If people had no objections to leading small groups, your job would be very easy. They would just line up and sign up to lead a group. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. If you can help them overcome their objections, recruiting new leaders can get a whole lot easier. Here are some common objections and ways to overcome them:
“I am not a leader.”
Most people don’t feel they are a leader. But, most people have more leadership ability than they give themselves credit for. When the word “leader” gets in the way, change the word. Twenty years ago when the 40 Days of Purpose launched, churches started using “host” instead of leader. Now if your church has used “host” for the last 20 years, well, the jig is up. People know you just mean “leader.” But, there are other ways to recruit “leaders.”
Instead of recruiting to a title, recruit to a role. Last Sunday when I was recruiting new leaders at Mount Hope Church where I serve as the outsourced Small Group Pastor, the senior pastor and I invited people to “start a group” and “get together with a group of friends and do the study.” We recruited for the role.
If people can gather their friends, even if it’s “you plus two” or “me plus three,” they have the ability to lead a group. John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.” If they have enough influence to gather the group, they can keep the group going.
“I don’t know enough about the Bible.”
This objection can be overcome in a variety of ways. The church can provide a video-based curriculum which is either purchased or created by the church. The new leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert, because the expert is your pastor teaching on the video. That’s the quickest way to overcome this objection.
While the ultimate goal is to teach leaders to rightly divide the Word of Truth and lead a solid Bible discussion, a teaching video can help them get started. Once they start, then you can bring them along in their understanding of God’s Word. Think about Sunday school curriculum. Publishers created a teacher’s guide so that if at a minimum the person leading the class merely read the teacher’s quarterly, you would be assured the class would receive solid content. Teaching videos serve a similar purpose.
You’re not looking for teachers (because they will turn their groups into classes). If you don’t use a teaching video, then your new leaders will need to know the basics about the Bible. You could provide a short course on understanding the Bible either live or on-demand. Or the new leader could apprentice in a group for a while. This definitely lengthens the process of developing new leaders.
The small group leader’s role is to facilitate a discussion that leads to Bible application rather than to teach a lesson. You can provide a leader’s guide or leader notes in the lessons if that will help. You could send a coaching video to help the new leaders navigate the lesson topic or even meet with them weekly before their meeting to review the lesson. While I am partial to using a teaching video, these are several ways to prepare your leaders to facilitate a discussion.
“I don’t have time.”
Everybody has the same amount of time. When people say they don’t have time, what they are saying is that a small group is not a priority to them. Now, you could start hammering away on why a small group should be a priority to them. That might get a few more. But, how are your people spending their time?
Some churches offer Sunday school classes, midweek Bible studies, men’s prayer breakfasts, and women’s Bible studies. This might be their group. If it meets their needs for care, connection, and Bible application, then they might not need a group. In fact, you should count them as a group. More than likely they won’t double up and join a small group in addition to this class or Bible study. If their group or serving team doesn’t qualify as a ”small group” (What is your church’s definition of a small group?), then how could they become more “groupish.”
For people who are not in a group, class, or team, maybe you should ask, “Who do they spend time with?” Would they be willing to do a Bible study with the people they regularly spend time with? Many people will take you up on an offer to do a study with those they regularly spend time with– friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and others.
“I don’t want to meet with strangers.”
Then, gather a group of friends. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. Offer “Invitation Only” groups. In these groups the new leader invites 100% of the group. These groups aren’t advertised. They can do the study with people they are already comfortable with. The ultimate goal is not comfortable, but it comfort will help them start a group, then go with comfort.
“I don’t have my life together.”
Nobody has their life completely together. Look at the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. You’ve got murderers, prostitutes, polygamists, and a whole cast of sinners. God used them. God will use imperfect, broken people to lead groups. After all, those are the only people God has to work with.
Now, if someone is going through a personal crisis, you should address their personal issue before you give them the green light to lead a group. People who are experiencing marital problems and are separated or divorced need care themselves before they’re ready to care for others. People who are living an on-going immoral lifestyle need spiritual guidance before they can guide others. People who struggle with a life-controlling problem need to seek help and recovery first. You never want to give the impression that you care more about people serving than you care about them. Give them help, then when the time is right, let them lead.
How do you discern these issues? Ask them, especially if they are leading a group that will be advertised in any way. On the new leader application, ask them what’s going on in their lives. Oftentimes, they won’t turn in the application, but if they do it, then follow up with a warm pastoral conversation about what help they are open to.
