🚁 I’ve been facilitating discussions for quite a number of years now. These days I’m focussing on giving others a chance to sit in the cockpit and fly this bird we call Bible Study. If they can get experience now under a seasoned observer (someone who can provide them with useful feedback), there’s a much greater chance they will keep flying over the course of their life.
Having kept this goal before me, I think I’m learning to better identify some of the things a seasoned facilitator/small group leader does and doesn’t do. Once we compiled our list, the Prime Minister’s CARS DARTED through the streets! Here are 12 areas we’ve identified to help you improve your skills as a small group leader/ discussion facilitator:
1. Prepare well
7. Don’t pretend
2. Maximize participation
9. Remember your role
4. Always help
10. Trade in the talk
5. Remain engaged
11. Enjoy the sound
6. Spare the silent
12. Draw people in
1.) Prepare well. Consider your questions, and ask yourself, “What is the writer (and the Lord, of course) trying to get at?” Pray over your answers, and get help from mentors or commentaries as needed/as required. Some veteran small group facilitators can fly by the seat of their pants, but most of us won’t be able to pull off this advanced maneuver. Be sure to pray before, during and after because God desires to supply the wisdom you’ll need to guide your group.
If you are using just the Bible, then the questions are going to be all on you. That will mean more preparation time, but it is a great exercise. Often the best way to do this is to find your answers and then write your questions, but this can work both ways.
2.) Maximize participation. If you are using a published study, call on participants individually to read the introduction, the questions, the summaries, etc.. You can divide these up by section or by paragraph.
In either case, you will still have the biblical text. I, myself, prefer to divide up longer Bible readings into sections of five verses each: vs 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc.. However you do it, have your folks take turns, possibly in a clockwise fashion. Dividing readings up this way helps to keep people from disengaging. It keeps them alert, if for no other reason than to be ready to take their turn.
3.) Clarify where you are taking them. Consider beforehand how you might rephrase a question (using the simplest wording you can) in order to help participants discover the correct answer. This is a skill that is especially helpful because it helps to keep the discussion moving. It gives you the ability to go up against the sound of crickets and confused faces, with the confidence to conquer both.
4.) Always help lead them to the truth. Some questions are subjective and personal and will not have just one correct answer. Most questions, however, are designed to draw answers directly from a verse or collection of verses. It will amaze you how often a person will try to pull an answer straight out of their own head, from right out of their own thinking, rather than from the text.
God tells us our thoughts are not his thoughts, nor are his ways our ways. (Isaiah 55:8) This is why a good facilitator will always refer participants back to the text for answers. You may need to supply them with the exact verse or verses containing the answer. Reading comprehension is huge. After all, this is not about you and I being right; it’s about God’s absolute rightness.
His thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours. Bible study doesn’t always take us into the deepest heavens, but it does bring us nearer his vantage point. From here we can catch glimpses of God that ironically serve to make us all the more down to earth.
5.) Remain engaged in the conversation at all times so that you are ready to steer the conversation at obvious points of transition. Never deliver a question and then hole back into your notes, waiting for a lull of silence to tell you it’s time once again to pick up your questions and reengage. At any moment you may need to ask a few, related “sub-questions” or even deliver a statement designed to stimulate further thought and discussion.
As long as the discussion remains on course, there is no need to over control, but when a group begins to go down rabbit trails (off topic), you’ll want to be looking for an eventual place to get them back onto your charted flight path. You can do this by providing them with a question that returns them to the main topic. (You can also deliver a transitional statement—one that acts as a lead-in to the next question or passage of scripture.)
6.) Spare the silent. Be prepared to identify and accommodate specific needs. Every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who isn’t going to want to pray, read, or answer questions. He or she is there to quietly listen and learn. It may be that this individual doesn’t want to show their ignorance or display their dyslexia. Sometimes it’s best to directly inquire into their willingness from the beginning.
Be sure to affirm their immediate wish. Meet it with a smile, a nod, and a “That’s completely fine,” before seamlessly directing the “turn-taking” to the next person in your circle. These silent ones will often eventually share some pretty profound insights—even if that takes a matter of weeks or months. Be sure to give them all the time and space they need.
7.) Don’t pretend to all-wisdom and knowledge. Here’s a word of caution. If you are a facilitator who has something to share at every turn, it will be important for you to learn to grow in restraining yourself via a Spirit of self-control. The process of preparing and facilitating will naturally grow you, so always keep in mind that your goal as a facilitator is to help others grow.
