Clearly you have more to do than you could or should be doing on your own. Whether you lead a team or work solo, as your small groups ministry grows, there is more to do than is humanly possible. You have to multiply yourself for sure. You have to pass things on to other capable folks or else you will continue to feel like your failing your leaders or you will burn yourself out. (Give yourself a promotion!) But, as you delegate to capable people, could it be demoralizing?
What Are You Delegating?
You can delegate ministry tasks like calling to check in on group leaders, collecting reports, or visiting groups. This is how my church used to coach leaders. The coaches attended the huddles that I led. The coaches visited groups, then turned in a report to me. One coach, I’ll call her “Carol” since that was her name gave me some feedback. “I feel like I’m your spy.” I had sent her on a mission to observe groups and turn in a report on them. She was my spy. Later, she told me she was bored with coaching. I thought, “Why is Carol bored? I’m busy.” Then it dawned on me.
I had delegated tasks, but not responsibility or authority. I told them what to do for me, then to report back to me. (Are you catching on to the problem here?) The coaches couldn’t make decisions for the ministry. The coaches couldn’t call an audible to help a leader. They could gather data and report back to me. This brand of coaching was disempowering and demoralizing. It looked liked coaching. It was called coaching. But, it ended up being another mechanism to fulfill my need for control. It wasn’t good.
How to Empower Others
As you select capable people to coach others, give them broad flexibility in how they go about coaching. This requires two things. First, you have to recruit capable people of good character who you trust. That is quite a loaded sentence. This won’t happen overnight. Build your coaching structure slowly. Observe your leaders to see which groups are producing what you want them to produce. Then, give them a trial run at coaching others like walking alongside a couple of new leaders for a six-week alignment series. If they do well, give them more. If they don’t, then thank them for “fulfilling” their commitment.
Second, give the coaches the responsibility for some leaders and groups, but don’t get too deep in the specifics of how to do it. A good general goal would be something like “Help the leaders and groups fulfill their purpose.” Of course, you need to articulate the purpose for your groups. Then, meet with the coaches occasionally to hear what’s going on with the groups. In the beginning, you might meet with them frequently. After a while, you could pull back on the frequency of your meetings with them. But, of course, you’ll always be available “on call” in case something urgent occurs.
Don’t Recruit Hirelings
Jesus talked about hirelings, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13, NIV). You want coaches to fulfill the role of a shepherd rather than a hireling.
In my experience, my dear friend, Carol, was treated as a hireling. She was working for me. She was reporting to me. She was taking direction from me. I was holding Carol back. She wanted to be a shepherd to her group leaders, but I treated her like a hired hand.
The best thing I ever did to support and coach small group leaders was to invite a group of capable leaders to lead the small group ministry WITH me. Our small group ministry was growing rapidly. In fact, in a six-month period, we went from 30% in groups to 60% in groups (on one day) [LINK] to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups. It was a whirlwind. I needed help. I had already failed with Carol, so I needed a different approach.
The invitation went like this: “I don’t have all of this figured out, but if you would be willing to learn with me, I would love to have you on my team.” Not only did they say, “Yes!” this was by far the best group that I’ve ever been a part of. We met every Wednesday night for dinner because the small group ministry was growing so rapidly. We even traded off who brought the meal.
But, here’s the biggest part, I committed to them that decisions for the small group ministry would only be made with them in our Wednesday meeting. I did not make any decisions apart from that meeting. We were a team because I shared the responsibility and authority of the small group ministry.
Now here’s the best part. When I left that church to coach pastors and churches, that team led the small group ministry for the next 12 months without a small group pastor. Not only did they know what to do, they owned the responsibility of the small group ministry. As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
Think About This
I hope this doesn’t come across as a boastful post. It’s not meant to be. The humbling part for me is that it took me 12 years to figure this out! 12 years!! Please don’t take 12 years to do this in your church.
Are you partnering with others to lead your small group ministry? Has your church struggled with coaching in the past? Did you give your coaches only tasks Or did you give them responsibility and authority? Were your coaches hirelings or shepherds?
After working with P&G and PNC Financial Corp., Dr. Bill Donahue pastored in churches in Pennsylvania and Texas. He then joined the Willow Creek Community Church & Association (aka Global Leadership Network) for 18 years as Director of Group Life and Leadership, training leaders in the US and globally.
I am foreseeing the post-COVID small group ministry happening in a big way. Actually, I see a small group boom in fall 2021. For some this is starting now. One church in my coaching group recruited 50 new hosts for their spring 2021 launch. Things are looking good for groups, but things are looking different for groups.
Small Group Ministry is More Decentralized Than Ever
As a small group pastor or director, you have been longing for a decentralized ministry. Well, COVID decentralized your ministry, now don’t reel it back in. Keep your small group ministry outside of the building. Here are a few things to think about:
Put your training online and push it out to your leaders.
