Jay Kranda is the guest for the February 2021 episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast. Jay is the online pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where he oversees an online community with online small groups and home groups around the world. He is the co-author of the free eBooks state of the church online and going beyond online streaming. Jay is addicted to NBA basketball and cold brew coffee. He has a BA in Christian Education and an MA in Theology, both from Biola University, Jay, his wife, Jody have two boys and a girl.
Q1: You have been in online ministry for a long time, and the rest of us just got into online ministry about 10 months ago. How long have you been on staff doing online ministry at Saddleback?
Jay: I just celebrated 10 years on staff and I started off as part-time online. They had a thing at the time called the internet campus and nobody was really doing anything with it. We’re always trying out things and then staff or people change and then you kind of forget, but I was really intrigued on it. When I first started, I came from a church about 500 and at Saddleback there were about 500 people watching every week. I was just kind of amazed by that scope of impact. I started to invest on it. My leader at the time introduced me to like Life.church and a couple other churches to show me what was going on.
The first thing I did is I petitioned to change it from internet campus to online campus. That was the first thing. I felt like internet was like putting “i” in front of everything to match the app. And so, but yeah, so I’ve been there 10 years now. It’s been a journey and it’s looked very different over the seasons of ministry, especially now in COVID, I feel like we’re in another butterfly moment where like, what is the next version of this?
Q2: The scorecard has changed for ministry. Pastors used to track metrics like attendance in the weekend service and giving – “nickels and noses,” but with COVID that has all changed. Now, I hear people talking about online engagement. Some are even taking their number of streams with a multiplier. How do we know we’re being effective, and what’s really happening out there?
Jay: There are all sorts of ways to measure things. What’s key is to figure out the metrics that are important to your church — whatever those things are, a top funnel to deep engagement type of scale. There are things you measure weekly and things you measure monthly. The other thing is you just gotta be consistent on how you measure it so that you can notice trends. Are you going up or going down? And that only happens if you’re consistent. If you’re constantly tweaking your measurements, then the numbers are irrelevant. You could tell me you had a million people this week, but if the next week you had 2 million or you had a hundred thousand, what does that mean? Where are you going? We’ve been measuring our attendance one way for about 10 years. I could tell you weeks that we’re going to be low. I can tell you we’re high. I can tell you why we were high because I was looking at the same numbers every week for about 10 years. And so I think it’s really important.
I would always start with the weekend. How many people viewed it on your website, Facebook, YouTube, or whatever, and then have like a retention number. How many people watch or listen for, you know, 10, 15, 30 minutes? And so compare those. Viewership isn’t the same as watching or reach numbers or impressions. I think that’s why you need both. You have viewership and then you have a deep engagement. What’s hard is in building a worship attendance. You’re not counting how many cars you drive by in front of your church, or you’re not counting how many people peek their heads in. You are counting how many people attended church. And so that number is more than the retention number, but you also can measure all sorts of things and look at correlation between viewership and retention. Like what happens if you start streaming on platforms like YouTube, you can look at the drop rates. How many people skip forward? We were just looking at our data recently and one of the learnings is that a lot of people were skipping the front part just to go to the message. The suggestion came out like maybe we should experiment with not front-loading the music, so people get to the sermon quicker. If people are more likely to hang around afterwards, maybe we put more music on the back end. If you’re looking at the right things regularly, you can make the right dashboard.
Q3: How are you recruiting leaders to do online groups? How are you getting members connected into groups? What does that look like?
Jay: We’re unique in the sense that we definitely have an online community, a true community, that I’m a shepherd over, and we have people who congregate. I would see us as a real church that’s online. And so we want to create, the phrase that gets used a lot, is creating a fourth space for people to connect that’s digital. That’s not a time specific. It’s 24/7. So because of that, we stream our services, but we actually have a community like a Facebook group and different things where people can connect with each other and meet people. I spend a lot of time in those public spaces. And out of that, we’re constantly encouraging people to take our classes and join a group or start a group. We definitely rely yearly on a campaign strategy to get almost of our groups going. Our church aligns on one thing. I would say a good 70% of our group growth in a year comes from a campaign push from our entire church.
