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By Allen White

I have to admit that I was and I wasn’t prepared for my groups to multiply. Of course, when my pastor stood up that Sunday back in 2004 and so many responded that we doubled our groups in a day, I was ecstatic. I was also a little afraid. I didn’t have the coaching structure to support such rapid growth. My training was not quite where it should have been. I wasn’t going to turn anybody down, but now I had to move fast.

Over the years I had picked up enough from John Maxwell, Peter Drucker, and others to know how to lead. In fact, I lead quite a few things at our church including everything involving adults and occasionally something random like a copier salesman. Now, I needed to put up or shut up. I could no longer hide behind the excuse that I had so much on my plate that I really couldn’t do more with groups. My pastor’s invitation blew that one out of the water.

Are you prepared to leave your comfort zone?

For most of us who’ve been in ministry for any length of time, we’ve kind of got it down to a system. Now, if you’re still running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re already in trouble, and you’re probably focusing on the wrong things like group member sign up cards. Get out of that business ASAP.

When I only had 30 small groups life was pretty much on cruise control. Now, I was also leading a ministry discovery process based on Network by Bruce Bugbee. (If you don’t have one, Bruce is about to release a 25th anniversary update). There was a little counseling, a Wednesday evening Bible study to teach, adult electives on Sunday morning, various other groups and studies, a discipleship pathway to manage, a new believers’ class, and about three hours a day just to read and study. Life was good. Ok, not completely.

Thirty small group leaders were way too many for me to manage alone, but I was in complete control, and that suited me just fine. Looking back, not only was I handicapping my leadership by not developing a coaching structure earlier on, I certainly was not helping or caring for the leaders to the degree they deserved.

Then, I hit a crisis. Not a bad crisis, it was a good crisis. Thirty groups became 60 groups, then grew to 103 groups in a congregation of 800 adults. I was completely unprepared.

If your groups doubled this Fall, who would you need to coach new leaders?

I wasn’t adequately coaching 30 groups, now I had twice the problem, and all of the guilt of not building a coaching structure. Now, I could have gone the easy way by just giving the new leaders a phone number to call if they got into trouble. But, the issue with a small group hotline is the new leaders are really not served, and you enter into the scenario of what I call “Disposable Small Groups.”

Then, in a stroke of insight and desperation, it dawned on me that I had 30 leaders with experience and 30 leaders without experience. I cashed in 12 years of leadership “credit” by sending a letter to my experienced leaders assigning a new leader to them. The instructions were “unless you absolutely can’t do this, I am counting on you.” And, they did it, well, except for one.

Close your eyes and imagine both a crowning achievement and an absolute nightmare — your groups just doubled. But, you have three months, so how would you prepare? Make a list of experienced leaders and mature believers who you could invite to coach all of these new leaders. You already need them, so you might as well get started.

How much training would the new leaders need and when?

Hopefully you’ve decided to delay some of the usual requirements for small group leaders this Fall. Otherwise, you should have started recruiting group leaders last Fall. Inviting people to open their homes and invite their friends for a six week commitment is a pretty low stakes undertaking for everyone involved provided you don’t advertise the groups.

The essentials of training new leaders focuses on how to gather their groups, how to lead their first meeting, and how to involve others in leading the group. That may not sound like much, but remember, you’ve already given them a coach. The experienced leader can easily fill in the gaps for the new leaders. If there happens to be an issue or question that is too much for the experienced leader, then you should get involved.

With the encouragement of the coach, a weekly two minute training video from the small group pastor should round out the training for the first six weeks of leading. By pushing the video training out in an email, the new leaders will be prompted to watch it when it arrives in their inbox. You could add a “free prize” in the video to make sure they watch it. Jim Herndon, small group pastors, Second Baytown in Texas does a giveaway in each of his videos. He used to put it at the end, then his leaders would skip to the end to find out about the prize. Naughty leaders. Now, Jim puts the “free prize” at a different spot in each video. Whoever finds it first and contacts Jim gets a gift card or some other kind of goodie. That may seem simple, but I think it’s simply brilliant! Have you tried getting your leaders to a meeting lately. Skip the meetings. Send video training.

If your pastor decided to create curriculum this Summer, are you ready?

It’s not too late to create your own curriculum for this Fall. In fact, I’m shooting two projects with a church next week. Of course, my advantage is I have a professional team. But, once upon a time, I coached a church of 50 people to create their own curriculum. Not only did they do a beautiful job, then connected 100 people into groups!

I think there’s a good, better, best of curriculum development.

The Good option is editing existing sermon video into a small group series like Andy Stanley’s series. Then, you just write the questions. Now, I say this is the “Good” option, but I really see this as the “better than nothing” option. Sorry, Andy.

The Better option is to shoot a five minute video with you senior pastor between the services on Sunday morning, then sending it out to your groups with a downloadable discussion guide. The content is still fresh in your pastor’s mind. You don’t have to create six talks in advance of the series. Just pray that no one gets sick.

The Best option is to shoot all six teaching segments in advance. You might even include a session host or some testimonies. If you start now, you could have professional looking curriculum (study guide and DVD) for this Fall. While this is a lot of work, the great thing about it is, the materials are a create recruiting tool. When your people see the effort you’ve put into the curriculum, they will want to join in!

If you need help with video curriculum, I can coach your team or send you a video production crew, or create your whole study from start to finish (or you could create your own video for one of my studies). For more info: info@allenwhite.org

What would need to change in your own leadership style?

I hate to admit it, but I really like being in charge of everything and having everyone report to me. No surprises. I had my pulse on my groups. I knew what was going on. Okay, I wish it had worked that well, but I thought it did. Like I said earlier, my need for control handicapped my small groups.

One week in our coaches meeting, Carlos spoke up and talked about how excited Rick was to lead a group. Rick told him it was the best thing he had ever done. I looked at Carlos and asked, “Who’s Rick?” That was a big day for me. I couldn’t have picked Rick out of a line up. But, I knew and trusted Carlos, and Carlos was getting to know Rick, so that need to be good enough.

What changes in your attitudes and actions reflected in your own leadership style might have to change to allow the coming growth of your small group ministry. What I learned about myself was that my attitude and actions were the main limiting factor in the lack of growth in our groups. When I changed my own thinking, which in turn changed my actions, then we experienced exponential growth in our groups.

Not too long ago I was working with a very capable small group pastor. We had successfully quadrupled the groups in his church. While I was celebrating, he was hyperventilating. In fact, at one point he said, “I can’t wait until this gets back to normal.”

While we had a great strategy in place to help groups continue, it wasn’t executed well. In fact, the small group pastor went on vacation during a crucial week of the plan. Pretty soon the groups dwindled down to something that was still double of normal, but way off from what it should have been. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t mentally prepared for what was coming. Things leveled out at a comfortable place for him, but at what price?

Parting Thoughts

John Maxwell talks about The Law of the Lid. This takes place when a leader’s ability becomes the limiting factor in the growth of the organization. There are some options. Leaders can always grow their leadership through books, podcasts, seminars, and coaching. That’s what helped to grow my leadership. But, the other options are not so good. Either your ministry will stagnate under your current level of leadership, or your ministry will outgrow you. If you’re job outgrows you, then you’ll be looking for another job. Wouldn’t you rather grow your leadership?

By starting now to prepare for Fall, you can have a huge jump on what’s ahead. Start your coaching structure. Plan out your training. Then, when your groups begin to dramatically increase, you will be ready. If you need help, I can get you ready. Just ask: info@allenwhite.org.

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