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.
Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).
Carolyn Taketa is the Small Groups Pastor and a member of the Executive Team at Calvary Community Church, Westlake Village, California. Her responsibilities include leadership development, vision, strategies, and curriculum. She is a former attorney with a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley Law School, who has been leading small groups for over thirty years. She is a contributing author for Disciples’ Path from Lifeway Christian Resources, part of the editorial advisory team at Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com, and host of GroupTalk: Here to There monthly podcast for the global Small Group Network. Carolyn, her husband Donn, and their two daughters have been part of Calvary since 2001.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
Admittedly, I am not very handy. Some people can very intuitively tackle home projects and do a brilliant job. I fall more into the category of the guy who takes a partially disassembled object to a professional only to hear, “You tried to fix this yourself.” I just hang my head in shame. But, Youtube has changed all of that for me.
A few years ago my dad gave me a car. It was a Cadillac. It was fast. Shortly after my father gifted this car to me, the windshield wipers began to turn on involuntarily. Rain or shine, they would just start going. Screech, screech, screech, screech! I had to run the washer just to give them something to do. So, I searched Youtube.
The problem was that the windshield wiper motor cap had corroded. This was a common problem for older Caddies. I ordered the part. When the part arrived, I followed the step-by-step instructions created by a gentleman in Alabama. It was a little work, but I fixed it myself and saved some significant money. But, I couldn’t fix all of that car’s problems.
One day the engine started making a noise…a very loud noise. I took it into the shop. The recommended fix was a new engine at the low, low price of $10,000, which would have doubled the value of the car. Youtube was not the solution to this problem. Carmax was the solution to this problem. The Cadillac went to the junk yard. I bought a new-to-me car. My DIY efforts even with the best Youtube videos could only go so far.
If you are building your small group ministry by yourself, there are a lot of great resources available that will help you achieve a significant level of success. If you work hard with the right ideas, models, and tools, you can reach 30% in groups pretty easily. That’s not a bad spot, except it’s a common place to get stuck. DIY small group ministry will only get you so far. Here is the downside of the DIY model:
You don’t have time.
You probably wear multiple hats in your church. If your sole role is small groups and discipleship, you are blessed. I never had that singular focus in either of the churches I served on staff. Growing churches have growing needs, so you’ve got to do a lot of things. The problem is you can’t give enough of your attention to any one area for very long. It leaves you feeling that you’re not good at anything. I’ve lived that.
Going back to the home DIY analogy, an old joke goes that a husband says to his wife, “It’s on my list. You don’t have to remind me every six months!” You need more group leaders to have more groups. You need coaches to support your group leaders. You need training to equip your coaches and leaders. You need to create a self-produced church-wide campaign to recruit more leaders and get more people into groups. But, you also need to take the youth group to camp. You need to lead a mission trip. You need to meet with the copier salesman (real one for me). And, and, and… you don’t have time to focus on groups in the way you want. Frustrating.
You face too many choices.
The enemy of one good solution is two or more equally good solutions. Should I clean the oil stain on the driveway with baking soda or Dawn dishwashing detergent? (It works on those baby birds). Do I buy a product to clean it, and if so, which one? Youtube has too many solutions to my problem. I know, I should just try one. But, what if it doesn’t work? What if I make it worse? Can I just paint the driveway? Should I hire someone?
When it comes to DIY Small Group Ministry, you face a more substantial dilemma – there are so many good and effective models out there. Do you go with Free Market Groups like Church of the Highlands? Or should it be Sermon-based like Larry Osborne or Semester-based like Nelson Searcy? Should your church do a church-wide campaign like Saddleback? With so many people still worshipping at home, maybe a house church is more appropriate right now. Or, do we go deep into discipleship? But, which one – Dgroups with Robby Gallaty, Real Life Ministries, Rooted, 3DM, DisciplesMade? Where do you start? What do you do? And, when will you find time to research all of that?
Your church isn’t the expert’s church.
Of course, the problem with most models is that they work amazingly well at the author’s church, but you don’t work at that church. Every church is unique. Your church has a unique history, culture, geography, ethnicity, denomination, size, vision, etc. Churches in the same denomination are different. Churches in the same region are different. Imposing another church’s small group model on your church will give you a partial result, but it is not the custom solution that you need. There’s nothing wrong with the model per se. It’s what you do with the model.
What I’ve learned over the last 17 years in working with over 1,500 churches across North America is that no two churches are exactly alike. In fact, in each of the small group ministry coaching groups I lead, we end up with eight different versions of the best practices we explore together. And, that’s about right.
You don’t know what to do next.
There are more than a few tasks around my house that are undone (and on my list) simply because I don’t know how to start. I’ll be honest. I doubt my ability to pull it off. I haven’t found the right Youtube video to lead the way. I’m busy. When I get to the end of the day, I’m tired. It’s hard to think about it. And, a little more honesty, we’ve lived with the problem this way for a while, so we’re kind of used to it. The answer often is to avoid the issue.
You know that you need to do something different, yet if you’re like me, you’d also like to avoid making a mistake. Let me share something that helped me.
Sometimes you need a guide.
