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.
If you don’t care for your leaders, eventually you won’t have leaders. For more on coaching leaders, click here for the benefits of coaching and click here for my coaching mistakes.
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.
You can agree that it takes disciples to make disciples. When you think about groups, there are many parts – leaders, curriculum, group dynamics, training, coaching, and supervision. But, the most basic part of any group is someone who is willing to make themselves available to other people for the purpose of helping them to become more like Christ. While there is a definition of “disciple” that means student. There are other words translated “disciple” that mean “to follow” or “to rub off on.” Making disciples is a multidimensional enterprise. What does this have to do with getting the most new leaders next year?
Obstacles to Recruiting Leaders
Often the limitation of how many new leaders you can recruit stems from your definition of a leader. If you are looking for leaders according to the definition in Paul’s letters, then you are looking for a select group. You have a very small fishing pond in which to recruit new leaders. But, do you really need elders to lead small groups? Sometimes the word “leader” gets in your way.
If you think of disciples as students who are following a course of study, then you need very knowledgeable people to impart biblical and theological knowledge to the students in their small groups. You may have a few seminary trained folks or even a few who have spent copious hours in self-study, but you don’t have enough teachers or leaders to disciple as many people as you are responsible for.
Think about all of the people attending your in-person services, attending your online services, and listed in your church database. (To gauge the true size of your church, go here.) You have a much bigger responsibility than you realize. Yet, your methods of recruiting and developing leaders are lagging behind. (You’re probably thinking: Good grief, Allen. I thought you were trying to encourage me here. We are apparently still in a pandemic. Give us a break). Okay, I hear you, let’s talk about how you can get the most new leaders.
Every Church Attender Can Lead a Group
Every person in your church can lead somebody. If they can recommend a restaurant, they have influence. If they have influence, then they are leaders. If they know Jesus as their Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit (according to your definition), they have the light of the world. They have hope. They have truth. They have something to offer.
Start looking at your congregation (in-person and online) as an army instead of an audience. Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders. The people you have in your congregation right now are ready for their marching orders. The consumer Christians are gone. Don’t hesitate from challenging the people you have with bigger responsibilities. In the last two years you’ve lost just about as many as you are going to lose. If you ever wanted to change your church’s culture, now is the time.
Challenge every person in your church. Challenge every person in your worship service. Challenge every online attender to gather a group of friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. For the people you aren’t sure about, don’t advertise the group they gather. Start leading the church you have.
Stop Babying Your People
Your people have more to offer than you give them credit for. But, the only way you will find that out is if you stop doing things for them and encourage them to do things for themselves. I know some pastors are stuck on the “leader” or “teacher” concepts mentioned in the last section. Most of your people fall more in the category of “by now you ought to be teachers, but you still need to be taught” (Hebrews 5:12 – paraphrased).
Your people can gather a group of friends. Have they ever had a party?
Your people can follow the instructions of an easy-to-use, video-based curriculum. Have they ever watch a show on Netflix, followed a recipe, or built a piece of furniture from Ikea?
Your people are doing what you expect them to do. Or as Andy Stanley once said, “Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you’re getting.” (Amen or Ouch!?) Your people would do more if you expect them to do more. And, here’s the deal, your church has been through it over the last two years. The people you have right now are the survivors. They are committed. They are ready for action. If you give them permission and opportunity, they will start groups – even in a pandemic, even if they’ve never done it before, or even if you don’t think they can.
How did you get your children to move out of your house and become productive members of society? (I’ll be careful here. I’m still trying to launch one.) If you pay their bills, guide their every move, and let them stay, they will live in your basement for a very long time. If you expect them to pursue a career, start a family, and find a life on their own, they’ll do it. It’s natural. It’s normal. So, why do pastors create an abnormal relationship with their congregations? You will gain far more from sending people out than you ever will by keeping them. Who’s the next group leader? Who’s the next coach? Who’s the next small group pastor? Who’s the next church planter? Who’s the next senior pastor? They are sitting in your congregation just like you were at one time.
Think About This
God has given you a calling and a mission. God has also given you the ability to fulfill your calling and mission. You cannot possibly care for and disciple every person in your church in a personal and profound way. But, that is not your calling. You are called to “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). That doesn’t mean you need to stop teaching and making disciples. But, it does narrow the focus of who you teach and what you teach them. You must be a ministry multiplier to effectively disciple everyone who is truly part of your church. To disciple every online attender you must multiply yourself. Sure you can dispense content, but content only does half the job of development and discipleship. It takes a disciple to make a disciple.
