This leader’s guide will:
- Explain the intended purpose of each session and how each session fits into the entire study
- Provide you with plenty of discussion questions so that you can choose a few that suit your group
- Suggest other ways of interacting over the material
The first step in leading this study is to read “A Model of Spiritual Transformation” beginning on page 9. The section describes three broad approaches to growth and explains how the four studies in the series fit together.
There’s more involved in leading a small group, however, than just understanding the study and its objective. The main skill you’ll need is creating a group environment that facilitates authentic interaction among people. Every leader does this in his or her own style, but here are two principles necessary for all:
1. Avoid the temptation to speak whenever people don’t immediately respond to one of your questions. As the leader, you may feel pressure to break the silence. Often, though, leaders overestimate how much silence has gone by. Several seconds of silence may seem like a minute to the leader. However, usually people just need time to collect their thoughts before they respond. If you wait patiently for their responses, they will usually take that to mean you really do want them to say what they think. On the other hand, if you consistently break the silence yourself, they may not feel the need to speak up.
2. Avoid being a problem solver. If you immediately try to solve every problem that group members voice, they won’t feel comfortable sharing issues of personal struggle. Why? Because most people, when sharing their problems, initially want to receive acceptance and empathy rather than advice. They want others to understand and care about the troubled state of their soul. Giving immediate advice can often communicate that you feel they are not bright enough to figure out the solution.
You may be gathering a group of friends to do a study together or possibly you’ve volunteered to lead a group that your church is assembling. Regardless of the circumstances, God has identified you as the leader.
You are probably a peer of the other group members. Some may have read more theology than you, some may have more church ministry experience than you, and yet God has providentially chosen you as the leader. You’re not the “teacher” or the sole possessor of wisdom—you are simply responsible to create an atmosphere that facilitates genuine interaction.
One of the most effective ways you can serve your group is to make clear what is expected. You are the person who informs group members. They need to know, for example, where and when your first meeting will be held. If you’re meeting in a home and members need maps, make sure they receive them in a timely manner. If members don’t have study books, help them each obtain one. To create a hospitable setting for your meetings, you will need to plan for refreshments or delegate that responsibility to others. A group phone and e-mail list may also be helpful; ask the group if it’s okay to distribute their contact information to one another. Make sure there’s a sense of order. You may even want to chart out a tentative schedule of all the sessions, including any off weeks for holidays.
The first several sessions are particularly important because they are when you will communicate your vision for the group. You’ll want to explain your vision several times during your first several meetings. Many people need to hear it several times before it really sinks in, and some will probably miss the first meeting or two. Communicate your vision and expectations concisely so that plenty of time remains for group discussion. People will drop out if the first session feels like a monologue from the leader.
Ideally, you’ll have done the Identity study in this series together, so you’ll already know quite a bit about each other. But if your group is brand new and starting with Community, it will be helpful to spend one full meeting building rapport before diving into the material. One valuable thing to do in this first meeting is to let group members tell a brief history of themselves. This could involve a handful of facts about where they come from and how they ended up in this group. This brief history will be like a taste of the “Life Story” exercise that will culminate this study.
Also, in your first or second meeting, ask group members to share their expectations. The discussion may take the greater part of a meeting, but it’s worth the time invested because it will help you understand each person’s perspective. Here are some questions for initiating a discussion of group members’ expectations:
- How well do you expect to get to know others in the group?
- Describe your previous experiences with small groups. Do you expect this group to be similar or different?
- What do you hope the group will be like by the time the study ends?
- How do you think this group will contribute to your walk with Christ?
- Do you need to finish the meeting by a certain time, or do you prefer open-ended meetings? Do you expect to complete this study in ten sessions, or will you be happy extending it by a few sessions if the additional time serves your other goals for the group?
The “Life Story” exercise in this study is time-consuming, so be sure to discuss expectations about it. You might page through it together and estimate how much time people will spend at home working on their stories. Some will want to invest more time than others, and that’s fine; everyone will get out of it what he or she puts in. But if some strongly resist the idea of investing hours in a presentation of their life stories, it will be helpful to discuss that up front. You may need to encourage some members who resist the idea of making a long presentation. There will be plenty of time beforehand to discuss fears about speaking to a group, and no one will be forced to do it.
