Leading Groups and Meetings

An excerpt from my thesis, "A toolkit for unlikely leaders"

The theme of this chapter is leading groups and meetings. Some people really love meetings, while others will do anything to avoid meetings. I must confess that I have often found myself in the latter group! As one who leans more into introversion than extroversion, I have been part of many meetings where a few people talk excessively, a few don’t speak at all, and at the end of the meeting I have left wondering what was accomplished, and wishing I could have all that time back! On the other hand, I have also been part of meetings where all the participants made useful contributions in a creative and fruitful atmosphere, and at the end of our time together, we had made progress, and I left feeling like it had been a really good use of my time. 

I became a keen learner of how to lead and participate in meetings after suffering though so many of them, and at times hoping and praying that I could just leave my body in the meeting, and go somewhere else that was more enjoyable (even a dentist’s chair has seemed preferable in some of the meetings I have been part of!). During the course of our life we will have spent months, or even a couple of years sitting in meetings—from staff meetings at work, tutorials and lectures at university, flat meetings, family meetings, board meetings, planning meetings, committee meetings, small group meetings, Sunday church meetings, etc.

So let’s learn how to meet more effectively. No more having to endure each of the extroverts each having to say pretty much the same thing that has already been said by others, and do all their thinking externally for everyone to try to follow. No more having the introverts sit through meetings saying nothing, even if they completely disagree about what is being said, and decided. No more meetings before the meeting to decide what the decision will be when the actual meeting is held. No more meetings where no decision is made. No more meetings with no real point or purpose. And no more meetings after the meeting for people to say what they really wanted to say, but didn’t during the actual meeting.

If we are intending to spend some significant part of our lives influencing others towardbecoming devoted followers of Jesus, it is inevitable that we will be participants of many meetings, and leaders of meetings. So, we will look at how to be a good productive member of a meeting, and how to lead meetings well.

In this chapter I will take a look at some general principles of effective meetings, and then look at leading small groups, leaders’ meetings, staff meetings, board meetings and larger meetings like a Sunday congregation. We know that it takes healthy connection with one another and with God to become mature disciples. One of my sayings is “connected people grow!” However, it can be hard to get people to effectively connect if their experience of small group life is frustrating and even painful. Let’s see what we can do to make those group connections a fruitful highlight for people.

The three major components of effective meetings

As Christians, when we meet, there is of course the presence of God in all we do (Exodus 33:14 “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”). There are three factors to keep in mind when we meet: 

• God and His intentions and influence

• People and their needs

• The tasks that need to be accomplished by the meeting

All three of these factors influence how effective a meeting will be, and all three need to be addressed in a healthy, functional way.

Often, we can focus on both God’s presence and intentions, and also the reconstituting of the meeting participants, or the reconnecting of the meeting participants, at the beginning of meeting. For example, this can be meaningfully accomplished by spending the first part of the meeting finding what is at the forefront of each person’s attention (what their attention will most naturally drift toward), and praying for each other. It is recognizing each other’s humanity, and the re-forming of community. It doesn’t necessarily have to take a long time—but it is essential to healthy meeting.

God’s presence: God’s presence in our meetings is a great privilege as Christians, and we would do well to acknowledge and welcome His presence and influence. Prayer at the beginning of a meeting can be dysfunctional—a religious habit or action lacking heart—or it can truly be inviting God to lead and influence the time we are spending together. If we are going to pray, and I fervently believe we should acknowledge and invite God’s input at our meetings, make it genuine and heartfelt, expecting an answer, and not just “going through the motions” of prayer. It is good to make a practice of asking at different parts of the meeting (not just at the beginning) what people are sensing God is saying or doing. As a movement of churches, worship is central to all we do, and so it is also appropriate to begin some meetings with worship—both musical and non-musical.

The people: While it may seem like I am stating the obvious, because meetings involve people, meetings are as much about building community and leading people to maturity as they are about making decisions and creating action and change—the same way that Jesus is interested in bringing us to maturity and presenting us faultless before the Father. Jude expresses it this way, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 24 NIV). Paul expresses the same desire, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28-29 NIV). From these Scriptures it would seem that He is more interested in forming us than He is about what we accomplish in this life (and this is extremely important for us to remember). When we meet together we need to be people-focused at least as much as we are task-focused. 

