How to Know Whether You’re Teaching or Just Talking

Talking or Teaching |

Teaching a small group of women can bring about some tremendous good. We can make connections that help someone feel like she belongs. Those same connections can also have eternal potential when that person begins a relationship with Jesus.

But one of the biggest mistakes I see is when the leader is the only one talking.

Nothing frustrates me more than to see a group of eager faces slowly turn into expressionless ones. They may be nodding, but there’s a good chance they’re not listening. They’ve tuned out because you’re not teaching, you’re talking.

So is there really a difference between teaching and talking?

You bet your listening guide there is.

The difference between teaching and talking

An ancient Greek philosopher once said that a teacher can’t teach anyone anything, she can only make them think. This is what we want to do when we’re leading our small groups.

A leader removes the two-way communication between herself and the rest of her group when she’s the only one talking. You don’t know whether anything you’re saying is getting through or making a difference to your listeners.

Sometimes this approach is intentional. If you’ve got a Chatty Kathy (or five) in your circle, allowing conversation may feel risky. But I think this choice does more harm than good, which we’ll discuss later.

When a leader is teaching, she talks, but she also listens. She facilitates. She looks for every connection opportunity she finds and uses it. A great leader watches for signs that her group is connecting with her and each other. She notices whether the material makes sense. After all, her ultimate goal is to see women leave wanting to learn more.

I’m a big believer that teaching doesn’t just happen with the one holding the lesson outline. Every member of your small group has something they can contribute to help grow in God’s Word together.

But it only happens when you as a leader are ready to teach, and not just talk. So let’s talk about what that looks like.

5 Signs You’re Talking and Not Teaching

1. You consistently let your group out late.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves of a speaker or a small group leader. But before anyone sends me an email, let me say that I don’t hold the Holy Spirit to a stopwatch. When ministry happens, we don’t stop just because the clock says we should.

HOWEVER – realistically speaking, that’s not going to occur every week. The more likely scenario of a group that habitually runs over time is because of a teacher who hasn’t planned.

2. The conversation has no flow.

I like to think of small group time as a conversation where people share and people grow. The leader introduces the topic and shares some important points. From there, she creates opportunities for discussion where women naturally engage.

Our natural tendency is to avoid silence when we’re in groups. This is why so many leaders will fall into talking more than teaching. What happens if you ask a question and no one answers? Most leaders don’t want to go there.

But what happens if you ask a question and you give no one time to respond?

The flow stops before it can start. Your group doesn’t get a chance to think about what you’ve asked, much less answer. Eventually, people just stop thinking and wait for you to move on to your next thought.

Try this: If you’re a leader who feels uncomfortable with silence, let me encourage you to practice embracing it. A silence that stretches out is awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. But if you allow a few seconds, someone will speak up. And if no one speaks, then repeat your question or rephrase it, and allow a little more time for silence.

Give women a chance to think, and then to speak.

3. You always have the last word.

This happens for a few reasons. A leader hasn’t dealt with her own insecurities in a positive way. She feels pressure from the title she’s wearing. She thinks she needs to always be the one who has the final statement on a point.

But it’s ok to let someone else share a beautiful thought on whatever you’re talking about without you feeling the need to add 5 more minutes of your own thoughts after she speaks. This is especially true when what she said totally summed up the point you wanted to make in the first place.

So thank her for her contribution and move on. Your ladies are still learning regardless of who has the final word. Even better, they’re also learning each of them has things to say that can encourage others. Just think of it as leaders-in-training opportunities.

4. You don’t ask questions.

This one is a sure sign you’re talking more than teaching. If you’re the only one talking, it’s  going to be very hard to gauge how well your group understands what you’re saying.

But what if asking a question is like inviting your kids to go in and take out every toy in their toy box – and you already know how messy that will be to clean up and to close?

So let me ask another question – would you rather have a group that looks like people live there or a group where it looks like people don’t? People are blessed when you risk a little mess. Or does the importance of order take priority over the chance of a little chaos?

Never asking questions limits the feedback you need as a teacher and the engagement of your ladies.

We can talk about different types of questions you can ask and how to handle Chatty Kathy’s in another post but if you’re not asking questions in your group, please start! Use them in your group time if it’s not too large. Or take time for breakouts and hand out questions for 3 to 4 women to answer among themselves.

Questions help us think. The opportunity to respond helps us stay engaged in what we’re learning.

5. You ask a question, and no one answers.

We’ve touched a little bit on this already but one of the most common reasons leaders or teachers will give for not asking questions is because “no one answers when I do.”

Well, that’s kind of like saying I’m going to stop offering vegetables to my child because she won’t eat them anyway.

