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.
Some small group pastors are of the opinion that coaching is too hard. Coaching is not hard. Well, at least it’s not as hard as leading without coaches and doing it all yourself.
But, why does coaching seem hard? I think it boils down to three things.
Have you ever invited someone to coach group leaders but didn’t really know what they were supposed to do? I have. It doesn’t work. In fact, for most pastors the lack of clear expectations and no job description for coaches is a non-starter.
Coaching only works with clear expectations. What should they do? Coaches should share their experiences with other leaders and build a relationship with them. There’s the job description. When a leader’s issues go beyond the coach’s experience, then the coach can depend on your experience.
But, here’s the key – coaches will easily relieve 90 percent of the burden off of you. As you multiply yourself through your coaches, then you have more time for other aspects of the ministry and hopefully more time for your family.
But, even when you’re clear about what coaches should do, how much is too much?
Coaching often fails because you ask too much of your coaches. At one point I had coaches who led their own group and supervised 20-25 other leaders. That was too much.
Some churches use a ratio or “span of care,” (if you prefer to be fancy), of coaches to leaders. This kinda works, except that not all coaches are created equal. One coach may be brilliant working with three group leaders, but would be a disaster working with four. Another coach might easily serve 10 group leaders. How do you know the threshold for each coach without sacrificing group leaders in the process?
It comes down to the coach’s relational ability. Here’s a simple test: Can the coach remember the names of the leader’s spouse and children? Without cliff notes, evernotes, or index cards, can the coach easily recall the leader’s most basic relationships. Think about it. If two friends were having a conversation wouldn’t they ask about each others’ spouses and children? As long as a coach knows the names of the leader’s spouse and children, then the coach can take on more leaders until they can’t keep these basic details straight. Every coach has a different relational capacity.
In order for coaches to succeed, they need to have a reasonable assignment, but they also need something from you.
Lack of Accountability
Then, there’s your part. While you can give the coaches tasks and authority to serve in their roles, you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry. You have to inspect what you expect. If your coaches should be calling new leaders once per week to answer their questions, then you need to call the coaches once per week to make sure the calls are being made. If your coaches are meeting with more seasoned leaders once per quarter, then you must do the same with the coaches.
If coaching is important, and it is, then you need to keep in communication with your coaches. If you have more than eight coaches, then you also need a small group leadership team to help you manage the ministry. The bottom line is you have to know what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you are depending on reports to give you that information, then you’re already in the weeds. Many problems that could potentially end a group can be averted through coaching.
If your small group ministry was twice as big as it is today (or four times as big), how would you manage the leaders? You couldn’t. If you feel your small group ministry is small enough for you to manage yourself, you shouldn’t. Scaling the leadership of your small group ministry with coaches and a leadership team will accelerate the growth of your groups.
How are you supporting your small group leaders? What’s your next step to improving your coaching structure?
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Coaching small group leaders is one of the most important roles in a healthy small group ministry, yet it proves to be the most difficult to accomplish. A recent survey of small group pastors and directors from across the U.S. demonstrates the growing need for help in establishing their coaching structures and supporting their leaders. These pastors and directors were allowed to choose “All that Apply” for the first set of responses.
57% reported their biggest struggle is in Identifying and Recruiting Coaches.
39% found their next biggest complication was in Training Coaches.
30% were frustrated by a Lack of Communication between Coaches and Group Leaders.
26% were unclear about Creating a Good Job Description.
Another 26% admitted they were Unclear About the Coach’s Role.
These pastors also shared some of their frustrations and limitations by volunteering these responses:
Not enough time to build a coaching structure.
Groups are growing, so more coaches are needed.
Some group leaders don’t really see the need for a coach.
Group leaders are not engaging with their coaches.
In analyzing the survey results, there is a progression of issues. First, if the coach’s role is unclear, then it’s difficult to spell out expectations in a job description. If these things are murky, then it’s also challenging to know who to recruit and what to train them to do.
When the respondents were asked what they were currently doing in the area of coaching, the responses ranged from nothing to recruiting through a trial run at coaching to the church elders coaching small groups leaders. Some of the frustrations centered on lack of connection between the coach and the group leaders, inconsistencies in coaching, or just starting out.
Most of the respondents (74%) felt that the ideal span of care was one coach for every five leaders. Other churches used ratios of 1:7, 1:10, and even 1:25. The bottom line is that the amount of care really depends on the number of new leaders a coach is responsible for and the number of struggling leaders they are helping.
The respondents were asked about what they believed was the primary purpose of coaching. The highest percentage of pastors (44%) hold that Building Relationships is the primary purpose. The next 39% of respondents gave a wide range of purposes for coaching including encouraging, equipping, growing groups, connecting, supporting, shepherding, and a number of other things. This confirmed the findings in the first data set, which indicated there was no unified, clear direction for coaching.
