By Pat J. Sikora

Whether you are a new or experienced leader, starting a new small group can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know the members well. You may be concerned about how to make people feel welcome, how to break the ice, and how to create a first meeting environment that will lead to a successful group. You’ve heard it before, but it’s true: You only have one chance to make a good first impression. So if you’re about to launch a new group, here are some things you will want to do.

Set Some Goals

There’s a saying I always remember when starting a group: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. If you want a successful group, you need to know where you’re going. There are many types of small groups. What type will yours be? What will be your group’s purpose? Will it be open or closed? Who should be in your group? Will it be a Bible study, a sermon-based group, or a book study? Are there goals that have been established by your church? How much flexibility do you have? Answer these questions and set your goals before you do anything else. And be sure to include the Lord in your plans.

Decide How You’ll Gain Members

Sometimes you will invite members; other times they will be assigned to you. Find out how you’ll fill your group and make a plan. If you have the freedom, consider inviting people from outside of your immediate group of friends. You might also invite newcomers to your church or challenging people who would benefit from being included.

Make Your Invitation Clear

When you’re ready to invite potential members, make sure that you communicate everything they’ll need to know to make a wise decision about their participation. This includes:

  • The purpose of the group
  • The name of the study, book, or topic
  • Day and time of the meeting
  • Location of the meetings and the host’s name if meeting in a home
  • The leader’s name and contact information
  • Whether the group is open or closed
  • How long the group will meet, or if it is open-ended

Find a Co-leader or Apprentice

Don’t lead alone. A co-leader is someone who is qualified and ready for leadership. He or she can make your life much easier by sharing responsibility for the group, including leading when you’re absent or taking responsibility for areas that fall in your weaknesses. An apprentice, on the other hand, is someone who is equally qualified for leadership but still needs some experience and training. You’ll be able to invest in your apprentice through on-the-job training, preparing him or her to lead one day.

Decide on a Meeting Place

Although it seems simple, this will be one of the most important decisions you will make. A meeting space needs to fit the demands of your particular group. Older people will need a different type of space than students, for example. If you’re meeting at the church, you may have less control over the space. But in general, be sure you consider such noise, parking, transportation, safety, lighting, seating arrangements, ventilation, and distractions (including children and pets).

Practice Hospitality

Once you’ve decided on a meeting space, be sure to have it set up in advance. Have the space ready to welcome your guests at least 20 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin. This means making sure you have enough seating for everyone, having refreshments ready, and having all study and worship materials set out. Whether or not you plan on having refreshments at all meetings, be sure to have them at your first meeting. It will provide a natural time of mingling and getting acquainted.

Lead Your First Meeting

In an attempt to be egalitarian and open, some leaders drop the ball here. They don’t take the lead, and the meeting falls flat. It’s essential that at your first meeting, you make it clear that you know what you’re doing (even if you feel you don’t) and have thought through the order of the meeting. You’ve been trained for just this moment, so don’t sit back and act like “just another group member.”

You’ll talk more than usual at the first meeting as you establish the purpose and schedule of the group meetings. Here is one way to spend your time that first night:

20 minutes: Get acquainted and enjoy refreshments. Allow a laid-back time of mingling.

10 minutes: Officially begin the meeting by calling everyone together and opening in prayer. Introduce yourself and your co-leader or apprentice, giving a very brief introduction of who you are and why you’re leading this group.

10 minutes: Briefly discuss your goals for the group. Are you here primarily to study God’s Word, make friends, heal, recover, serve, or learn a skill? Clarify your expectations so there are no surprises. This might include commitments to attendance, homework, honest disclosure, accountability, confidentiality, and commitment to growth or maturity. It might also include special rules on space, finances, childcare, or time commitments. You may want to discuss which of these are open to discussion by the group and which have already been decided by you or others. End this time by signing your group covenant.

30 minutes: By now, you’ve talked enough. Ask people to introduce themselves by giving one or two pertinent bits of information about themselves. Don’t go too deep at this point. Keep it light and limited to public information, like how long they’ve been at the church, their occupation, or how many children they have. You can also do an icebreaker to delve a little deeper. Keep this light and perhaps funny. For a first meeting, I like “What one item in your purse or pocket best defines you and why?” A question like this gives room for people to be as deep or superficial as they are comfortable with. The goal is to let people catch a glimpse of who their fellow group members are. Try to keep this to a few minutes per person. Realize that five minutes per person in a group of 10 is almost an hour. Be clear what information you want and about how long you want each person to talk.

10 minutes: Take time for worship. Sing a few songs, read a Psalm aloud, or lift prayers of thanksgiving. While you may want to do this first, I recommend saving it until the end of your first meeting so people can grow comfortable with one another.

5 minutes: Introduce the study, including the books or study guides you’ll be using. Ideally you will already have purchased these and can distribute them. Briefly tell members why you chose this study, what you hope to accomplish, and what to have completed for next week.

5-10 minutes: If you have time, ask for prayer requests and pray for one another. If you don’t have time at this meeting, make time at future meetings. Prayer is one of most important thing you will do as a group.

Whatever you do at your first meeting, honor the start and stop times. This will set a precedent for future meetings and let group members know that you value their time. After you’ve officially ended the meeting, some group members may linger if they don’t have to rush home. Take advantage of this great time to build relationships. However, you still need to end the official meeting on time.

Evaluate the Meeting

If possible, evaluate the meeting with someone else: your co-leader, apprentice, spouse, or a friend. What worked? What didn’t? How do you want to change things next time? Is there anyone who seems like a challenging person? How do you need to prepare for dealing with him or her? Don’t be too hard on yourself. There will always be areas you want to improve, but I’m betting you did better than you think. Find several positives that you can thank God for.

Congratulations! You’re a leader, and your first meeting was a success!