Posts Tagged connection
When you think about connecting a congregation into community or taking a crowd and turning them into disciples, the task can be quite mindboggling. Sometimes in contemplating the enormity of the task, we expend a lot of energy on things that are either not great investments of our time or are things other people should be doing. There is only so much of any small group pastor or director. Knowing where to apply your efforts will determine your success and possibly your sanity.
I tend to learn best in the school of hard knocks. Please understand while I believe all of my efforts have been well intentioned, I have made quite a number of well intentioned mistakes along the way. The good news is I have learned or am learning from most of those failed attempts, and I am now passing these painful lessons on to you.
Every small group pastor, including myself, who considers how to connect a congregation into community, typically starts with the wrong questions, which lead to the wrong strategies, which ends up with poor results. It typically goes like this:
1. How do I connect people into groups?
This is question comes from the assumption that most people file in and out of church never talking to anybody and have no real friends outside of church. People are far more connected than you might imagine. In fact, I would go so far as to say your people are already in multiple groups. The question is: how are those groups helping them to grow spiritually? What are they doing to intentionally grow in their faith?
The reality is most people don’t have time for a small group and lack the capacity to maintain any more relationships. Now, before you quit your job, there’s a solution. Think about how people can leverage their existing connections to grow spiritually. Could you create an easy to use curriculum available for them to discuss spiritual things with their friends at dinner or their co-workers at lunch? The dilemma is not placing people into groups, but introducing a spiritual growth component to the groups they are already in.
If you feel your main task is to place people into groups via some dreaded system like a sign up card, trust me, you need to get out of that business ASAP. Yes, there are some exceptions to what I described above, but as Brett Eastman would say, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” If you build your entire system around the needs of exceptions, you will devote 90% of your energy to less than 5% of your people. For more ideas on how to connect people who are new to your church and who have truly no friends, click here.
2. How do I recruit group leaders?
You don’t. If your senior pastor is willing to create small group curriculum based on his teaching, then he will volunteer to recruit group leaders for you. You may be thinking, “That will never work in my church.” Let me ask you a question, “Has your senior pastor ever created his own curriculum?” Once a pastor has invested his time and energy in producing a small group curriculum, he won’t want to see that investment go to waste.
In just a few short weeks, your pastor can get half or more of your congregation into a study based on his teaching. All he has to do is ask. He will want to ask because he now has skin in the game. I’ve seen this happen in a church of 50 people, churches of tens of thousands of people, and both of the churches I have served on staff.
Small group pastors don’t need to recruit small group leaders. Your senior pastor will take care of this (and get a far better result).
3. How do I support and encourage small group leaders?
This is the right question. The real work of a small group pastor is to implement the systems and strategies to sustain groups over time (Wow, that really sounds like Brett Eastman). When I coach small group pastors in how to launch a church-wide series, the first task is to identify experienced group leaders and mature believers who will serve as a small group team for the first teaching series. Imagine if you suddenly had half or better of your congregation in groups, how would you manage the needs of those leaders?
Sure you could send a few email blasts or have your assistant call them, but the key to developing groups which will continue is a coaching structure to support them. This is a decentralized, one-on-one strategy. It’s the opposite of on-campus training meetings or robocalls. There is a place for training meetings. There is no place for robocalls. Everybody hates telemarketers…everybody. (I actually was a telemarketer for three days once. It was hard to live with myself for those 72 hours).
The hard work of small group ministry lies here. If you skip this step, then you will experience a short-lived, one-time success and then it will devolve into a number of leaders you can personally manage. Again, I’ve lived it. I’ve been there.
This is not a reason to become overwhelmed. This is a reason to pray. God knows what He wants to accomplish in your church during your upcoming launch. God also knows every person who can help you successfully start and sustain groups. If you ask God to direct you to the right small group team, pay attention to who crosses your path. God will answer your prayer. He’s certainly answered mine.
By Allen White
Most leaders realize group life extends beyond well prepared and executed group meetings. While Bible study is an important aspect of a group, if everyone leaves thinking, “Boy, that was good. See you next week” without sharing what’s going on in their lives, something is definitely missing. Here’s how to help your group open up:
1. Set the Right Expectations.
When your group members joined the group, what were they expecting? Were they looking for a 60 minute inductive Bible study followed by brownies and coffee as thanks for surviving it? Were they looking for a free-flowing discussion of everything that popped into their heads? Did they know what to expect?