Building a coaching structure is the hardest work in small group ministry. It’s also the most important work. If pastors would spend the time they invest in placing people into groups and recruiting group leaders and focused on building their coaching structure instead, their ministries would flourish and grow in unprecedented ways.
Pastors battle the tyranny of the urgent. Often pastors are serving in multiple roles and are wearing many hats. The key is recruiting a team of trusted leaders to help you lead the small group ministry. As you delegate both responsibility and authority to them, you multiply your leadership and better serve your leaders.
For more information on coaching:
The 10 Biggest Coaching Mistakes Webinar is Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 1pm Eastern. Click Here to Register.
I learned the hard way that coaches help launch more groups.
One church I served had a weekly average adult attendance of 800. During our third launch in Fall 2004, we start 103 small groups. Those were pretty amazing numbers. In the middle of that series, I sent out a survey to determine how many of those groups would continue. I was hoping for at least 80 percent moving forward.
The results came back: 70 percent would continue with 30 percent ending. These were not the results I wanted or expected, so I sent a survey to the 30 leaders who were ending their groups. The response was startling. Out of the 30 leaders, only two leaders had actually led a group for the six week series. The other 28 groups had never started. This lead me to a very important principle:
Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.
It’s almost a proverb, isn’t it? It might deserve a needlepoint cushion.
Why didn’t the groups start? The new leaders got cold feet. Some of them were rejected by the people they invited. Some had good intentions starting out, then life just got in the way.
They didn’t miss the boat. I missed the boat. So, we did something new, immediately.
On the next campaign, we added 32 new groups to the 73 groups that continued from the Fall for a total of 105 groups. Every new leader met an experienced leader who would coach them at our New Leader Briefing. Their “coach” called them every week starting after the briefing through the end of the series. When they had a setback, the coach encouraged them. When they had a question, the coach gave them an answer. All of these groups started and most of them continued.
How many new groups are you starting? Divide that number by two. That’s how many coaches you need. One experienced leader for every two new groups. The experienced leaders are still leading their own group, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Then recruit experienced leaders to help the new leaders get started. And, they will start.
Where do you find these experienced leaders to coach? Make a list of your best leaders. Pray over the list. Then, invite them like this: “We are going to be completely inundated with new leaders. Our coaching structure is completely overwhelmed. I NEED YOUR HELP.” That is a very compelling invitation that will get a “Yes.”
At the risk of overstating my point, it is Mission Critical to have someone calling your new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” to starting a group until the study starts. More groups will end in that window than at any other time.
Every small group pastor wants healthy leaders and healthy groups. Sometimes that feels like an unattainable goal.
How do you connect with every leader and every group on a regular basis when you always seem to be putting out fires? Let’s face it – you spend a good deal of time addressing the latest crisis which robs time away from your strategic planning. It’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time.
While you do your best to keep up with your leaders, the reality is there is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in the day. You have a limited amount of time, energy and attention. If you’re like me, small groups are not your only responsibility. You tend to resort to email blasts and training meetings that are half full to invest in your leaders, but you’re always left wondering how you could help your leaders more?
A small group leadership team with coaches to care for every leader would be ideal. But, it’s difficult to build a coaching team when the demand rests in finding a group for the person who signed up last Sunday. When there’s not a group to plug them into, the prospective member has to wait until you can recruit a new leader and start a group. When do you get to think about a coaching structure?
But, let’s say you get a reprieve from the tyranny of the urgent to form a coaching structure. How would you build it? Who would you recruit to coach? What would they do? Those three questions delay most small group pastors from even starting.
Like you, I was very frustrated with coaching group leaders. I have made about every mistake that can be made with coaching, but in the process I’ve figured out some things that have helped many churches like yours.
Let me guide you through a proven way to build your coaching structure that is customizable to your church. I understand that your church is different from other churches. There is a way to have both what works in coaching leaders and what will work for you.
You don’t have to go through the heartbreaks of watching excited new leaders become discouraged to the point of not even starting their new group. You can avoid the aftermath of poorly supervised leaders taking their group away from the vision of your church. The lack of a coaching structure means the problems and issues of your small group ministry is solely your burden to bear.
But, if you took the same energy it takes to recruit leaders and place people into groups and invested yourself in building a coaching structure, your groups would get further faster than you could imagine. More of your new leaders would actually start groups because someone was walking alongside them and offering encouragement. All of your group leaders would be healthier, which in turn will create healthier groups. And, your burden would be lightened. You could actually have the margin you need to plan for the future of your ministry.
In the Coaching Exponential Groups Online Course, I will guide you around the pitfalls of small groups ministry and help you build a coaching structure, define the coaching role, recruit the right people, equip coaches to serve leaders, and disciple your people through groups. In about an hour a week for six weeks, you can follow a step by step process to get the help you need to effectively lead your groups.
Give the course a try. If it doesn’t work for you, then I will give you a full refund in the first 30 days. I will assume all of the risk, because I believe these strategies will help you significantly.