Empower your coaches to serve the leaders. Don’t wrap this all around you. You’ve got to multiply yourself.
Keep your groups in neighborhoods as much as possible. There’s something personal about meeting in someone’s home. There’s also something powerful about meeting in a neighborhood. Let their light shine!
Pivot to a Hybrid Groups Ministry Amid This Unprecedented Pandemic
There, I got all of the COVID clichés into one subhead. The word for you to focus on is hybrid (online and in-person). It will be a while before everyone is ready or able to meet in-person. But, here’s the other thing – some people like this online world. If I don’t have to get myself to church for a meeting and arrange for childcare because the meeting is online, I’m in!
Some groups meett online and couldn’t get back together even if they wanted to. People moved away. But, the group can keep meeting together online. If schools no longer have snow days due to online classes, then online groups no longer have snow birds. Online groups keep everybody together.
The new debate is meeting in-person or staying online. Just like we had the debate between the maskites and anti-maskites last year, this year we have groups splitting over some wanting to meet in-person and others wanting to stay online (I posted about that issue here). Now, imagine if every group in your church became two groups. (Read that again: Imagine if every group in your church became two groups!) You would have twice the groups. You would have more opportunity for people who prefer to meet in-person to join the in-person half of a group. You would also have more opportunity for people to join online groups. HINT: Don’t combine your groups. Even if they’re small. Keep them separate. Let them grow. Double your groups.
Something I’m Piloting Right Now
This past weekend I led a host briefing at two physical campuses as well as an online campus simultaneously. I am serving as the Life Group Director for a church that is 747 miles from my house. Fortunately, it’s in the same time zone!
The senior pastor made the invitation for new hosts during the service. Folks responded by text to the church’s text service. They were given instructions by text about how to join the briefing – the room on-campus or the link online.
From my home in South Carolina, I led the three campus host briefing over Zoom. I was on the big screen at the physical campuses, then interacted with the folks online as well. Each physical location had a person assisting me. I could see the room. My assistants had a mic to pass around for people who had questions. I also answered questions in the chat on Zoom.
The prospective hosts at the physical locations had a hard copy of the briefing packet and the host application. Those who met online had a pdf of the briefing packet and a link to register online.
Experienced leaders were present at all three locations to meet the new hosts and begin walking alongside them for the next 12 weeks (a three week ramp up, then a nine week series. Nine weeks? – I’m just following the senior pastor’s lead).
I will keep you posted on what else I learn.
What are you learning about small group ministry right now? Leave your response below.
Join me for a webinar: Small Group Restart: Ministry in a Post-COVID World on Wednesday, April 21 at 2pm Eastern/ 1 pm Central/ Noon Mountain/ 11 am Pacific. Click here to register.
In some circles, coaching is either underrated or
non-existent. I think this is a mistake. Coaching provides a number of things
for new and established leaders:
Support and encouragement.
Customized training target to specific needs.
A spiritual covering for ministry.
Supervision and accountability.
A resource to help meet the needs of group
A sounding board for new ideas and
A relationship with a like-minded leader.
A link between the group and the church.
If you’re not providing this for your leaders, then how are you helping them? Meetings and emails might provide a little help, but they won’t provide help at this level.
Where to Start
Start with new leaders. A completed org chart does not need
to be in place to effectively coach leaders. In fact, I’ve seen some very impressive
org charts that actually didn’t represent very much. There wasn’t much coaching
going on, but everyone was accounted for.
New group leaders need the most help, so start with them. When prospective leaders show up at a new leader briefing, they can meet their coaches. The assumption is that every new group leader at your church gets a coach, and they should. New leaders are far more accepting of both the coaching and the help than established leaders. In fact, if you assign coaches to seasoned leaders, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Established group leaders will need a different style of coaching, which is covered in Chapter 10 of Exponential Groups.
New leaders need the most help. They will have many questions. As the church continues to implement new strategies of forming groups like the HOST model or “do the study with your friends” strategy, two things will happen: (1) the “leaders” of these groups will be less “experienced” and will need help, and (2) the church leadership will not be as familiar with these “leaders.” The safety net here is launching non-groups led by non-leaders which are not advertised, but there is still a responsibility to these non-leaders and their non-groups. If each of these prospective leaders, even in the unadvertised groups, has a coach, then the leaders will be supported in meaningful ways, and the church will be assured of what’s going on because the coach is checking in.
Coaching will help new groups actually get started and will keep them going as they face various issues and possible discouragement. As new leaders are forming their new groups, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed. An experienced leader who is willing to coach these new leaders will help you get more groups started.
Shepherding God’s people is a big responsibility. It’s just about the biggest. By recruiting “under-shepherds,” you can guide your new leaders and new groups into transformative experiences in their groups.