Consider this. When someone answers a question, they own their answer. It’s theirs. They may be claiming a particular truth verbally for the very first time, on a matter they have never before articulated. It is a too-little-understood fact that giving truth voice can profoundly change the heart and psyche of an individual. (See Romans 10:9)
Besides, where else in this world is a believer able to state truth without the possibility of objection or protest—free from opposition as subtle as the rolling of the eyes? Always resist the urge to display your “vast knowledge and depth of insight” for the sake of those in your group. Too many in our churches are observing from the sidelines when we could be prepping them for the arena.
8.) Affirm them. Be sure to always affirm every person, even if they appear to be out in left field. Thank them for their answer with genuine warmth, the kindness of your smile, and an acknowledgement of their input. You may have to nod, smile and say something to the affect of, “Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. Good.” Then look at the others in your circle, “Anyone else?..” or “Who has a different answer for this one?”
Affirming a “crazy” answer is truly an art when that answer is so clearly in error. You will have to look for any sense in which their answer—from out of their current world view—could be considered true. In other words, you may just be affirming that this, indeed, is how many in our society view things. It is not true in respect to God’s Truth, but it may exist in our world in some deceptive and ignoble manner. You don’t need to point the latter out necessarily; simply affirm.
Believe it or not, there is always something you can affirm. Chiefly, you want to convey the value of each and every individual because you are actually affirming the person and not their answer. Most are genuine and sincere in expressing their point of view.
The only time affirmation would be unwise would be if the voice-piece present was clearly seeking greater influence as an enemy of the gospel. This situation will require firmness, some directness, and more tact than if they were truly one of the flock.
9.) Remember your role as a facilitator is not to teach. You’re there to take an interest as you guide the conversation. At the same time, however, don’t believe that means you act as a mere mechanical dispenser of questions. Share your thoughts at various times, especially when you sense it will be helpful. After all, you should be the most prepared for the study out of anyone, and as such, should be the most ready to give input when it is lacking… simply for the sake of providing understanding or direction.
10.) Trade in the talk of the talkative. Don’t be afraid to, at some point, limit your heavy talkers by inserting yourself edgewise. The best way to intervene when up against someone offering too many of their own thoughts (even good thoughts in relation to God’s truth!) is to find that moment in which they complete a thought and take a breath. Be ready to shoot the gap with all manner of kindness.
The first syllables to cut across their bow should be affirming of their every word and thought. Then begin to reference and redirect what they’ve been saying to others in your circle. People’s minds are being stimulated by what our talker is saying. Creating an opening like this is an opportunity, and may be all others need to join in.
You can occasionally redirect a talker from the outset—right when you see them beginning to open their mouth. Try to make eye contact (if you can) and gently say something to the effect of, “I like where you’ve been going with these questions, but we need to hear from some of these other folks.” (Your goal is not to shut the person down. Be sure to draw them back in again, once others have spoken,.. that is unless you sense that once they get going, they won’t be able to stop.) One of your goals remains that of facilitating a well rounded discussion.
If a talker is not getting the message despite your subtle course corrections, you may need to buy them coffee afterward or lunch later in the week. While together in a Life-to-Life® situation, carefully share with them your vision as a facilitator (in the hopes of bringing them on board). Be sure to affirm them in every way because if they can align with your vision, these are some of the most valuable folks you can have in your study.
11.) Enjoy the sound of silence. Many within American culture find silence highly uncomfortable. True, it could indicate the need to repeat the question or rephrase it. That might be necessary, but be sure to let silence do its work. Silence can be useful as it gives everyone a chance to think about their answer before airing it.
Watch for anyone who might dutifully rush in to fill a void they are finding awkward. If this person has already given input on a number of questions, gently ask them to remain in a holding pattern. Most of us who have an answer ready for every occasion know that about ourselves and will not be offended. Sometimes we-talkers just need a little nudge to help us restrain ourselves.
12.) Draw people into conversation. Do your best to make sure that everyone who wants to has a chance to share their answer or insight. Some types will speak up in a smaller small-group, but will go silent if not drawn out in a larger group. Draw out some of your quieter folks by calling on them by name. For example, “Jeremy, what do you think? Is this true of you?” The goal is to create an inclusive group discussion. Of course, none of this negates the point already made in #6 above.
🌵 Doug is Navigator staff assigned to military ministry in the Desert Southwest. He lives with his wife Beth Ann in Tucson, Arizona.
If you found this article helpful, feel free to share the link. If you found it challenging, pray for a seasoned facilitator who can help you get airborne. Don’t be afraid to suit up and strap in because you'll be in for the ride of your life.
For further reading, we recommend the leader's guide from any of the 2:7 Series publications by NavPress. Using these materials as directed benefits your small group by making your time together more than just the mere accumulation of head knowledge. The format allows participants to grow and thrive in a true discipleship setting. https://www.navigators.org/resource/the-27-series/