“Life Story” will also require extensive group time. As you’ll see on page 103, you may need several group meetings or an all-day Saturday retreat to allow everyone time to tell a story and receive the group’s feedback. Sixty to ninety minutes per life story should be adequate. Is the group prepared to devote seven meetings plus a Saturday, or some other arrangement? As the leader, you should come to this first meeting prepared to suggest a scenario that you think will work for your group. You should also come prepared to be flexible if others have alternate suggestions.
If you have an extended discussion of people’s expectations, you probably won’t actually begin session 1 of this study guide until the second time you meet. This is more likely if your group is just forming than if your group has been together for some time. By the time you start the first session in the study guide, group members ought to be accustomed to interacting with one another. This early investment will pay big dividends. If you plan to take a whole meeting (or even two) to lay this kind of groundwork, be sure to tell the group what you’re doing and why. Otherwise, some people may think you’re simply inefficient and unable to keep the group moving forward.
Remember that many people will feel nervous during the first meeting. This is natural; don’t feel threatened by it. Your attitude and demeanor will set the tone. If you are passive, the group will lack direction and vision. If you are all business and no play, they will expect that the group will have a formal atmosphere, and you will struggle to get people to lighten up. If you are all play and no business, they will expect the group to be all fluff and won’t take it seriously. Allow the group some time and freedom to form a “personality.” If many group members enjoy a certain activity, join in with them. Don’t try to conform the group to your interests. You may have to be willing to explore new activities.
What does the group need from you initially as the leader?
- Approachability: Be friendly, ask questions, avoid dominating the discussion, engage with group members before and after the sessions, allow group members opportunities to ask you questions too.
- Connections: Pay attention to how you can facilitate bonding. (For example, if you learn in separate conversations that two group members, Joe and Tom, went to State University, you might say, “Joe, did you know that Tom also went to State U?”)
- Communication of Logistics: Be simple, clear, and concise. (For instance, be clear about what will be involved in the group sessions, how long they will last, and where and when they will occur.)
- Summary of Your Leadership Style: You might want to put together some thoughts about your style of leadership and be prepared to share them with the group. You might include such issues as:
1. The degree of flexibility with which you operate (for example, your willingness to go on “rabbit trails” versus staying on topic)
2. Your level of commitment to having prayer or worship as a part of the group
3. Your attentiveness, or lack thereof, to logistics (making sure to discuss the details surrounding your group, such as when and where you are meeting, or how to maintain communication with one another if something comes up)
4. The degree to which you wear your emotions on your sleeve
5. Any aspects of your personality that have often been misunderstood (for instance, “People sometimes think that I’m not interested in what they are saying because I don’t immediately respond, when really I’m just pondering what they were saying.”)
6. Any weaknesses you are aware of as a leader (for example, “Because I can tend to dominate the group by talking too much, I will appreciate anybody letting me know if I am doing so.” Or, “I get very engaged in discussion and can consequently lose track of time, so I may need you to help me keep on task so we finish on time.”)
7. How you plan to address any concerns you have with group members (for instance, “If I have concerns about the way anyone is interacting in the group, perhaps by consistently offending another group member, I will set up time to get together and address it with that person face-to-face.”)
- People Development: Allow group members to exercise their spiritual gifts. See their development not as a threat to your leadership but as a sign of your success as a leader. For instance, if group members enjoy worshiping together and you have someone who can lead the group in worship, encourage that person to do so. However, give direction in this so that the person knows exactly what you expect. Make sure he or she understands how much worship time you want.
Before you jump into session 1, make sure that group members have had a chance to read “A Model of Spiritual Formation” beginning on page 9 and “A Method for the Biblical Exercise” beginning on page 17. Also, ask if they have done what is listed in the “Preparation” section of session 1. Emph a size that the assignments for each session are as important as the group meetings and that inadequate preparation for a session diminishes the whole group’s experience.
