Some pastors outgrow their jobs. Others find their jobs outgrow them. In 30 years of ministry and 16 years of consulting churches, I’ve witnesses the hard break of pastors putting their hearts and souls into their churches and small group ministries only to eventually become disqualified for their positions. As you grow your ministry, you must grow yourself.
A great example of this principle is found in Moses and how he handled the people’s disputes while they wandered in the desert. The Israelites numbered somewhere around 3 to 3.5 million. Moses spent his days resolving every conflict for all of them. Things became so bad that Moses’ wife and children left him (Exodus 18:2).
Moses’ father-in-law Jethro confronted him: “What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Moses’ answer sounds like a lot pastors I know (and a pastor I’ve been): (1) The people like coming to me and, (2) I’m the only one who can do it (18:15). Some of us think, “Well, isn’t that what good pastors are supposed to do? But, others might realize this all sounds a bit co-dependent. Moses needed to be needed. Have you ever known any pastors like that? To be honest, I didn’t need to be needed. I just needed to be in control. And, our small group ministry got stuck because of it. (Click here for more lessons on why small group coaching fails).
You Cannot Personally Pastor Everyone
If you have more than 10 small groups in your church, you have to decide who you are going to personally pastor. If you wear a lot of hats other than groups, 10 group leaders might be too many. While you may not think you don’t need any help, you have to realize that you are not giving adequate help and support to your leaders if you’re trying to do it all by yourself. You’re probably busy putting out fires, but you are not mentoring your leaders. You’re probably holding big training meetings that are half attended at best, but you’re not coaching your leaders. You might be sending a weekly email blast, but you’re still not training your leaders. You’re just spamming them. No wonder your leaders don’t respond!
Take a look at Jethro’s advice to Moses: “But select from all of the people some capable, honest men (and women) who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten” (Exodus 18:21). Jethro gave Moses the model for a small group coaching structure. The leaders of ten are small group leaders. The leaders of 50 and 100 are coaches. The leaders of 1,000 (if you have thousands) are a small group team (staff or volunteer).
But You Can Pastor the Right Ones
Growing your leadership does not mean that you stop pastoring and mentoring people. But, it does change your focus as to whom you invest in. You don’t need to handpick every small group leader, but you do want to handpick your coaches and your small group team. If you can only spend time with 10 leaders, then choose 10 leaders who are mentoring 10 other leaders. Now you’re set for 100 groups. If you have more than 100 groups, then choose 10 leaders who can mentor 10 coaches who are mentoring 10 leaders. Now you’ve covered 1,000 groups. (If you have more than 1,000 groups, then talk to Steve Gladen at Saddleback or Bill Willits at North Point.)
Who’s doing a great job with their groups? Which groups would you like to see 10 more just like them? Recruit these leaders to coach other leaders. If you have groups you don’t like or leaders who aren’t doing well – don’t recruit those! If you have leaders who are hard to get along with – don’t recruit those either. Recruit the ones who are doing a good job (and the ones you like!).
A Coaching Structure Will Save Your Ministry
You cannot possibly address every issue in every group. Seating group leaders in neat rows and lecturing them has never really solved a group problem. But, if an experienced leader builds a relationship with a new leader and gives them what they need when they need it, then they receive training that sticks. Think about it. What lessons have stuck with you? The ones that you learned when you were in the middle of a problem. Your leaders are just like you.
Your leaders need a spiritual covering. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I also don’t want to make too little of this. There is a spiritual battle afoot. The enemy comes to steal and to kill and to destroy (John 10:10). Leaders will become discouraged. Groups might become divisive. Your leaders and groups need a coach to care for them, encourage them, and lead them spiritually. By the time an issue gets to the pastor, the situation is usually out of control. Coaches can address problems while they’re still small and haven’t done much damage yet.
Isn’t It Easier to Do It Myself?
It depends on your goal. If you are in a church that only cares about having “some groups,” then you can probably get away with dabbling in groups and not attempting to connect the entire congregation. But, if your congregation and your small group ministry are growing, then doing everything by yourself becomes impossible. There is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in a day. Face it – you are one disaster from being out of a job! I know that sounds extreme, but it’s easy to cruise when problems haven’t raised their ugly heads. Eventually, something is going to blow!