Normally, the first thing we need to do when we meet together is to spend time reconnecting with each other. Even if we are a small group meeting every week, or a weekly Sunday congregation, we need to reconnect, reconstitute before we can effectively move on. And if we are a group that meets less frequently, such as a leaders’ meeting, a board meeting, a planning committee, an elders’ or overseers’ meeting, it is even more essential that we reconnect before we move to task. I would argue strongly that committees need to become communities if we are to truly reflect the God we serve and love. We must remember in all our meetings that people are the pinnacle of God’s creation and they are the apple of His eye, and because of that people should never feel excluded, ignored, devalued, unloved, bored, bullied or used in our meetings.  will suggest some ways of reconnecting in different types of meetings—but we must reconnect, or else we will do a whole meeting and actually be a disconnected people. When people are disconnected at the heart it is so much easier to dominate, push though your agenda, be passive aggressive (look compliant and agreeable on the outside, but resistant on the inside), waste time, and generally not contribute. I’m sure we can all think of meetings where we did one or more of these things.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that one of the things that needs to take place in our meetings is the development of people. It is at least as important as accomplishing a task, and will almost certainly outlast and outperform the task.

The purposePerhaps one of the most frustrating things about ineffective meetings is when the purpose of the meeting is not clear, or not achieved. It is frustrating to everyone when you choose to meet to achieve some task, and the whole time is spent chatting about everything but the task. Or if you come to a meeting expecting it to be about prayer and worship and Bible study and it turns out to be a business meeting.

There is no right or wrong purpose for meetings—it simply needs to be agreed on by everyone before you start. It is absolutely appropriate to meet just to pray, or just to worship. It is appropriate to study Scripture, or to grow in some skill or knowledge. It is appropriate to meet to discuss finances and make plans for buildings. It is appropriate to have meetings focused on personal development, or recovery. It is appropriate to have meetings that incorporate more than one of these purposes. What is not appropriate is to state that you are meeting for one purpose and then pursue a different purpose. And it is certainly inappropriate to meet for no purpose.

Tuckmans stages of group development

Bruce Tuckman, in 1965, proposed four common stages that all groups go through to become an effective healthy functioning group. M. Scott Peck also presents very similar concepts in his book “A Different Drum.” While this is not specifically research on Christian groups, it is a very observable process that our groups must move through if they are to become healthy functioning groups.

This process is equally applicable whether you are planting a church, or starting a new connect group. Groups can get stuck at any of the first three stages, but they will never become as effective as they could be without moving through to stage four.

Forming: This is the stage of a group, when it first begins to add people. They can be deliberately added for the skills or knowledge they bring if it is a task focused group, or it can be a diverse open invitation if it is a small group/connect group. If you are starting a connect group, it is usually wise to invite more people than you could fit into your room—because there are usually one or two who say yes but never come, and there are always going to be some people who can’t come on any given time because of sickness, work or family commitments. As a general “rule of thumb” you get 60-70 percent of the people at any small group meeting. So if you have 12 regular members, you will normally only have seven or eight each week. 

Storming: After you have met as a group for a while, it seems like you have quickly moved to becoming a loving respectful effective community. But in reality, everyone is still on his or her best behaviour! People are avoiding conflict, making judgement calls on each other, and are generally self-focused. You have pseudo-community, not real community. People are not really opening up their lives to each other, beyond the surface level. They are being polite, most of the time, and not disagreeing that much. It is not until our values, opinions and will are crossed, that we really begin to grow. So, as you have created a safe, respectful culture for the group, people will begin to let down their guard and begin to really say what they think, rather than what they think people want them to think! And then conflict is inevitable. The temptation is for the leader to try to stop this stage of storming from happening, and get everyone back to being “nice” with each other. But storming is essential if a group is to change lives and accomplish something. There are skills and courage needed to get a group through the storming phase—but they are not that difficult to learn. 
e need to be the cultural architects for this phase. Have a few “ground rules” like: no talking in generalities—not “we should be more serious/spiritual/read our Bible more...” but rather “I feel like I am not...” and “I would love us to...”; no personal attacks—learn to disagree agreeably; talk issues not people, etc.

If you can lead your group through the storming phase, true Christian love will break out, the members will get in each other’s grandstands and cheer. You will have a healthy group that has grace AND truth. 

Sadly, many groups and even churches never successfully navigate their way through storming and so shrink back to the forming stage, and the turnover of group members. Remember, it gets better in the end—so if it is not better, you are not at the end yet!

