was honored, and humbled, and totally surprised because I had barely been in a small group, let alone had any experience leading one. But God had done so much in my life, I was eager to do anything I could to pass that on. And so I showed up that first afternoon with a tentative plan and no clue if anyone would actually come.

Slowly but surely, 27 of the most wonderful women in the world trickled into that room, and that year God transformed our lives completely. Both theirs and mine.

Through that small group I learned that God can use ordinary people — people like me, and people like you — in beautiful, life-changing ways.

I also learned that sitting with each other, sharing our stories, and seeking God together in the midst of our mess really does change everything.

So now — having led and been a part of many, many small groups, I wanted to take some time to share with you some simple small group leader tricks I picked up along the way.

They’re small shifts that take a Bible study from being an obligation each week, to something that actually transforms women’s lives. And that’s exactly what we want for the women we lead. Right? Okay, here we go!

1. What happens in small group, stays in small group. 

Our first goal as leaders is to make small group a place where women feel safe enough to share vulnerably about their lives.

The freedom and willingness to share vulnerably is the difference between a surfacey small group, and a life-changing one. But before anyone is going to share vulnerably, they have to know that this is a safe place to do so! And that begins with this rule: What happens in small group stays in small group. Establish that rule together next time y’all meet, and that’s the first step to creating a place of safety where your women know that they are free to say what they need to say. That they wont be exposed, embarrassed, or worst of all, judged…

2. Be a judgement-free zone

If your small group is going well, the women you lead might share things with you that surprise you. One of your college students might share a big secret she’s been keeping, or one of your women might confess that she’s having marital problems.

The fact that they trust you with this is a BIG DEAL and a great sign! So meet them in this, but do it carefully.

When people open up, the biggest thing they’re afraid of is being judged or rejected — so be cognizant of your reaction to make sure you’re communicating just the opposite.

The most important thing for them to know is that you love them, you’re not judging them, that they’re not unworthy of being your friend or in your group or at your church because of what they shared with you, and that you’re on their team, there to help them as they work through this.

Having people that love you in the midst of your mess and are there to walk through it with you— that’s what a life-changing small group is all about.

3. Be a safe place for doubt and hard questions

A common insecurity in Bible studies is that we think we don’t know as much as everyone else. We haven’t been a Christian as long, or we aren’t as familiar with the Bible, or we have doubts we feel like nobody else has. Those fears and insecurities keep us quiet, reserved, and keep us from getting a lot out of the small group experience.

And this is why our groups have to be a safe place to express doubt and ask hard questions. They just have to be, because where else can we do that?

A way of establishing that safety and openness is to ask for it — to carve out a time in group for hard questions, or just mention that you’ve available for those conversations anytime!

And the fear is — what if you don’t know the answer? I know — I’ve worried about that too. But that’s really not a problem. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to tell them! Say, “I actually don’t know, but let’s find out together.” And then find some resources you can dig into together, or ask someone older and wiser, and report back!

This honesty is a great way of demonstrating that we don’t have to have all the answers, and a great way of showing them where to look when they have questions.

4. Get real! 

A promise I made my first small group as we started meeting together was that I would never leave them out on a limb by themselves. So if they decided to share something vulnerable, I would immediately follow up with, “Gosh, I’ve totally been there” and I would tell my story that most closely related. Sometimes I wouldn’t have a story that was exactly the same but I could share something that was comparable, or a time that I too felt shame. That way when they climbed out on this limb sharing vulnerably, they never had to sit out there alone.

And usually it wasn’t more than a minute or two before the rest of the group climbed out right behind us. When a group of women starts sharing the truth about their lives and working through it together, life-change is right around the corner!

5. Let God lead

One of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to small groups is that we’re afraid to deviate from our agenda.

I was a part of a small group for awhile that had a strict curriculum set by the church. Over time our small group started to deviate from their plan a bit, but we were learning about God in the most real, tangible, transformative ways. It was everything you’d want a small group to become, but because we weren’t sticking to the curriculum, the church shut us down.

It was heartbreaking, and unfortunately something that happens all the time. We get so caught up in what we planned to do, that we stop tuning into what God wants to do. But He’s the leader, and we have to remember that.

And so if something comes up in group that takes you away from the plan but still toward God, go with it! Pick the plan back up next week if it works. But don’t stick so closely to your plan that you stop leaving room for God to move!

6. Give it time

Remember that small group I just told you about? The thing I didn’t mention is that for the first few months, I really didn’t enjoy it. Starting something new is scary and uncomfortable, but I knew it was important so I stuck with it. Well — a few months in, things started to change. I began to love that small group and I never missed another week.

