The last two years have been unprecedented, unbelievable, devastating, incredible. (Pretend this is the Amplified version of this blog. You pick the word!) Now, as the last holdouts for Coronavirus mandates, Oregon, Washington, and others, are planning to reduce their restrictions, it’s time to put COVID behind us and move forward as a church. But, moving forward is not the same as returning to life as it was in 2019. Here are some things you should expect.
Don’t Expect Everyone to Rush Back.
Churches that’ve been fully open for more than a year are seeing 50% in in-person worship. Your people fall into one of three categories: Cautious, Comfortable, or Curious. The cautious are still not sure they want to take the risk. While COVID numbers are falling, new variants are lurking around the globe. Maybe they’re concerned about their health or a loved one’s health. They will probably continue to stay away for a while. Many comparisons have been made between this pandemic and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919. Do you know when the Spanish Influenza completely disappeared? It lasted until 1951 when it was replaced by Bird Flu. (Sorry for that bit of bad news).
Some of your people are comfortable. It’s just more convenient to stay home in their pajamas to watch the worship service while they’re eating brunch. Bad habits have formed. Think of a health club membership. Health clubs survive on people paying their monthly dues but never showing up. They intend to show up, but they just have trouble getting there. The same is true for your congregation.
If your weekend service is largely built on programming, here’s the rub – people can equally access programming at home. So, why don’t you just cancel your online stream? Because they will switch over to someone else’s online stream. Your weekend service has to be more than programming. They might have come for programming initially, but they will come back for community. It’s time to rethink your Sunday morning. No one is going to start attending in-person again just because they are “supposed to.” Those folks are already attending in person.
The third group who’ve been watching online are the curious. They’ve enjoyed watching the service without anyone watching them. This is the group to pay attention to when they show up in-person. They aren’t a “first time guest.” They’ve been watching online for weeks to months. When they show up, they are ready for next steps. A pastor told me recently that someone showed up for the first time in-person, made a profession of faith, attended their Growth Track, and joined a small group – all in one day! When they show up, be ready to engage with them.
Don’t Expect Volunteer Roles to Fill Immediately.
During the pandemic, people divested themselves of everything – going to the office, attending worship services, going to school, volunteering their time, shopping for groceries, going out to dinner, and everything else. Why go somewhere when it can be brought to you? Why live in San Francisco with its high taxes, when you can telecommute from Miami and pay no state income tax at all? Why go out to a movie, when you can Netflix and chill at home? The world has changed.
Many churches who have been open for a while have struggled to offer additional worship services because they just don’t have the help they need in children’s ministry. Some of the workers left. Some of the workers continue to stay home. Some went somewhere else. Others were just burned out. Much energy and effort will be required to rebuild this. You should count on those who are already gathered in-person to help before you expect folks to show up and reengage immediately. Lead the folks you have.
Expect People to be Gone.
The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 was followed by the Roaring 20’s. (Hey, we’re in the 20’s). Two significant things happened after 1919. First, the Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again. People put it completely behind them and didn’t talk about it anymore. Second, people were gone. They traveled extensively both nationally and internationally. They had been cooped up for too long. They had been limited for too long. Now, they were gone.
The Gauge Group, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicted during the fourth quarter of 2021 that people were planning for Spring travel at the end of 2021. If you don’t believe me, just check the prices of an AirBNB in the hot vacation spots!
What does this mean for you and your church? Don’t make big plans following Easter 2022. While every church is different based on its region of the country, many people will be gone and you won’t see them much until fall 2022. One exception: I am working with a church in Gresham, Oregon, whose school year extends into June, so their people typically stay engaged until then, but people aren’t officially back in their church until mid-October! Follow the patterns of your community, but if you’re launching groups after Easter plan for a smaller launch. In these COVID times, any gain is significant!
Expect a Small Group Boom in the Fall.
Barring a fourth major COVID variant in North America, fall 2022 should be prime for a small group boom. Honestly, I thought this would come a lot sooner. I hadn’t anticipated the Delta and Omicron variants. But, if things continue as they currently are, then fall 2022 should be huge for small groups.
Begin planning for a major fall small group launch. Create your own curriculum or purchase a great published curriculum. Open things up so as many of your people: in-person and online can start a group with their friends. Remember what Jesus said: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37, NIV). Look for “workers” not “leaders.” There’s a difference!
Think About This
As much as you are weary of pivoting in the new normal, things have changed. In a recent webinar, Jeff Vanderstelt said, “The Reformation brought the Bible back to the people. [This disruption] brought the mission back to the people.” How can you empower and equip your people to fulfill the mission? How can you decentralize ministry in your church? How can you give your people ministry responsibilities and not just ministry tasks?
