Our first "small group" experience began more than 13 years ago when my husband, Mark, and I were invited to join a couples' group. It was during our second year of marriage. Small groups were new in our church, and we didn't know what to expect. Wanting to get to know other couples and grow spiritually, we decided to give the group a try.
For a year and a half, we met with four other couples a few times each month. In addition to studying the book of Acts, we went through "Life 101" together—sharing meals, laughter, tears, and stories; welcoming pregnancies and grieving loss. In the midst of this togetherness, we began to experience something extraordinary—a taste of the 2,000-year-old community we were reading about in Acts.
One summer weekend our group packed overnight bags and headed to a rented home a few hours away. The plan was to play games and relax on Friday night, then have prayer, confession, and Communion on Saturday. Mark and I expected confession and Communion to be brief and familiar. We had no idea what God had in store for us.
Getting real in a safe place
The person who began the time of confession revealed something deeply sensitive about a battle with private thoughts. Our friend's vulnerability opened the door of transparency. One by one we shared problems that went beyond surface marital topics. To respect each other and our marriage, Mark and I left the room briefly to check with each other before sharing personal struggles. We agreed that this group was a safe place to open up.
Nervously, I shared my struggle with perfectionism and how it affects my husband, family, and even my relationship with God.
I could tell from Mark's posture and facial expressions that he was uncomfortable. But on our way home, he thanked me. "It's helpful for me to know how best to support you," he said. "If we didn't have this group, I may not have understood what you were feeling, and why."
During the days following, Mark and I had more conversations about marriage and the difference that safe place made on our relationship. One evening Mark confessed that because his father had died when he was seven, he never saw his parents working through marital issues. "These people have shown me that everyone has struggles in marriage. It's encouraging to know the ups and downs we experience are common."
While a couples' small group may intentionally focus on marriage or another topic, such as Bible study, the long-term impact on your relationship is indelible.
Our first small group experience not only gave Mark and me a safe place to gain insights about our relationship, but our friends cared for us at critical times—strengthening the foundation of our young marriage. When my first child was born four weeks early, I was unprepared for Grant's arrival. Our small group leader flew into action, washing baby clothes and organizing the baby's room before we returned home. What could have been a stressful situation became a joyful family moment thanks to our friend's wisdom and caring actions.
Participating in this group helped Mark and me develop deep and consistent friendships with couples. Common friendships became a priority in our marriage. Our times with couple friends resulted in strong memories that we may not have had if Mark had only his men friends and I had only my women friends.
Taking the next step—leading together
In The Safest Place on Earth, Larry Crabb pinpoints what many of us long to experience: "That cry from your heart is your longing to be part of a true church, to participate in spiritual community, to engage in spiritual conversations of worship with God and of co-journeying with others. You yearn for a safe place, a community of friends who are hungry for God."
Being hungry for God together is ultimately what bonds Mark and me to each other and to other couples. This is why we value the friendship, accountability, and insight other couples bring to our relationship.
By our eighth year of marriage, we were ready to lead others in the couples' group journey. Leading together brought a new marital challenge that allowed us to dive into each other's strengths and weaknesses.
We had to learn to understand each other's leadership and communication styles. Many nights were spent preparing for and debriefing how meetings went. We learned how to negotiate priorities, handle conflict, and keep God at the center of our personal and group spiritual goals.
Starting a couples' group
If you and your spouse want to connect with God, each other, and other couples on a deeper level, consider getting involved in or even starting a couples' small group. Here's how to get started.
Pray about it. Pray with your spouse about what you want from and are willing to give to a group. Ask God to guide you to specific people. Mark and I prayed and decided to go deeper with Mark's ministry team at church. During a ministry meeting, the two of us cast our vision to the team of 50. When four couples responded, we knew God was leading.
Discuss whom to invite. As part of developing your mutual vision, it's important to discuss whom you want to invite to your group. While you can grow and learn from all types of people, you need to feel comfortable so that you can become vulnerable with these couples. Think about the dynamic you're seeking and whether or not you want to include all who show interest or selectively interview potential couples.
Consider what you want from the group. Do you want to include other couples in the same life-stage with whom you can commiserate and grow? Or do you want to be broadened by including older/younger couples who will challenge you and make you reach outside your life-stage? Do you want to include: seekers as well as believers, couples with or without children, neighbors, members with whom you volunteer, or members who put high priority on spiritual growth?
The ideal number for a group is five couples. This is large enough to prevent awkward dynamics where couples pair up and separate in subgroups and it's small enough that each member has a chance to talk during group discussions.
Host an initial get-together. When you and your spouse are clear on the couples God is leading you to, invite them to join you for a potluck meal. You'll begin to discern how open they are to a group commitment. You may find at the initial invitation, people are excited about the prospect of joining your group. Yet, don't be surprised that when you actually get together and discuss logistics, some people who rsvp'd yes may not have time in their schedule. Mark and I had a couple who attended an initial meeting and realized the commute from their house to ours was just too far. They didn't want to make the time commitment on a regular basis.