You are not looking for perfect people to lead groups. There are no perfect people. To help imperfect people lead groups, give them a coach to walk alongside them. These coaching relationships will go a long way in both developing them as a leader as well as guiding their spiritual next steps. For more on coaching, click here.
“There are too many requirements to lead a group.”
Your simple answer is to delay as many requirements as possible. This is not permanently “lowering the bar.” You are putting aside requirements to attract more new leaders. You will gain the maximum number of new leaders with the minimal amount of requirements that your church leadership will tolerate. Don’t push your leadership beyond where they’re willing to go. Some churches’ only requirements are people who are breathing and willing. Other churches require church membership to lead a group. Others might require training, apprenticing, coaching, co-leading, etc. What could you delay? Start thinking about gathering a group of friends as the first step in your leadership development process. The requirements will all be brought back in due time.
“My home is not big enough or nice enough to host a group.”
If people invite their friends, they won’t be uncomfortable about meeting in their home. Their friends have already been there! They may need to start a smaller small group. That’s okay. If they are really uncomfortable meeting in their home, or if there is a family situation that doesn’t allow it, give them options to be creative. Groups can meet in coffee shops, bookstores, breakrooms at work, outdoors, community rooms at apartment complexes, a friend’s house, or online. At our church in California, we had a group who met on a commuter train. Just give your new leaders permission and opportunity to start a group in a way that works for them.
For 2021: “I’m nervous about COVID.”
Much information and misinformation exists about COVID. You don’t need to wade into accommodating every position and opinion. But, in every church there are those who are convinced that COVID is a killer and others who are convinced that COVID is a conspiracy. Then, there are yet others who are just trying to live their lives. With differences of opinion and differences in information, there is no one solution to address every concern over COVID. The good news is that this isn’t your problem to fix.
To help your potential leaders navigate their concerns over COVID, give them permission and opportunity to gather of group of anyone, anywhere, and any time. They may want to meet online, but that doesn’t just mean Zoom. Groups meet on Facebook, Marco Polo, text message, Slack, and any other place where people gather online. Facebook friends have become Facebook groups. Here are a few more thoughts about online groups and COVID.
The big lesson in 2020-2021 is that even when the church building is closed, Jesus will continue to build his church. Here are the trends I’m seeing. Across North America, while in-person worship attendance is down, giving is steady and salvations and baptisms are up. Could the church be doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission amid all of the chaos?
For your groups, go back to the principles that help groups thrive anyway — release control. Encourage your people to invite like-minded people to join their groups. Gather friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others. You don’t need to worry about what group is wearing masks or is vaccinated or is meeting online. Let your people figure this out for themselves. The more permission you give and the less involved you are, the stronger your groups will be.
Think About This
Most of your people are not chomping at the bit to add another responsibility to their lives. The easier you can make starting a group, the more groups you will have. And, once they get started, then you can develop them into the “qualified” leaders you desire.
What other objections are you hearing from prospective small group leaders? Reply in the comments.
The month prior to an alignment series or church-wide campaign is prime time to recruit new leaders and form new groups. If you want these groups to actually start (and keep going), they need a coach. Even if you only have a half dozen new leaders, it’s too much for you to add to your plate, and they won’t get the care they deserve. Here’s how to do it and why:
Coaches are Mission Critical
Your new leaders need the most help immediately after they say “yes” to starting a group. The window between making a commitment and starting a group is mission critical. In fact, you will lose more new leaders in this window than at any other time. Here’s how I know.
Our church in California launched 103 groups for an alignment series one fall. For a church of 800 adults, this was pretty good. After patting ourselves on the back, we surveyed these groups midway through the series to see how many planned to continue in the next series. Out of the 103 leaders, 30 of them said they weren’t going to continue. Of course, I always want them all to continue. I would have been happy if only 20 or fewer had dropped out. But, I wasn’t comfortable with 30 ending their groups. So, I sent another survey just to the 30.
Out of the 30, two of the leaders said their group enjoyed the study and just couldn’t continue at this time. The other 28 groups had never started! This led me to a very valuable principle: “Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.” These leaders had become discouraged. Some got cold feet. Others had invited some people to join their groups but got turned down. Overall, the enemy had done a number on these leaders to discourage and deflate them.