I was reluctant to have coaches. I knew I needed them. I recruited a couple and only got in their way. Finally, after we had doubled our groups in one day (whole other story), I was forced to invite some experienced leaders to help me. Here was the invitation: “I don’t have this all figured out, but if you’re willing to help me build this, I really need your help.” Nobody turned down that invitation.
Start small and start building your coaching structure. Recruit coaches for your new leaders first. (Your other leaders have it figured out). And, the great thing about building a coaching structure like this is it can scale as your ministry grows!
What if the difference between success and failure lies in the few steps between the auditorium and the lobby? That’s what I witnessed about a year ago. The much beloved founding pastor of a multi-site, megachurch invited his congregation to open their homes and invite their friends to join them for a six week study the church had produced. The curriculum was awesome. The pastor did the teaching. The topic was relevant. It was a sure thing, but don’t be so sure.
At the close of the service, the pastor made an impassioned appeal for his members to take the next step and start their own group. But, it wasn’t just one next step, it was 20-30 next steps out to the lobby. That evening a crowd of 1,000 adults netted 18 groups. All of our hearts sank.
The pastor had said the right words. He was presenting the right offering at the right time. The church was familiar with small groups. Why the poor result?
Over the years, I’ve seen great messaging become ineffective simply by the distance between the invitation and the response. The best curriculum, the strongest leadership or even the most carefully crafted appeal can all unravel in a matter of minutes if the wrong step is given in recruiting group leaders. A few simple nuances can net a profound effect.
At that church, we made a quick change. Rather than prospective group hosts responding by signing up in the church lobby after the service, the new next step involved no steps at all. The response was simply to take out a card and sign up right there in the service. The cards were collected at the end of the service. The result went from 18 groups to 248 groups in less than 24 hours. The final result over the next three weeks was 1,100 new groups across all of their campuses.
I am convinced most people only think about church when they are sitting in church. Any effort to send people to the lobby or God forbid send them home to sign up on a website simply does not work. By the time well intended church members hit the threshold on Sunday morning, their stomachs have raced to lunch and their minds have raced to evacuating the premises as soon as possible. The moment has gone.
The closer you connect the invitation to the response, the better the response. If the invitation is made in a service, then collect the response in a service. If the same invitation is made by a video email at midweek, then collect the response in the email. By simply providing a link in the email, a willing member can click the link and sign up to start a group right on the spot.
In a perfect world, church members would go home, login to the church’s website, and sign up electronically. No fuss. No sign up cards. No data entry. Simple. That world does not exist. To send someone from the service to the lobby or to their computer to sign up is equal to making no invitation at all. The reverse is also true. To send an email midweek asking for a response the following Sunday is just wasted megabits.
Think like the people who sit in your rows.
What’s available to them in their row?
Is there a response card or do you create a card?
Do they have a pen?
Who will collect the cards? Are they placed in the offering, collected at the end of the service, or handed to an usher on the way out?
Maybe pen and paper doesn’t cut it. What else do they have? What about their cellphones? Can they send a text to a designated number (not yours!)?
When you send an email invitaiton, can they fill out a survey or a web form?
Missed opportunities occur when you can’t adequately collect the response. These thoughts may seem elementary. They may seem unnecessary. You may feel you are getting a good enough result from how your collecting responses now. Or are you?
I am a pastor, and I started to drive for Uber a few weeks ago. Why? Am I destitute? No, I currently work with 28 churches from across North America, and my book, Exponential Groups, comes out in February. To be honest, I was just curious and a little bored in my office one day. Driving for Uber has led to a few things I never expected.
1. As pastors we don’t fully understand the world we are called to win.
The problem is that we get our information from…other pastors or from other ministries. What if we could have a conversation with people who were far from God? I’ve tried that in the past. The reality is as soon as you reveal to a non-Christian that you are a pastor. You might as well have said that you are the only person in the world who suffers from both Ebola and the Zika virus. They usually look down, stutter, and come up with an excuse to escape the conversation. If they don’t run away, then they awkwardly try to come up with something religious that they think you might want to hear.
But, when you’re their Uber driver, that’s a different story. People tell their drivers all sorts of things. And, if it’s a group of people, especially Millennials, then they won’t talk to you, but you can eaves drop on their conversation. You have a focus group right there in your car.
The hardest part of your job is to listen, not to lecture. You can very quickly get an earful of what’s going on in your community. Some of it might shock you. But, your place is not to judge. It’s to drive.