Make the invitation. When you're ready to take the plunge, invite the couples to join your group. At your first meeting, you'll want to explain your vision so there are no surprises.
Mark and I talked about our vision for growing spiritually and relationally. We made it clear that we weren't looking to share a cup of coffee or start a book club. We wanted to dive deep. It was important to us that our group members desired community. This meant a commitment to consistent group attendance, Bible study, and a willingness to share life experiences. We sought couples who were open to the possibility of becoming 2:00 A.M. friends—people we could call in a crisis.
Set the meetings. Meeting twice a month for one to two years sets a group for connection. It's productive to have a certain amount of consistent structure to each meeting. For example, your two-hour meeting can include:
- 15-20 minutes of social time, giving members time to connect
- 45 minutes of a Bible study or book review
- 45-60 minutes of creative activities, such as sharing favorite worship songs or structured group games
- A time of prayer to help couples focus on God and group unity.
To increase familiarity and openness, plan occasional unstructured outings such as dinners, bowling, or game or movie nights.
Create a covenant. A covenant is a written, signed document that details the small group's vision and goals. It communicates each member's willingness to be accountable to the group. Covenants may include statements about conflict resolution, group priorities, study schedule, and frequency of meetings. We made confidentiality a strong priority in our group. It's important to communicate clearly your values up front; it becomes difficult to set expectations as time passes. For example, if group attendance is important, the covenant needs to reference this value. If one couple is disruptive by showing up late or missing meetings, the covenant is the agreement to which you can point.
Help couples feel comfortable. Developing an atmosphere of acceptance is critical. Marriage is about carefree joy as well as solemn contemplation. Think of creative, fun ways to learn about your new friends.
One of Mark's favorite times was when each person played ten minutes of his or her favorite movie and then explained why it was meaningful. We saw clips from movies ranging from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to Patton to 12 Angry Men. During that fun activity, we learned more about our group members and each other than in weeks of meetings. We could see light bulbs go on for the other spouses as well. "Even though we all teased you about showing the last ten minutes of The Wizard of Oz," Mark told me later, "your interpretation of the scene where Dorothy says goodbye to the Scarecrow reinforced to me how important relationships are to you."
The dynamic of having men and women in a group together brings challenges as well as benefits. Mark and
I would occasionally separate the men and women. We found that couples don't easily discuss certain topics such as sexual temptation with spouses present. We felt it was important to offer a forum for discussion where the opposite sex wasn't present.
Be transparent. Leaders who speak the truth in love, right from the beginning, encourage openness. That transparency moves the group toward greater risk taking and self-disclosure. Mark and I were most often the first to lead discussions that revealed personal information. We selected activities that took the conversation one notch deeper than the previous meeting. For example, we chose an activity where group members charted their life timeline and discussed key events in their lives. We were careful to respect each member and not lead the group into disclosure that was uncomfortable.
Clarify responsibilities. Having a proactive discussion about members' roles and responsibilities gets a group off to a good start. In some groups, leaders manage all logistics. Other leaders share the responsibilities of administration, planning, arranging outings, and caregiving.
When Mark and I started our small group, we had two other couples join us. It was an easy size group to manage, so we took on almost all responsibilities. During the second year, we had a third couple join. At that point, it became important to delegate more responsibility to keep the group fresh.
One of our leadership lessons learned was the importance of delegating responsibilities from day one of the group's formation. By not doing this early on, it became difficult to increase participation and gain couple ownership as the years went on. Whatever your leadership style, don't feel pressured to take on all decision making. If you have a facilitative versus authoritative mindset, you'll open the gateway for your group to participate actively and become more loyal.
When conflicts arise
Doing life together can get messy, especially the more vulnerable your group becomes. There may be challenging times when you need to confront group members. Expect that you will, but don't let this fact cause fear or deter you.
Mark and I made a pact that we'd never tackle conflict apart from each other. There were a handful of times when we needed to confront individual couples in the group, such as when one couple was consistently late and it began to affect the group dynamic. We made sure we did this in person, but separately from the large group.
Prior to a conversation we knew could get sticky, we would talk with our couples' ministry coach or pastor to ask for insight and to pray about how to present concerns to the group.
When you confront others, conversations won't always go smoothly. Make it a priority to be respectful, listen to team members, and move toward reconciliation. Mark and I found most of our conflicts were about miscommunication. Although we didn't always agree 100 percent about a situation, we rehearsed our feedback before talking with the couple. We tried to show that as husband and wife, we respect each other, yet we may have a different view or communication approach. We learned to clarify, clarify, clarify. It's important to be a team and not let your marriage get caught up in any unhealthy behaviors of a specific couple or the group.
God gave us a wonderful vehicle to learn more about his grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness through our experiences in couples' groups. We've learned so much from the men and women there. A nurturing and accepting couples' group is fertile ground for growing your marriage and experiencing deep community. Try it. You may find a fresh source of inspiration for your marriage and spiritual growth.
Marie Guthrie, a marketing and communications consultant and freelance writer, lives with her husband of 15 years in Illinois.
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