From that point on, every new leader received a coach to walk alongside them from when they said “yes” to starting a group through the end of the study. We had 105 groups for the next group launch. With the support of a coach, these groups started and thrived. Very few dropped out.
Coaches Help You Multiply Yourself
Without coaches, you tend to hold more meetings and send more emails. You’re not coaching your leaders. You’re spamming them.
As John Maxwell says, “Find someone who can do the job 30% as well as you can, then let them do it.” The truth is they can probably do the job 60% as well.
Face it – there is just not enough of you to go around. To make the biggest impact, multiply yourself and help more leaders. Bigger meetings are not the answer. More emails are not the answer. You must multiply yourself in order to truly serve your new group leaders.
Coaches are More Available
If your experienced leaders will make a weekly call to new leaders, they will receive the support they need to start (and continue) their groups. The job description is simple: (1) a weekly phone call, (2) encourage them, (3) answer their questions, and (4) pray for them. It’s up to you to call your “coaches” every week to hear what they are learning from the leaders.
Don’t ask your experienced leaders to give up their groups to coach. You don’t want to lose your best leaders (and most of them aren’t willing to give up their groups). But, don’t ask them to coach 10 new group leaders either. Invite them to coach one or two new leaders.
Remember that expectations should be Clear, Reasonable, and Accountable. If you re-read this section, that’s what has been outlined for new coaches here.
Think About This
Before you start recruiting new leaders, recruit a coach for them. Consider your current leaders. Whose groups would you like ten more just like them? Invite them to coach. Think about mature believers in your church. Would they care enough to make a weekly call?
You don’t need to coach all of your group leaders. If you currently don’t have a coaching structure, coaching every leader is a laudable goal. But, you don’t need to coach 100% of your leaders right off the bat. Your new leaders need the most help. Find a coach for them. Then, work your way toward a coach for every leader. And, remember, every leader doesn’t need the same type of coaching.
Your established leaders are okay for now. After all, they’ve been without a coach for a while. Ask them to use their experience to help your new leaders. Their experience will help new leaders get their groups started.
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?
At some point you encounter the thought, “There’s just not enough of me to go around.” When you consider your spouse, your family, your church, your groups, (and don’t forget yourself), this admission is accurate. You are insufficient to accomplish all that God has called you to do. But, this is not necessarily bad news.
Have you ever called tech support only to hear that your problem is “user error?” I am so relieved when it’s just user error. I don’t have to send my device in or buy a new one. The problem is me! This is great news, because I can fix me. Once you discover this, you can fix it!
Don’t Put a Lid on Your Small Groups.
Once upon a time my groups were stuck at 30% after seven years of very hard work building a small groups ministry. I handpicked all of the leaders. I trained all of the leaders. I coached all of the leaders. Our small group ministry had grown as far as it could under my leadership. At this point, there was a choice: (1) Blame my senior pastor for not promoting groups, (2) Blame our people for being selfish and unwilling to leave their groups to start new groups, (3) Find another job, or (4) Change myself.
After spending a fair amount of time on options 1 and 2, I finally came to the realization that the solution was to change myself. This wasn’t easy. After all, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.
John Maxwell coined “The Law of the Lid” which states, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” We were stuck at 30% of our congregation in groups, because that’s the most I could effectively lead by myself. If I didn’t multiply myself and raise my level of leadership, then our groups would never have grown.
Where Do You Start?
The bad news was that I wasn’t adequately serving my small group leaders. The good news was that I still had small group leaders. They had figured out how to lead their groups and keep them going. Now, I didn’t completely neglect them. We did a lot of training meetings that were half attended at best. (Did I also mention that I oversaw the entire children’s ministry, some of the church administration, and led worship for a season? It wasn’t a very good season.) I’ll stop making excuses. As John Maxwell also says, “People who are good at making excuses are usually good at little else.”
My motivation to shift my leadership came in the form of a crisis. We doubled our groups in one day. From a coaching perspective, I now had twice the problem. I wasn’t adequately coaching the leaders I had, then suddenly I had an equal number of new leaders. I was overwhelmed. Then, something dawned on me.
If half of my leaders were new, then that meant that the other half had some experience. While they weren’t trained as coaches, they had enough to answer the new leaders’ questions and encourage them. I matched them up in a buddy system. Looking back, it was quick and dirty and very chaotic, but it moved my leadership enough for the next time our groups doubled, which was six months later.