When it comes to launching groups in a smaller church, there is a dilemma. There aren’t many great models. Most materials and training about small groups come from pastors of megachurches. Their models don’t work well in smaller churches. What works in a large church typically doesn’t work well in a smaller church, but what works in a small church will work in any church. Over the last 15 years, I have coached churches as large as 40,000 and as small as 40.
The first church I served grew from 300 adults to 85 adults in the first 18 months. We went through a great deal of turbulence related to the departure of our founding pastor. Starting with 85 people, we watched the church reach various milestones. At 250 people, the complaint we heard was “I don’t know everybody any more.” In reality, most people can only keep up with about 150 people. Facebook doesn’t count. The next milestone was when we reached 400 in attendance and went to two services, then we heard, “I can’t find the people I know!” While groups helped us keep people connected, groups also helped in many other ways.
Here are some thoughts on how to launch groups in a smaller church.
Bet on a Winner.
When a smaller church launches any new initiative, there is much more at stake. If a larger church has a failed initiative and loses 100 people, they can recover fairly easily. If that happens in a smaller church, well, you might have just lost everybody. While every church is unique and is open to trying various things, you only want to offer major initiatives that are more of a sure thing. If you bet the farm, you just might lose the farm.
Start with a pilot. Ask a couple of loyal folks to open their homes for a short-term group. The commitment should be 6-8 weeks. Initially, these groups could start by having the newly appointed leaders invite people they know. You want to make the groups easy to prepare for and easy to run, so a video-based curriculum will take much of the pressure off of an unseasoned leader. At the end of the commitment, evaluate how it went. Did the leaders enjoy leading? Did the group members enjoy the group? At this point, give them an opportunity to re-up for another study if they are ready to move forward.
Don’t Break What’s Working.
You shouldn’t stop other things to start groups. If your church has Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other groups, then allow these groups to continue to meet the needs for the people they are working for. You don’t need to have everyone in the same system. One size does not fit all. When you do the math, more than likely, there is a considerable number of people who attend worship or at least call your church their church home, who are not doing anything outside of attending worship services. These are the folks you should invite to join groups.
If your church has a high percentage of people in Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other types of groups, then you may not need to start more groups in your church. That’s okay. If these other opportunities are providing a place for people to care, connect, and grow spiritually, then you’re doing what you should be doing. If there are people who are more marginally associated with your church or people in your community who might join a group, then you can look at groups as an outreach opportunity to bring more people to Christ.
As you are launching groups, you should let the folks in classes and other groups know what you’re up to. It’s okay if they don’t want to join groups, but you don’t want them to be opposed to groups. As someone once said, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” Explain to them how you are launching groups to connect folks who for whatever reason don’t want to join a class or current Bible study group. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. You just want to offer more opportunities for people to learn and grow.
Develop Coaches — Even for a Few Groups
Even if you have a small number of groups, don’t try to manage the groups ministry by yourself. You already wear plenty of hats. You don’t need one more. Find someone in your church who enjoys groups and is spiritually mature to coach and mentor group leaders. They don’t need to have all of the answers. They just need to be available to the leaders and answer their questions when they can. If they don’t have the answer, then they can bring the question to you.
If you care for your leaders, your groups will thrive. If you don’t offer them the care of a coach, then your groups will fail. No one wants to build something only to watch it fail.
Years ago, a pastor of a church of 42 people joined our coaching group. He had two groups. After a few months, we invited all of the pastors from the coaching group to get together. This pastor not only reported doubling his groups (two groups to four groups), but he also brought his volunteer groups director to the event.
Give Permission and Opportunity.
I used to think if you wanted 10 groups in a church, then you needed to have 100 people (10 groups with 10 members). That’s not true. To have 10 groups, you need 10 people to lead those groups. Then, invite those 10 to invite people they know who would enjoy or benefit from a group study. Who’s in their lives? Friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, relatives, and others. Their groups could grow very quickly.
Now, let’s imagine something else. If you have 50 people in your church, you have 50 potential leaders. (Now, I know that some of those people you could never see leading. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Stick with me here). If 50 people in your church each gathered a circle of 6-8 people in your church or outside of your church, you could very quickly have 300-400 people in groups if the study topic matched a felt-need in your community. (Think about topics like marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, relationships, etc). What would that do for your church?
I’m working with a pastor in the inner city of Baltimore. His church has 600 adults on a Sunday. They launched groups with a series a year ago. Before the launch, they had seven groups in their church. After the launch, they started 167 groups in a church of 600! Years ago an Episcopal church of 260 people in Florida launched 75 groups for 40 Days of Purpose. Groups have great potential to reach your community. And, many of those people started coming to church as a result.
Groups will help your church. People will feel more connected and cared for. They will grow spiritually, and they will reach others. You won’t build the same way a megachurch does and that’s okay.