This study focuses on two objectives. First, it exposes group members to principles that build authentic Christian community. Second, it guides the group to experience deeper community through a tool called “Life Story.” This tool helps group members put together a presentation of their lives that they share with the group.
Because “Life Story” is such a focus of the study, the group can tend to see the sessions merely as steps leading up to the “Life Story” presentations. The sessions do prepare group members for the “Life Story” presentations, but they do more than that. They also expose group members to principles of Christian community. In your session discussions, you’ll want to emphasize how important the principles are to genuine community.
The first few sessions will address why believers need to identify the significance of their experiences rather than just the facts. How did that experience affect me? How did it affect others? Then the study will focus on listening, encouragement, counsel, and forgiveness. The next several sessions will then revolve around “Life Story” presentations. Finally, after the presentations there is one additional session that wraps up the study. This session encourages group members to consider how they can positively contribute to others’ life stories, building a godly heritage within their sphere of influence.
There are various ways to do “Life Story” presentations, depending on the number of people in your group. If you have five or fewer members, you may continue with your normal schedule, doing one “Life Story” presentation per week. Your group will need to clarify the expected time for sharing your stories. A typical scenario is to give forty minutes for the presentation and ten to fifteen minutes for audience response and questions afterward.
If you have more than five people, you should consider doing an overnight retreat or spending a Saturday together in order to hear several presentations at once.
This “Leader’s Guide” contains questions that we think will help you attain the goal of each session and build community in your group. Use our discussion questions in addition to the ones you come up with on your own, but don’t feel pressured to use all of them. However, we think it’s wise to use some of them. If one question is not a good vehicle for discussion, then use another. It can be helpful to rephrase the questions in your own words.
This session introduces the concept of story in group members’ lives. They are encouraged to think of their lives as a narrative that God has authored. God’s authorship raises the issues of divine sovereignty and human free will. You’ll need to observe your group members’ thoughts about God’s sovereignty and human free will. Some people will resist the idea that both are true. Remember that the goal of this session is not to resolve the tension; rather, it is to acknowledge that it remains a mystery.
Use the following questions to help group members think through how they currently view God’s authorship in their lives. The questions will unearth important information about how group members regard their past, as well as the decisions they are currently making.
1. Have you ever thought of your life as a story?
2. If so, in what genre would you classify your story (romance, tragedy, epic, comedy)?
3. Does your understanding of life lean more toward God’s sovereignty or man’s responsibility? Explain.
4. How will your answer to the previous question affect the way you work through “Life Story”?
5. Based on the reading and our discussion so far, how do you think “Life Story” will help you better understand yourself and God?
6. How do you think it will build trust among group members?
Spend some time in prayer for the process through which the Lord will lead your group. Explain the assignment for next week. Although the group members should have read “Life Story: Step A,” you should turn to that section to make sure they understand how to break their lives down into logical divisions. Encourage the group to start praying now about the “Life Story” process. Pray that God will open eyes, hearts, and minds as members go through their stories in this study.
Ask if each member completed his or her life divisions and if anyone has questions about that step in the process. Find out if anyone had difficulty finding logical divisions, and help those who did have difficulty.
Use the following questions to establish the importance of looking back over one’s past:
1. What are the two extreme views regarding the utilization of past events in our present experiences?
2. In your opinion, does this session adequately present the proper biblical perspective on the past? Why, or why not?
3. How do you think you can use what you learned about your past experiences and relationships to glorify God as Paul did?
4. Can this be true even if your experiences are not as dramatic as Paul’s? How so?
Take the next fifteen to twenty minutes to review “Life Story: Step B.” Make sure each group member understands what to accomplish during the following week. Go through the 4Hs, which will help people brainstorm their many experiences and relationships. You must understand Step B well in order to lead your group through it.
Ask if each member made a thorough list of experiences and relationships for the divisions of his or her life. Ask if anyone has questions concerning that step in the process. Discuss as necessary. As the leader, you may want to bring one of your “Experiences and Relationships” worksheets to show to the group as an example.