How will you activate your people to make disciples this next year?
Now, before you take all of this and create a mess for yourself, you need to have a system in place to manage and develop this new crop of “leaders.” You need coaches. You need training. You need next steps. Don’t get stuck here. Because your success only requires developing the minimal amount of structure necessary to support this. For a glimpse of what this looks like, follow the 5-part video series called the Small Group Restart. It provides a road map of how to build this. If you start right now, you can launch the most new group leaders in just a few weeks.
Book: Exponential Groups and the Exponential Groups Workbook
Course: Leading an Exponential Groups Launch
Coaching: Small Group Ministry Coaching Group (Starts in January!)
Christ Church is a United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. They have been ranked as the third fastest growing UM church in the U.S. “We have a transient church. Our town is around a military community, so we get a lot of visitors. We have experienced some rapid growth over the years,” said Pam Huff, former Director of Connection and Discipleship (now retired).
When she first came to the church, groups were pretty disorganized. “There was no organization whatsoever. Small groups were pretty new in the beginning. There had been a lack of leadership. If I did anything else, I put some organization into the small group ministry.” Not only that, but she learned to leverage relationships in both forming groups and partnering new leaders with coaches.
To connect people, the church started using church-wide campaigns, but found that only a limited number of groups would continue. “At this point, we started to introduce the whole coaching system. I didn’t have good luck getting them established with my old groups, but our new groups responded well.” Pam looked over all of the church’s experienced leaders and invited those she believed would be the most supportive of the small group ministry. “The new leaders would come to a training event and meet the coaches there. Originally, I would assign new leaders to coaches, but then the leaders didn’t know who was calling them or why, even though I had told them they would get a call.” By providing an opportunity for coaches to connect directly with the new leaders, natural connections formed, and the coaching relationship began.
For group formation, the church didn’t put a lot of requirements on new leaders except for inviting members to their groups. “My only real requirement was that someone was a Christian. I would usually have a face-to-face contact with them, but there was no real vetting process for new leaders. We really encouraged people to do a lot of inviting themselves.”
The church supplemented personal invitations with opportunities for the congregation to sign up for specific groups after the worship service. “We would introduce the leaders during the service so people could put a face with a name. Then, the leaders would stand by their sign-up sheets in our Scripture Hall, which was a big gathering area.” People would sign up for the specific group they wanted to join.
The church found personal invitation and personal introduction at these sign-up events was far superior to assigning people to groups. “Sometimes people would fill out a card in the service indicating they wanted to join a group. When I reached out to them, I would never hear back from them. It’s almost like they were surprised that somebody actually contacted them.” By providing more active methods of forming groups like invitations and in-person sign-up opportunities, more people found their way into groups without all of the work of processing sign-up cards that never really netted many results.
The way Christ Church chose to form groups greatly determined the groups on-going success. Groups of friends indeed lasted longer than groups of strangers. Coaches gave new leaders the encouragement and support they need to both start and continue their groups. These simple adjustments helped Pam to start and keep more groups than ever before.
For more information on helping your groups to continue, check out the 3 Keys to Lasting Groups online course.
This case study is an excerpt from the Exponential Groups Workbook (Hendrickson 2020).
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.
Book: Becoming Barnabas: A Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller
Course: Coaching Exponential Groups by Allen White
Post: 3 Secrets of Building an Effective Coaching Structure
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?
Notice I said “start” a group and not “lead” a group. “Leader” is a loaded word. Maybe you don’t need a “leader” to start a group. But, beyond semantics, what is a risk you are willing to take? And, what seems too risky?
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.
When you look at your current leaders and other mature people in your church, who cares enough to walk alongside leaders? Oh, and here’s a great resource: Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller.
#6 What will the groups study?
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.
Some churches prefer to have their groups follow a weekly sermon discussion guide. There’s a certain genius in this approach. Some churches offer seasonal church-wide campaigns. This is a great first step in a leadership development process. But, in all of these efforts, as Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Not every group needs to do the discussion guide or join the church-wide campaign…and that’s okay.
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.)
What is your church’s leadership passionate about? Align small groups to follow those passions. After all people in groups will serve more, give more, attend more, reach more, and grow more than people who are not in groups. These findings are research-based: Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow, Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, the 2020 Megachurch Report by Dr. Warren Bird and Dr. Scott Thumma. (One study is 30 years old and another is a year old — all three validate each other).
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?
Looking to start or restart your small group ministry, let me guide you step by step. The Small Group Reset is a free, on-demand video resource. Get started now!