Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
If you’re like most pastors a coaching structure for your small group leaders is a nagging idea in the back of your head. You would love to have the help, but the idea of building a coaching structure and connecting all of your leaders seems a bit daunting. In the meantime, it feels like you can manage your leaders by yourself, but there’s a drawback (see last week’s post).
Like the old adage of “How do you eat an elephant?” a coaching structure is built one piece at a time. Here are the three secrets to building an effective coaching structure one “bite” at a time:
Start by Coaching Your New Leaders Only.
Don’t paralyze yourself with the daunting task of matching every one of your leaders with a coach. Start with the leaders who need a coach the most – your new leaders. This works well for a couple of reasons.
First, new leaders need the most help. They’ve never lead a group before. Second, your experienced leaders are a wonderful pool of coach candidates. Any of your established leaders can answer new leaders’ questions and encourage them. They just share from their experience.
The other great thing about coaching new leaders is that they’ve never had the experience of not having a coach. As far as they know, every new leader at your church gets a coach. Whereas, if you announce to experienced leaders that they’re getting a coach, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Do new things with new people.
Build Relationships Not a Hierarchy
Coaching is built on a relationship. It’s not an administrative task. It’s not merely a management style. Coaches are NOT meant to be bureaucrats. Coaching is a relationship. If your previous attempts at coaching didn’t work, then examine the relationships between the leader and the coach. Chances are there wasn’t much of a relationship there.
When you are pairing coaches and leaders start by matching people who already know each other. If you’ve brought your prospective leaders or hosts into an orientation meeting, then instruct your coaches to make a beeline to the leaders they know when it comes time to select a coach. If the coach doesn’t know any of the new leaders, at least they’ve had the chance to meet in-person before the coaching starts.
While every one of your new leaders needs a coach, it’s okay to have a partially finished organizational chart. Put your perfectionism aside. Start by coaching your new leaders, then you can fill in the rest of the chart over time.
Every Leader is Not the Same
If you try to coach every leader on the same things, you will have many leaders who won’t respond well to coaching. If you gear your coaching toward new leaders, then you’re taking your experienced leaders back to kindergarten. If you focus more toward experience leaders, then you’re leading your new leaders in the dust.
Effective coaching is based on the group leaders’ needs. What do they need coaching on? What are they struggling with? What are their felt needs? Coaching based on addressing the questions, problems, and needs of group leaders is far more effective than coaching them on what you think they need to know. How do you know what to coach them on? Ask them.
Think about the developmental stages of your children. Babies have different needs than tweens. Toddlers have different needs than teenagers. Just like you wouldn’t teach your toddler to drive or attempt to spoon feed your tween, new leaders need more instruction and support while experienced leaders need more question-asking than instruction-giving. The great thing about coaching is that it’s completely customizable. You can deliver the exact training and encouragement to each leader when they need it.
Coaching is built on a relationship. Start by developing a relationship and building from there. When leaders know they can trust their coaches, then you will serve both your leaders and your coaches well.
Building a coaching structure is some of the hardest work in small group ministry, but once it’s built you can serve more people in a more effective way. And, the great thing is that once your coaching structure is built, it’s scalable. You won’t have to reorganized it as you grow. You just give everyone a promotion.
Almost every small group pastor or director will agree coaching small group leaders is important. Yet, many of those pastors would also admit they don’t know how to adequately coach their small group leaders. Having tried and failed at various coaching structures many times myself, I have found three key issues in unsuccessful (and eventually successful) coaching.
Many coaching structures fail simply because no one knows what a coach is supposed to do. Is the coach an administrator or record keeper? Is the coach a trainer? Is the coach a figurehead so we can say we have a coaching structure? What do we expect our coaches to do?
If we need coaches to train leaders, then why are small group pastors still running centralized training meetings? Do we really need coaches to collect rosters and reports? Don’t we live in the 21st century? After all, churchteams.com will solve all of these administrative issues. (In an effort for full disclosure, I believe ChurchTeams is the best small groups’ database on the planet. Boyd Pelley did not pay me to say that. He did buy me an ice cream once.)
What do we need coaches to do? We need coaches to do the things we can’t do ourselves. If we had, say, five small groups, then what would we do with those leaders? We’d call them on a regular basis. We’d get together for a cup of coffee. We would personally encourage them, answer their questions, and pray for them. We would invest in the relationship. What if our coaches started there? Coaching is based on relationship. If there’s no relationship, not much coaching will take place.
A friend of mind called me a while back. He was frustrated because many of his coaches were quitting. I asked him what he was asking them to do. He wanted his volunteer coaches to hold a monthly training meeting with their leaders on the church campus. Then, I asked him if he’d ever driven in his city?
This was a major metropolitan area. So, think of requiring volunteer small group coaches to hold monthly training meetings in the middle of one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. It wasn’t working, and his coaches were quitting.
Face to face meetings are great. If you can pull them off with all of your leaders together, that’s really great. But, most people can’t. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.
Why not meet “together” with small group leaders on freeconference.com or Skype? Every day I coach small group pastors across the country over the phone or by teleconference. I’ve met few of them in person, but we connect on a weekly basis. We have a relationship, and they have seen success in growing their groups. This works with leaders locally too.