Norming: If you and your group can have the courage and skills to push through the storming, you will begin to experience what you thought you had in stage one, but didn’t actually. In the atmosphere of grace and truth, the lives of the group’s members will deepen and grow. You will have healthy connectedness and healthy separateness. People will enjoy coming and being together. It doesn’t necessarily have to take a long time to get to this place together—but there are no shortcuts. As a leader you create a safe space for people to do life together. The more you do this, the better you get at it.

Performing: Once you have normal Christian community together, it is incredible how much you can accomplish as a group. It can seem like it has taken a lot of meetings to get to the point of performing—but unless you do, the performance of the group will always be somewhat dysfunctional. This stage is the fruitful stage as the groups has a shared purpose, and all the members are working together toward it.

Transforming: I like to add one other stage to Tuckman’s four stages. We have an even higher purpose for our groups than simply performing a task together. We all each involved in the process of being transformed from one degree of glory to the next. I really do believe that open and wholehearted participation in groups, from connect groups, task groups through to whole churches, transforms us and our world.

Helping interesting people grow

One of the most important skills in helping people grow is the ability to help “tricky people” learn healthy Christian relational skills. John D. Rockefeller was reported as saying, “The ability to get along with people!” was the most important skill in an employee. It is inevitable that you will find some of these tricky people in groups you lead or are a part of:

• the person who will run over you and the group if you let them

• the person who will talk your ear off

• the person who has an incredible ability to rain on any parade and kill everyone’s enthusiasm

• the person who gets angry and loses their temper if they don’t get their way

• their sibling—the one who turns on the tears if they don’t get their way

• the chronic complainer, who always sees the glass half empty

• the nit-picking perfectionist

• the space cadet who seems to be on another planet than everyone else in the group

That should you do with these types of interesting people? Firstly, it is important to know that you are responsible TO people rather than responsible FOR them or their behaviour. our job as a leader is to “lead them to green pastures” and have them “lie down beside still waters”. But you actually can’t make anybody do anything they don’t want to do.

Jesus interacted with difficult people in his ministry. Here are some things we can learn from Him:

• He was under a higher authority—John 5.30. Like Him we lead people on behalf of our Father in Heaven. So ask Him what He wants us to do, and how He wants us to do it.Don’t pander to everyone’s agenda—seek to be a God pleaser not a people pleaser.

• Don’t let others determine your role and actions. People wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans by force. Remember that you can’t be everyone’s best friend; you can’t be a person’s father or mother (unless you are, of course!); you can’t be Bill Johnson, Bill Hybels, Joyce Meyer, Mike Breen or anyone except you. You are God’s workmanship—His masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”)—so don’t rob your group of the gift that you are.

• Jesus didn’t react or retaliate (Matthew 5:38-39). It is never a good idea to get down to someone else’s level of bad behaviour—even if you feel like it! We have to be the adult even if they are acting like a child.

• Pray for them (Matthew 5:44). It will help both of you. Let God handle them.

• “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18, NIV).

Five levels of communication

As our group gathers, we want to encourage people to move through five levels of verbal communication. This is all part of taking a group from norming through to performing and transforming. It is quite normal for people to start at the cliché level, but we don’t want people to stay at that level of communication.

1. Cliché: Polite interaction, non-sharing. How are you? How are you doing? How’s work/family,etc.

2. Reporting of facts: Sharing objective knowledge with one another. “I bought a new pair of jeans today.” “Did you see that article in The Herald?”

3. Opinions and ideas: Sharing what you think about the facts. “I think interest rates will go up soon.”

4. Sharing feelings: Expressing our feelings, sharing our hopes, sorrows, needs, fears, dreams, failures and burdens.

5. Self-disclosure: This is when we have transparency of communication that involves emotional sharing of oneself (the good and the bad) with someone who is committed to you. It means being vulnerable with that person.

Common parts of a group meeting

Whether we are talking about a connect group meeting, a leaders meeting, a task meeting or a Sunday Congregation meeting I tend to think about meetings in thirds. I suppose I could say that it is a trinitarian model—but I would be less than honest to make that claim, However, we do see thirds in so much of life—from photography, to life stages, etc. 

