Small Group Leadership is Lonely

Small Group Leadership is Lonely

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

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.

Episode 9: Bill Willits on Creating Community

Episode 9: Bill Willits on Creating Community

https://exponentialgroups.podbean.com/e/bill-willits-on-creating-community/

This Podcast is available on:

Apple Podcasts – Google Play – Spotify – Amazon Music/Audible – Pandora -Podbean – Tune In – iHeartRadio – PlayerFM – Listen Notes

Show Notes

 

Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.

Related Links

Major Influences in Bill’s Ministry

Historically:

Serendipity (Lyman Coleman)

Carl George: Prepare Your Church for the Future

Bill Donahue and Willow: Many Titles

Recent Influences:

Heather Zempel, National Community Church: Community is Messy

Chris Surratt: Small Groups for the Rest of Us

Allen White: Exponential Groups

Bill Search: Simple Small Groups

The Role of a Coach

The Role of a Coach

By Allen White
By now most small group pastors and directors understand coaches are essential to sustain and support small group leaders. While everyone will agree to the necessity of coaches, most don’t know what to do with coaches, and unfortunately, most coaches don’t know what to do period. Beautiful org charts in a lot of churches actually net zero results. Here are some tips to moving your coaches in the right direction:
1.       Coaches Aren’t Accountants.
The problem with most accountability in Christian circles is that it becomes too much like accounting. Unlike Santa Claus, coaches do not relish keeping a naughty or nice list. What’s more, group leaders don’t appreciate being supervised by a supervisor. This doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind, but we also don’t put a cruel task master over small group leaders. After all, “love keeps no record of wrongs,” right? (1 Corinthians 13:5). Read more on accountability that works here.
2.       Coaches Aren’t Middle Managers, Bureaucrats or Spies.
Years ago, Carol, one of my coaches, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” At that point, I was still recruiting and training all of the group leaders myself. Carol and the other coaches were sent out to visit the groups and report back what they saw. No wonder she felt that way.
In recruiting coaches, we work hard to select mature, capable people to serve with us. Then, often because we don’t have the coaching role figured out ourselves, we tend to micromanage them as if they are neither mature nor capable. I didn’t keep many coaches that way.
The key is to elevate the role of coaching. When I chose coaches the next time around, I invited capable, mature people to join me in a journey. We met every week for dinner and to talk about the direction of our small groups. I committed to never make a decision about our small groups outside of that meeting. We led together.
These folks aren’t underachievers who need our constant motivation. These aren’t people who are prone to wander and need a steady reminder of direction. If they are, then they shouldn’t be coaching groups. If they’re not, then they deserve more respect than a place in our little bureaucracy.
3.       The Role of the Coach is to Refocus the Player.
My friend and mentor, Carl George has drilled this phrase into my psyche. When you think about a coach in sports, he stands at the sidelines and guides his players. If the last play went terribly wrong, his job is to refocus the players on the next play. They can’t replay the last play on the field. But, if a bad play keeps replaying in the players’ minds, then the next play will also suffer.
Small group leaders have busy lives and are pulled in many different directions. On a particularly hectic day or difficult season, it’s easy for leaders to become discouraged and wonder why they ever got into this business in the first place. The relationship with the coach is key to maintaining momentum in groups. The coach is not making sure the job gets done. The coach is making sure the player is okay.
4.       Give Your Leaders the Space to See What God is Doing
The most valuable function of a coach is giving a small group leader an opportunity  to reflect on what God is doing in his or her group. Most would admit to the difficulty of working “in” something and “on” something at the same time. It’s nearly impossible. Often group leaders are working so hard in the group, they don’t see the big picture of what God is doing.
By setting aside an hour or so once every quarter, a coach can give group leaders the space they need to see what God is doing and to identify what is next. This is as simple as the coach asking the leaders to list the names of their group members, then asking them to talk about what God is doing in each person’s life. As the leaders discuss their members, the logical next steps will begin to surface for the leader.
Bob – Hasn’t been around for a while. I need to give him a call.
Joe – Struggling at his job. I need to pray for him and give him some encouragement outside of the group.
Steve – Lost his job. I need to check-in with him and see if there’s any way the group can help.
Tony – Making poor choices. I need to pray for him and for the right timing to have a tough conversation.
Brett – Shows strong leadership potential. I need to give him more responsibilities in the group and eventually invite him to co-lead with me.
You get the idea. The coach must approach this conversation as a learner, not as an instructor. It would be easy to quickly diagnose each member and offer next steps, but the next steps determined by the group leader will be the next steps that are actually executed.
To make this work, start with a few assumptions. Assumption #1: Group leaders have made themselves available to God, and God is using them in their group. If a group leader is going through a hard time, he may be wondering if God is doing anything at all. He needs encouragement. But, some group leaders so naturally use their gifts, they might not even realize how gifted they are. They also need a coach’s insight.
Assumption #2: Who you are as a coach is more significant than what you could every say to a group leader. Your relationship with your group leaders is the greatest gift you can offer them. When relationship comes first, tasks get accomplished. Without relationship, leaders easily burn out.
5.       Small Group Pastors: Get Out of Your Coach’s Way
How many Team Owners or General Managers have made their coaches’ lives miserable? Small Group Pastors and Directors, like their coaches, should approach their roles as learners, not drill sergeants. God wants to use your coaches. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to effective coaching is often a well-meaning Small Groups Pastor.
While you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry, empowered coaches are effective coaches. Disempowered coaches become burned out middle managers. Your expectation of your coaches should be clear, reasonable and accountable. But, again, don’t approach accountability as an accountant. Give your coaches the benefit of the doubt: “How are your groups doing?” not “Have you followed up on your groups lately?” If your coaching system is in disarray, then you’re probably in the way.