We constantly have new groups going. One of our biggest things we use to get new groups going is a large group model where the small group pastor on my team will host quarterly large groups on zoom, where there might be 30 to 50 people on a zoom call. And he’ll use the breakout feature for six to eight weeks. At the end of it, if you had 30 or 50 people, we’ll say, “Hey, you’ve been experimenting and been part of an online group the last six to eight weeks. We’re done with our large group. What if you continue on after this as a small group? We start five to eight groups. That’s a big thing coming out of COVID that we’ve relied on, mainly because as started COVID, we had such a boom of interest in online groups that we didn’t have enough groups open to new people. We spent a lot of time early on refining what we actually launched. We had volunteers and staff, a large online group meeting every day of the week for the first couple months of COVID. When we started, we just had a meeting. We were looking at some of our data. In 2020, our ministry launched 1,007 online groups. We had the infrastructure and we were ready.
Q4: Let’s talk about what works with online groups. What are some best practices? And, we’re also going to to go what hasn’t worked as well.
Jay: It has been a struggle is continuing to figure out how to make accessing small group material easier. A big gap for us right now is that most of our small group material isn’t really accessible on a TV. Like our TV apps don’t talk to our database because we have some custom stuff. So that’s something that we’ve been working on. How do we integrate that? We don’t use an off the shelf, paid service, like, many other churches do. And so I just know like Apple TV, Roku, Amazon fire stuff are so important.
We might have over 2000 groups right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re all at a hundred percent tier. We’re trying to make sure they’re all responsive. So I might have a couple hundred that are red tag where they’re not responsive. I have some that I’m trying to get them to become members. They signed up and they’re not members yet. And then I have some that I’m trying to get to be, to take our leadership training course. And so the question is, why aren’t more people taking their leadership training course? Some of it has to do with access to the course. Some of it has to do availability. Maybe that needs to be a small group curriculum. Maybe we need to rethink the naming of it. I feel like on the group level where we’re constantly trying to rethink and reposition is.
And so we have a really great way to get groups going, but every strength has a weakness. One weakness of ours is it’s so simple to start a group with us, but then it’s really hard on us as staff and our volunteer team to make sure that the groups are healthy. We’re constantly pruning our groups. I think just going through our training is something I’m always asking, why isn’t this easier? Why can’t we just do this? Or why have only this many percentage of our groups done that? The other thing is just with online ministry, generally, I think a lot of members and people attending churches online are still really confused at they’ll start a group and start serving.
Sometimes they ask, “Is this really my church?” And I deal with that a lot where people start engaging. I find out they’re at another church, and I don’t want that. I think making that more seamless, but it’s going to be, we never want to pull somebody away from a church. The number one reason why we delete groups is because of that — I find out they’re going to a church down the street or something else, and I’m like, “Hey, don’t do the group with us, do it with your church.” And so I call say that we have a leaky funnel where we’re constantly losing people to very healthy things. They’re not bad things. We’re not competitive on it, but our groups are constantly going up and down because of that reason.
Q5: What emerging platforms are you seeing for online small groups?
Jay: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks on Twitch because I’ve been playing chess, and I follow people on Twitch that stream and play chess. There’s a community around it. I was texting with a good friend of mine who’s like one of my defacto Facebook addicts, but a friend. And he asked if I had done any training or videos on Twitch.
The community there is so deep. The streamers on Twitch are playing whatever game and they just talk. There’s this active chat. I forget his name, but there is a guy who plays chess on Twitch. He has 25,000 people watching him play chess. Real-time he’s just playing chess. 25,000 people pay him. The chat is nuts. This is a community. They rally around him, and they know him. What’s hard is where Twitch is inherently — you are doing something else while you’re doing it. And so that’s why I think churches have a hard time because you don’t want to be playing Fortnite and then having a group. I think that’s why it’s gotta be separate. It’s got be a separate thing.
