How to Prevent Small Group Meltdowns

I worked in construction one summer break when I was in high school. It was hard work, I got a great tan, and I was sporting some serious muscles when school started up again.

But I also learned a valuable lesson, called “measure twice, cut once.”

While this lesson was about cutting wood, the universal principle was that a little preparation helps prevent the need to clean up mistakes.

This practical step works for small groups, too.

Unspoken agendas and unmet expectations cause major problems in groups. Setting the expectations for groups not only establishes the ground rules, but helps keep them on track. A simple tool can establish ground rules and expectations as well as prevent or resolve some of the typical conflicts that come up in almost all small groups. The tool is called “small group guidelines.”

Encourage your new small group leaders to get agreement for the guidelines at their first group meeting. Explaining the purpose of the agreed-upon points helps everyone in each group understand and agree.

Existing groups without an agreement can send the guidelines out by email to all group members, asking them to read them so that the group can discuss them and adopt them at the next meeting. Or, they can just hand them out at the next meeting and review/adopt them on the spot.

Here’s an example of a typical guidelines agreement:

We agree to the following values –

  • Clear Purpose  To grow healthy, spiritual lives by building a healthy small group community.
  • Group Attendance  To give priority to the group meeting (and call if I will be absent or late)
  • Safe Environment  To create a safe place where people can be heard and feel loved (no quick answers, snap judgments, or simple fixes)
  • Be Confidential  To keep anything that is shared strictly confidential and within the group
  • Conflict Resolution  To avoid gossip and to immediately resolve any concerns by following the principles of Matthew 18:15-17
  • Spiritual Health  To give group members permission to speak into my life and help me live a healthy, balanced spiritual life that is pleasing to God
  • Limit our Freedom  To limit our freedom by not serving or consuming alcohol during small group meetings or events so as to avoid causing a weaker brother or sister to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Romans 14:19-21)
  • Welcome Newcomers  To invite friends who might benefit from this study and warmly welcome newcomers
  • Building Relationships  To get to know the other members of the group and pray for them regularly.

You may want to add a few more values in your group guidelines and agreement. Maybe you’ll want to add the statement that all individual contact information (email, phone numbers, etc.) are never to be shared outside the group and are only shared for group or spiritual growth purposes, which means that everyone agrees they will not send junk or chain emails, political positions, or business solicitations or pitches to others in the group. Maybe you’ll want to add that everyone in the group agrees to treat everyone else with respect and that no one will make disparaging remarks or attempt humor at another’s expense.

When problems come up in groups with people not following the group’s guidelines and agreement, such as not attending regularly, or having conflicts with others, the group leader or one of the members can meet with the person privately and remind them of everyone’s commitment to the agreement. This is the beginning of conflict resolution following Matthew 18, meeting one-on-one personally, and this will demonstrate the group’s commitment to helping the group stay on track.


  • Ron Wilbur

    Ron is formerly the Pastor of Small Group Health at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Ron co-leads our connections team and leads the international team connecting SGN members outside of North America.

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Daniel Thomas

Connections Director


Daniel serves as Executive Pastor at Community Church of Mountain City, TN.  Daniel and his family are on a mission to establish roots within their community, fight for peace and serve well.  He serves as our Connections Director in laying the groundwork for Circles. He loves great coffee and traveling with his wife Tia and two children, Deklan and Aden



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