Bill Donahue on Turning Meetings into Moments

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Bill Donahue has been one of the most influential voices in small group ministry for almost two decades.  As a key player in the grouplife ministry at Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association for 18 years, Bill was involved in many of the developments that have influenced so many of us.

I recently had an opportunity to ask him for some insight into the leadership secret that helps turn meetings into moments.  Here’s how it went:

Mark: Building a Church of Small Groups has been a real source of inspiration for many of us over the last 10 years.  One of the sections that continually pops up in conversation explores how to turn routine meetings into moments.  Why do you think the idea of turning meetings into moments has been so important to so many people?

Bill: People are tired of having meetings that seem to be trivial, scripted or just too routine. And many people think that a “group” = “meeting” instead of seeing the full range of community experiences and relationships that could exist.

I consider a group meeting successful, regardless of content and format, if people meet God and one another in significant, meaningful ways.  That means we leaders must guide a meeting in such a way that creates an environment for spiritual growth, and a place for connecting with God at the personal and group level.

Mark: You point out that Jesus led his group into spiritual community by creating moments.  Can you give an example of a time when Jesus created a moment?

Bill: Jesus created a moment when he picked up the towel and washed their feet.  It caught them off guard and challenged them to think out of the box.  My wife and I were leading a group and she placed a pile of small rocks in the middle of the room.  Each had a character quality or attribute of God on it.  Then she asked, “Complete the sentence: ‘As I look back at the week I just experienced, I am so glad that God is _________________.’”

As people answered she invited them to take a rock that had that quality or attribute.  Then we discussed who God was, worshiped using a CD, and then she invited people to take a stone home with them to place on a desk at work or some visible place as a reminder.  It created a very powerful and memorable moment around God’s character.

Mark: There are also times when an opportunity to “seize a moment” presents itself.  What did that look like for Jesus?

Bill: As Christ was teaching in the upper room (John 13:33ff) we see he mentions his departure, then talks about love.  But the disciples are not listening.  They are still stunned by his reference to his leaving.  So instead of asking, “Tell us more of this love,” Peter says, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus, instead of saying, “Hey—I was talking about love!” sees they are worried.  So, in John 14:1ff he begins to comfort them.  He has seized a moment of fear and anxiety, and addressed it.

When leading a group, try to remain aware of not just the content you are discussing, but the reaction you are seeing – body language, tone of voice, distracted comments.  These may indicate that there are other things going on.  Step into that moment and see what the Holy Spirit is doing.  Perhaps there is fear, or misunderstanding, or some other theme that is in conflict with the content of the discussion.

Mark: And then, there are times when Jesus marked moments.  In the book you refer to the last supper, when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” providing an indelible reminder of his death every time they ever celebrated it again.  How can we mark moments in that way?

Bill: Marking moments is simple.  Take some time to pause and reflect on the work of God in your group.  Create a celebration for what he has been doing, either at the meeting or at a favorite restaurant.  Or pause and pray to give thanks for a new insight, a heart that has just opened for the first time, or a relational risk someone has taken.

You can ask people to write on a large sheet of paper the work they see God doing in the group.  Allow each person time to write some thoughts or draw pictures.  Then allow each one to describe the words or images, naming the specific work of God that has been done in the context of the group.  It will become a memory, a tangible way to chronicle God’s grace and goodness.  Memories matter!

Mark: This is great stuff, Bill!  Thank you so much for sharing with us all!


You really need to subscribe to Bill’s blog and follow him on twitter or connect with him on Facebook.

His books, Building a Church of Small Groups, The 7 Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry and Walking the Small Group Tightrope (with Russ Robinson), along with Leading Life-Changing Small Groups and Coaching Life-Changing Small Group Leaders (with Greg Bowman) have been essential reading for all of us.

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  1. Mike on February 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    What Bill Donahue is talking about reminds me a lot of the kinds of facilitated meetings I conduct in a business setting.

    This line got me, “try to remain aware of not just the content you are discussing, but the reaction you are seeing.”

    Thanks for doing all that must be done to put together an interview like this!

    Keep creating…defining moments,

  2. Anonymous on February 10, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Thanks Mike! It’s all the same, isn’t it? Otherwise, there’s not really anything memorable about our meetings, no matter what the purpose.