Q5.5: I need you to settle a debate. Our family has watched Saddleback quite a bit in the last year…30 some weeks of Rick [Warren] in the book of James. I’m like, dude, it’s only five chapters long! So here’s the debate because I told my wife, the worship team is not really singing. They recorded the audio in advance, and they’re lip-syncing, and she swears that they’re singing on-camera. Which one is it?
Jay: Well, I think I’m pretty positive. it’s recorded separately.
Allen: I knew it!
To listen to the interview on the Exponential Groups Podcast: allenwhite.org/episode2
Ever wish you could jump in a time machine and undo some of your mistakes?
By Allen White
Photo by Luke Tevebaugh
Allen White is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (releases February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Download the Introduction and First Chapter Here). He has worked with over 1,500 churches across North America in the last 12 years. Admittedly, interviewing one’s self is pretty odd, but I have interviewed many people sharing about their ministries and books, so why not?
Q1. What makes groups exponential?
Well, let’s start with strategies that don’t produce exponential groups. If small group pastors are focused on connecting people into groups, they will grow by addition. Prospective members must be provided with a group that they will be assigned to. If you’re doing this and your groups are growing, then you’re lucky.
Other churches focus on multiplying leaders, which usually implies dividing groups. A high quality group leader is recruited, who then mentors an apprentice, who will eventually take part of the group and start a new group. The problem I faced with this model was that my leaders weren’t able to identify apprentices for the most part. Oh, and our groups didn’t want to split.
Exponential speaks to equipping and empowering people to gather a group of their friends and do a study together. Imagine 10 people volunteering to lead, who then invite 10 of their friends to join them. Suddenly, you have 10 new groups and 110 people in groups, and all you did was give them permission, then help them. Now, 10 groups is tame. But, what if the number of groups equaled the number of people in your church? Think about the impact. That turns into some crazy math. In recent years, I’ve seen churches of 2,500 with 500 groups, and a church of 260 start 75 groups. That’s exponential.
Q2. In the first sentence of Exponential Groups, you say, “Everyone is already in a group.” How did you reach that conclusion? What if they’re not?
Think about your own life. If you made a list of your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you would quickly see you are already in a group or even multiple groups. Now, if you took these groups that people are already in and gave them an easy-to-use tool that would intentionally help them grow spiritually, then you have what we typically call a “small group.”
Years ago our congregation took a health assessment. Not only did I want to see where people were growing and where people were stalling out, but I also wanted to see the impact of small groups on their growth. The assessment was based on the five biblical purposes as expressed by Rick Warren: Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism.
What we discovered was that everyone in our church rated themselves in this exact same order. People who were in official small groups were highest in Fellowship, but so were the people who weren’t. So, I took another survey to ask the non-small group folks who they were in fellowship with. Their responses: friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They weren’t joining “small groups” because they were already in groups. Then the light bulb went off — what if we gave these groups a study, drew a circle around them, and called them a “group”? It worked better than we imagined.
Now, there are people who are new to the church or new to the area, who genuinely don’t know anyone. These are the exceptions. They need a little help getting connected into a group. Help them, but don’t build your entire system on the perceived needs of the exceptions.
Q3. You talk some about launching groups through church-wide campaigns. Many churches have done this only to see groups fall apart once the study is over. How is your approach different? What’s the best way to form groups that will last?
In order for groups to last beyond a church-wide campaign, three factors are crucial. First, the way the group is formed will largely determine whether the group will continue. See question #2. Second, they need a next step. Many groups don’t continue, because we didn’t ask them to. Lastly, every leader needs a coach. There’s a lot to unpack about coaching, but unless you are supporting your leaders, they will not last for the long term.
Q4. Some pastors are very cautious about lowering the bar on leadership. What would you say to them?
Don’t lower the bar on leadership. Delay the requirements.
