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Thanks to Chris Loach for sending me this.


A resource for small group leaders

It is 7:13 pm on Tuesday. The doorbell rings and the last person has arrived for community group. It’s Annie. She smiles and asks “How are you?” but you can see in her tired eyes that it has been another long day. You and the other group members have been catching up so you open up the circle and invite her in. Annie gives a concise description about her week, mostly focusing on the pressures and demands of the office. You move into the group study and she doesn’t say much. Her prayer request revolves around someone at her work, and then she’s out the door after a few minutes of closing small talk. All in all a pretty standard group meeting for Annie.

You find yourself frustrated at times with her. But you remind yourself that this is literally the only safe environment she has ever been a part of. Growing up, her parents were highly critical of their second child. College brought only competition and comparison, while the workforce has only brought more of the same. The walls that she has built up to hide her insecurity seem insurmountable.

But you think you can sense them crumbling a little. And that’s the power of a safe environment.

All around us we walk in and out of unsafe places. At the office you face the pressure to produce in a dog-eat-dog world. At home you face the expectations of being a good husband/wife/parent/roommate. Almost everywhere you turn there are people who want something from you. All around you it feels like you’re coming up short and falling further behind. And so what happens? You learn to keep your guard up and other people at arms length.

So how do you create a safe environment in the middle of all this? With people carrying in so much baggage from unsafe places, how do you turn the tide and make your community group a place where people can drop their guards? A place where people feel the freedom to be themselves? A place where Annie can come and learn what true community looks like? Though it is not an instantaneous or easy process, it is a critical one if your members are going to experience authentic community and spiritual growth.

Why is creating a safe environment important?

Creating a safe environment paves the way to community. It is an essential for building connections. When people feel the freedom to open up and share, it cultivates the relationships within the group.

It removes the obstacles and distractions that can get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work. If people don’t feel safe in your group, they will close down, shutting themselves off from what the Spirit could do in their lives through the group.

A safe environment is irresistible. People are acceptance magnets and they will go where they feel they are accepted. Especially in an unsafe world, making your community group a safe place will make it like a light in a dark place.

What characterizes a safe environment?

What comes to mind when you think about the word “safe”? Baseball fans may think of sliding into home before the tag. Investors may think about something that is free from risk (i.e. a “safe bet”). But most of us tend to think of a safe place as a place where we are protected, or as the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it, a place where we are “free from harm or risk” (

So how does this translate to community groups? Imagine if you were able to create an environment such as this:

  • A place where you can let your guard down.
  • A place where you can feel free to talk about issues without the fear of judgment or criticism.
  • A place where you feel valued and can be vulnerable.
  • A place where you feel accepted.
  • How do you create a safe environment?

    You can begin to lay the foundation for a safe environment right from the start by using the Covenant. The Covenant is a great tool for setting expectations and for laying the groundwork for your group. Emphasizing the values of confidentiality, authenticity, and respect sets the right tone for creating a safe environment. As well, walking the members through the group guidelines will go a long way in keeping the group a predictable place where members know what to expect.

    Another way that you can create a safe environment is by modeling the way. When you lead by example, it shows the other members what is expected. So it is important that you as the leader be a safe person yourself. It goes a long way when you model transparency, acceptance, commitment, consistency, and integrity.
    How do you know if your community group has become unsafe?

    If we aren’t careful, our community groups can become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. Symptoms of an unsafe community group include:

    • People shut down.
    • Conversations tend toward superficiality.
    • Members feel insecure.
    • There is a lack of trust.
    • People make excuses and don’t show up.
    • Prayer requests become third-party.
    • Discussion is flat.
    • People check out.

    How do you correct an unsafe environment?

    If you find that your community group has become an unsafe environment, there are some steps you can take to get it back on the right course.

    Revisit vision. Perhaps you could go back through the Covenant, inviting discussion from the group as to whether the group has lived up to the Covenant or not.

    Take personal ownership and responsibility. Look at yourself first before looking at your group members for why the group has become unsafe. Is there anything that you are doing that is making your group unsafe?

    Talk about it openly in the group. You can’t simply ignore an unsafe environment and hope that it will somehow become safe again. You need to initiate discussion of where the group is and where the group needs to be.

    In diagnosing the problems in the group, you’ll need to determine if this is a general group issue or just one or two members. If it is just one or two members, then you’ll need to consider having private conversations with those involved. Do what you can to repair broken relationships. And when possible, encourage direct communication among the group members.

    (taken from

    Group Leaders Survey

    If you are a Community Group Leader at New Vintage Church, please take our group leader survey. Just click this link.

    Thank you!

    Merry Christmas, Group Leader.
    What you do makes a difference.

    Don’t forget it.

    New Group Tip #2

    This post is part of a series of posts on leading a new community group. These learnings are a work-in-progress. Read our previous post for a great place to start.

