The loneliness of small group leadership seems like a misnomer. After all, small group leaders, coaches, directors, and even small group pastors are in a group. Why would they feel lonely? This isn’t the loneliness as a person. This is the loneliness of the leader. It’s the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. The experience of leadership can be a lonely experience. Here’s how to alleviate loneliness for your leaders and yourself.
Offer Community Experiences for Group Leaders
Recently one of my small group leaders from a previous church was reminiscing about a retreat we did over 10 years ago. It was a great retreat. I had budgeted to bring in an excellent speaker. Our speaker was Carl George in this case. We planned the weekend to offer some down time in addition to having Carl take us through the Nine Keys of Effective Small Group Leadership. The setting was great. The teaching was stellar. However, the memory my small group leader shared was a group of leaders gathered around the fireplace sharing stories with each other. Internally, I thought, “Man, that was the highlight! What about Carl George!” People who offer community to others need community for themselves.
Community for small group leaders is easy to take for granted. Like I said, they’re in a group. They have community. But small group leaders need a community of leaders. My friend, Alan Pace, gave me the idea of gathering small group leaders in small groups every month to take the pulse of small group ministry in the church. These were informal lunches and coffee meetings just to hear what was going on in the groups. Usually the small group leaders answered each others’ questions. I just sat there and took notes. In fact, I often felt my most valuable contribution was initiating the gathering and picking up the check. Those informal conversations meant a lot to the leaders.
At Westover Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, the small group pastor, Johnny Junkhout, offers a hang out setting in a room at the church every Sunday. Leaders gather as they will to hear the latest about small groups at the church, have a question answered, meet a new coach, or just enjoy a community of leaders.
How are you offering community to your small group leaders?
Give Every Leader a Coach
Our church in California offered small groups for the first time in 1994. We chose 10 of the best and brightest in our congregation to lead the groups. All of the groups started in January. Then, all of the group leaders quit in December. The senior pastor and I asked them what happened. The response was, “We felt like lone rangers.” I have to admit that we were surprised. The church at the time was only about 350 adults. We talked to these leaders every week. But, we weren’t doing anything intentional for them as group leaders. They were experiencing community personally, even with the pastors, yet they lacked community as leaders.
We took a couple of years off from small groups to rethink our strategy. When we launched groups in 1997, every leader had a coach. Now, you may have a strong reaction to coaching. Building a coaching structure is hard work. But, it’s worthwhile work. Some of the largest churches in the country lack a coaching structure because they pay staff to coach their leaders. You probably don’t have that luxury.
At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina, we grew our small groups to 400 groups from 120 groups over four years. Every leader had a coach. Every coach had a director or community leader. I met with the community leaders once a month. I met with the group leaders twice a year: once for our annual church-wide campaign announcement in the fall, and the second at our annual off-campus retreat. The eight directors and 40 coaches were all volunteer positions. My only paid staff was my assistant and a part-time senior adult director. Yet, the leaders of leaders of leaders I had the privilege of working with were tremendous.
Find a Small Group Leadership Community for Yourself
Speaking of lonely, your job as the small group point person can also be a lonely experience. Even on a staff team, no one understands or appreciates small groups the way that you do. The student pastor is passionate about students. The worship pastor is passionate about worship. But, you’re probably the only one passionate about groups. But, you know, you should be. If you’re not passionate about groups, then who is? But, that doesn’t keep it from being a lonely experience.
Intentionally connect yourself to others in small group ministry. Find a local huddle of small group pastors through the Small Group Network. Join the SGN Facebook group and connect with others online. Reach out to other small group pastors in your denomination or association and invite then to lunch. (If you need a guest facilitator, give me a call!) If there’s not a group in your area, then start one. Join a cohort of small group pastors in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
What’s Your Next Move?
Small group leaders at every level need others to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It’s as easy as a lunch meeting or a text message. You don’t need to stand alone.
After working with P&G and PNC Financial Corp., Dr. Bill Donahue pastored in churches in Pennsylvania and Texas. He then joined the Willow Creek Community Church & Association (aka Global Leadership Network) for 18 years as Director of Group Life and Leadership, training leaders in the US and globally.
Admittedly, I am not very handy. Some people can very intuitively tackle home projects and do a brilliant job. I fall more into the category of the guy who takes a partially disassembled object to a professional only to hear, “You tried to fix this yourself.” I just hang my head in shame. But, Youtube has changed all of that for me.
A few years ago my dad gave me a car. It was a Cadillac. It was fast. Shortly after my father gifted this car to me, the windshield wipers began to turn on involuntarily. Rain or shine, they would just start going. Screech, screech, screech, screech! I had to run the washer just to give them something to do. So, I searched Youtube.
The problem was that the windshield wiper motor cap had corroded. This was a common problem for older Caddies. I ordered the part. When the part arrived, I followed the step-by-step instructions created by a gentleman in Alabama. It was a little work, but I fixed it myself and saved some significant money. But, I couldn’t fix all of that car’s problems.