I have gained insights into our culture that I couldn’t get any other way. My passengers will talk about life, religion, politics, you name it. Where else could I have a conversation with an African-American lesbian about what the presidential election means to her? It was a respectful conversation. She shook my hand at the end. In my Uber learnings, it doesn’t matter what I think. I want to hear what the passengers think.
2. Some pastors become accustomed to being served. It’s time to serve.
Now, don’t get mad. Pastors serve their congregations in a variety of ways every single day. I respect that. But, there’s something about opening a door for someone, or carrying their luggage, or changing the radio to a station you don’t listen to because it pleases the customer. You gain insights into how people work for a living. (I know you work…we covered that). But, imagine if driving for Uber were your only job? Could you live on what you make? For me, it connects me to people who serve others in general, whether it’s in restaurants, department stores, or anywhere else. You see the world differently, and you tip better, even if you were a good tipper before.
3. Pastors can minister to their passengers.
Not every passenger is having a great day. Some are tired from a long day at work. Some are worn out and ready to give up. Others are in a difficult relationship or are just in a very bad season of their lives.
I have invited passengers to church. I have occasionally given practical advice. One passenger even asked me to pray with them about the situation they are facing.
I didn’t come across as Mr. Preacher. I came across as the friendly Uber driver who was just trying to help. No better than them. No worse than them. I never counted on ministering to passengers.
Now, before you put your King James on the dashboard, remember that passengers rate you. If you make them uncomfortable, then they will give you a low rating. Too many low ratings, and well, you are back on the golf course and no longer driving for Uber.
4. What’s the Next Step?
Let’s get practical. I moved to Greenville, South Carolina to serve in a large church. In fact, 1 in 10 people in the Greenville area were part of our church at the time. What if someone recognizes me? I’ve only had that actually happen one time. If it happens again, then I think we could make a joke out of it.
If you live in a metro area, you might try driving on the other side of town. If you live in a small town, you might want to spend a day in the city (in the same state). Remember, you’re not driving the church bus. You are gathering information about the kind of people in your area and what they think about things.
If you want to try driving, it’s pretty easy to get started. If you want to drive for Uber, go to Uber.com and use invite code: RUDOLPHW51UE. (And, yes, I get a bonus if you use my code). Every state has different requirements. Be sure to read through it.
If you’re not brave enough to drive…ahem…then hire an Uber to take you somewhere and ask your driver questions. Just download the Uber app on your smartphone, and your first ride is free if you use this code: rudolphw51ue. (I get a free ride too).
Okay, this post may actually be among the looniest ideas I’ve ever presented, but what I’ve gained over the last few weeks is very insightful. Christians live in a world that makes less and less sense to us. Unchurched people aren’t going to conform to our norms any longer. It’s time that we rub shoulders with them and hear what they have to say. Oh, and if they ask what you do, then just tell them, “What I do is not that interesting, let’s talk about you…”
Maybe pastors driving for Uber sounds strange. I suppose we could just go hang out in bars instead…(or not).
My pastor, Perry Noble, got fired. You can find the details at newspring.cc. But, this isn’t the first time a pastor of mine got fired.
The first pastor I worked for was fired at the first church I served after I’d only been there a year and a half. I was 27 years old. I won’t give all the details of what happened because the pastor and his family are still around. It was devastating to me personally. It was especially devastating to our congregation. It was devastating to our pastor and his family.
Everyone had to grieve the loss. Some of that grief came out as anger. Some came out of sadness. Some came out as distrust. For everybody it was a little different. And people went from one stage to the next in grieving our loss.
I’ve been in the church all of my life. When I was young, I thought pastors were cut from a different cloth. Somehow God’s calling and anointing on their lives made them invincible or something more than human. My years in Bible college cured that.
For a few years in a row in college, every guest speaker we had for any kind of spiritual emphasis ended up having an affair and being fired by his church. Finally after about three years of this, we had this goofy red-headed preacher speak for our spiritual emphasis. We knew we were safe with him.
My Bible college years concluded with the whole disaster of Jim and Tammy Bakker, which was followed by the next disaster with Jimmy Swaggart. I found myself filled with a mix of disgust and sadness. People who had been responsible for so much…People who had a vast spiritual influence over so many other people…They lived their lives in irresponsible ways. They took their calling for granted. They assumed that they were God’s special boys and somehow deserved special treatment. They got mixed up.