Themes are hard for many people to grasp. Keep people from thinking in terms of theme until they finish the process of identifying the most formative elements in their lives. After that, when they skim back over their findings, a few themes should emerge as issues they have faced consistently. Here are some suggested questions:
1. Can you discern the similarities and differences between the three categories listed for formative experiences and relationships? (That is, experiences that seem meaningful, faith points in which you have to trust God that there’s meaning in a painful experience, and pillars of faithfulness.)
2. Can you distinguish between themes and metaphors?
3. Can you see God’s hand in the details of some of your experiences? What about in the broad sweep of your life?
4. How can looking for God in these two levels—the details and the broad sweep—change your perspective or your lifestyle?
Pray with your group about the next steps in the “Life Story” process. Ask God for wisdom as the group members seek to determine what events and relationships have had lasting effects on their lives.
The following questions will help you understand how much public speaking experience group members have had, discover what barriers may inhibit them from truly benefiting from their “Life Story” experiences, and open avenues through which you can encourage group members in the presentations of their stories.
1. What public speaking experiences have you had in the past? In what kinds of settings did they take place?
2. What are some fears you have experienced in speaking before groups of people?
3. As you consider sharing your story with this group, what fears do you have?
4. What can the group begin doing today that will help alleviate those fears?
5. Of the various insecurities mentioned in the session, which will most likely affect you?
6. What can you do to avoid the insecurities? What can the group do to help you?
7. Do you think you can present your life story adequately in the allotted time? Why or why not?
8. How might someone make a story inviting? Influential?
9. How can the use of a metaphor make your story inviting and influential? (See “Life Story: Step G.”)
Leave a few minutes at the end of your time to address any questions group members may have concerning the “Life Story” process. They have completed their formative experiences and relationships sections and will work on what they have learned about God and themselves for the next session. Make sure they understand that they will present their stories to the group. Clarify what the allotted time will be. (We suggest at least forty-five minutes for the presentation and at least fifteen minutes for the group’s feedback. More time is preferable.) Also, tell them that questions and prayer will follow each presentation.
Lead the group in one of the following exercises:
Recent Personal Conversation
Have group members identify and think about a significant conversation they have had recently. Lead them through an examination of it as follows:
Think of a recent conversation in which a friend shared something personal with you. Write down some details from that conversation. Record the details of what the person said, to the best of your memory. Record the nonverbal forms of communication that he or she expressed. For example, if your friend was visibly discouraged, write that down. If he or she was overjoyed, make note of it. Take a few minutes to recollect as much about that interaction as you can.
Tell the group a story from your own life of a recent significant conversation. It might be something like this:
“Last night I received a phone call from a very close friend. He called to tell me that he was accepted to graduate school. His voice was filled with excitement, as if he could hardly wait to share his good news. He seemed to want to share the joy he was experiencing. I was aware of his application, and we had previously spoken of how great the opportunity would be if he got accepted but also of how I would miss his friendship if he went off to graduate school. My response was, ‘That’s terrific! I mean, that’s too bad—I’m just kidding.’ I asked him how he was feeling when he heard and who had informed him of his acceptance. He shared that the professor who was sponsoring him had called. I was so thrilled to share the excitement of the moment with him! The short conversation affirmed to me the value he placed on our relationship.”
Play a short segment from a movie of someone sharing a very personal story of something that happened to him or her. Then analyze how well people in the group could pick up on the verbal and nonverbal communication.
After you do one of the three listening exercises, discuss some of the following questions. You may have to adjust the questions to fit the particular exercise you chose.
1. What were the facts your friend shared with you?
2. What, if any, emotions accompanied those facts? What helped you identify the emotions?
3. What was the main point of the story?
4. What follow-up questions did you ask or do you wish you had asked?
5. What insights did you gain about the storyteller?
6. What forms of nonverbal communication did the storyteller use?
7. Why is nonverbal communication more believable than verbal?
Here are some suggested questions to help prepare group members for the “Life Story” presentations. The main point of this session is to get them thinking about how crucial listening is for building a sense of community. For instance, if group members don’t listen well, they will be limited in their ability to give a loving response to the presenter.