Have you ever bought a car from a car dealer? You don’t start with all of the requirements and paperwork necessary to purchase a car. You start with a test drive. In the same way, potential leaders need to test drive small group leadership before they’re ready to seal the deal.
What’s the requirement for a test drive? A drivers license. The question you must answer is: What is the “drivers license” for a small group test drive in your church. For some, they’ll take anyone who is breathing. For others, it’s salvation, baptism, membership, an interview, and/or something else. In chapter 3 of the book, I talk about an acceptable level of risk. You must decide what your church is willing to try.
After group leaders do the test drive and decide to move forward in leading groups, then you can gently reintroduce the requirements you delayed. The end result looks a lot like what you expect from your current groups. You just have a lot more of them.
Q5. Where do you feel churches are missing it with small groups?
I believe some churches don’t think well enough of their people and assume they can’t or won’t lead. They might fear that if “anyone” can lead there will be a lot of problems. Let me assure you — there will be problems. But, the problems I’ve faced in both leading small groups at two churches and coaching other churches amount to about 2 percent of the total leaders you recruit. But, here’s the deal, you already have these problems. Small groups don’t create problems, but they can reveal the problems you already have.
The biggest mistake churches make by far is the lack of a coaching structure. This is difficult work, but it is the backbone of a lasting small group ministry. You cannot coach more than probably 30 leaders yourself. You can never hire all of the staff you need to oversee groups. But, if according to Exodus 18, you have leaders of 10s, leaders of 50s, leaders of 100s, and leaders of 1000s, you can get there. I’ve never had a small group staff. In fact, in the last church I served, we had 6,500 people, and I had one full time assistant. My leadership team was volunteer. My coaches were volunteer. The great thing is I had the privilege of working with people I could never afford to hire. Build a coaching structure or brace for impact.
Q5.5 You are a native Kansan who spent almost 20 years in California, and has now spent the last decade in South Carolina. What teams do you root for?
Well, for college basketball, it’s KU. (Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk). For college football, it’s Clemson. For MLB, it’s the San Francisco Giants. For NBA, it’s the Golden State Warriors. For NFL, I don’t care. How’s that for a mixed bag?
By Allen White
Greg Atkinson is the founder of Worship Impressions and author of Church Leadership Essentials, Strange Leadership, and Secrets of a Secret Shopper. Over his 20—plus years of ministry experience, Greg has served as the director of WorshipHouse Media and editor of Christian Media Magazine, as well as serving as a worship pastor, technical director, and campus pastor. Greg has worked with churches of all stages and sizes, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, as well as with businesses, non-profits, and organizations such as Josh McDowell Ministries.
Q1: You’ve done a lot of ministry in a lot of places over the last 22 years. How did you land on Guest Services?
I was coaching church planters through ARC (Association of Related Churches), and the President of ARC was Billy Hornsby. Billy and I were talking in a hotel lobby one day and he said, “Greg you ought to be a secret shopper.” At the time, I only new of one other secret shopper. Billy said, “You’ve been around the church for a while, you’ve served in various roles, and you know what to look for – you know what excellence looks like.” “And,” he said, “I’ll give you your first endorsement.” So Billy sent out a mass email to all the ARC churches telling them they ought to bring me in. Churches started contacting me and the rest is history.
Q2: What does your “Secret Shopper” process look like?
I evaluate everything as it relates to the weekend services. I start with an online presence evaluation before I ever arrive at the church in person. I evaluated the church’s use of social media, and I thoroughly go through their church website and offer feedback. Once I arrive on campus, I start with the parking lot and from there to everything you can imagine – from greeters and ushers, information center, children’s ministry, security, and a big eye towards the worship service itself (evaluating and giving feedback on music, sound, video, lights and the sermon – as well as service structure and flow). I even look at the restrooms and write about the smell of the facility. One church of 12,000 that I did a secret shopper for said, “He doesn’t miss a thing.” Another church of 17,000 said, “It was probably the best money we spent all year.” I take my job very seriously and it is my mission to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.