Something for you to keep in mind, and something for you to remind your girls is that small groups really do get better the longer we’re in them. They can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but the longer we’re in them, the more consistently we all show up, the better and richer they become.

7. Start with friendships, and the life-change will soon follow

Like I said before, a few months into my small group, there was a shift, a change, and all of a sudden I didn’t have to be convinced to go. You couldn’t keep me away.

That shift? We all started to become friends.

We talk about community a lot in the church, and we’ve created Bible studies and small groups as a way of cultivating community with fellow believers.

The problem is that being in a Bible study together doesn’t automatically mean we know each other. Studying scripture together doesn’t always help us become friends.

I get emails all the time from women who are in Bible studies but who feel so deeply lonely in their lives and their faith. And I hate that because I know that finding Christian friends can be a game-changer for our faith (and for our lives in general!).

Our lives and our faith are so much easier (and more fun!) when we have girlfriends to walk with.

And that’s why I decided to write a small group guide — to help groups of women get to know each other, become each other’s people, cultivate those deep, meaningful, life-changing friendships.

It’s called The Real Girls’ Guide To Taking It All Off: A small group guide to removing the layers between you and true friendship.

It’s a 6-week guide (with no homework, and all of the work done for you as the leader!) to help your group bond, get to know each other, create that foundation of trust and friendship that will take your small group and your friendships to a deeper, more meaningful level.

My sweet reader Cara went through it recently with her small group and this is what she had to say about it:

“My group and I just finished your study, “Taking It All Off,” and we absolutely loved it! Our group wasn't super close to begin with, we were all friends of friends, but now we couldn't be closer. In the study you asked questions that I would never think to ask, and talking through those things together transformed our group. They transformed me! Now I have 5 new best friends, and I'm so grateful to this guide for making that happen. Seriously, best decision ever!”

Click here to download the first chapter of the small group guide for FREE!

I can’t wait to tell you more about it!

Sweet friend, you can do this. You really can. You don’t need to be perfect, or have it all together, or have a PhD in Theology in order to lead this small group. Your group just needs a safe place where they can learn, find some people to walk this road with, and have the chance to bump into Jesus. I am confident that you are the perfect person to create that place.

Last but certainly not least, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for devoting your time to these amazing girls. Please know that whether it seems like it or not, you’re impacting their lives tremendously. You’re doing big, God-sized work in their lives, changing their world and our world for the better. So thank you. Thank you, you can do this, and please keep going!

P.S. Have you led a great small group? I'd love to hear any tips you've picked up along the way!! Pop them into the comments below!

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  1. Katie says:

    Hi Stephanie! Love the ideas, and I resonate with all of them!

    The life groups I’ve been in have been transformative for me.. I’m with you in believing that that small community can change lives..
    One thing I’ve loved last year especially was leading a group with four others… having so many people to lead with meant that none of us ever felt burnt out, we were able to pray regularly together about group, and we could spend quality one on one time with all the members of our group; something that I would never had had time for by myself. Also, discussing the feel and direction of the group with others who are praying and leading is sooo helpful.
    I think leading as a large team (something I hadn’t done before in a life group) gave our group an open, equal feel and meant each of us could play to our strengths. Those people are some of my closest friends.
    I would recommend thinking about who in a group might be ready to start being part of a leadership team.

    Anyway, I haven’t written to you before, but I’ve been reading here for years… I’m not even sure how many.. Maybe four? Thanks for all your efforts in crafting all these stories, they’ve blessed me. Bless you lady!

    • Stephanie May Wilson says:

      Oh this made my day!! Thank you so much for reading and for sharing Katie!! I’m so so happy to have you in our little community! 🙂 🙂

  2. Bella says:

    Something I’ve learned leading small groups is the importance of keeping things Christ-focused and always bringing things back to the Gospel. This probably seems really obvious, but I think about how easily we can get sidetracked and begin talking about different topics or dwelling on certain feelings; making it more “self-focused.” Of course we should be confessing our sins and struggles to one another, but when we allow our small groups to simply be a session where all we do is dwell on our sin (self-focused), there is little room for growth. But when we create environments in which small group is a time to remind each other of the truth of the Gospel (Christ-focused), we are encouraging each other to push through that sanctification process. It also puts less stress on you as a leader knowing that by preaching the Gospel you are relying on HIS truth, not just your own advice.

  3. Stephanie I so needed this! I started a small group beginning of this year and it has lead to a small group online once a week and I struggle so much with “are people even listening” what is this even for? But you’re right, it is hard in the beginning. Thank you for always encouraging words! You’re such an inspiration!

  4. […] Tricks Steph learned along the way about how to lead a great small group […]

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