Heather Zempel serves as the Discipleship Pastor and Ministries Director at National Community Church in Washington, DC. With a background in biological engineering and experience as a policy advisor in the United States Senate, she brings a unique perspective to ministry, leadership, and discipleship. Heather is the author of several books including the most recent, Amazed and Confused and Big Change, Small Groups. She loves football, BBQ, and having adventures with her husband Ryan and fun-loving daughter Sawyer Elizabeth.
The last two years have brought a decade’s worth of change to the culture and to the church. If unchurched people were reluctant to visit your church before, why would they come now and risk getting sick, right? Clearly, the new front door of the church is the online worship service. The side door of your church is (and has been) small groups. Think about how you can connect with more unchurched people online and through your groups.
What do People in Your Community Need?
What are their biggest needs? Many people are struggling with worry and anxiety. In fact, the head of curriculum at Zondervan recently told me that their top selling Bible studies are all about worry and anxiety. Could you launch a small group study about worry and anxiety? Here are some options. But, there are many other needs.
Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, or their parenting. This is a great opportunity to offer an online webinar on these topics that leads to on-going small groups. Don’t skip that on-going part. That’s where the real benefit happens.
What are the physical needs of your neighbors? Whether people are neighbors to the church or neighbors of your small groups, what do they need? Do they need financial help? Do they need childcare? How can your groups meet these needs?
If you aren’t sure about the needs in your community, ask them. Send a postcard or email asking them to take a survey in exchange for a Chick-fil-A gift card or similar. If you’re tough, then go knock on some doors. Ask your small group leaders about what their neighbors and co-workers are concerned about. Identify the real needs, and then do something about it.
What Does Your Church Do Best?
What are the collective gifts and abilities of your church members and your small groups? How could your members and groups meet the needs of your community? Even if your church doesn’t have an abundance of finances to share, how could your people serve? With worship attendance down, you don’t have the needs for guest services like you did before. How can you mobilize this time and talent to serve in your community? What non-profit organizations need help?
If you want to attract young families to your church, offer a Kids Night Out. Your church provides free childcare during the evening, so parents can go out on a date, and the church has an opportunity to minister to children. These family connections could lead to something bigger.
A while back I talked to a pastor in rural Indiana. The biggest issue in his community was opiod addiction. His church was small with mostly elderly members, but his church offered what they had to people struggling with addiction. They gave warm meals, relationship, and love. It’s just what the addicts needed.
What is your church gifted to do? Do it.
What are You Willing to Try?
The first thing is to evaluate all of the current ministries and roles in your church. What is bearing fruit? Keep that. What is struggling, but could get going with a little effort? Give it the effort. What is on life support? It’s probably time for that to go. You have limited time, energy, and resources. You have to invest in what’s bearing the most fruit for your church.
Pilot something. Try something new “because of COVID.” Experiment with varieties of online groups. Dip your toe into the waters of digital discipleship. Get the church outside of the four walls of your building and show your community what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. Show them that you are people who love and accept no matter what. Show them genuine, loving people who don’t have a political agenda or an allegiance apart from Jesus. Your loving Savior is still very attractive to unchurched people.
Think About This
I am the first to admit that the church and ministry have been completely discombobulated. This isn’t the governments’ doing. This isn’t the pandemics’ doing. This is God’s doing. Why has God chosen to so confuse things that your church needs to realign its priorities and do things differently?
Back in the 90’s we approached ministry like the Field of Dreams: If we build it, they will come. When COVID hit, they left. You have to move forward. You have to lead the church you have and not the church you lost. It’s painful. It’s sorrowful. You have a loss to mourn. But, you have an opportunity to reach lost and hurting people in unprecedented ways. 2019 isn’t coming back. How will you reach the unchurched in 2022?
How is your church connecting with unchurched people? Let me know in the comments.
You work hard. You’ve learned a lot. You are growing your small groups both numerically and spiritually. Your hard work should pay off. But, a promotion is not necessarily a bigger salary or a larger title (but it could be!) Your small group ministry will grow. Your time will not. How are you preparing yourself for what’s ahead?
Many small group pastors and directors start out as small group leaders. By virtue of the fact that you are now leading the small group ministry at your church, you have already received a promotion somewhere along the way. Who are you leading now? Maybe you’re leading a handful of groups. Then you’re probably okay for now. Maybe you’re leading dozens of groups. You’re probably not doing as well as you did when it was only a handful. You need help. Maybe you’re leading hundreds of groups. If that’s the case, then you are completely overwhelmed. You are either barely keeping your head above water, or you’ve convinced yourself that an email newsletter, occasional meetings, and a reporting system are adequate to sustain a large small group ministry. Don’t kid yourself.