Managing expectations is crucial for a successful group. Rather than dictate what the group will be or won’t be, it’s best to start by discussing what kind of group the members actually want. A simple exercise like having everyone write their top three group expectations on a card, then tabulating the results will go a long way in getting buy-in from the group.
If the group skews toward Bible study, then gradually implement some aspects of care. Start with something simple like asking for prayer requests and closing the meeting with prayer. As the group continues to meet, begin to focus more on application questions rather than Bible exploration questions. Don’t get me wrong. The discussion should be based on God’s Word. But, you want to aim for where the rubber meets the road, not where the rubber meets the air.
2. Set the Example.
“Speed of the leader, speed of the team” is a common axiom from Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. The leader sets the pace. If you are open with your life, then others will be open with theirs. If you hold back, so will they.
A couple of years ago someone gave me an older car. It’s not perfect, but it’s transportation and a gift at that. One night I became frustrated with the dashboard lights. About a third of the lights wouldn’t work. Out of my arsenal of mechanical expertise, I pounded my fist of the dash. The change was both immediate and dramatic – I now had no dashboard lights.
Driving in the summer or during the day wasn’t a problem. But, anytime I had to drive early in the morning or at night, I had absolutely no idea how fast I was driving. I was embarrassed by my “repair.” While I confessed the problem to my wife, I never mentioned it to anyone else.
But, one day a circle of folks in the office were discussing their cars’ various ailments. I chose that moment in the safe circle of used car owners to confess my dashboard issue. A woman turned to me and said, “My husband has the same problem with his car. He uses his GPS to check his speed.” What a brilliant idea. I had a GPS. I no longer needed to fly blind at night.
I had dreaded the conversation with the first officer who ever pulled me over. “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?”
“No, officer. My dashboard lights aren’t working.” Somehow I imagined only a scenario with multiple traffic tickets involved. Now, I had the knowledge to detect my own speed and avoid a traffic violation.
I never would have learned that workaround if I had never admitted my problem. As Rick Warren says, “Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.” And, it has to start with the leader.
I shared this story when I spoke at a church a few months back. The next week, the Executive Pastor called to say that my message already was making an impact. A man confessed to his men’s group that his marriage was on the brink of divorce. He and his wife were separated, and he didn’t know what to do. Rather than judge this guy for his situation, his group members rallied around him to support him and his wife through their struggle. My illustration of automotive failure helped him open up about his marital failure.
Group leaders are no better than the group members they lead. You must be careful the leader title doesn’t block the way for your own vulnerability. If you’re group isn’t opening up, you need to check your own transparency in the group. Your honesty will encourage theirs.
3. Set the Meeting Agenda.
To balance the need for open sharing in the group and the need to meet group expectations, the group agreement is the ideal place to start. If you’ve never created a group agreement, you should soon (Read more here).
The ground rules for your group could include an option where the group can help a member process a life situation. Some issues involve more than a casual mention during prayer request time at the end. If a group member has faced a devastating turn of events like a job loss, marital blow up, issues with children or other bad news, the group should allow space to even put the Bible study aside and support their friend in need.
But, you don’t want your group to turn into the “crisis of the week.” While every group should offer support, there is a difference between a small group built on relationships formed around a Bible study and a true support group. If a group member needs dedicated support for marital problems, grief or a life controlling issue, then a specific support group may offer better help (Read more here).
There is no perfect way to organize every small group meeting. Your group can’t offer only Bible study at the expense of care. But, your group also can’t avoid Bible study and only focus on care. As Andy Stanley says, “This is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.”
If during the discussion, you notice a group member getting teary or tender, stop and ask if they want to talk about it. They might or might not. The last impression you want to leave is that the meeting agenda is more important than the group members in the meeting.
By Allen White
Small groups aren’t meant for eternity. But, how do you end it? Do you gather your group members together for an uncomfortable conversation?
“It’s not you. It’s us. Can we just be friends?”
While some groups can last 20 years or more, most groups simply can’t run that distance. That’s okay. After all, we have friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime. But, how do you know when you’re small group has run its course? Look for these key indicators:
1. Your Group has Lost Its Edge.
Group life demonstrates a tension between speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The balance lies in correcting each other and understanding each other. When a group starts, a member’s weaknesses and failures seem more obvious.