Your Campaign Launched, but Day 41 is Coming

Your Campaign Launched, but Day 41 is Coming

By Allen White 
A lot of great things can happen during a 40 Day church-wide campaign, then comes Day 41. If you’ve just launched groups in the last few weeks, it’s time to think about what’s next.
Several years ago a small group pastor joined our coaching program. He had gone from having no small groups in his church to actually launching 233 groups for a 40 day church-wide campaign. At the end of the campaign, when it was all said and done, he ended up with three groups. What a heartbreak!
Over the years, in the laboratory of hundreds of churches across the country, we’ve learned a few things about keeping the momentum going and helping to sustain groups for the long haul.
1.       Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other issue here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
We launched groups at our church in California for the first time in the Spring. Our fear wasn’t just Day 41, but also days 42-96. It was a high hurdle over the summer. We gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Wendy Nolasco, Small Group Pastor at New Life Center, Bakersfield, California, found a similar result. After successfully launching 100 groups in the Spring, they gave their groups a heads up on their Fall campaign and then said a prayer. This Fall 75 of those groups are continuing into the next step Pastor Wendy gave them.
If you are in a Fall or New Year’s campaign, the next step is not quite so daunting. They don’t need to wait three months for another study. They can start a new study the following week. Once a group does two back to back six week studies, usually they are good to continue from that point forward.
2.       Give Your New Groups One Specific Next Step
If you send your new group leaders to the internet or the local bookstore, they will get lost in the plethora of selections. In fact, it will take them so long to make a decision, more than likely the group will falter before they can choose their next step.
If you started the group with a video-based curriculum, then the next step should involve a video as well. Again, if you invited folks to form groups with the idea that they didn’t have to be a Bible scholar, because the expert was on the video, they will need that strategy again. Whether the next series aligns with the Sunday sermons or not, a specific next step will take them past Day 41 and into a longer group life.
Now, you may ask, “How long can groups continue with video-based curriculum?”
Carl George put it this way, “As long as there are DVDs.”
3.       A New Study is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
The beginning of a study is a natural time to invite new members into a group. The group could host an open house or a barbecue to invite some friends and neighbors who might be interested in joining the group. Everyone likes to start on the ground floor. A new study certainly provides that opportunity.
4.      If the Host Can’t Continue…
Well, you could go the guilt route: “If you love Jesus and want to go to Heaven…” But, I wouldn’t recommend that.
If the hosts legitimately cannot continue, they are probably not considering other possibilities for the group to continue. they think if they can’t go on, then the group can’t either. But, that’s not necessarily true.
When a host informs you around Day 24 of your current campaign that they won’t be able to continue with the group, have their coach begin to investigate whether another member of the group would like to step up and host the group. If the group has been rotating leadership during the study, someone may very easily take over leadership of the group so the group can continue.
Oh, and how do you get your hosts to state their intentions around Day 24 or so? You ask them. I’ve used both a mid-campaign survey as well as a mid-campaign host huddle to determine who is interested in continuing and who isn’t. Before I walk into the huddle meeting, I like to know what to expect. Often I will send the mid-campaign survey first. It serves as what John Maxwell calls the “meeting before the meeting.” Then, when you walk into the room, you know who plans to continue and who needs to be given some options for their group to continue.
All in all, Day 41 is just the beginning of group life. With the right encouragement and next steps, groups who started to only complete a six week study, can find themselves enjoying quality group life for many studies to come.

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