By Emily Grabatin
I drove into the parking lot of my group townhouse complex, feeling nervous yet excited, unqualified yet confident. My mind ran through each name and detail.
It was the first time I was launching and leading a small group on my own. I had finished a season of shadowing and co-leading with another group leader. Then my pastor had asked me to lead a new group. Honoured to be trusted and asked, I said yes. He gave me some names of people who had asked for a group, and I contacted each of them.
The week before, I had sent out an intro email with the address of the host home. I had visited the host home and met the couple who had opened their home – brand new followers of Jesus. The curriculum options I had picked for the group to choose excited me. This was going to be good!
As I walked up to the host home the first night, a sinking feeling of dread hit me. I suddenly realized I had sent out the wrong house number to everyone! To top it off, I didn’t own a cell phone back then, nor did I have anyone’s numbers with me.
What in the world was I going to do?…
The first meeting of your group can be a dozen things: exciting, easy, fun, awkward, uncomfortable, stretching, fulfilling, rewarding and more. How can you make sure your first group meeting is as comfortable, fun and meaningful as possible to start your season together?
We do this by preparing for, planning and following up after your first meeting. It’s not about perfection, but it does show new group members how valued they when we think through the details. Let’s take a look at practical ways to make them feel welcome and at home.
Preparing For Your First Meeting
- Personally connect with all your group members the week before you meet.
There are a lot of dynamics new group members might be facing before they come out: family activities, work stress, anxiety over meeting new people, doubt that this is their best choice, fear about not filling in or potentially being rejected. A simple, genuine call or introduction can do much to infuse them with courage, encouragement and help them keep the group a priority in their week.
- Offer them what they need to arrive with confidence.
Of course, you’ll let them know the address of where the group will be meeting – the right address, unlike me. But what could you do above and beyond? If you’re leading an interest group like a hiking group for the first time, you could send them a picture of yourself or let them know you’ll be holding a sign at the meet-up location. If you’re meeting at a home address, let them know the best places to park, what door to knock on, or what entrance to come through, or you could put up a welcome sign for the first night.
- Ask a few people to participate in some way.
People are much more likely to have the courage or commitment to show up if they know you depend on them or they have a small investment in the meeting. Ask a couple of group members you know to welcome people as they arrive so new guests know they’re in the right place. Mention who you’d like to introduce to each other. Invite someone to bring a snack if you meet in a home. If you lead a large community group, snacks are usually provided, but you could have table leaders or hosts help you make phone calls or hand out materials.
Planning Your First Meeting
1. Prepare to start your group off with an informal “meet and greet” segment.
The agenda for this meeting is all about helping people feel relaxed and comfortable. This serves to connect them with the other participants, get a feel for what stage of life they’re at, and understand what they’re hungry to experience relationally and spiritually.
- Arrange for an uninterrupted, distraction-free session
Is everyone clear on childcare expectations or needs? Are there any pets that need to be moved out of the area? Do you have beverages and food prepared in advance? Have you turned off your phone ringer?
- Greet people as they come in
Depending on how large your group is and what other preparations need to be made, you could greet people yourself or ask a host or another group member to do it. If the group is larger than six people, you could have nametags and markers ready at the table or at the door.
- Let the group members know the agenda of the night.
Many personality types feel more at ease in new environments when we know what to expect. Will there be coffee/tea before or after? Will we jump directly into the study or have an icebreaker first?
Here’s a common flow for a 90-minute meeting:
Arrival and connection / catching up
Icebreaker [10 – 15 minutes]
Study – DVD, teaching, scripture reading, devotional thought [20 minutes]
Relevant Discussion [40 minutes]
Prayer [10 – 15 minutes]
Connection [10 – 30 minutes before or after the meeting officially ends]
- Begin with an icebreaker question
This is a fun, interesting and well-liked way for people to get to know each other. Afterwards, many participants will start a conversation with another, curious to hear more about their icebreaker answers.
- Discuss the group’s boundaries, expectations or guidelines.
This is an important step. If done well, it sets the foundation for accountability, redirection, safety and trust. It’s far easier to refer back to a guideline than it is to introduce one in response to a conflict later on.
- Highlight the curriculum
If the curriculum has already been chosen, you could show a trailer and give an overview to pique their curiosity for the next week. If you haven’t chosen a study yet, you might want to feel out what would be most relevant to the group before making the final decision. One approach would be to offer a couple of options and let the participants vote. Another way is to pass around an index card and have group members answer a couple of key questions that would help you decide.
- Lead and model authentic conversation
Studying and learning biblically-based principles is an important part of group life. However, often it’s the time of discussion, sharing and being heard where people work out and apply those transforming principles to their life. You get to set the tone for this kind of authenticity with the questions and answers you offer yourself.
- Introduce and demonstrate what you want prayer time in the group to look like throughout the season together
Sharing prayer requests and praying aloud is one of the most vulnerable, scary part of group time for some participants. You can make it safe to begin by modelling it but also paint a picture of what group members couple can experience together as they are stretched in this area.
- Confirm the date and place for the next meeting
Before you dismiss, make sure everyone knows when and where to meet next and encourage informal connection at the end. Having refreshments available works well!
Following Up After the First Meeting
- Touch base with each person who attended the meeting to encourage them.
This extra step helps them to continue to forge a relationship with you. You could send a text, an email, a Facebook message or look for them at church. Any contact in between meetings will help cement them to their new group.
- Connect with each person who didn’t make it the first week.
Let them know what they missed. Finding out why they missed and helping them feel noticed and heard might help encourage them to come the next time. Don’t estimate the power of simply letting them know that you’d love to see them out the next time.
- Contact all of your new group members a couple of days before your next meeting.
With full schedules, we have a lot of things on our minds! Attending your group isn’t a habit yet, so don’t assume that they’ll remember or have just as much priority or courage to return. They need your encouragement.
Finishing my story
So what happened with my first group meeting when I sent everyone to the wrong house?
A shot of adrenaline and adventure kicked in. Instead of shaming myself for messing up, I let it go and asked the hosts to welcome everyone who came. I ran out to the front of the misdirected townhouse unit and greeted every stranger who approached in my direction. If they weren’t part of the group, I’m sure they just thought I was a friendly person. If they were part of the group, I sent them over to the correct home.
It meant that I was a little late and flustered once I got back to the host home, but the ice had been broken. We had a good laugh, and it ended up being an energizing way for a bunch of strangers to start getting to know each other and begin a season of deep friendships.
Your first meeting isn’t about perfection or good impressions. It’s about being authentic, inviting and being like Jesus – setting the foundation for meaningful connection and relationships.