    We say it all the time from the stage. We want to move people into circles and out of rows. Meaning, we want people to connect personally with a small group of people in a smaller environment because sustained life-change happens best in the context of a smaller community. You, the small group leader, are the group’s Pastor. I’ve found it’s fairly simple. All it takes is an awareness of where people are at, making sure you communicate clearly and regularly to the group and if a need arises within the group, have the group rally around that need. My communication is bi-weekly via email.

    The format for the emails are simple.

    Email #1 – 1 or 2 days after the group meets

    • Greeting
    • Give them a win, an encouragement from the last week
    • Remind them of the Prayer Requests and any updates from those requests
    • Encourage them to do whatever the assignment is
    • Remind them of any responsibilities for the next week, like bringing snacks or sharing their story & thank the people from the previous week
    • Salutation

    Email #2 – the day before your group meets

    • Greeting
    • Give them a win, an encouragement from the last week
    • Give them any updates with prayer requests
    • Remind them of the time/place your group meets
    • Salutation

    These 2 little emails will actually strengthen the group, believe it or not. They will come informed and it allows the relationships to grow further, faster. Try it and see.

    New Group Tip #1

    Erica and I have started a brand new community group. We had about 12 sign up sheets that indicated they were within our target group…either age, life-stage, location or preferred night to meet. We made the calls, we sent the emails. A couple of people acted like they had no idea what we were calling about, a few of them have never responded after multiple message and a couple of the couples that signed up have actually shown up. We have found that the difference between those who actually showed up and the ones that said they’d show and didn’t was simple. Ready? Here’s the secret. We actually met them face-to-face before they came.

    When they can put a face to a name it takes some of the scary out of the equation. So if you’ve started a new group or you are thinking of starting one in January. Think face-to-face. Ask them to meet up for a cup o’ joe or a meal before you start your group. It raises the chances that they’ll show for the group.

    Here is a video that North Point Community Church has given to us to help train our Community Group Leaders. It is meant to be watched as part of your training and journey to becoming great leaders in your groups.

    Group Training Aug 2010

    We had a last minute Community Group Leader training last Saturday. Two of the groups gurus from North Point Community Church came to help us train our group leaders and Host Team. For those of you who were able to make it, it was great. Great information, great learnings and key insights into how to make groups work. For those who were unable, here is the handout and some key thoughts I wrote down from the training.

    7 Key Learnings that Make Community Groups Great & Long Lasting

    1. Everything rise and falls on leadership
      – We need to train leaders well, North Point gets them together 5x a year for training and 3x a year 1-on-1 meetings with their groups ┬ádirector
      – Equip Leaders
      – Trust Leaders
      – Leaders Must be PASSIONATE about their groups
      – The church must POUR into the Leaders
    2. Keep relationships a priority
      – ┬áLeaders must decide that “I may disagree with you, but our relationship is more important than being right”
    3. Celebrate the small wins along the way
      – More often than not you will experience hundreds of SMALL WINS and not very many or any BIG WINS
      – Share EVERY WIN, no matter what size with the church staff and your group because these stories motivate us to apply God’s word and encourages others to share their wins – it creates momentum
    4. Whenever possible ask questions rather than make statements, everyone learns more than way
      – Ask questions to get to the bottom of this
      – “Why do you think that?”
      – “Why do you feel that way?”
    5. Share the group facilitation, it allows others in your group to stretch themselves and grow
      – Identify potential group leaders within your small group because one day you will need to multiply your group
      – Allow newer believers to lead a week because they will spend MORE TIME IN THE WORD that week than ANYBODY else…they don’t want to look like they don’t know what they’re talking about AND it will start to teach them to feed him or herself instead of relying on others to provide spiritual food
    6. Care opportunities are difficult at times but can be major catalysts for growth
      – If someone has a difficult personality and it hard to handle in the group, make sure he/she doesn’t poison the group – love them, meet them where they are at, but don’t let them dominate the group with their negativity
    7. End well, talk about it early and often
      – Groups are broken down like this: first 8 week is a dating period, if things aren’t clicking people can switch. After 8 weeks the group becomes closed to new people (unless everyone in the group agrees to open it up to someone). That group will stay closed until it multiplies. Multiplication needs to happen in the 18-24 month mark.
      – If groups stay together past 30 months, typically they dissolve because the group has reached it’s relational and spiritual stagnation point

    Other Learnings:

    *as a leader you are responsible for what is said, theologically, in your groups

    *community group leadership is an art, not a science

    *community group leadership challenges how much you lean on God because people will come with real questions and hurts and you need to rely on the Holy Spirit to give you the right words to say

    Curriculum can be chosen and ordered from this website:

    Questions? Email us.

    If you could only…

    Let’s pretend we’re trying to get people into small groups.
    And let’s also pretend that it was your job to get them into a group.
    How would you go about making sure people joined?
    In 50 words or less, how would you convince them to join a group?

    Post 3 of 3

    About John Ortberg: An author and preacher, first at Willow Creek Community Church and now at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, John Ortberg brings Scripture alive with practical applications and a sense of humor.He is the author of many books, including “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat” and “The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Growth for Ordinary People”, and his latest book, “Faith & Doubt”. He has also contributed to many other books and periodicals.

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