Every person in your group has different expectations for your group, whether they realize it or not. Some folks were in a group before and long for the good old days of comfortable koinonia. Others were over-sold on groups: “You’ll make your new best friend.” For whatever reason they joined or what they expect, the key to successful group life is a thoroughly-discussed and well-articulated group agreement.
1. The Key Word Is “Agreement.”
An effective group agreement has input from the whole group, and a decision for the group ground rules is made together. You are not asking your members to sign a contract that you put together for them. If you impose an agreement on them, you may get compliance, but you won’t necessarily get buy-in from the group. Don’t wonder why no one is honoring an agreement they didn’t help to create.
Forming a group agreement doesn’t need to be a lengthy or hectic process. In a relaxed atmosphere, just get everybody’s ideas on the table. Decide on the group’s values together. What’s important to the members? When and where will the group meet? How will the group provide childcare, if they do? What will the group study? How will the studies be chosen? How will the group spend their time together?
While there are a number of great templates out there, your group agreement needs to fit your group. Imposing someone else’s agreement on your group just doesn’t cut it. Examples can be helpful, but you’re not looking for a good document, you’re aiming for a great group.
2. Everyone Knows What to Expect.
A group agreement puts all of the members on a level playing field. They know what’s acceptable and what’s out of bounds. From basic, but important, items like when the meeting with start and end, the group will know what to count on. If members need to get back to work or put kids to bed on a school night, they will know when it’s acceptable to leave.
More importantly, the group agreement insures things like confidentiality. What’s said in the group stays in the group. Broken confidences and gossip are group killers. If the group has a party, what will they be drinking or not drinking? If your group doesn’t know if any of its members are in recovery, that’s an important conversation to have.
How will the group meeting run? While the meeting doesn’t have to be the same every week, the members do need to know what to expect. My group meets in a restaurant for lunch. If we order from a menu, then we order, discuss the lesson, eat when the food comes, and then pray together. If it’s more of a “fast food” place, then we eat first and ask questions later.
3. Everyone Knows What Is Expected of Them.
Some people are reluctant to join groups because they fear being asked to do something they just aren’t comfortable with. Will they have to pray aloud? Will they have to read aloud? What if they don’t read very well? The group agreement helps them understand if these things are voluntary or mandatory.
If a member has to miss the group, what is his responsibility to the group? Should he call or not worry about it? If it’s important that the member informs the group, then put that in your agreement.
As the leader, you shouldn’t do everything for your group. It’s just not healthy, and it robs others of opportunities to serve in ministry. If your group intends to pass around the responsibilities for leading the discussion, hosting the group, bringing refreshments, lead worship, follow up on prayer requests, and whatever else you can give away, your agreement should include the expectation that every member would serve in some way.
Again, what are the values of your group? What is expected of each member? Decide together and let everyone know up front in the agreement.
4. Group Agreements Must Be Reviewed.
Your group agreement will not stand the test of time. Circumstances change. Groups change. While you would always include things like confidentiality and shared responsibility, your meeting day, place, time, study and so forth will change over time. Group agreements should be reviewed at least once per year to make sure that it’s still working for everybody.
5. Group Agreements Help When New Members Join.
It’s important to review key items in your group agreement when new members join your group. You don’t have to recite the entire agreement, but important things like confidentiality, child care details, and so on should be shared with new members. This doesn’t have to be formal. “Just to let you know, our group is like Las Vegas. Whatever is said here stays here” or “We’re going to order our food, then get into our discussion. When the food arrives, expect a little silence, then we’ll close with prayer needs.”
6. Agree on the Agreement.
While it’s good to have your group agreement written down somewhere, you don’t need to have it notarized or have your attorney present. I have seen some groups give their agreement a simple thumbs up. I’ve seen others sign it like the Declaration of Independence. Do whatever works for your group. Some folks are resistant to words like “covenant,” so “group agreement” or “ground rules” would work better for most.
I recently bought the board game Sorry for my family. We read all of the rules, but to limit frustration with my young children, we modified a few of the rules. They don’t need the exact number to move their pawn home. That works for us now. Later on, we might need to up the difficulty of the game. You see there are the official rules, and then there are the house rules. Your group agreement should be the house rules for your group. The rules may change over time, but the most important thing is that the rules work for the whole group right now.