4 Questionable Practices in Small Groups

By Allen White

Photo by Lina Mikuckiene. Used with permission.

Photo by Lina Mikuckiene. Used with permission.

In leading small groups and tracking trends over the last 25 years, I’ve done all kinds of things to recruit leaders and get people connected into groups. Some of those things, I had to apologize for. Others, I simply avoided from the start. While this post is not meant to cast aspersions on other well-meaning practitioners, it might be time to slow down and rethink some of the things we’ve been doing.

1. Telling People, “Your small group will be your new best friends.”

Sometimes in our zeal of connecting people into community, we overreach and make unrealistic promises about small groups. Let’s face it, we’ve all been in small groups. Some of those groups rocked. Some of those groups don’t rock. The more random the method in forming small groups, the less likely people will become friends, let alone, close friends. I’ve actually had to apologize for this one.

Maybe a better way to say this is that prospective group members will meet some friendly people in groups. That’s a safer bet. But, you can even go one better.

Encourage people to form a group with the friends they already have. This way they are doing something intentional about their spiritual growth and getting together with their friends. This is much better than forsaking their current friends for a group of possible future friends. After all, why reconnect people who are already connected?

Now there may be some new folks in your church who honestly don’t know anyone. People who have just moved into the community or are new to your church might not get invited into a group. These tend to be the exceptions and not the rule. Make allowances for these exceptions, but don’t oversell groups in the process.

2. Recruiting Leaders by saying, “Hosting a group is simple.”

Fourteen years ago, we were introduced to a new strategy to recruit hosts instead of leaders. The idea was that if people would open their home, provide some refreshments, and push play, then they can very easily host a group.

Then, we ran into an issue — everybody is normal until you get to know them (Thanks, John Ortberg for that line). Once people got into groups and got to know each other, we discovered there were a few problems. These issues went well beyond pouring coffee and pushing play. Now, what do we do?

The issue really comes down to how well the hosts were prepared and what kind of backup you’ve provided. Starting with the first briefing or orientation the new host attends, they need to understand when something comes up, they will have a coach to turn to, and not just a phone number. They will also receive on-going training, and not just jump into the deep end and have fun! Something as simple as sending out a short training video on a regular basis to answer common questions or to direct hosts in where to turn for help makes for suitable backup.

The risk of not offering coaching, training, and help is hosts who end up with a bad experience, no group, and no plans for hosting a group again. These causalities can and should be avoided at all costs. Regardless of the whether the church has dozens, hundreds or thousands of new groups, it’s necessary to effectively support them. Otherwise, you end up with the dilemma of disposable groups.

3. Believing New Leaders can Survive Without a Coach.

One of the biggest factors in the failure of new groups is discouragement. The friends who a new leader invites can’t join the group. Twenty people signed up, but only a few showed up. The enemy beats the new leaders up and convinces them they aren’t good enough to lead. Discouragement is devastating to new leaders.

Most new leaders aren’t going to pick up the phone and seek out encouragement. In fact, if they did, they might feel they were confessing a fault rather than seeking help. But, a coach who checks in on them regularly is far more likely to hear the new leader’s need first and respond. The new leaders will be more open with their coaches, since they have a relationship.

Building a coaching structure is the real work of small group ministry. Regardless of the size of your church, if you follow the principles of Exodus 18, you will have more groups and better leaders. Neglecting new leaders is unwise.

4. Inviting People to Join Groups, then Making Them the Leader.

Years ago I came across a strategy where you put prospective members in a room, went through a series of exercises, then at the end of the evening, groups were formed including a newly designated leader chosen by the group. I’ll be honest. The first time I heard this idea, I put the materials in the bottom drawer of my desk and didn’t look at them again for three years!

While I am a huge advocate of inviting any willing soul to lead a group or to do a study with their friends, I have to admit, this idea of walking in as prospective members and walking out as group leaders makes me uneasy. I understand people need to be challenged to step out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that putting them on the spot is the best way to do it.

In all of our efforts to recruit leaders and connect people into groups, I believe we need to be careful and not cross a line into questionable practices. There are plenty of strategies which will achieve better results that are more forthright. And, of course, launching new groups without a coach is just a bad idea.

