By Angela D. Schaffner
Our basic need for belonging and connection to other people is magnified during times we have to be apart from others. We need small groups now more than ever.
Here are some tips for running a quality Zoom group.
Send an introductory email explaining the goals of your group, how many will attend, and the format for group sessions. People feel more comfortable when they know a bit about what to expect. Include a few details about Zoom etiquette and how to connect and maintain a good connection on Zoom. Make this email warm and informative but short and to the point.
Find a quiet space where you can close the door and focus only on the group session, and spend some time learning how to use Zoom. It’s user friendly and there are several controls you can set, depending on the experience you’d like to create for your group. Notice the settings of your group members, and inquire if it seems there is someone or something in their environment that is distracting them.
In my experience, around 8–12 people is an excellent size for a group. Larger groups tend to limit individual participation, and introverts can fade into the background. Smaller groups limit the varying perspectives that contribute to a rich discussion. I recently talked to someone who led an AA group for 50 people on Zoom; the size presented many challenges to holding space for the group members’ struggles and providing adequate support. If you have a group larger than 12, consider using the “breakout rooms” function on Zoom, and assign small groups of 7–8 people to breakout rooms before your session.
Clearly state the purpose and/or values of the group. Are you playing a game? Following a book study? Processing feelings? Maintaining sobriety? Praying together? Be clear in the beginning about the nature of what will occur, and reflect regularly on whether the group is staying connected to its stated purpose.
As the leader of a Zoom group, you may need to play a more active role than when you’re leading in person. Nonverbal cues are less noticeable and available to you on Zoom, so increase the verbal communication. This doesn’t mean you need to do most of the talking, but if there is lingering silence, interject comments to guide the group forward and encourage group interaction: “Do others relate? Is this idea resonating with you?”
Seek opportunities to affirm group members’ perspectives, participation, and strengths. Listen for expressed needs, and attempt to provide what’s needed or guide group members to people and places where they can get their needs met.
It’s a good idea to establish a fairly predictable routine so group members can settle in comfortably and know what to expect week to week. Do you begin with a prayer or reading? Informal chatting? How soon do you move to a more in-depth discussion? Do you follow a format? Revisit certain questions or themes every week to gauge your progress? Decide on and keep to a similar format.
The group should be able to tolerate a few tangents, but try to tie discussions back to the theme of the group and keep on course. Avoid rigidity with your routine, and allow space for the group to take on some life and energy of its own. Allow room for spontaneity. Group dynamics are lively, active, and fascinating. In a thriving group, you may find you don’t do much talking as the leader but simply keep the group on course and encourage the already-existing flow to keep moving.
Especially if Zoom is somewhat unfamiliar to any of your group members, check in from time to time to see how members are experiencing the group: “I know the Zoom group is a new experience for some of you – how is this feeling? Is the group meeting your expectations? Is there anything we need to shift or do differently?” Strive to keep an open and nondefensive stance and welcome feedback.
Groups can end, and they can end well. Understand that group members may experience some sadness and grief at the group’s ending. Provide opportunities for them to express their feelings. A structured ending helps, where each member is asked to share something about what the group has meant to them and what they’ll take with them from the group experience.
Follow these tips and watch your group experience spiritual maturity and transformation. For more on leading small groups, order Gather Us In: Leading Tranformational Small Groups by Angela D. Schaffner.
Angela D. Schaffner is a licensed counseling psychologist and eating disorders specialist who owns a private psychotherapy practice in Atlanta. She has led small groups in therapy and at her church for over 20 years. Angela is the author of Gather Us In: Leading Transformational Small Groups and Revealed: What the Bible Can Teach You About Yourself An active member of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia, Angela is married to Dusty, and they are the parents of three sons.