Mike Breen has given some helpful language to this that a number of churches have picked up used and further developed. He calls it UP, IN and OUT. A healthy church will devote some of its time and strength and activity to ministering to God in worship, prayer, devotion, etc.—UP. It will also spend some of its time, energy and resources on ministering to those who are already part of that church community—IN. And finally, a healthy church will spend some of its time, energy and resources on serving those not yet in church—OUT.

In a similar way, we can help focus our group meetings using the rule of thirds. In the final section I will give some suggestions for doing group life effectively.

Leaders, staff and task-type meetings

Although it probably should go without saying, I will say one thing about this kind of task or special focus meetings. We always need to clarify: 

• Why do we need to meet? (Why have a meeting if you don’t need to?)

• Who should come? (Always match responsibility and accountability—people who don’t carry the responsibility for an area shouldn’t be making decisions for that area).

• What are our agreed ground rules? For example, start and end on time; have an agenda and stick to it; come prepared; have a leader for each part; if at all possible don’t leave without a decision being made; be realistic about what you can accomplish; keep confidentiality; be unified after free and honest communication.

A. Focus on thirds: Spend 1/3 of the time on skills and learning, e.g. I hope you will use these chapters as the basis for the training and teaching input; this book could be a helpful source for this material on training. 

Spend 1/3 of the time on task: leaders’ meetings, staff meetings and other task meetings have tasks that have been entrusted to the group, so we need to ensure that when it is time to work—we work on what we are responsible for. 

Spend 1/3 of the time on ministering to each other and God.

B. General timetable for a 90-minute meeting:

• Start on time: Remember that when you start on time you reward those who came on time. When you wait until more people arrive before you start, you reward the latecomers, and punish the early and on-timers, because they have had to waste their time waiting for others to arrive. While we don’t want to become overly pedantic with time-keeping it is actually teaching an important life lesson. People manage to get to doctor’s, dentist’s and lawyer’s appointments and job interviews on time—so it is not asking too much to build a culture of starting and finishing on time and honouring and blessing what we want more of. 

• First 15 minutes: Reconnect and reconstitute the meeting. Have your refreshments before the advertised start time. You can use activities such as suitable icebreakers, or sharing of a highlight or a challenge, praying in pairs, etc. to help reconnect everyone at the heart level.

• Next 30 minutes: Input—teaching and training in leadership skills. Unless you are exceptionally gifted as a teacher/trainer, use a variety of inputs, and encourage participation in the learning experience. If it is more of a specific task-type of group this time is often effectively used to share learning, and vision cast for the task, or board, matters.

• Next 30 minutes: Working and planning. Have a clear agenda for what needs to be accomplished. It is best if the agenda is compiled before the meeting. But you can also use the first couple of minutes to collect the agenda, and then prioritize it and work it through. You can expect everyone to work hard together for the common purposes at this stage of the meeting. It is often surprising what can be accomplished by giving each item a time limit. Make sure that each task is assigned and everyone knows who is responsible for what—otherwise you have just had a “talk-fest.”

• The final 15 minutes: Ministry to God and each other. Because of our values and practices, it is great to worship together, listen for prophecies, and other spiritual gifts and follow through on them by noting them by recording what God is saying, or by ministering to those the Lord has pointed out through the gifts.

• Finish on time.

While I am certainly not perfect in this area, I do really try to start and finish on time. I have found that when you finish late people feel a little cheated and it depletes the group’s passion. I have also found that more often than not, if you finish on time people stay and connect with each other and actually end up leaving later than they do when you have gone over time—and they just head for the door. 

C. Always come preparedIt is really important with more task-oriented groups, that all participants come well prepared. Read any documents before the meeting, think and pray about the issues and tasks before the meeting.

D. Help everyone make a contributionEvery group has people who tend to talk too much and people who don’t talk enough. Try to encourage everyone to make a contribution by saying something like: “We would love everyone to be able to say what they need during our time together. So can I respectfully encourage the introverts to say what they are thinking—and not wait until it’s fully formed; and can I encourage the extroverts to not say what they are thinking until it is fully formed.” 

Connect groups/small groups

There are a many ways to do connect groups. They can be arranged around activities—for example a movie group, a book study group, a kayak fishing group, a sports group, etc. They can be arranged around transformation—ministering to God in worship and each other in prayer, and learning biblical truth together; they can be arranged around a task—e.g. a worship team, a serve team, a missions team, etc. 