“Why does he do that?”
“Why does she treat them that way?”
But, over time, the group begins to understand why. Rather than saying, “You might have more success with a gentler approach,” we find ourselves saying things like,
“He’s a little rough around the edges.
His childhood was a nightmare. We understand.”
Deep seated problems aren’t resolved over night. They take a great deal of work and are often beyond the scope of the group’s ministry (read more here). The problem comes when our understanding becomes enabling.
The goal of every group should be to help each other reflect Christ. When a group has been together for a while and loses its edge of truth, it no longer helps anyone fulfill the goal. Iron isn’t sharpening iron. It’s more like marshmallow sharpening nerf (read more here).
If your group started as a Gensu knife, but has dulled and become a butter knife, then it’s time to regroup. If your group can regain its edge, great. If not, then it’s time to disperse and form new groups.
2. Your Group has Lost Its Members.
Over time every group loses members. It’s not a bad group. Life just gets in the way. A group member moves out of town. A new job or family activity conflicts with the group’s meeting day. Sooner or later, good group members will leave for good reasons. My group is now in its fourth year. We have two original members. One of them is me.
While there are only two in the senior class, we have a couple of juniors, a few sophomores, and a couple of freshmen. If Jamie and I were the only two left in the group, we might get together now and then, but we probably wouldn’t meet every week. When your group gets down to just a couple, it’s time to reconsider and rebuild – either by invitation or forming a new group. But, sometimes new members won’t stick.
No one likes to see their good group members go. If you’ve become close friends, you certainly don’t want things to come to an end. If your group is beginning to see the beginning of the end, act now to turn things around. Become a more welcoming and including group. Invite prospects to attend. Develop your freshman classes. Otherwise, “us four” will eventually become “no more.”
These are the Most Read Posts for allenwhite.org in August 2011:
By Allen White
3. Why Bother? (Smallgroups.com article)
4. The Power and Potential of Small Groups By Brett Eastman
9. Connecting the Last 30 Percent: Engaging Introverts (3-Part Series)
By Allen White
People are isolated for a variety of reasons. Sometimes poor health or a disability limits their participation. Rotating shifts or even certain occupations can work against group participation. Connecting isolated folks takes some creativity, but can lead to some great results.
Some barriers are easy to remove. If a single mom can’t afford to pay for childcare, then figure out a way to cover the costs of childcare for them. In the past, I have given group leaders gift cards to the church bookstore to either purchase childcare vouchers for on-campus childcare or study guides based on the leader’s good judgment of the situation. While the church may not offer free childcare to every group, single moms are really our modern day widows and orphans (James 1:27). If your church lacks the means, then enlist volunteers to provide childcare while these moms meet.
Health problems can greatly limit small group participation. With the aging of our population and the rise of autism and other disorders, this segment of the church body is growing every day. Our son was born with some special needs. When he was little, we would feed him and put him to bed before the group started. The baby monitor was nearby, so we were always close at hand during the group meeting. While we couldn’t allow other group members to host the group in their home, this was the best solution for us to be involved.
If folks can’t get to the group, then bring the group to them. You might need to send someone early to help get their house ready. But, the extra effort to include them will mean a great deal.
Some jobs make small group participation difficult. If a business or agency runs on rotating shifts and varying days off, it’s impossible to commit to a specific day of the week for group. At New Life in California, two couples had this exact situation. They started a group with just the four of them. One week they’d meet on Tuesday. The next week they’d meet on Friday. Since there were only two rotating schedules to coordinate and fewer people involved, they could make the changes they needed to without inconveniencing others or missing meetings.
A few occupations make group life difficult. Recently a group of police officers presented the idea of starting a group specifically for first responders. One dilemma they faced was rotating shifts, so they chose two nights of the week for the group to meet. While members only went to group once per week, their shift schedules dictated which night they could go.
Police officers found some interesting reception in other groups. One couple, after trying several groups finally gave up. In the first group, someone wanted them to fix a ticket. In another group, someone wanted them to intervene for their child who had a brush with the law. These officers needed a group that would give them a level playing field, so they decided to form a group of just first responders. They don’t meet to talk shop, but they have a common understanding of life. No one is asking to get a ticket fixed.
