Bob and Crystal were a really nice married couple who joined our small group. At the first gathering for the semester at a restaurant, Bob seemed to jell with the guys, and Crystal jumped right in with the other women in their conversations. I was excited about what this new couple would contribute to the group, but the next week I noticed when it came time for the discussion part of group, Crystal would offer her thoughts, but Bob would always keep quiet. This was the same guy who was completely comfortable talking at the restaurant the week before but now had nothing to add. As this scenario continued for the next few weeks, I also observed that if the other guys contributed to the discussion, their thoughts were mostly superficial.
Doug and Wendy were another great couple who had been a part of our small group for a couple of years. For one of our studies, we decided as a group to do one that required a bit of reading in-between group meetings. This was a new type of study for us, with most of our previous studies being based on the sermons. The first week’s discussion went well, but I noticed Doug getting quieter as the weeks went on. I finally figured out that Doug wasn’t doing any of the reading and a lot of the other guys in the group weren’t as well.
These two scenarios brought to my attention a couple of issues with couples groups:
1. Couples groups will always struggle when it comes to being open and vulnerable. Most men will not open up in front of their spouses. They will talk about work or the game last night, but if there is a chance of vulnerability during the discussion, they yield to their wives every time.
2. Studies that require a lot of reading or homework will not work well in a couples group.
So, can couples groups be successful? In my twenty-plus years of experience leading them, I know they can be with a few adjustments and an intentional strategy.
Utilize the power of the subdivide.
Couples groups can be more effective if the discussion time is split into women and men subgroups. This doesn’t have to happen every week, but the group is much more likely to wrestle with the subject matter if they have opportunities to be open with others of their same gender. For complete openness, it’s important to stipulate that what is discussed in those subgroups must stay confidential. There is nothing worse than a guy opening up to the other guys and then having something he said brought up later for prayer when the group is back together. He has to know that the other guys in the group respect his openness by keeping some things confidential.
Start micro groups.
Couples groups can also be more effective when the members are connected to smaller, gender-based groups. There is openness and accountability in same-sex groups that is not achievable when discussion ensues in a mixed-gender group. Here are three reasons to cultivate same-gender micro groups:
1. We need natural places to find godly examples and mentors to follow. The best space for those relationships to organically develop is in a micro group.
2. Transformation can only occur alongside accountability. For real change to take place in a man’s life, he needs a group of brothers to hold him accountable to those changes. He can too easily hide behind his wife in a married couples group.
3. Same gender groups can be intergenerational. Most small groups are divided by stage of life or location demographics. We have young couples groups, married-without-kids groups, empty nester groups, and so on. While these groups are important, we are missing something critical when we do not have the influence that older and younger generations can provide.
Choose the right kind of study.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center survey of adult reading habits concluded that “women are more likely than men to read books,” and noted that 32% of men (versus only 23% of women) surveyed said that they hadn’t read a single book in the past year.1
Knowing that research shows that men read a lot less than women should help us when it comes to choosing a study for a couples group. For example, look for studies that don’t have a lot of homework outside of the group time; however, a guided daily devotional component, like what is in the “Daily Discipleship Guide,” can be important for individual spiritual growth and for content in the micro groups.
It’s also important to have a balanced curriculum plan that encourages spiritual next steps while also addressing felt needs for men and women. You can find an example of one here.
Leading couples’ small groups can be frustrating at times but also extremely rewarding when utilizing an intentional strategy of subdividing, forming micro groups, and choosing the right studies.
CHRIS SURRATT (@ChrisSurratt) is the discipleship and small groups specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources, a ministry consultant and coach with more than twenty years of experience, and the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group. He is also a cohost of the weekly podcast, Group Answers.
1. Andrew Perrin, “Book Reading 2016,” Pew Research Center, September 1, 2016, accessed February 18, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/.