Q3: What are some common issues you find churches make with their First Impressions?
Of course, every church is different, but there are common issues that I see at a majority of churches. Things like: The wrong people serving in hospitality, assuming people know things (guest services, signage, communication), not taking security seriously, and not thinking through their website strategically. These are just a few of the things I notice frequently. I’m going to write a full feature article for Christianity Today on this subject and will go into much greater detail.
Q4: You’ve really learned a lot about what makes guests feel welcome. You should write a book.
Yes! I did actually. My next book entitled Secrets of a Secret Shopper is set to come out this September. I wrote this book for small to medium-sized churches that can’t afford to bring in myself or another consultant. I go into great detail of everything I look for when I do a secret shopper. There are things in the book that are beneficial and practical for large churches as well. This book is very practical and is something every pastor, church leader and guest services director and first impressions volunteers need to read. It’s a book that has been 9 years in the making. You can check my website: GregAtkinson.com for details on the book release. You can also check my secret shopper website (WorshipImpressions.com), to read more articles on first impressions and find out about when the book releases.
Q5: What is the strangest experience you’ve had secret shopping a church?
Almost getting arrested would be one. Almost getting tazed would be two. And getting a background check ran on me would be three. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell what led to the following “fun times.” All I can say is that I will test your church’s security and find its weaknesses. I just did a church secret shopper consultation for a medium-sized church two weeks ago and their “security team” saw me walking around and going places I shouldn’t. They just watched me, but didn’t engage me. At the end of the service, with every one their security team’s eye on me, they watched me go straight down the center aisle and approach the senior pastor. They were relieved when I hugged him. They should have had a security person present, standing next to the senior pastor. I thought it was strange that they didn’t engage me and say, “May I help you?” – Those 4 words are the biggest weapon or deterrent that any person in a church has on any given week. Please don’t forget that.
Q5.5: Being a Greer, South Carolina boy, Clemson or Carolina?
South Carolina Gamecocks all the way. Ever since I started watching football games with my grandfather as a young child, I’ve been a huge Gamecock fan and am excited for our future.
By Allen White
My guest today is Alan Danielson, the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.
Q1: You’re not new at small groups. Over the years, what trends/methods/strategies in forming groups have stood the test of time?
Oh boy, I have several things that come to mind. The first and most obvious answer is leadership. Every group that lasts needs a leader. There are “leaderless” methods for starting groups but these groups only last long-term when someone in the group demonstrates leadership. They may never actually give someone the title of leader, but make no mistake a truly “leaderless” group won’t be a group for long.
The second thing that pops into my head is coaching. I’m a huge believer in small group coaches. I’ve heard lots of people claim that coaching doesn’t work, but that has certainly not been my experience. By providing coaches to connect with and guide my small group leaders, I’ve given them all a lifeline and a partner. I once asked my friend Dave Treat why some people are down on small group coaching when it has proven to be so important to me. He said, “Coaching works, but people are lazy.” What that means is that coaching is hard work and it only works if pastors and other leaders will put in the effort needed.
Thirdly, I think of church wide small group campaigns. Campaigns are such a simple tool for launching new groups and getting new people connected. If a campaign is followed up by capable small group coaches, the new groups can last a long time and provide a great platform for discipleship.
Q2: When you think about methods like church-wide campaigns and other ways of rapidly forming groups, do you see these srategies going the long haul? Why or why not?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected only to see those groups fizzle out after a few months.
I’ve also seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected and then see the groups last and build tremendous relationships that change lives.
So what’s the difference? The first two things I talked about after your first question: leadership and coaching. At some point someone in the group has to take up the mantle of leader (whether they want the title or not). The perfect person to guide the would-be leader through that process is a small group coach. A well-trained coach can help people make the transition into leadership well. Without leaders and coaches, small groups quickly implode, collapse, dissolve or just fade away.
