By Allen White
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.”