After working very hard at DIY Small Group Ministry for seven years, our church connected 30% of our adults into groups. Then, our groups got stuck. I had read all of the books that you’ve read. I attended as many conferences as I could. I interviewed other pastors to see what worked in their churches. But, our groups were stuck.
Then, I joined a coaching group. The coach gave me new ideas, but more than that it gave our church new focus. It was expensive — $5,000 for a year. My church didn’t spend $5,000 on anything. But, when my pastor gave the green light for me to join the group, not only did I know that I was going to get some much needed help, but I also knew that my pastor was serious about groups. What would it look like if your pastor was serious about groups?
After only three weeks in the coaching group, we doubled our groups. It had taken seven years to get 30% into groups, then in one day we had 60% in groups. And, six months later, we doubled our groups again and ended by with 125% in groups! With a seasoned guide to walk alongside us as we built groups, we achieved results unlike anything we ever dreamed.
Now you have a choice.
You can continue the DIY approach to small group ministry and dabble in different small group models until you find what works. It’s a lot of hard work, but you’ll make progress eventually. Or, you can engage an experienced guide to help you.
Now, you probably know that I coach churches on their small groups in both coaching groups and individual coaching. But, there are other coaches out there like my friends, Chris Surratt and Mark Howell. The Small Group Network offers different strategy sessions. Pick something that is right for you. Find the help you need. Invest in yourself and in the future of your small group ministry.
In this video, Allen outlines three trends he’s hearing from pastors across North America:
Salvations and Baptisms.
Personal Note: While I believe the global pandemic caused an abundant disruption to help churches realign their priorities, COVID also caused a great deal of heartache, grief, and loss. I lost my mother and another dear friend last year. Neither died from COVID, but my loss was and is profound. If you’ve lost someone or have dealt with tumultous circumstances, I can empathize. In highlighting what the cultural change has made possible for the Church, I would be remiss if I did not acknowlege the pain and devastation it has caused for many.
And, gives a few thoughts on making the biggest Kingdom Impact this fall.
Connecting the congregation into groups is a big challenge. I love this question from one of the members of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (It’s free. Join here!) Today, it’s an even bigger challenge because you also need to connect your online congregation into groups.
Why Do They Like the Worship Gatherings?
Let’s start by what people like about your worship gatherings. (Hint: It’s not the fog machine.) If people are not connected to each other, the reason they attend your worship gatherings is because of the senior pastor. They laugh at the jokes. They like your pastor’s teaching style. They enjoy your pastor’s personality. They are there because of your senior pastor. (Caution: Don’t mention this to your worship team. It will break their hearts).
To get your people interested in small groups, give them more of what they already like: your senior pastor’s teaching. Put your pastor’s teaching on video-based curriculum. Get your pastor to shoot 5-10 minute teaching segments for the groups to watch before they launch into the study. This takes the pressure off of the people starting groups. They don’t need to be the teacher. (And, you don’t want them teaching in the group anyway). People who start or join groups get exclusive content from your senior pastor. That’s a big win. But, how do you get your senior pastor to do it?
Well, this is just a guess, but I imagine if you tell your senior pastor that your congregation and your small groups want more of the pastor’s teaching, your pastor will find that pretty irresistible. With video-based curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, not only will your people be more interested in small groups, but your pastor will be more interested in small groups. That’s a huge win!
Where is your senior pastor headed with a series this fall? Chances are your pastor has preached on some version of this topic before? Dust up a few sermons from the files. Create 5-10 minute scripts from the sermons. Ask your pastor to commit two hours and six clean shirts, and you’ve got your video-based curriculum. Now just write a downloadable discussion guide or create a study guide for your congregation to purchase. (If this sounds like too much work, I can either coach you to do it, or do it for you).
What are Your People Interested in?
Since you are reading this post, chances are you’re a little “small groups on the brain” like me. You know all of the reasons why your people SHOULD be in groups. Yet, are your reasons the same as their reasons?
What do your people need? How do they believe a small group could help them grow spiritually? What kind of small group might they consider? What conditions would need to be in place in order for them to join?
I’m not giving you any answers on this one. But, now that I’ve given you some questions, go and ask your people what they might consider or what they are looking for. Listen to their objections. Listen to what would work for them. Then, offer them what they’re interested in. Remember: one size does not fit all.
How do you get this information? Send out a survey. Conduct a focus group (without calling it that). Talk to people who you think should have started a group by now, but haven’t. What’s going on with them? Once you’ve heard from your people, then create a new offering or multiple offerings for starting and joining groups. You don’t need to think through every possible contingency. As Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You just need to give your people permission and opportunity to start a group on their terms.
Let’s Connect the Dots
How do you get people who enjoy your worship gatherings to take interest in groups? By creating curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, both your pastor and your people will be more interested in groups. Then, by offering permission and opportunity to your people to start a group on their terms – how they meet, where they meet, who they meet with, and so on, you can get your people to take interest in small groups.
But, this is not without guardrails. You are determining what the group will study. It’s also wise to give a new leader an experienced leader to walk alongside them. You need enough of a structure to support your small group expansion without overwhelming the growth of your small group ministry. With the right system in place, you can start, sustain, and strengthen more groups in your church.