If you’ve got dozens of groups, then give yourself a promotion. Recruit and develop coaches to serve the small group leaders, then you will serve the coaches. If you’ve got hundreds of groups, then you deserve two promotions – not only should coaches serve the leaders, but a small group team should serve the coaches. You only meet with eight or so leaders of leaders. These leaders could be paid staff, but in the churches I’ve served these leaders volunteered their time and abilities. Honestly, I had a better team than I could ever afford to hire. But, where do you find these leaders of leaders?
Are You Sharing Responsibilities?
Think about all of the things you are doing right now. Make three lists — what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you hate to do. Take a minute right now and make your lists. I’ll wait.
Now, make a plan to give away everything you hate to do. There are people in your church who would love to do the things you hate to do. Years ago, every member of our church filled out a paper health assessment during a service and turned it in. Now the task was to input all of those paper surveys into a database. (Why did we use paper? Well, it was pre-COVID and pre-smartphone. Stay with me.) I asked for volunteers to help with data entry. Three people stepped up, and three days later the job was done. If that was up to me, those surveys would still be sitting on my desk. There are people who would love to do what you hate to do. Let them do it! This was the easy one.
What are the things you like to do? How can you recruit and develop people to do these things? John Maxwell says, “If someone can do the job 30 percent as well as you can, let them do it. Most likely they can do it 60 percent as well.” But, if you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you’re the only one that can do it, and people like coming to you. Moses had this same issue in Exodus 18. Read more about delegating leadership here.
You need more help, but you need the right help. When you look at your small group leaders, whose groups would you like to see more of? Recruit those leaders to coach others. Which groups do you not want to see more of? Skip those. For more on recruiting coaches, go here.
The biggest issue is not finding qualified people to lead at a higher level. My biggest issue was getting out of their way and letting them use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve other leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely hands-off. Everyone and everything was supervised. I just had to come to the realization that my coaches could be more available and serve the leaders better than I could, and that the leaders didn’t need me as much as I thought they did.
Now, let’s take stock. If you’ve given away all of the things you hate to do and are in the process of giving away the things you like to do, then what’s left? The things you love to do. Wouldn’t you love to have more time to do the things you love to do. You can, if you follow this plan.
Are You Raising Up Leaders?
Ask others to read the books you are reading. Bring them to the conferences you attend. Share the podcasts you listen to. Then, get together and talk about what they’re learning and how they’re applying it. Develop a monthly circle of leaders who get together for lunch to discuss leadership principles. If you want to draw out the leaders in your church, offer a group, a conference, or a workshop on leadership. Simply by calling something a “Leadership [Fill in the Blank],” you will quickly identify the leaders or wannabe leaders in your church. Once you know who can lead, then give them a next step.
You don’t want to give anyone the keys before giving them a test drive. If you love to mentor individuals or small groups of people, then pour your efforts into a small group of people who can lead others. Start by asking them to help you by walking alongside new leaders for one alignment series or semester. See how they do. See if they like helping other leaders. See if they’re any good at it. For those who do well, invite them to coach more. For those who didn’t do well (or didn’t do it at all), just thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
The Legacy You Leave is the Leaders You’ve Developed
Think about the steps you took in becoming a leader. Did someone just ask you one day to step into the role where you currently serve? Probably not. Someone saw something in you. Someone gave you a chance. Someone invested in you. Who can you invest in?
In a recent conversation with Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church, Washington DC, she shared how a number of former small group leaders who got their start at NCC are now leading in larger capacities across the US. Heather mentored Will Johnston (Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA), Ashley Anderson (Campus Director, NCC), Brad Dupre (Next Level Church, NH), Jonathan Shrader (Reservoir Church, CA), and Clynt Reddy (River Valley Church, Minneapolis, MN). (Catch my interview with Heather Zempel on the Exponential Groups Podcast in a couple of weeks).
What will your legacy be?
Think About This
Ministry done right is all about working yourself out of a job. You might like your job, but sometimes you have to give up to go up. What are you willing to give up? What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years? How are you preparing for what’s ahead?
When you leave your current position and/or your current church, will the small group ministry you’ve built stand or fall? While the church’s next hire will fill the position you left, the success of your small group ministry is a leadership team who will outlast you. Who are you investing in? What are you letting them do?
As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
If you need more leaders and even people just to help in your church, you are in good company these days. With low attendance numbers dragging on into the third year since COVID began, the leadership deficit in most churches is bigger than it’s ever been. Small groups are a great catalyst for growing leaders.