There are many other groups of isolated folks out there. A church in Hilmar, California holds a men’s group at 4:00 am for dairy workers. They get a Bible study before they milk the cows. I had one leader start a group on a commuter train. Rather than reading the paper on the way to work, they gathered every Tuesday morning to study God’s Word. Once they started, word spread and they filled an entire section of the train. Folks who work swing shift may like a group at midnight when they get off work. Others working the graveyard shift might prefer a group at 7:00 am.
Isolated, Independent and Introverted folks don’t fit nicely into typical small groups. Rather than expecting them to get with the program and join a predetermined group, why not give them permission to create biblical community on their own terms? You will be surprised at the ideas that surface.
By Allen White
Another important group in the last 30 percent are Introverts. Like Independents, Introverts don’t fit well in the system that serves the other 70 percent so well. Unlike the Independents, they aren’t going to form an unofficial group on the sly.
Introverts are not like the other 70 percent of members who have already joined groups. Granted some introverts joined a group with their spouse, and in the words of Joseph Myers, each week they endure “forced relational hell” (Read why I hated Joe’s book).
An introvert’s greatest fear is knocking on the door of a stranger’s house and meeting twelve new people. It’s overwhelming. It’s enough to make them pull the covers over their heads and call it a night. But, introverts are not anti-social.
Most introverts have good friends. The difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that introverts just need a few friends while extroverts have never met a stranger. Introverts don’t comfortably fit into the usual structure of a small group. They don’t do groups of 10-12 people. They are far more comfortable with one or two. Can three people count as a group? Jesus seemed to think so (Matthew 18:20).
But, who said that small groups should be comfortable? Shouldn’t we be challenged to grow? Shouldn’t we step out of our comfort zones? Down, pastor. Down. Pastors get up and speak before hundreds to thousands on Sundays. Introverts are back there in the corner. What works for you won’t work for them. But, how do you get introverts connected in groups?
1. Friends are the Key to Attracting Introverts.
Introverts have friends. They probably have better friends than extroverts, in that, they’ve taken time to get to know a couple of friends very well. A pastor’s invitation to join small groups probably won’t do much to motivate introverts in that direction. It will only reinforce their greatest fear. But, if their friend thinks it’s a good idea and invites them, there’s a much better chance of them going to group.
The nuance here is that introverts connect in groups by relationship, not by strategy. Don’t plan to launch groups where no one has to talk. Instead, encourage current small group members to think about the people in their life – who would enjoy or benefit from the group’s next study. A simple exercise like the Circles of Life from Lifetogether.com is a great way for them to start praying about who to invite.
You won’t connect 100 percent of your introverts this way. But, it’s a much better way than sending them into a connection event.
2. Rethink Your Small Group Model.
What is a small group? We usually come up with twelve, since Jesus had twelve disciples. But, is twelve the right number. Many small group pastors, like Saddleback’s Steve Gladen, advocate groups of eight and subgrouping when your group exceeds eight (Check out Steve’s book — Small Groups with Purpose). Then, there was the seminary class I took that defined a small group as three to 30 people. What?
Every group doesn’t need to be the exact same size. Sometimes things that happen with two or three in a group can’t happen with 18 members present. If we had a small group of only three men named Peter, James and John, would we give it the green light?
3. Start Book Clubs instead of Small Groups.
Introverts aren’t friendless folks. They have good friends. In fact, we might even call good friends a small group with purpose. The formula is simple: friends + intention = growth. We provide the intention by directing the group’s focus, usually by offering small group curriculum. If we make the study available to any person who wants to get together with a group of friends, then you have a better chance of including introverts. I’ve even announced on a Sunday, “Some of you haven’t found a group yet. You might not even like our small groups. Why get together with your friends and start your own group?” Curriculum sold like hotcakes.
A women walked up to the “Start Your Own Group” table and said, “Four of us meet together at Starbucks every Thursday morning, could we do the study together?” Absolutely! They were in a group of friends, but they weren’t in a small group. Why not help them become a small group?
4. Start Online Small Groups.
As more and more of life is pushed toward the intranet, we find ourselves in virtual family reunions and class reunions on Facebook practically on a daily basis. Technology allows us to encourage each other daily (Hebrews 3:13). Through online chat and video conference sites, it’s possible to connect online for a small group. Whether you’re represented by an avatar or your actual video, online small groups offer flexibility and allow members to meet from the comfort of their own homes.
