Over the years, I've been in several FHE lesson exchange groups with a myriad of different people. Each one was different and had their own "personality", but I have found that there are certain common elements that are the likeliest to result in happy participants. Here are a few tidbits I have learned over the years.
First, you need a strong leader.
You will need someone who is excited about family home evenings and who is willing to take the effort to make the group successful. They will need to be able to call a planning meeting, send email updates regularly, communicate expectations, enforce the deadline, and, in general, keep on top of keeping the group running smoothly.
Second, set up your expectations and make sure everyone clearly understands them. (see below for specific things to include in your expectations)
I think many people are afraid to take charge in a situation like this and don't want to act bossy, but I absolutely believe that it's the single most important thing you can do to make sure that people are happy with their experience in the group. Call it being a benevolent dictator.
It's not about telling people exactly how to do things, but rather letting them know what the expectations are so that everyone is on the same page. In loosely structured groups where specific guidelines aren't given, you tend to get a broad spectrum of quality. Some people will knock themselves out with lots of laminated visuals and hours of research and others will print some outline off the internet the night before with a 1-inch fuzzy picture. It isn't really fair for either participant and the person who did little work will feel guilty, while the ones who put in hours and hours of work will feel gypped. Guilty or gypped--neither is great for repeat participation or happy members.
You can't assume that everyone has the same idea about what entails a good lesson, so it is essential that you communicate it from the VERY FIRST MEETING. Type up the expectations in a concise manner and distribute them to every member. Make sure new members receive them before deciding whether to join or not. (SEE BELOW FOR SPECIFIC THINGS TO CONSIDER IN CREATING THE GUIDELINES)
Third, make the deadline firm--without exceptions.
I may come off as heartless on this one, but I've been in enough exchanges when I say absolutely that the deadline needs to be firm. Of course, there will people who have conflicts and may not be able to attend the exchange, but they will need to make the effort to get their lessons there ahead of time (and to pick up their lessons afterward). If someone does not have their lessons done in time for the exchange or does not make the effort to get their lessons there DO NOT, I repeat do NOT, start making accommodations or holding lessons or hold someone responsible for distributing theirs later. It sounds simple at the time, but trying to track people down at a later time to distribute late lessons is always a pain and is completely inconsiderate to the people who did it what it took to make the deadline.
My experience shows that if the deadline is loose, there will always be someone (often the same person time after time) who inconveniences everyone with their procrastination/lack of preparation. You do not need this extra stress in your life and it sets a precedent that will be very difficult to keep up with.
If you simply say that the lessons absolutely MUST be there the night of the exchange or the person does not get to participate you will save everyone a whole lot of trouble. Simple as that. It's not cold-hearted, but rather fair and compassionate for the rest of the group who has made the effort to get it done on time (and frankly for the procrastinator who knows it's a firm deadline). In the groups I participated in, where this was expected, there was never, in 3+ years, a person who missed getting their lessons there.
If there is someone in the group who has a true emergency (like a death in the family or a large medical issue), then consider asking the members of the group to donate their lessons as a service, rather than waiting for that person to recover or excluding them from the group.
Finally, enjoy the lessons and use them.
Consider them a treasure of take good care of them. Find a filing system, so you can find what topic you're looking for quickly. Be cautious about loaning them out. I've learned this the hard way. If you do loan them out, consider a checking out system where you keep track of the person (and date) of when the lesson was lent. I'm still sad about some of the lessons that were never returned to me and I have no memory of who I loaned them to several years ago.
I've heard people say that their kids outgrew the lesson packets, but I'm a firm believer that these lessons can be used well into the teen years. Now that we have a wide range of ages (5-15) we still use the lesson visuals and outlines as a starting point and often finish with a whole new focus. I've used parts of lessons for primary lessons, sharing times, and even YW lessons. Visual aids, object lessons, and real life applications never go out of style. I plan on keeping mine for many years and passing them on to my own kids someday. :)
More tidbits and some things to consider when constructing your expectations:
What to include?
What to include is up to you and the personality of your group. I've been in groups where people wanted shorter, simpler lessons and other groups where it was expected to jump through rings of fire to participate. My favorite group was a happy medium. We had a communicated expectation that each lesson would at least include a story (or scripture story) with visuals and some kind of activity/game/object lesson with visuals. Visuals would be colored and laminated. Lesson outline would be typed and in a sheet protector. Small pieces would be kept in ziploc bags. Black and white originals (see below) would be included. It took time and effort, but at the end they were well-rounded lessons and still among my most loved and well-used lessons.
I have found that an elementary school focus is about right. They can be simplified for preschool aged kids and discussed in more detail for teens. Lessons could also include enrichment ideas for ways to adapt to younger and older groups.
B & W originals?
Again, totally up to your group, but I really like having the black and white originals. I've had pieces get lost or destroyed by a young child, and I liked being able to go back and recreate it.
Laminated or not?
It's up to you and your group, but I feel like having them laminated as part of the exchange is something you won't regret. Some people will have to borrow laminators to make it happen, but after putting so much effort into creating the lessons, it's really, really, really nice to have them already durable and totally ready to go.
This sounds silly, but if it matters to you, then communicate this. I was in a group where it was required that things were colored the color they were supposed to be, rather than people copying black and white visuals onto colored cardstock. Although it is more work and expense to make color copies (or hand color them), I actually really liked this requirement, because the visuals are way more fun and interactive for the kids when they're colored correctly. Again, if you don't communicate this specifically then be prepared to accept a variety of ways.
Do you want all visuals to be printed on cardstock for increased durability? What about outlines? Tell them what is expected. I personally recommend hands-on visuals always be printed on cardstock (then laminated). Outlines can go either way.
How to store?
Manila envelopes are probably the easiest to file and having them be able to be clasped shut is nice for not losing pieces.
Parts of the lesson with small pieces should be stored in small ziplocs and/or in sheet protectors.
It's nice to have this be a part of the requirement. Make sure labels include the title of the lesson, what parts are inside, what materials need to be gathered, and who created the lesson.
A leader should be sending regular emails, reminding them of the upcoming date and giving people encouragement and enthusiasm. I have found that reminder emails are huge for conveying the seriousness of the due date and making it harder for people to "forget" what they signed up for. Send a weekly email starting a month before the deadline and at least one or two the same week reminding them of the upcoming meeting.
How often to hold the exchanges?
I have found that quarterly meetings are the best for keeping happy participants. More often than that can get overwhelming quickly and less often and people get out of the routine. I liked February, May, September, and early November. It misses the summertime and major holidays and if that's what you always do, people will know to gauge their time accordingly.
How many people in a group?
I think anywhere from 6-12 participants is about perfect. I'd hesitate going higher than that and I would consider making it a set number, so people know how many lessons to plan on for the future. I often was working on lessons several months in advance and I really liked knowing how many to count on. Make a waiting list when your group is full.
Do you want it to be whatever random topic people think of? Or based on the church FHE manual? Lessons from my index? :)
Each group will have its own preference, but I think you get a higher quality when people are allowed to choose a topic that they're feeling passionately about (or feel inspired to share). Yes, it's possible to get repeats this way, but I don't mind having a couple lessons on the same topic from different perspectives, so I can choose the focus that I want to share with my family. The few times that I have received lessons that were very similar, I would just give away the superfluous one as a gift.
Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have any specific questions about starting your own group. It is something that was a huge part of my life at one point and I love to share my ideas of which things worked and which didn't.
What is an FHE Lesson Exchange Group and Why Should I Start One?
Making and Storing FHE Lessons
A sample set of FHE Lesson Exchange Group Guidelines.