This week Hope Cleveland, seasoned small group leader and professional educator, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to talk engaging with kids in small groups.


Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Hope Cleveland, seasoned small group leader and professional educator, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to talk engaging with kids in small groups… including imaginary conversations and how teachers are like unicorns.

We begin by allowing Kellen to exhaust all his Spanish in a five-second greeting. (Someone get the man Rosetta Stone.)

Our trusty trio is coming to you once again from Orange Conference! We’ve gathered friends from all over the country to talk kid min—and today, we’re taking time to focus on small groups.

Small groups aren’t just a thing you do in your ministry. They are the MOST important thing that you can do in your ministry. (Mike will fight you on this.)

Small groups aren’t an accessory to your church – they’re a necessity.

Gina and Kellen tag team this, so we’re not sure who wins the quote.

Small group is where we take what a kid has learned in Large Group about God’s Word and apply it to their life, their Monday morning, what happens in their world outside church.

That’s where Hope Cleveland comes in! So let’s meet Hope:

Hope currently serves as a small group leader (SGL) for a group of junior girls, with 21 on her roster. Question in the room: Is that a small group, or is that a youth ministry?

FUN FACT: Mike’s daughter, Kennedy, is in Hope’s second-grade class.

Kennedy’s in the recording room, too. Hi Kennedy!

Hope was Kennedy’s first-grade teacher, as well, and “looped up” with the entire class. It’s similar to the practice of moving an SGL up with the same group each year.

Bottom line: When it comes to helping kids of all ages process and make connections, Hope is a real-world expert. She’s mastered the art of group talk for kids.

(Shameless plug: The Art of Group Talk: How to Lead Better Conversations with Kids

1. What’s the most important thing an SGL can do to get kids to open up?

Hope: One of the most important things is creating a really safe space. Get your group together just to get to know each other. Build a relationship first. At the end of the day, they’re kids and they like to do things that are active.

It’s about getting them to engage with things that are interesting in their lives. As a teacher, I get to see those things since I’m with them all day. As an SGL, it can be hard to remember what it was like at that age, unless you have kids that age.

Gina: What’s a good resource for an SGL who needs to find what a specific age group is into?

Mike: Google can be your best friend. The Phase Project.

Kellen: One word that came to my mind was just: LISTEN. As adults, we forget to actually listen to what kids have to say. That’s the best way to learn.

As of the moment of this recording, kids like Fortnite. (They might not by the time you hear this.) I don’t get it. But when I listen, I know it’s important to them. And if I do a dance from the game, they think I’m the coolest person ever.

Gina: That sets you apart from other adults. You’re the one who stops to listen and make eye contact. To ask questions.

2. How do you PREPARE as a Small Group Leader?

Hope: Read your email! It sounds really basic, but it’s so easy to overlook an email. Read the questions. Have imaginary conversations with yourself of what you think your students may answer. It can prepare you in the best way. Take that time and rehearse what you’re going to say. Prepare for the best, the worst, rabbit trails.

Mike has imaginary conversations frequently, but unfortunately, they’re always retroactively. He vows to get better on the front end with his imaginary conversations.

 Gina: I love the exercise of imaginary conversations. It’s such a great tool. Where could this potentially lead? How can I prepare for these rabbit trails and pitfalls and steer in the right direction.

Kellen: If you work with boys, “fart” and “poop” will come up, and you have to know how to navigate those two words.

Kellen loves this podcast because he can say these things and no one blinks. Until Hope calls him on it.

Mike: Preparation is huge. Life gets busy, but at least glance at your email. Be mentally prepared to walk in there, because you never know what’s going to fly.

Some people say: I’m just going to walk in there and let the Spirit move.

Kellen: As a person who can think on the fly, that’s just – can I say it? – LAZY.

Mikes: The Spirit moves through preparation. We’re not saying hours; it can be minutes. If I skim it when I get the email, then I can be thinking about it throughout the day and in my prayer time. Walking in blindly will limit the depth of your conversations, because you are going to be trying to make it up on the fly. It’s like a communicator getting up and reading directly from the notes. You’re not making eye contact, you’re not down on their level. It disengages because you’re busy looking at your lesson.

Hope: One last thing: Pray for your small group. Whether it’s on the drive on your way or when you’re sitting on your carpet circle when everyone’s about to come in, pray for your few.

Gina: Your prayers are more targeted when you know what’s coming in the lesson.

Mike: Moving from a prayer of desperation to prayers of preparation. You can be so specific and intentional.

Kellen: Through your prayers comes inspiration.

Desperation to preparation to inspiration!

3. How do you CONNECT as a Small Group Leader?

Hope: Creating a time to connect means creating a social time. Everyone comes in at different times. It could be a puzzle you’re putting together. Something that helps them leave what they’re coming from. (Pre-church arguments!)

Gina: What a sign of empathy to recognize that a kid may need that. They need something that allows them to separate from what they just walked out of, especially if it was a difficult interaction.

Mike went to therapy after his parents divorced when he was a kid. In the first session, the therapist tried to ask questions. Mike gave one-word answers. He thought it was a waste of money. The second session, therapist had a portable Nerf basketball hoop. Mike was into BBall at the time, and they started shooting baskets together. Before Mike knew it, he was opening up.

Gina: It’s easy to assume as a SGL that the reason why a social activity exists is just to keep the kids busy until it’s time for the show to begin. There’s a real opportunity to leverage. While you’re doing this together, you’re asking questions and connecting to the kids—and helping them connect to each other.