Every Disciple Can Make a Disciple
Sometimes you can get a little triggered when we hear the word “leader.” It’s a weighty word. Your mind goes to Paul’s qualifications for elders in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But, as my friend Randal Alquist at Vertical Church in Connecticut says that when it comes to small group leaders, “We’re not recruiting elders here.” You have more knowledgeable and willing people than you give your church credit for. Give them a chance. If they have friends, they can make disciples. But, you don’t want to lower the bar on the title of “leader.”
Paul says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Keep the leadership bar high. Only call someone a “leader” once they’ve met the requirements and have received training. But also remember that you don’t need a “leader” to make a disciple. You need a disciple to make a disciple.
When you read “every disciple can make a disciple,” your mind immediately goes to some special people in your church. They’re probably people you would never imagine leading a group or discipling anybody. First, don’t be so closed minded. Crazy people have the unique ability to minister to other crazy people. Second, as my friend Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You might be tempted to create an entire system to account for the exceptions. Don’t. Remember that 98% of your people will do a great job leading a group and discipling others. Don’t avoid trying something new or moving forward because someone might cause a problem. As my friend Mark Howell says, “There is no problem-free.” (I just realized that I’m blessed to have so many great friends).
Create an Easy Entry Point
For your people who are not ready to be called a “leader,” create an opportunity for a low risk trial run. This could be as simple as “getting together with your friends and doing a study” for a short-term study of six weeks or so. Provide a video-based curriculum, so they don’t have to teach. (You don’t want them to teach if they’re not trained). You provide an experience leader to walk alongside them to both help and supervise. Then, they invite their friends. Who will they invite?
Let’s say the scale of spiritual growth is 0 – 10. Zero are those who haven’t committed their lives to Christ. Tens are those who are “Jesus Jr.” Everyone falls somewhere on the scale. Now, if a spiritual three starts a group open to anybody and fives, sixes, and sevens show up, what’s going to happen? It will be a terrible experience. The spiritual three is still trying to figure out where the book of Habakkuk is, which makes the group rolls their eyes. But, what if that same three invites his or her friends. Who will be invited? The group will probably be threes, twos, ones, zeros, negative twos, etc.
Don’t Advertise These Groups
If you truly want to take the risk out of these groups, then don’t advertise them or send anyone to these groups. If you put the groups on your website or refer the group to someone, you’ve given the group an implied endorsement. If the “leader” hasn’t met the requirements to lead a group or lacks experience in leading, then those who sign up will experience disappointment. Their expectations weren’t met.
But, if someone gathers their friends, then their friends should know what they’re in for. It’s their friend. In my experience, I’ve never heard someone complain, “My friend’s group is terrible. I can’t believe you let them lead a group. They don’t know what they’re doing.” If they complain about their friend, my reply would be, “It’s your friend. This is on you, not on me.” But, I’ve never heard that complaint. People give grace to their friends.
A Six Week Study is Just a Start
An alignment series or church-wide campaign is the start of a leadership development process. If they enjoy doing a study with their friends, then offer them another study to continue. Once they have two studies under their belt, then begin to reintroduce the leadership requirements you delayed. Once they have met the requirements, then you can call them “leaders.”
Churches who keep a low bar on leadership for years create a situation with a diminishing return. If series after series is presented as too easy, then campaigns will become unimportant to your members. After all if you don’t increase the requirements for leaders and expect more of group members, then they will regard what you’re offering as unimportant. As my friend Carl George once said, “Churches have a one to three year window to get people into groups with campaigns.” After that, your members will suffer what I call campaign fatigue. They become weary of church-wide push after church-wide push.
You’ve got to know when to offer an easy entry point, when to reintroduce the requirements, and when to challenge your groups in their spiritual growth and commitment. While you don’t want to leave anyone in the dust, you also don’t want to keep everybody in Kindergarten. An easy entry point will get admitted non-leaders started, but keeping the bar low will not keep them engage long term.
On-going Leadership Development
Everyone in your groups, both leaders and members, should be taken through a process to discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Use a great resource like Discover Your Spiritual Gifts the Network Way by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback, or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Your people should know their spiritual gifts and abilities, then be offered a way to use their gifts in the ministry of your church. Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee is a great resource on how to implement a ministry development process in your church.
Of course, within every group, every member can learn to lead a group. Pass around the responsibilities from bringing refreshments to hosting in their homes to leading the discussion. You can develop every group member to lead a group.