1. In light of the information in the session, why do we emphasize expressing our stories creatively during the presentation time?
2. Why is it important to limit our presentations to the allotted time?
3. What signal do we communicate by showing up late to someone’s story?
4. What are some of the positive and negative signals listeners might give as someone presents his or her story?
5. When we have listened attentively enough to ask a good follow-up question, what does that question communicate to the person telling the story? (A sample follow-up question is, “You mentioned that you have a history of not getting along with your sister. Why is that?”)
6. How does it make you feel when you are beginning to share something very personal with someone and he or she is distracted? (For instance, you notice that he or she is looking attentively at someone over your shoulder.)
Read through the following material and become familiar with the content. This topic is crucial, so be ready to make the most of this session. If you really want to learn more about encouragement, you might want to obtain a copy of Encouragement: The Key to Caring, by Larry Crabb and Dan Allender.
This session will bring about a lot of discussion and sharing, so use your time well. Begin the session by jumping right into the necessity of responding well when others share significant and personal stories.
After a group member shares his or her life story, the others should respond during the following week with a brief note or phone call of encouragement. A note can be typed in e-mail, handwritten on a card, or in any form the listener feels is appropriate. The primary purpose of the communication is to offer encouragement to the presenter. Or, if a part of someone’s story particularly touched you, you can call the person and tell him or her directly. If something the storyteller said challenged you, explain what it was and thank the person. If you feel the person has demonstrated courage in an area of life, affirm him or her for this courage. If you are thankful for what God has done in or through the person, let him or her know how you are thankful. Use the following questions to help spark discussion about this section:
1. When you share something personal with someone, what do you want most in response from that person?
2. As you prepare to share your story, what are some of your fears? How can Crabb and Allender’s first principle of encouragement help us settle each other’s fears?
3. What do you think about Crabb and Allender’s second principle of encouragement that “understanding is sometimes better than advice”? Can you give an example from your life when this was true?
4. Crabb and Allender’s third principle is “Words that encourage take into account both the need for relationship and the need for meaning.” What does this statement mean to you?
5. In what way does inattentive listening affect a person’s ability to encourage?
6. How does it make you feel when someone does not listen to you with his or her full attention? How does it affect the level of vulnerability you express?
7. In the gospel accounts, how did Christ demonstrate attentiveness to others? Can you give examples?
Conclude this session by praying for God to offer both encouragement and spiritual direction to each group member over the future weeks of sharing stories. Address any questions about “Life Story.” Make sure that group members know when they will be presenting their stories and that next week’s presenters are ready. Reemphasize how important it is not to miss anyone’s presentation. If, however, group members must miss a “Life Story” presentation, it is ideal for them to get some time with the presenter and hear at least a summary of the story.
We ask a lot from people when we have them share their stories. Even if the group is laughing and in a great mood, you can count on the presenter being nervous or even worried. As the leader, it is your job to set the right atmosphere from the start. Make sure that you and all group members are respectful and listen attentively during each presentation. Start on time and help the presenter end on time.
The following is a suggested flow for these presentation group times:
- Opening prayer for the presenter
- “Life Story” presentation
- Questions and comments
- Group prayer and thanksgiving for the presenter
- Group members are reminded to write notes of encouragement during the week
This session is designed to wrap up the experience of “Life Story” presentations and provide a transition into the Integrity study. It points group members toward the issues of growth, holiness, and service. Though we all carry scars with us through life, we can rejoice because there is hope for redemption in this life as well as in the next. The following questions will help you lead this discussion:
1. What specific aspects of your heritage do you feel you must oppose in order for you to leave a godly heritage to others?
2. What do you think were the weaknesses of your parents in their raising of you? In what ways do you want to differ from them in the way you parent?
3. What do you think were the strengths of your parents or guardians in their raising of you? How difficult do you anticipate it will be to follow their example with your own children?
4. If you don’t have children and don’t anticipate having any in the future, how do you think you might have a positive impact on the heritage of someone from the next generation?
5. How would you want someone of the next generation to describe his or her relationship with you twenty to forty years from now?