Below are a few helpful thoughts in addition to what I have written before:

• Small groups prosper on biblical hospitality. They are a wonderful opportunity to welcome the stranger, which is what biblical hospitality is all about. So keep in mind how the new person, the new believer, the person who feels like an outsider, could be effectively welcomed in to this little community you are forming.

• Create the atmosphere and culture that will be most conducive to change. We often say about ourselves that we are relaxed but not casual. Casual would imply we don’t really care that much—but we are desperate to see lives changed by Jesus.

• Give a warm welcome to everyone at the beginning and a loving farewell at the end. Our first nation culture can teach us so much about the importance of welcoming people in and sending them back home—the powhiri and the poroporoaki. It is about becoming family.

• Practice listening to a person’s words, and to what they are not saying. Notice what you notice and try to draw people out.

• As the leader, you don’t have to be the expert, the Bible scholar, the prophet(ess), or even the life of the party. You are more like a wise mid-wife who is making sure everything is moving along well.

• The goal is to help people grow in maturity. Celebrate the wins and grieve the losses as a little community.

• Expect your group to grow and then multiply.

Church congregations

1. You set the culture and oversee the atmosphere. Models rule—what you are as a leader is what the church will become. Below are some ideas you may want to pursue:

• Safe—freedom to risk. A place where you can come as you are but will be loved too much to stay as you are. Routines are good to help people feel safe. Protect people from weird stuff and unsafe people.

• Creative—we are all creative because we are made in the image of God—but we are not all necessarily artistic. Let the people who are gifted musically, architecturally, etc. do what they are made for to prepare a creative place. 

• Fun—we want the sound of laughter to fill our spaces, as well as the freedom to grieve deeply.

• Presence of God—God’s immanence. Expect that His presence will be in all we do together, and look for it constantly.

• A place of learning and growing.

2. Physical arrangements:

• Seating: Think through your seating arrangements so that seats are easy to get to, people don’t feel exposed, and as comfortable as you can reasonably manage.

• Lighting: Often rooms are either too bright or too dark. You want to aim for something in between and if you can do something creative with lights that help people connect do it! 

• Rest rooms: The cleanliness and availability of clean, fresh smelling rest rooms cannot be over emphasized. Make sure there are towels, soap and plenty of toilet paper. People today are used to good-quality facilities, good childcare and easy parking.

• Information table and refreshments: Visitors need something to occupy themselves with as they observe your church. You only get one chance to make a first impression. People are looking for people they could possibly relate to, clarity in what is expected, and good safety and care.

3. Clear processes:

• Start strong, clearly and on time: Welcome people and give a quick run down of what people can expect for the service, and where facilities are that they may need. Avoid big gaps between components of the service.

• Have clear information on how to connect, how to grow, how to get help.

• Welcome guests well: Greet guests at the door, and connect them with some of your regulars that they may relate to. In the welcome or notices—don’t single them out—but make sure they feel valued and cared for. Have a process for assimilating them into the church community. Have clear directions for children’s programs, parking, refreshments, other rooms or places they may need to find. Explain well, assuming that people know nothing.

4. The typical components of a Sunday meeting:

• 1/3 concept: The three main components of a 90-minute meeting: 30 minutes worship; 30 minutes teaching/preaching; 30 minutes family business—welcome, announcements, testimonies, personal ministry.

• Welcome: Start on time and do it strongly with energy and clarity and warmth. This is the invitation to people to connect to God. The invocation.

• Worship: It is about helping people worship and encounter God—so choose songs and keys that are easy for people. Our worship leaders tend not to say a lot—but make sure they clearly explain what is happening and what kind of response they are expecting. Prophecy and spiritual gifts need to be pastored well to encourage and to protect.

• Communion: Some do this weekly, some fortnightly, monthly or even less frequently. However you do it, remember we are commemorating a risen Lord—it is not a funeral!

• Announcements: This is another part of the 1/3 of “IN.” It is family time—we can celebrate, we can inform, but please ensure that you prepare well before you get up. I recently heard Bill Hybels say he labours over doing announcements and writes out in full what he is going to say, so it is said in the most powerful way.

• Preaching/teaching: Take another look at the previous chapter on this. Stop before people wish you would stop.

• Ministry: I find inviting people to stand and wait helps focus. Invite the Holy Spirit to touch people and distribute gifts. Be very clear with people what you want them to do next—come forward, pray for the person next to them, stand and receive.

• End strongly: Finish on time even if people are still being prayed for. Speak a clear blessing or benediction, and then free people to go.