One day the engine started making a noise…a very loud noise. I took it into the shop. The recommended fix was a new engine at the low, low price of $10,000, which would have doubled the value of the car. Youtube was not the solution to this problem. Carmax was the solution to this problem. The Cadillac went to the junk yard. I bought a new-to-me car. My DIY efforts even with the best Youtube videos could only go so far.
If you are building your small group ministry by yourself, there are a lot of great resources available that will help you achieve a significant level of success. If you work hard with the right ideas, models, and tools, you can reach 30% in groups pretty easily. That’s not a bad spot, except it’s a common place to get stuck. DIY small group ministry will only get you so far. Here is the downside of the DIY model:
You don’t have time.
You probably wear multiple hats in your church. If your sole role is small groups and discipleship, you are blessed. I never had that singular focus in either of the churches I served on staff. Growing churches have growing needs, so you’ve got to do a lot of things. The problem is you can’t give enough of your attention to any one area for very long. It leaves you feeling that you’re not good at anything. I’ve lived that.
Going back to the home DIY analogy, an old joke goes that a husband says to his wife, “It’s on my list. You don’t have to remind me every six months!” You need more group leaders to have more groups. You need coaches to support your group leaders. You need training to equip your coaches and leaders. You need to create a self-produced church-wide campaign to recruit more leaders and get more people into groups. But, you also need to take the youth group to camp. You need to lead a mission trip. You need to meet with the copier salesman (real one for me). And, and, and… you don’t have time to focus on groups in the way you want. Frustrating.
You face too many choices.
The enemy of one good solution is two or more equally good solutions. Should I clean the oil stain on the driveway with baking soda or Dawn dishwashing detergent? (It works on those baby birds). Do I buy a product to clean it, and if so, which one? Youtube has too many solutions to my problem. I know, I should just try one. But, what if it doesn’t work? What if I make it worse? Can I just paint the driveway? Should I hire someone?
When it comes to DIY Small Group Ministry, you face a more substantial dilemma – there are so many good and effective models out there. Do you go with Free Market Groups like Church of the Highlands? Or should it be Sermon-based like Larry Osborne or Semester-based like Nelson Searcy? Should your church do a church-wide campaign like Saddleback? With so many people still worshipping at home, maybe a house church is more appropriate right now. Or, do we go deep into discipleship? But, which one – Dgroups with Robby Gallaty, Real Life Ministries, Rooted, 3DM, DisciplesMade? Where do you start? What do you do? And, when will you find time to research all of that?
Your church isn’t the expert’s church.
Of course, the problem with most models is that they work amazingly well at the author’s church, but you don’t work at that church. Every church is unique. Your church has a unique history, culture, geography, ethnicity, denomination, size, vision, etc. Churches in the same denomination are different. Churches in the same region are different. Imposing another church’s small group model on your church will give you a partial result, but it is not the custom solution that you need. There’s nothing wrong with the model per se. It’s what you do with the model.
What I’ve learned over the last 17 years in working with over 1,500 churches across North America is that no two churches are exactly alike. In fact, in each of the small group ministry coaching groups I lead, we end up with eight different versions of the best practices we explore together. And, that’s about right.
You don’t know what to do next.
There are more than a few tasks around my house that are undone (and on my list) simply because I don’t know how to start. I’ll be honest. I doubt my ability to pull it off. I haven’t found the right Youtube video to lead the way. I’m busy. When I get to the end of the day, I’m tired. It’s hard to think about it. And, a little more honesty, we’ve lived with the problem this way for a while, so we’re kind of used to it. The answer often is to avoid the issue.
You know that you need to do something different, yet if you’re like me, you’d also like to avoid making a mistake. Let me share something that helped me.
Sometimes you need a guide.
After working very hard at DIY Small Group Ministry for seven years, our church connected 30% of our adults into groups. Then, our groups got stuck. I had read all of the books that you’ve read. I attended as many conferences as I could. I interviewed other pastors to see what worked in their churches. But, our groups were stuck.
Then, I joined a coaching group. The coach gave me new ideas, but more than that it gave our church new focus. It was expensive — $5,000 for a year. My church didn’t spend $5,000 on anything. But, when my pastor gave the green light for me to join the group, not only did I know that I was going to get some much needed help, but I also knew that my pastor was serious about groups. What would it look like if your pastor was serious about groups?
After only three weeks in the coaching group, we doubled our groups. It had taken seven years to get 30% into groups, then in one day we had 60% in groups. And, six months later, we doubled our groups again and ended by with 125% in groups! With a seasoned guide to walk alongside us as we built groups, we achieved results unlike anything we ever dreamed.
Now you have a choice.
You can continue the DIY approach to small group ministry and dabble in different small group models until you find what works. It’s a lot of hard work, but you’ll make progress eventually. Or, you can engage an experienced guide to help you.
Now, you probably know that I coach churches on their small groups in both coaching groups and individual coaching. But, there are other coaches out there like my friends, Chris Surratt and Mark Howell. The Small Group Network offers different strategy sessions. Pick something that is right for you. Find the help you need. Invest in yourself and in the future of your small group ministry.
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