Think About This
The global pandemic has rapidly and dramatically caused culture to change. It’s almost like we’ve experienced a decade’s worth of change in the last two years. Things aren’t going back to normal. What we are experiencing now is the normal. You have to lead the church you’ve got.
Not every ministry your church offered in 2019 is worth keeping. While COVID brought a great deal of chaos, it also brought a significant amount of clarity. Have you evaluated what your church no longer needs? If your worship center is only half full on Sunday mornings, then you probably don’t need a parking team. Could your parking team make disciples instead? It’s time to evaluate your ministries. Eliminate what is no longer working or is not meeting a need. “Right size” the ministries that are working. Then, readjust the culture of your church for what lies ahead. Don’t be afraid to lose the people you have. They are with you. They are ready to move forward. If there ever was a time to change things, now is the time.
The loneliness of small group leadership seems like a misnomer. After all, small group leaders, coaches, directors, and even small group pastors are in a group. Why would they feel lonely? This isn’t the loneliness as a person. This is the loneliness of the leader. It’s the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. The experience of leadership can be a lonely experience. Here’s how to alleviate loneliness for your leaders and yourself.
Offer Community Experiences for Group Leaders
Recently one of my small group leaders from a previous church was reminiscing about a retreat we did over 10 years ago. It was a great retreat. I had budgeted to bring in an excellent speaker. Our speaker was Carl George in this case. We planned the weekend to offer some down time in addition to having Carl take us through the Nine Keys of Effective Small Group Leadership. The setting was great. The teaching was stellar. However, the memory my small group leader shared was a group of leaders gathered around the fireplace sharing stories with each other. Internally, I thought, “Man, that was the highlight! What about Carl George!” People who offer community to others need community for themselves.
Community for small group leaders is easy to take for granted. Like I said, they’re in a group. They have community. But small group leaders need a community of leaders. My friend, Alan Pace, gave me the idea of gathering small group leaders in small groups every month to take the pulse of small group ministry in the church. These were informal lunches and coffee meetings just to hear what was going on in the groups. Usually the small group leaders answered each others’ questions. I just sat there and took notes. In fact, I often felt my most valuable contribution was initiating the gathering and picking up the check. Those informal conversations meant a lot to the leaders.
At Westover Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, the small group pastor, Johnny Junkhout, offers a hang out setting in a room at the church every Sunday. Leaders gather as they will to hear the latest about small groups at the church, have a question answered, meet a new coach, or just enjoy a community of leaders.
How are you offering community to your small group leaders?
Give Every Leader a Coach
Our church in California offered small groups for the first time in 1994. We chose 10 of the best and brightest in our congregation to lead the groups. All of the groups started in January. Then, all of the group leaders quit in December. The senior pastor and I asked them what happened. The response was, “We felt like lone rangers.” I have to admit that we were surprised. The church at the time was only about 350 adults. We talked to these leaders every week. But, we weren’t doing anything intentional for them as group leaders. They were experiencing community personally, even with the pastors, yet they lacked community as leaders.
We took a couple of years off from small groups to rethink our strategy. When we launched groups in 1997, every leader had a coach. Now, you may have a strong reaction to coaching. Building a coaching structure is hard work. But, it’s worthwhile work. Some of the largest churches in the country lack a coaching structure because they pay staff to coach their leaders. You probably don’t have that luxury.
At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina, we grew our small groups to 400 groups from 120 groups over four years. Every leader had a coach. Every coach had a director or community leader. I met with the community leaders once a month. I met with the group leaders twice a year: once for our annual church-wide campaign announcement in the fall, and the second at our annual off-campus retreat. The eight directors and 40 coaches were all volunteer positions. My only paid staff was my assistant and a part-time senior adult director. Yet, the leaders of leaders of leaders I had the privilege of working with were tremendous.
Find a Small Group Leadership Community for Yourself
Speaking of lonely, your job as the small group point person can also be a lonely experience. Even on a staff team, no one understands or appreciates small groups the way that you do. The student pastor is passionate about students. The worship pastor is passionate about worship. But, you’re probably the only one passionate about groups. But, you know, you should be. If you’re not passionate about groups, then who is? But, that doesn’t keep it from being a lonely experience.
Intentionally connect yourself to others in small group ministry. Find a local huddle of small group pastors through the Small Group Network. Join the SGN Facebook group and connect with others online. Reach out to other small group pastors in your denomination or association and invite then to lunch. (If you need a guest facilitator, give me a call!) If there’s not a group in your area, then start one. Join a cohort of small group pastors in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
What’s Your Next Move?
Small group leaders at every level need others to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It’s as easy as a lunch meeting or a text message. You don’t need to stand alone.