Q3: You’ve served as a small group champion as both a small group pastor and a senior pastor. Where have you been the most effective in group ministry? What made it more effective?
Well, it depends on what you call effective. When I was a campus small group pastor at Life.Church we developed 544 groups on a campus of 7,000 people. 544 groups sounds really impressive, but I was never impressed. We averaged 8.45 people per group which translated 4,597 people connected. That still sounds like a lot. But when compared to our campus attendance of 7,000 it meant that just under 66% of our weekend attenders were in groups. In school 66% is a D.
When I was promoted to executive groups pastor over all of our campuses we got to nearly 1,100 groups total for all of our campuses. That came out to 9,295 people in groups. At the time we were running 28,000 on all campuses meaning we had 33% of our total attendance in groups. That’s an F.
Now I’m the lead pastor of a church of 300 and we have about 80% of our people in groups. That’s much better.
What made the difference in these three different settings? Leadership and coaching. On the one campus where I led the small group ministry, coaching was a critical component. When I was given charge of all 13 campuses, we were in the middle of implementing our coaching ministry on all campuses. If I’d stayed there longer I believe we would have broken the 66% mark and gone even further.
Here’s the big takeaway: small groups and coaching work in all churches of all size. Success is determined not by the slickness of the strategy but by the break-neck-work-ethic of every leader involved (from the pastor to the group leader) and high value of small groups in the church. My current church will one day hit, and I believe exceed, the 100% mark because, as the lead pastor, I am committed to our strategy. Then I hire staff who share that commitment, who recruit coaches who share that commitment, who train leaders who share that commitment.
Q4: What is different about Group Life in Oklahoma than in other places?
The Food! When I was a pastor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you could be sure that every small group had some form of green chile every week. In Oklahoma there are lots of veggie trays, followed by some kind of meat and dessert.
Seriously though, I don’t really think there’s much difference. People are people everywhere you go. As I’ve consulted with churches all across the country I’ve noticed that people crave connection everywhere. Every neighborhood needs groups who will care for the neighborhood. Every person in every church needs healthy relationships and needs to grow spiritually. The biggest difference is simply one of awareness. In the Oklahoma (often called the buckle of the Bible Belt), more people in the culture are aware of small groups or Bible study groups. In Portland, Oregon the average person hasn’t heard of such a thing.
Q5: When we first met, you were the small groups pastor at LifeChurch.tv (now Life.Church). What did you small group structure look like across multiple campuses? Were groups consistent across campuses or did that matter?
The goal was to have a consistent group strategy and structure on all campuses. It was to be built on three basic building-blocks: leaders, coaches and campaigns. We did two campaigns every year, so we needed coaches on every campus who would develop great leaders in a very short time. That’s a pretty over-simplified summary, but I think you get the gist.
Anyway, when I became the point person overseeing groups on all campuses, the group ministries did not have a very consistent look. My predecessor had encouraged lots of experimentation on every campus, so there were definitely differences from one campus to the next. These differences were both good and bad. The good thing was that each of our 13 campuses was a laboratory where we could try different strategies and tactics. The bad thing was the tendency of the campus groups pastors becoming too attached to their own way of doing things. This led to quite a bit of tension.
Okay, before I continue I have to give you a little more context. What I’m saying may sound like I’m running down Life.Chruch, but that’s most definitely NOT my intent. Remember, when I was at Life.Church, the multi-site movement was still very new. In many ways we were making things up as we went along. We quickly became the biggest multi-site church in the country and had few examples to learn from, so we made a TON of mistakes. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing that we got an “F” for only 33% of our people in groups. But in this case and “F” is not automatically a failure. We didn’t necessarily view each experiment as “success” or “failure”, but as an “opportunity to learn”. Even things that didn’t pan out like we’d hoped taught us a lot.