Empower Coaches to Serve.
Even though I had leveraged a crisis to recruit coaches, I still had another problem. Remember that part about “My name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” Yea, that didn’t go away quickly.
I had coaches. This was a big step. I had willing, capable, and experienced leaders to coach new small group leaders. But, my coaches became bored and frustrated.
I was still running the monthly huddles. I did all of the training. I sent the coaches into the groups to gather information for me. No wonder that one coach, Carol, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” She was!
This forced another leadership growing pain for me: if I didn’t get out of my coaches way, then I would lose my coaches. I’ll admit it – I was insecure. I had never led a small group ministry with 60% of our adults in groups. If 30% was too much for me to handle alone, then 60% was way beyond my ability individually. I couldn’t lose my coaches. But, I had only given my coaches half of what they needed.
I gave my coaches the tasks of coaching, but I hadn’t given them the authority of coaching. I trusted them to do the grunt work, but I didn’t trust them to make wise decisions. At this point two major shifts were necessary: (1) I needed to get over myself, and (2) I needed to invest more in the relationships with these coaches and allow them to invest in the leaders. This worked.
When I began to regard my coaches as partners rather than subordinates, they began to shine. They loved helping other leaders. And, I was grateful for the help.
Carl George, my friend and mentor, often asks: “How are you getting in the way of accomplishing your goals?”
Ministry is more decentralized than ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, many of the things you typically count on to monitor the health and activity of small groups aren’t functioning at their optimal level. How can you know what’s going on with your groups when your “dashboard” has short circuited?
Don’t Just Hope It Works.
If you launched a lot of new online groups in the last year or moved your established groups online, then your reporting system is probably not functioning quite as well as you’d like. But, if you are depending on a report to know what’s going on in your groups, you’re already in the weeds.
In-person leader meetings aren’t happening and online leader training is poorly attended. While it’s great to see everyone’s face, meetings are okay at dispensing information, but you still don’t know what’s going on in your groups.
Some have basically given up. They are hoping that one way or another, groups will survive the pandemic and come out okay. The truth is what you don’t know will hurt you.
Where Do Online Groups Need Help?
Your group leaders are facing issues they’ve never faced before. The stress of the global pandemic, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and political chaos has taken a toll. Overall mental health is precarious. Your group leaders may or may not be equipped to handle what they’re facing.
The sheer numbers of issues coming up among your people are too much for you to manage alone. You need a level of leadership between you and your leaders. This doesn’t mean becoming aloof to your leaders’ needs. It means that you have very quickly become stretched too thin. It’s time to bring in the reinforcements! Which of your established leaders could help you carry the load and care for your group leaders?
What’s the Next Step for Your Online Groups?
Where are you leading your online groups? Are they just a stop-gap until the pandemic ends? There is more potential in your temporary, online groups that you realize.
If people have stepped forward to lead a short-term online group with their friends, they have essentially self-identified as a potential group leader. If they are leading an egroup, book group, or something else that you’ve come up with, then give them the next step into small group leadership. But, don’t make the step too big. (If you haven’t launched short-term online groups, then start promoting now and launch “egroups” for the 30 days prior to Easter, which is the Lenten season.)
As I talk to pastors every day, churches and small groups are faced with very different restrictions and regulations depending on their region of the country. Even if churches and groups aren’t limited in meeting, some of your members may be avoiding physical contact out of an abundance of caution. People need connection and conversation. Use this season to experiment. Tell them you’re only doing this “because of COVID.” For every group that is divided over meeting in-person or online, start two groups. Then, give them a next step.
Give the group a study or a sermon discussion guide to use after Easter. Most short-term groups disband because they aren’t invited to continue. (That isn’t rocket science, but it sure took a long time for some of us to figure out.)
The link to successfully getting new groups launched and to help them continue is a coach who will encourage and instruct the leaders as they need help. You can’t host the meetings you used to. You can’t personally check in on dozens or hundreds of new leaders. You can’t write off these short-term groups and hope things get back to normal.
You have an amazing opportunity to grow your small group ministry in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Many of the other ministries in your church which might have competed for the same leaders and group members have been postponed or shut down. Nothing has cleared the deck of church activities like COVID. This is your opportunity. Assess your established leaders to recruit coaches. Ask your senior pastor to promote “egroups.” Then, buckle up!