Some object to online small groups saying that people can pretend to be someone else online and don’t have to be themselves. If you’ve been in small group ministry for very long, you understand that this behavior is not limited to online small groups. Self-disclosure is an issue in both online and off-line groups.
Years ago, Robert Schuller started a church in a drive-in movie theater because people wouldn’t attend church because they didn’t have nice clothes to wear. He figured if they stayed in their cars at the drive-in, it didn’t matter what they wore. Online small groups can also provide a level of comfort that will get introverts into the game. Besides, if the leader asks a tough question, Google is but a click away.
Introverts will join small groups. But, most likely they won’t sign up to join a group of strangers. By innovating and taking a different approach, connecting introverts into groups or helping introverts start groups will close the gap on the last 30 percent.
I am an introvert, and I am in a group. But, I’m also a small group pastor, so there’s a little pressure there. I hope that I haven’t offended any of my introverted friends. For a more thorough and insightful perspective, check out Introverts in the Church by Adam S. McHugh.
More on Connecting the Last 30 Percent tomorrow…
By Allen White
The delusion of success is that what we need next is more of what we’re already experienced. After all, if Host Homes and Turbo Groups and Apprentices and Church-wide Campaigns helped us connect the first 70 percent of our members into groups, then one last push should put us over the top. For those of us who have achieved 71 percent or more, we understand that this simply isn’t true. What connected the first 70 percent will not connect the last 30 percent – no matter how attractive the appeal.
The last 30 percent fall into one of three categories – Independent, Introverted or Isolated. These folks do not want to fit into anyone’s system. They would rather practice personal spiritual disciplines like contemplation rather than face their greatest fear – your living room. They might have a disability or a disadvantage that keeps them away. A cookie cutter approach is not the answer.
Independent people struggle with our systems. They are smart enough to know that they don’t really need one. They don’t buck the system as much as they just avoid it. There natural leaders look at things much differently than the connected 70 percent.
Our church was launching a church-wide campaign in Fall a few years ago. A long-time member called and told me that he had an unofficial small group. I’m never threatened by such an admission. Secretly, I wished every member had this news to share. He asked if his group could do the church-wide study. I told him, “Absolutely not,” and then I laughed. Then, I asked him why his group was flying under the radar.
“Well, it’s like Dean Martin used to say,” he started. (Huh?) “The difference between a drunk and an alcoholic is that drunks don’t go to all of those meetings.” (My apologies to folks in recovery. The meetings are a good thing). I told him that I only had two meetings a year. He said that might be possible.
Independent folks don’t want to fit into a system. And, they know that they don’t have to. They’re not rebellious as much as they just dance to the beat of their own drummer. They don’t want recognition. They don’t want training. They don’t want supervision. They just want to get together with friends. Sometimes they’ll discuss spiritual things. Other times they’ll go to dinner. They are a small group. They just don’t obsess over structure like most pastors do.
Independents won’t attend Host Briefings or Leadership Training. It’s not that they’re above that. It’s just against their nature. Most independents possess a leadership gift already. They are capable to lead. They just need an opportunity. So, how do you get independents involved in groups?
Give them the material with no strings attached. They know how to lead. They know how to gather a group. They just need the materials. Now, for all of the control freaks who are hyperventilating at this point — by selecting the curriculum, you have given direction to the group. Most leaders are not working hard to teach heresy or form a cult. They are devoting themselves to vacuuming their living rooms and preparing refreshments.
Starting groups for independents is as simple as putting a table in your church’s lobby with a sign that says, “Start Your Own Group.” Find out who they are and get their contact information. Give them all of the resources you would give any new leader. Give them access to a coach who can answer their questions at their request. When the six-week study ends, invite them to leadership training. They may or may not attend. That’s okay. When they need help, they will come and find you. Independents need a long, invisible leash.
Some pastors object. “Why can’t these independent folks honor the authority that God has placed over them by doing it my way?” Whoa. Calm down. That kind of thinking will keep you right at the numbers you currently have. Community is much bigger than your system or even your church.
To attract the Independents in the last 30 percent, you must be willing to take a different approach. If you start where people are comfortable, then you can lead them to other things. If you try to start where they’re uncomfortable, you’ll lead them nowhere.