God doesn’t call the gifted. God gifts the called. Sometimes people confuse God’s gifts as their own personal gifts. They become deceived by the fact that God will continue to use them even though they are allowing sin to continue to manifest in their lives. The Bible gives us a long list of broken people who are mightily used by God. I always wondered why God couldn’t find better people. As I’ve grown older I’ve discovered that God was using regular people, and there weren’t better ones.
So after witnessing years of people with influential ministries being fired, I became somewhat numb to all of this. But what I hadn’t experienced was facing this in my own church. I hadn’t experienced watching two-thirds of our congregation leave and all of the staff as well. I hadn’t experienced people apologize as they left the church because their lives were stressful enough, and they just couldn’t add church stress on top of all of that. I hadn’t experienced being a 27-year-old pastor with 85 people left not knowing what the future would hold. Fortunately for us that wasn’t the end of the story.
What’s interesting is we lost everybody who was in favor of the pastor, and we lost everybody who was against the pastor. The group we had left were the ones that were in favor of the church. Now some of the old timers will try to give me credit for holding the church together. The truth is God was the one holding the church together. I was just trying to hold myself together.
At one point I even sent out a few resumes to find a different job. In the type of church I’d grown up in, the new pastor always seem to want to select their own staff and would dismiss the old staff in sort of a Machiavellian fashion. I thought before the new guy shows up I better find a job and have some place to land. As I prayed about where to go next, God asked me “Who told you to send out resumes?” I knew I hadn’t been released. So I picked up the phone and called the churches that I had sent resumes to and ask them politely not to consider me for their positions. God meant for me to stay where I was.
But staying was a lot to deal with. Every person I ran into, whether they stayed with the church or had left, were still dealing with their grief from the experience. I got to the point that for a few weeks I would show up at the office around the crack of noon and leave by 3 p.m. because that’s about all I could take. I couldn’t even go to the post office or the supermarket without being cornered by someone who was either sad or angry or accusatory. I learned to listen a lot and not talk very much. I had to put my own grief aside in a way so that I could help others process theirs. I spent a lot of late nights looking up at the ceiling asking God if this was part of His Plan or somehow there’d been a mistake. It was part of His Plan
Our people more motivated. They wanted to change. They wanted anything other than what they already had. We changed the name of the church with no problem. We changed the ministry style of the church with no problem. We changed the music in the church with no problem.
When I left our church after 15 years, we had grown from 85 people to about 1,500. Our church was serving in the community in various ways. The church was steadily growing. There were more people in small groups then we had attending on the weekend service. I’m glad I stayed.
Today, opens a whole new chapter for NewSpring Church. Amid much sadness, confusion, and speculation, there is hope. “We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5, NASB).
Ralph is an employee at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen located near gate B14 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. ATL is my second home.
Rushing between gates yesterday, I decided to stop in for some spicy chicken. The line wasn’t long, but the tables were full. My eyes darted around trying to find a spot. If I couldn’t find one, then I’d be dining at my gate, which usually results in something spilled on my shirt. I was headed home, but nonetheless. Then, Ralph walked up to me.
He said, “Would you like a table?” Of course, I did. Then, Ralph said, “I will have this table ready for you right here. And, what would you like to drink?” I hadn’t even ordered yet. I told him sweet tea, then he said, “Alright, just stay in line to place your order.”
Once I had ordered and paid, my table was ready. Ralph had provided me with my drink, napkins, a plastic spork, and a straw. This is not what I expected from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at the airport.
As I ate, I noticed Ralph approached every customer in line and asked if they would like a table. If a couple was standing together, he would seat the lady and ask the gentleman to stand in line to place the order. I don’t know whether Popeye’s is trying a new strategy or if this was unique to Ralph, but it was quite remarkable.
Ralph was no ordinary dining room manager. Ralph was the maitre de at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at gate B14. He provided a level of service you never expect at any fast food restaurant except for maybe Chick-fil-A.
Next time I’m in the ATL, which will be soon, I will stop by Popeye’s near gate B14 again, but not just for the spicy chicken. I’ll stop by for Ralph and the spicy chicken.
What does your organization or business do when someone’s eyes are darting around looking for a solution? The regulars will make their way to where they need to go. But, new people will be looking around perplexed. What are you intentionally doing to help them? How’s your hospitality?