There is huge potential for groups and group leaders in your church. And, I will admit, I am a big fan of anyone who will take risks to make that happen. But, rather than focusing on a short term win, we need to look at the long game. If someone gets burned in a group experience early on, how likely will they try it again? Let’s keep from over-promising and under-delivering in groups. Group life is so amazing, there really is no need for shortcuts.

Now, in today’s post, I may have picked on one of your favorite strategies. You may disagree with me. Let me know by leaving a comment. Let’s talk about it.

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  1. #1 by Mike Mack on May 10, 2016 - 1:36 pm

    Agree x 4, Allen! I sort of want to add the Seinfeld line for each one … “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” … but these practices do have their inherent downsides. Thanks for the warnings. I’m passing this on to leaders I coach.

  2. #2 by Brent Moore on May 10, 2016 - 2:26 pm

    I agree with everything except point four. We practice “Inviting People to Join Groups, then Making Them the Leader.” But in those settings we sprinkle the room with some preselected leaders and some we allow to rise. Either way we coach them strong in the first several weeks. We have found if you don’t preselect every leader for every group formed that night, leaders rise to the top we hadn’t considered.

    • #3 by Allen White on May 10, 2016 - 2:58 pm

      Well, I certainly like your success in this. I’ve talked to a few small group pastors who felt this strategy was a little deceptive. Have you had any adverse reaction from your people?

      • #4 by Brent Moore on May 11, 2016 - 12:12 pm

        We have had a couple of leaders who didn’t plan on leading and when it came down to it, their group floundered. We have both come alongside and helped or realized some groups fail if we appoint/train the leaders or not. We are “allowed” a 70% success rate for groups lasting long-term, but I have been hovering around 90%. These are great things to think about and I enjoy your discussion and thoughts.

        • #5 by Allen White on May 11, 2016 - 12:23 pm

          90% is amazing. Other than the initial group formation/leader selection process, what are you doing to support your groups and helping them to continue?

          • #6 by Brent Moore on May 11, 2016 - 4:00 pm

            We have a leadership pipeline that we encourage/almost require our leaders to go through at some point. But the most important thing we do is personal & regular contact by a small groups minister

  3. #7 by Mike Mack on May 10, 2016 - 3:34 pm

    I’m continually surprised that many church leaders don’t (or I guess they don’t) consider one biblical strategy, and it’s really simple, yet takes lots of faith. It’s simply to do what Jesus told the disciples to do when there weren’t enough leaders (workers) to carry out the mission: Ask God to send them to us (Matt. 9:37-38). I’ve used this as not only “a” strategy, but my main strategy for finding new group leaders, and God never failed me in this. He brought me leaders I wouldn’t have considered, and they were HIS kind of leaders, ones after his heart. For a long time I had trained leaders lined up waiting for people to join them and their new groups. Great problem to have. What if every small group point leader made this a main strategy and then actively watched for whom God was sending them?

    • #8 by Allen White on May 10, 2016 - 4:04 pm

      You’re dead on, Mike. Strategies are impotent without prayer. I used one particular strategy for a very long time, then all of a sudden it stopped working. I think my comment was “We flipped the God switch like we did every other time only to discover God doesn’t necessarily want to be connected to a switch.” We began to depend on strategies instead of depending on God. Now, I see this as prayer and prepare!

  4. #9 by Roger Carr on May 10, 2016 - 4:10 pm

    I agree with all 4. In my experience, #2 is especially common and can lead to long-term consequences. This practice isn’t limited to the small group ministry. It is common among many nonprofits when recruiting volunteer leaders as well.

  5. #10 by Vicki Glaesner on May 12, 2016 - 11:12 am

    Allen, I so agree with your summary. Thanks for putting it in writing so I can share this with my team and senior Pastor. Just through my limited experience as a participant and now volunteer Ministry leader I have also come to agree that… “Building a coaching structure is the real work of small group ministry” . Without this, a group becomes a temporary curriculum focused gathering. With coaching, so much more can happen that benefits the whole body. Now…to get from here to there…

  6. #11 by Timm McLagan on May 17, 2016 - 7:03 am

    Really helpful Allen! I’ve definitely been tempted to use some of these. Thanks for the insight!

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