By Allen White
Rapidly growing groups during a church-wide campaign has a very positive upside. New leaders get their gifts in the game. New people are connected into new groups. Relationships are developed. Believers are disciple. There are awesome results all around. The problem comes in caring for new leaders when your coaching structure is already overwhelmed. Where do you get new coaches?
I ran into this problem a few years ago, when we doubled the number of our small groups in one day. We didn’t feel we were adequately coaching the first half. Now, we needed to help an equal number of newbies. Then, the light bulb turned on – if half of the groups are new and half of the groups are experienced, we just needed to match them up. We created a “buddy system” with experienced leaders helping new leaders. Never let a good crisis go to waste.
Over the years, this coaching strategy was finessed into an intentional approach rather than a last ditch effort. In advance of a new church-wide campaign, we expect dozens, if not hundreds, of new leaders or hosts to step forward. Otherwise, why would we do a church-wide campaign? In anticipation of this new growth, we also know that we will need new coaches to encourage the new leaders. Where do we get the new coaches?
At least a month before we start recruiting new leaders and host homes, we gather all of our existing leaders for a “Sneak Peek” event to reveal the Fall campaign curriculum. This is a great way to rally the troops and get our existing groups in on the new series. We explain all of the details of the series. We cast vision for new people connecting in groups and for new leaders starting new groups. Then, we present an opportunity for our existing leaders to walk alongside a new leader just for the six week campaign. Notice that we don’t use the word “coach” at this point.
The ask goes like this: “Once upon a time, you were a brand new leader who had a lot of questions and a few fears about starting a new group. Some of you had a coach. Some did not. All of us need someone in our corner to encourage us, to pray for us, and to answer our questions. Would you be willing to do that for a new leader or group host during this next series? The commitment starts when the leader attends the host briefing and goes through the six week campaign.” And, our existing leaders sign up to help every time.
The job description is simple. We ask them to do three things: (1) Pray for the new leaders. (2) Contact them every week in a way that’s meaningful to the new leader (not in a way that’s merely efficient for the new coach). (3) Answer their questions.
During the New Host Briefing, I match the new leaders and group hosts with their new “coach.” Usually I start the meeting by introducing the series content and the timeline, then I tell the new leaders, “Now, I would like to introduce some very important people to you who are going to help you get your group started. They will be available to answer all of your questions as you’re getting started.” I introduce the new “coaches” and pair them up with the new leaders according to the type of group they are starting or the geographical region where they live. The “coaches” take over the meeting at this point and give the new leaders all of the details of how to gather their group, what to do the first night, and answer any questions they have already. They exchange contact information and the “coaching” begins.
After the six week campaign, we check in with the new “coaches” about their experience. We ask three key questions:
- How important do you feel you were to the new leaders?
- How easy was it to keep in contact with the new leaders?
- Which of the new groups plan to continue?
The results are uncanny. If the new “coach” has the ability to coach, the answers are always come out: “My help was very important to the new leaders. Contacting them was easy. Most of the groups continued.” If the new “coach” doesn’t have it, the responses are: “My help wasn’t important. Contact was difficult. Most of the groups will not continue.” There is very little middle ground.
For the new coaches that answer positively, we invite them to continue coaching. For those who answer negatively, we thank them for serving for six weeks, and let them go back to leading their groups. You might be asking, “But, isn’t it risky to give a new leader to an inexperienced coach?”
It’s risky working with people period. Personally, I’d rather hire staff to do all of the coaching, but who has the budget for that? What’s more risky is sending out a new leader or group host without a coach. The payoff here is that new groups will be established, and new coaches will be recruited.
I’ve stopped recruiting with a job description over coffee. I don’t always do a great job choosing coaching candidates. What I have learned is that sometimes the most unlikely people make the best coaches and leaders. Let the trial run define who has what it takes to coach.
Other Great Coaching Resources:
Coaching Life-Changing Small Groups by Bill Donahue & Greg Bowman
Everyone’s a Coach by Ken Blanchard & Don Shula
How to Be a Great Cell Group Coach by Joel Comisky
Reviewed By Allen White
When you look at the success of groups at Saddleback Church, it would be easy, though cynical, to assume that you can only achieve that number of groups if they are an inch deep and a mile wide. After observing and participating in the ministry of Saddleback for the last 18 years, I have discovered that Saddleback is both deep and wide.