Facetime is necessary (the real, in-person version). Again, coaching is built on a relationship. But, maybe the face to face meetings are with one or two group leaders and not all of them. We can use other means to connect at other times. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a simple “Like” on Facebook or a bulk email to all of the leaders at once. The connection must be personal to grow the relationship.
Lack of Accountability
None of us likes to make people uncomfortable. Some of us avoid this discomfort to the point of not asking our coaches if they’re coaching. Then, we discover not much coaching is taking place. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Only what we supervise gets done. Now, we don’t have to come down on our coaches like a ton of bricks, but we do need to ask. Rather than asking, “Have you contacted your leaders?” we should assume the good, qualified people we recruited to coach are actually coaching. The question could go like this, “What are you learning from your leaders?” They won’t get defensive.
They might respond, “Well, I haven’t contacted any of them lately.” That’s okay. Give them a deadline, “I understand you’re busy, but connect with your leaders in the next two weeks, then I’ll check-in with you again.” Presuming the best about our coaches both honors and motivates them. Giving them accountability helps them keep their commitment to coaching and eliminates the guilt of not fulfilling their commitment.
Effective, motivated coaches need direction that is clear, reasonable, and accountable. How do I know? A good coach taught me that…as he was resigning. Do your coaches know your expectations? Do you know your expectations? Are your requirements reasonable? And, if it’s truly important, are you holding them accountable? These three simple words will transform your coaching structure.
Catch The 10 Biggest Coaching Mistakes Webinar with Allen White on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 1pm Eastern. For more information: https://allenwhite.org/10biggest
Connect Church is an 83-year-old Wesleyan Church of 400 adults in Lawrence, Kansas. In recent years, they’ve started groups through church-wide campaigns for the first time and knew they would need help to support the group leaders with coaches.
“Before we didn’t have any kind of a coaching structure,” said Elizabeth Scheib, Connections and Communication Director. “I was caring for all of the leaders and not doing a very good job of it. I also tend to be a control freak. I wanted to control a lot of the processes and the things the leaders went through. But, we were stuck. We had plateaued.” The church at the time had an adult attendance of 350 with 165 people connected in 16 small groups. “It wasn’t impossible to coach 16 groups. It just wasn’t effective because the whole thing in coaching is about relationships.”
As the church began to embrace the Exponential Groups strategy of creating their own curriculum and making the Lead Pastor the spokesperson for groups, they knew many people would respond to host a group. They also knew these new hosts would need help. “If the host came out of a group, then their former group leader naturally became their coach since there was already a connection.” But many more people were about to host a group for the first time as well.
The established small group leaders were already in the practice of joining Elizabeth for a huddle twice a year prior to the two annual group launches. “I explained at the huddle that we wanted to grow our groups, so we were adding a layer to our structure called coaches. I asked them, if they had a heart to come alongside a new host and help them get off to a great start, we needed their help. Then, I explained the responsibilities and gave them a starter kit that included a coaching description and a coaching timeline.” Their leaders responded.
One new host almost immediately got cold feet after she had
volunteered to start a group. “We asked those who wanted to host a group to
come down to the front of the sanctuary after the worship service. We gave them
the information about starting a group and matched them up with a coach.”
In this case, a woman had talked herself out of hosting a
group by the time she had left the sanctuary. “I can’t do it,” she said. “My
husband is an introvert, and he never wanted to do it, but I felt like we
should.” Elizabeth encouraged the woman to give the group a chance. Her husband
could be the “kitchen guy and hang back where the introverts hang out.” She
could lead the discussion. Elizabeth also encouraged her to talk to her coach.
When the coach called her, they talked for an hour. “It was
laborious, but the coach was so gracious and had such a heart for this couple.”
They ended up leading a successful group for the eight-week commitment and even
added a potluck each week so the husband had a valued role. “It would not have
worked if they did not have constant encouragement and prayer from the coach.”
Another couple decided to host a group. They were extremely
gifted and had considerable experience leading groups. In fact, they were
involved in campus ministries at local colleges. But, they still needed a coach
to serve and support them, not in skills training, but in their own journey as
believers. “They knew how to lead a group. There were not foreigners to this.
But, I also knew that if I was going to make the coaching structure work, I
couldn’t give them a pass. I couldn’t be their coach. I knew from being in a
women’s group with the wife that they were going through some stuff.” The
couple was matched with another couple who coached them. “I assigned them to
coaches I knew would be able to really establish a deep spiritual relationship
with them.” Not long after the assignment, Elizabeth discovered the coaches had
already called them, and they had gone to coffee together. They didn’t need
someone to tell them how to lead a group discussion. But they did need some
prayer, encouragement, and friendship. They didn’t follow everything in the
coaching timeline, but they received the coaching they needed.
By recruiting experienced leaders to coach new hosts, Elizabeth discovered the church could provide the care the leaders needed, and she could provide the overall guidance for how the leaders were coached. By loosening the reins on coaching, the groups at Connect Church became unstuck. They went from plateaued to thriving.