So through all of this I learned that the most important part of leading multi-site small group ministry came down to the campus small group pastor. If the campus small group pastor was a teachable, team-player, he/she was far more likely to utilize the basics that we wanted to implement on each campus (the basics being the things I mentioned earlier: leaders, coaches and campaigns). The independent-type campus group pastors had a tendency to try to blaze their own trails. Rather than building upon something proven effective, they often tried to start building from a new foundation. This often led to slower success. Under my leadership, the ideal personality-mix for a campus group pastor was a creative person who is willing to learn from and follow their leadership. Rather than being trail blazers (or sometimes even rebels), these types of campus group pastors implemented the basics and experimented with ideas only if they would enhance or improve the basics.
Q5.5: As the co-owner of the second largest Star Wars fan site in the world, what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
It’s episode V, The Empire Strikes Back!
By Allen White
Michael Mack leads Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com), a ministry that partners with churches in making disciples in authentic, audacious community. He writes and equips leaders on the subject of small groups and teaches on small groups and discipleship at his alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University. He founded SmallGroups.com, has led the small group ministries in several churches, and is the author of numerous small group books and study guides. He and his wife, Heidi, and their four young adult children live in Pewee Valley, Kentucky.
Q1: Ok, you said to bring the tough questions about groups. A few years ago a pastor in Hawaii told me one of his new group leaders came to him and said the night before a man in his group asked, “How do I tell my wife that I used to be a woman before we were married?” How would you have advised this leader?
As Heather Zempel has wisely said, “Community Is Messy”! The truth is, small group leaders don’t have the answers to every small group question, and often neither do their pastors! Yet we serve the One who does have the answers, so the first thing I would do and advise this leader to do is to spend time in God’s presence, including in his Word, seeking his wisdom. After doing that, I’d tell the leader that the most important answer he gives this person is not the words he says but the love he gives him. As England Dan and John Ford Coley put it, “Love is the answer.” I’d tell the leader that this person in your group needs your acceptance, encouragement, partnership, support, and compassion more than a “right answer.” Be sure he knows you’re in his corner no matter what.
The pastor needs to ascertain whether this leader has what it will take to walk through this with this man in his group. Is he a shepherd? Is he willing and does he have the time, energy, patience, and spiritual and emotional maturity to help this man whom God has placed in his care? If so, he can move on to the following steps. If not, someone else from the church might need to be involved.
After I’d put those things in place, I’d counsel this leader to tell the man from his group to prayerfully find a Christian counselor whom he and his wife trust. The man should make an appointment with this counselor himself first to discuss this issue and seek the counselor’s advice. Then, if the counselor believes this is the best course of action, the man can invite his wife to join him in meeting with the counselor, at which time he can tell his wife this news.
The leader should promise the man he’ll be praying for him throughout this process, as long as it takes. He’ll support him as he takes strides to tell the truth, ask for forgiveness, and whatever steps he will need to take along the way.
Q2: A number of well-known churches have abandoned their coaching structures. Personally, I think this is a mistake. Why do so many churches struggle with a coaching structure for their groups?
I agree with you, Allen, that the coaching structure is critical in a growing group ministry, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as some make it out to be. The reasons it’s a hassle are: (1) small group point leaders would much rather work directly with their leaders than develop a structure that inherently separates them from the leaders; (2) it takes time and effort to discover, develop, and deploy coaches, and you have to not do other things in order to accomplish it; (3) the point leader may need to recruit coaches out of their pool of good leaders, and who wants to lose or overburden good leaders? (4) Some point leaders believe they must use a certain coaching structure from some book, another church, or conference, and it all sounds intimidating.
