How to do Small Groups (5 Tips)

by Robert Feduccia

The formation of discipleship groups has been a growing trend over recent years in middle school and high school youth ministry. It is a trend that has a long history in the Christian tradition and there’s a long line of people who are ready testify to the impact that a small community of believers has made on their lives. These are the testimonies of those who have found a spiritual home with a small group of people that they went on a sincere spiritual journey with. However, we don’t hear the testimonies from those for whom the small group didn’t work. The following five principles can provide a guide establishing small groups that can have a lasting impact.

1) Get the number right

When dividing small groups for a retreat, I find that four teens with one leader works well. There is a depth and intimacy that needs happen fast on a retreat and a smaller group works well when there is a compressed amount of time and you know that all four teens are going to be there for each session. For long-term discipleship groups, six to eight, preferably eight is a better number. In a group of this size, it is still small enough to establish a good relationship with everyone in the group. Yet, it is large enough to account for differing personalities, e.g. introverts and extroverts. It is also large enough to absorb an absence which will inevitably happen. Most likely you will average six per session if you assign eight young people to a group leader.

2) Look for the natural clumps

It is often the case that parish youth ministers approach small discipleship group formation as they approach dividing young people into group for a retreat. During a retreat, you want to divide the kids who are fiends with each other. The wisdom of this is that by breaking up a friend group, each person is freed from the expectation that their past has set them up for. They are more at ease being themselves and opening themselves up to what God might have in store for them. All of this is wise. However, it is not always the case with discipleship groups, especially if you have confidence in the discipleship process that you have chosen, a process such as “Equipped for Life” (please forgive the shameless plug). The counter-intuitive principle is to see which teens naturally gravitate to each other and group them accordingly. In this way you are taking their natural affinities and baptizing them. Over time the walls will come down and they will share their authentic self.

3) Avoid vinegar and baking soda

Now to completely contradict the previous principle: avoid mixing vinegar and baking soda. We all have experienced the two teens. Take them alone and each is ready to go deep. Get them together and they each have one goal: make the other one laugh. A dynamic like that can sabotage the small group and you will never get anywhere. While it is encouraged to find the natural groupings, know your teens. Split vinegar from baking soda.

4) Consolidate your leaders

Here’s another counter-intuitive tip, consolidate your leaders. Don’t spread them out among the other groups. If they are able to help lead another group, then that’s great. One of the pillars of successful youth ministry is forming leaders and providing opportunities for them to lead. However, leaders need their own group in order to grow as a disciple. A teen co-leader can work very well for a small group. But the group that your young leader helps to facilitate cannot be her or his only group. Your leaders need attention to grow as they are being called by the Lord, as well.

5) Choose the right adult

There’s a strange dynamic among many who present themselves for youth ministry, both a full-time ministers and as youth ministry volunteers. Within these people, there seems to be the belief that young people aren’t deeply Catholic because the faith hasn’t been explained to them. More specifically, they have never had the faith explained as the adult would explain it. Right now in youth ministry, more people want to be speakers and people who want t be leaders. A small group is not an opportunity for an adult to preach. A small group is to be lead by an adult who loves the Lord and can create an atmosphere where young people are comfortable, encouraged, and excited to share their lives. They want to be heard. They want to be accompanied. They don’t need subject matter experts. Ignorance of Church teaching is an issue, of course. But finding a home in the Church is the greater net to capture those who question.