Kellen: Notice the moments where you can ask questions to lead to other questions.

Introverted kids in his ministry often go over to the Legos. If you sit with them and help build, you can begin to ask deeper questions.

Mike: When you’re prepared, you can ask questions that begin to connect to the day’s lesson.

4. How do you get to KNOW your kids?

Hope: When you know kids, you know if there’s something sensitive that will affect certain students. Know them, their families, activities, teachers, friends. These things are huge in their lives.

Getting to know the nooks and crannies of the things in their lives will help you connect.

Gina: Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was an app that Small Group Leaders could use to track details about their kids?

We could call it the Lead Small App!  (

Cue lights, whistles, streamers, confetti, general shock and awe. Because, yes, the Lead Small App exists. And it is a thing of beauty, people.

 Gina: My brain is the worst parking place ever. I will forget details about a kid’s dog’s name and what sport they play. To have a place to record that and keep track of them is such a great tool.

Hope: It’s very easy to “add a member” and include their details and a picture. You can a note that “Mason has a baseball game Tuesday at 6.” You can pray and follow up.

Mike: When you start a new job or volunteer role, sometimes they ask for your basic info, but also favorite treats, drink, etc. If you’ve got that info, then when someone is having a rough day, you can take them not just something, but their favorite something.

5. What are other practical ways to get to know your kids?—especially when kids are coming in late and it feels like herding cats from Small Group to Large Group and back.

Hope: I get to know kids by letting them share with me or the class/group. You have to know not just what they like, but what type of kid they are. Some kids will always want to share. Some students are less comfortable with that.

It’s easier to talk to the extroverts, but as an SGL, it’s important to know and connect your introverted kids. Maybe you write notes to them. If a kid is introverted, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to share; it means they want to share and connect with you in a different way. I let kids free draw a lot and explain it to me.

Last week in the K room, a leader pointed out a kid in the corner who was having a rough time. Kellen went over to hang out with him. Instead of trying to get the kid to go interact, he just sat down in the corner and asked what was up and talked to him on his level, quietly.

Kellen: It’s important to meet them on their level. You only know that by knowing the kid.

Mike: If you’re asking a question like “What is God like?”—in a conversation, I wouldn’t be able to give a great answer. But if you let me express that a different way, I love that. We should strive to allow kids to be able to express in their own way.

Hope: Those little deep thinkers may be more introverted, but maybe they’re really artistic. Kennedy gives me some of the most creative, the most detailed work. I learned on Day One, she’s not going to do well if I call on her to come up. I shouldn’t force that.

Get to know your kids and meet them on their level.

Mike assumed since Kennedy was introverted like him, she’d also do great on stage like him. But she doesn’t. She shuts down. That’s not the way she’s wired.

Hope: But you put her with a few safe friends, and she’ll share all day long about Kiwi the Cat.

Mike confesses they have a menagerie: a cat, two guinea pigs and a dog. Mike offers to bring Kiwi the Cat on the podcast, but Kellen and Gina are both allergic. No go.

 6. How do you ENGAGE with your kids?

Hope: It’s really easy to be on your cell phone and distracted, especially if your few aren’t talking to you. Look them in the eyes when you’re talking to them. Imagine… Flappers? Shields? Earmuffs? Blinders! (Yes! That’s the word!) When they are speaking, they want to be heard and validated. Really give them your attention.

Mike: Look for ways to engage kids outside of Small Group. Showing up in their world at a recital or ball game is a big deal. It’s a “wow” moment for the kids.

Hope: They think I’m like a unicorn. I’ve been asked if I sleep at school.

Speaking less and listening more will help you engage with them. The 80/20 rule. You speak 20% and they speak 80%. Or maybe it will look like 60/40 with your class. You speak less and control less. Don’t be afraid of silence, too. In teaching world, it’s called “wait time.” That’s hard for an extrovert, but good things happen in that silence.

Fifteen minutes later… um, NO.

Gina: Resist the urge to answer the question you just asked. Allow for some silence.

Kellen: As per Hamilton: “Talk less, smile more.”

That wait time is important because you’ll see the little brains churning. If kids give a one-word answer (Jesus!), follow up. “Why? Why do you think ______?” After you ask a question, give them a second to process and put it in the context of their lives.

Mike: My kids love getting stuff in the mail, like a letter or postcard from their SGL. You can even write a few cards right after small group time on Sunday.

Gina: Going back to what Hope said about showing up at a kid’s baseball game. My temptation is to think, “If I’ve got a roster of twenty kids, I can’t do that for all of them!” As a ministry leader, I have to remember to challenge my SGLs to show up in this way and encourage them that they don’t have to do it for every kid. But do it for one. That still makes a significant impact. Take the pressure off.

Hope: A lot of that is communication. Kids do understand you can’t come to everything. They are resilient. I couldn’t make it to a kid’s play, but I was honest and explained. I asked to hear all about it and for the mom to send a video.


If you’re a Children’s Ministry Leader:

Set aside one hour this week to review your training for Small Group Leaders. Are you encouraging them to Prepare, Connect, Know and Engage with the kids in their small groups? Then consider one or more of these steps:

  1. Forwarding this podcast to your SGLs
  2. Using the Lead Small App (if you don’t already)
  3. Providing your SGLs with a copy of The Art of Group Talk
  4. Adding this content to your next volunteer training

If you’re a Small Group Leader:

Consider one of these steps this week:

  1. Download the Lead Small App
  2. Write a note to a kid in your small group and mail it
  3. Show up at an event for one of the kids in your small group