I believe the church needs to develop a coaching strategy that actually works for them That might end up looking like the good ol’ 5×5 model, peer coaching, or something totally different. The key is to provide each leader with just the right amount of coaching they actually need; no more and no less. I developed a coaching model similar to Steve Gladen’s. We provided new leaders with a 1:1 coach, who was usually the leader of the group they were previously in. But this was short-term, until the new leader didn’t need that much oversight. Next, I had a team of coaches who would work with about 3-8 leaders who still needed some but not a lot of direction and support. The largest group of our leaders, however, those who were experienced or senior leaders, had what we called PEPs: Prayer and Encouragement Partners. These were mostly older couples who had led or even just had a significant role in groups. Their job was to get in touch with their leaders (about 10-30 leaders) once a quarter or so just to say, “How are you doing? How can I pray for you? and Is there anything you need? The PEPs also sent them birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards. The leaders in this group knew where to go for help—to me or other leaders they knew, They also were the ones who would say, “I don’t really need a coach.” In fact, many of them were coaching other leaders.
The point is, this was a structure and process that worked well for us, but might not for someone else. God had already given me the resources I needed to put this structure together, so it made logical sense. I’d suggest that point leaders become very familiar with Ken Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership” model (Leadership and the One-Minute Manager) and use it in their training and coaching of leaders.
Q3: Give some examples of what successful coaching should look like.
From my answer to #2, it all depends on what the coach needs to do to coach that leader well. A new or inexperienced leader might need a bit more direction at first. But as the leader grows in competence, they probably need less and less direction and more coaching. As leaders become more competent, they need support—that is, praise, listening, and encouragement. As the leader becomes fully competent as well as fully committed to their role as a leader, the coaching becomes a delegation model; the leader can make almost all day-to-day decision on their own. Every leader needs to know they are valued; they need continual encouragement; and they need people praying for them and their vital ministry.
Q4: I first “met” you through your book, The Synergy Church. As Sunday school continues to decline across the country, what mistakes do you see churches making in transitioning from Sunday school to groups?
That was a lonnnnng time ago! I see two big mistakes churches make here. One is replacing one ministry for the other. Of course, that makes small groups the enemy in some people’s minds. Instead, I counsel churches to run both the old and the new parallel to each other. If it’s necessary to eventually replace SS with SGs (building space issues, for instance) continue to care for and support the classes and love the people there, while, at the same time, putting your energy into building your groups ministry.
The other mistake I often see is not really using a well-designed strategy to phase in the new small groups ministry. The point leader should be familiar with how the change bell curve (infusion of innovation curve) works, for instance. Develop a strategy to get from here to there and then work on all the tactics that will move you in that direction. The BIG question is not about what programs to use, but what our mission is and how we will accomplish it. Some churches have moved away from adult Sunday school and toward small groups … just because. Just because other successful churches are doing it. Just because small groups are the hip thing for churches to do. Just because Rick Warren’s church has small groups. None of those are great reasons.
Q5: How do you disciple people who are so distracted by the things of this world?
My good friend Murphy Belding always says, “The only person you can disciple is a willing one.” Willingness includes, I believe, a commitment to growing as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, and that commitment includes a willingness to live out Romans 12:2, not conforming to the world, but being transformed into a new person. So, I start with people who will make that commitment. This is what Jesus did, and when, as in the example of the rich young man, they are unwilling to count the cost and make that commitment, I must let them walk away from an authentic discipleship opportunity.
We must believe the truth that God is drawing every person to himself, that he is standing at the doors of their hearts knocking, asking to be invited in. If someone has not invited Jesus to come in and change them, I’m not going to get very far at all in trying to disciple that person. I think one of the key roles of teaching pastors is to call people from conformity to the world and into transformation. Small groups and one-on-one discipleship are environments where that transformation can take place, as the Holy Spirit works as only he can in a person’s life.
Q5.5: As the founder of smallgroups.com, which is now owned by Christianity Today, do you ever wish you’d kept it?
No. … Ask a closed-ended question and get a one-word reply! Yeah, like I could give one-word replies!
I believe God called me and gave me the opportunity to start this ministry, and early on I saw the potential of it, but then I also sensed that other people in God’s kingdom could move it to that potential better than I, so it was an easy decision to do just that. I’m simply a steward, not an owner of whatever God entrusts to me. A servant doesn’t get to keep anything.