They cast a broad net to recruit small group H.O.S.T.s and to connect their members into groups. Today, Saddleback has over 3,500 small groups with more folks in groups than in their weekend services. This is due in large part to their small group champion, Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church. A God-given idea and Pastor Rick’s influence produced 2,000 new group hosts in their first 40 Days of Purpose campaign. His influence is huge in connecting people into groups. But, connecting and sustaining are two different animals.
Steve Gladen in Small Groups with Purpose outlines a success story not just for retaining numbers, but for life transformation and leadership development. Having run many successful church-wide campaigns myself, I know that it’s easy to create a spike in groups during a campaign, but helping those groups to continue is another animal. In this book, Steve Gladen outlines a powerful strategy for gaining and maintaining momentum.
Coaching and training are Saddleback’s keys to effective group leaders. Steve presents a unique coaching strategy. Community Leaders, rather than coaches, serve 20-25 groups leaders. This system works due to a key insight: not every group leader needs the same level of coaching. By determining whether the group is new, growing, mature or stubborn, community leaders offer an appropriate level of care. This is good news for churches who have yet to develop a healthy coaching structure, in that, existing groups have learned how to get along good enough without a coach. New coaches can focus on new leaders, and essentially serve existing leaders by benign neglect.
In the book, Steve Gladen articulates a proven strategy for starting and sustaining new leaders. At Saddleback, H.O.S.T.s start with the experience of leading a group for six weeks, then they are introduced to training. After leading for a few weeks, the training is more meaningful to the new leaders and can be directly applied to their group. Churches often make the mistake of over-training before a leader even starts to lead. If the prospective leader can survive the training, then they can lead a group. In my opinion, over-training actually reflects more of the small group pastor’s insecurity and need for control rather than adequately preparing members to lead. Community Leaders provide the help that new leaders need at Saddleback. Having someone in the new leader’s life is far more significant than endless hours of training up front.
Another outstanding strength of Saddleback’s training system is the intentional, on-going training pathway. Once leaders have completed Leadership Training 1, they receive care from their Community Leader and are offered on-going training that is appropriate to their skills and experience. The genius of this system is that all of the leaders start Leadership Training 2 with the third module, Health, then proceed to future modules based on their needs and experience as a leader. Custom, just-in-time training is key to serving new leaders and keeping their interest and participation in training. Cookie cutter, “one size fits all” training is a relic of the past. No small group pastor should blame their leaders for not attending training. If you’re not scratching where they itch, it’s on you.
Balancing the five biblical purposes produces healthy group members. While many churches develop groups that specialize in fellowship or Bible study, these types of groups focus on meeting the needs of the group members, but don’t necessarily produce well-rounded disciples. Then, you wonder why groups are unwilling to help in starting new groups or won’t reach out to others. It’s all about them. Why do they need to create any discomfort for themselves?
The Health Assessment helps both groups and individuals to identify their strengths and growth areas. More importantly, the Health Plan helps them create appropriate next steps for their growth. Whether the members are ready to crawl, walk or run, growth is determined at their own place and pace. No one expects a baby to get up and start running. No one should expect a mature adult to revert to crawling either.
Balancing the five biblical purposes is key. While most groups and group members will be strong in fellowship and discipleship, they will more than likely be weak in worship, ministry and evangelism. Rather than creating a group of comfortable, Bible eggheads, balancing the purposes challenges the group to think beyond itself and to get everyone’s gifts in the game of reaching out and serving others. Groups that grow inward will cease to grow both numerically and spiritually. The mere accumulation of knowledge is actually a waste of everyone’s time if they don’t seek to apply God’s Word in practical ways and to support each other in the transition.
The best part of Small Groups with Purpose is that the model Steve Gladen presents is scalable. The system that helps Saddleback effectively care for thousands of groups and tens of thousands of group members will also help a church with a handful of groups and a few dozen members. In my work at Lifetogether and Purpose-Driven coaching hundreds of pastors across the country, I have seen these principles work in churches of all sizes, in all regions of North America, and in practically every Christian denomination. Whether your church has 40 members or 40,000, the principles offered in this book will help your church grow both numerically and spiritually.
Purchase your copy of Small Groups with Purpose here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and Baker Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”