I know those veggies are good for my kid. I also know questions and engaging conversation is good for the ladies in my small group. So if I don’t try, neither one is going to happen. But if I keep trying, chances are good that I will see some great results.

One way to avoid the Deep Silence of No Answers is to make sure your group knows up front that you’re going to ask questions, and you expect answers. I’ve seen a much higher participation level when I’ve set this expectation in small groups I’ve led compared to when I haven’t.

Sometimes women need permission for speaking freely, at least the polite ones. So tell your ladies ahead of time that you don’t just want their input, you need it. And don’t start with the deep theologically-probing ones. Icebreakers or light-hearted questions aren’t just great for making women feel more comfortable with each other – they’re also great for warming ladies up to engage in discussion.

Remember: Pay attention to the flow and watch your small group grow.


5 Signs You’re Teaching and Not Just Talking

1. In your prep time, you spend the same amount of time planning your questions as you do planning your points and illustrations.

When you use questions in your small group, you help people go deeper, listen longer and retain more because their brains actively engage in what’s happening.

Some quick tips on what kinds of questions you can use:

Questions that offer variety. Make sure your questions offer a range of levels. You want both your theological scholar types as well as your fairly new (or non) believers to feel like they can participate.

Questions that invite personal thoughts on scripture. Some leaders worry that asking this type of question might incorrectly stress personal opinion over the importance of biblical understanding. But asking this type of question encourages active thinking and practice for discovering what God’s Word tells us. By all means, teach your ladies how to understand context and word study. Just don’t discourage them from taking the first steps to think and share out loud what a verse means when they read it.

Questions that ask for personal application and experience. One of my favorite moments when I’m speaking somewhere is the sharing time at the end of the event. When a woman shares her story, she isn’t just sharing for herself. She’s allowing others to realize they’re not alone.

Something special happens when we realize we’re not alone with our problems and challenges. Our hearts soften, our ears open, and we are much more ready to receive whatever God wants us to have. So ask questions like “Have you ever experienced a time when…” or “Have you ever felt the way [this Biblical character] must have felt?”

Sometimes God uses the stories of others so a woman will pay closer attention to His story.

2. You use personal examples of when things went wrong, not just the examples of when everything went right.

People will always respond more quickly to the real you than to the polished you. We learn from our mistakes. We don’t always learn when everything is going right. So don’t be afraid to share about the times when things didn’t go so well, but don’t share just for the sake of sharing. Make sure your personal examples illustrate the scripture or biblical truth you’re teaching.

3. You welcome other women’s input instead of feeling threatened.

I once asked a pastor friend who was also a college professor to share a tip with me about speaking. He said, “you’ll know you’re a speaker when you’re less worried about what a group thinks about your speaking and more concerned for what they learn.”

That’s great advice and as leaders, we should be less concerned about what we’ll bring to our groups than what they’ll leave with. That’s the sign of a great teacher.

So it’s completely ok if another woman says what you were going to say. You know why? Because that means you’ve engaged her in the discussion and she’s paying attention. That’s a WIN!


4. You start and end on time.

A great teacher understands that less is more when it comes to her small group. Did you know it’s a lot harder to speak a message in 5 minutes than in 30? That’s because it requires a whole lot more time on the front end deciding what the most important points are to share.

When you start on time and end on time, you’re communicating a couple of things to your group: 1) You respect their time. We’re all busy and the ladies who have come to your group are making time to be there when they could be doing 20 other things. 2) You’re willing to prepare before you meet. Too much content for a designated amount of time is a classic sign of a leader who hasn’t done her homework.

Sometimes it’s not about the amount of content but how engaged your group is with the material you’re teaching. This can definitely happen – and a great teacher recognizes that her group can learn just as much from the discussion as they might from that final point she didn’t get to share. Let it go or save it for next week. Trust that God’s orchestrated your time together in the first place.

5. You see consistent growth in your ladies from week to week.

One of my favorite things to see is when women can recall things from a previous lesson to make a point about a current one.  This is a great sign that they’re learning, they’re paying attention, and they’re engaging in your time together. And isn’t that the ultimate goal?

So that’s my list and my top 5 signs of what a talker looks like and what a teacher looks like. What would you add? What would you agree or disagree with? Share with me in the comments!


Want to grow as a leader? Wish you had someone who could walk alongside you and give you pointers and insights in your women’s ministry, Bible study, or small group? Sign up for a free discovery session with me!


1 Comment

  1. paynefulponderings on Thursday, August 3, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    After reading this I’m “homesick” for the Bible study I used to teach. Yes, teach. Your post contains valuable information. This format worked well for me. But, I don’t live in that town anymore.

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