Most people are well aware of actor Robin Williams’ passing this week. The public outpouring from every sector is tremendous. This man touched a lot of people’s lives. Whether they embraced him as Mork from Ork, or “Captain, my captain,” or a DJ in Vietnam, or a loveable, hope-inspiring doctor in Patch Adams, Robin Williams connected deeply in a lighthearted way with such a broad cross section of people. His inner child was his outer adult, which shows bravery most of us lack. But, pastor, before Robin Williams appears in your sermon, here are a few things to consider:
1. Suicide has had a Personal Effect on Your Congregation.
Somehow, someway, everyone’s lives are touched by suicide. For me, it was a friend who took his life during the last week of Bible college, because he lived in such turmoil he could see no way forward. Most people don’t consider suicide, but some do. Some of the people who hear your words will see a friend or loved one in Robin Williams’ coffin. Others will see themselves.
If you send Robin Williams to Hell, you are also sending their loved ones there. If you send Robin Williams to Heaven, what are you saying to those whose thoughts venture to suicide in their darker moments. I’m intentionally not saying where to take this, but I am encouraging you to think about this.
2. Finding Jesus is NOT the Cure for Depression.
God can heal physical and mental diseases. No doubt. Personally, I have prayed for people who have received miraculous healing. I’ve also prayed with people who received miraculous grace that got them through one day at a time.
If Robin Williams had died of cancer or heart disease, we might be more understanding. After all, many physical illnesses are incurable. Mental illness is also incurable. While mental illness can be managed and treated, it never goes away.
For some reason, especially in the church, we often judge people who are mentally ill as making poor choices in their lives or somehow not fully trusting in God. It’s almost as if physical impairments can’t be helped, but mental impairments just require people to simply try harder. If trying hard cured mental illness, then mental illness would be cured, because I don’t ‘know of anyone who tries harder to fit in or just function than people who struggle with these diseases.
There are plenty of Christians who love Jesus with all of their hearts and have committed their entire lives to him, yet they are Schizophrenic, Bipolar, Clinically Depressed or smitten with another illness. There are also Christians who love Jesus, and they struggle with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and a number of other mostly preventable conditions which are actually within their control. Their deaths may not be imminent, but they certainly will come sooner than they should.
Mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than physical and spiritual matters. The fine line between the soul and spirit is hard to navigate. Can our souls be saved, while our minds are “lost”? That doesn’t even make sense. We are whole beings. Yet, just as the Apostle Paul prayed for his tormenting illness to disappear, God offered grace instead of healing.
3. The Church Must Do Something.
People suffering from mental illness are often misunderstood and stigmatized. As hard as they try, they often don’t fit in. If they have a family, the family often feels like outsiders as well. Where can they find acceptance and understanding? If it’s not the church, then where?
What help and support does your church offer to those with mental illness and their caregivers and families? Are they welcome through your doors? When they come, are you prepared to accept them? Will you offer support? Are there organizations in your community that your church can partner with? At a minimum, could you offer a meeting room for a NAMI group for free? Are you familiar with Rick and Kay Warren’s conference at Saddleback called The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church?
People with mental illness are exceptional. Certainly every mentally ill person is not a comic genius like Robin Williams, but they are exceptional because they don’t fit into the norm. Institutions are best equipped to serve those in the norm — schools, government, even the church cater to the average Joe. Most institutions are either too small to have resources or are too large to deal with exceptions. Yet, there are families with autistic children (1 in 88 children now) who will never fit into your Sunday school without being a “behavior problem.” Should they just stay home? After all, there are 87 out of 88 to pursue.
No one is doing great work with the mentally ill. They are constantly shuffled back and forth from agency to agency. Most will end up in jail or homeless or dead. The church possesses the hope of the world. If anyone should care, shouldn’t it be the church? Begin to equip yourself, and God will use you. Be open.
Before you mention Robin Williams, do you truly understand his illness? It’s not easy to reconcile a life that brought so much pleasure to so many, yet was tormented by so much pain. Before you go there, what are you willing to do to help the next “Robin Williams” who walks through your church door?
It was probably too soon to write a blog post about Robin Williams. But, so many posts and comments are appearing that are condemning Robin Williams and judging him without truly knowing him or understanding his struggle. I felt I needed to saysomething. This is a tragic loss.
If you need a sermon illustration for Sunday, use something else. It’s too soon. Robin Williams affected many, many lives and means so much to so many. A trite sermon illustration does him a disservice. He was a very special person, exceptional even.