By Allen White
Over the last 26 years, I’ve served two senior pastors and one Brett Eastman. My titles started as Minister of Christian Education, then Associate Pastor, then Executive Director, then Discipleship Pastor, and at last, Vice President. A year ago I became President of my own organization. Finally, I’m the top dog. Of course, at this point, there are no other dogs, but that’s okay. Leading from the second chair or a shared second chair with half a dozen other pastors has taught me a different style of leadership. From this vantage point, and from working with over 1,500 churches in the last 11 years, I have learned what your senior pastor wishes you knew about their stance toward small groups.
[Please note: I know there are senior pastors who are both men and women. I struggle with gender-inclusive language, so if I refer to the senior pastor with male pronouns, please forgive me.]
1. Senior pastors don’t think a lot about groups, because they hired you.
As the small group pastor, you should be the most passionate person on your team about groups. If you’re not, you might be in the wrong role. Your senior pastor does not have small groups on the brain like you do. Senior pastors don’t have to, they have folks like you. If your pastor was not in favor of groups, you would not have a job. Whisper to yourself: “My pastor must like groups, then.”
I have met many small group folks over the years who have run themselves ragged over the notion that their senior pastor just won’t get on-board with groups. “If only my senior pastor supported groups more…If only he would talk about groups more…If only he was in a group…” I’m from Kansas, so I’m just going to say it —
Your senior pastor doesn’t need to get on-board with you.
It’s his boat!
If you’re not in his boat, then guess where you are?
2. When small group pastors ask for “airtime” in the weekend services, you put your senior pastor in a predicament.
Now, I’m not a believer that all ministries in a church deserve equal airtime. Read more here. But, senior pastors wrestle with fairness among ministries. They don’t want to play favorites. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to prefer one ministry over another. When you ask for airtime for groups, you are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a battle you should fight, but you need to learn to be strategic about this.
First of all, how do most of the people in your church keep informed about church events? If you don’t know this, find out ASAP. In the last church I served, we had a variety of ways to communication with the congregation. Through an online survey, I discovered that two communication methods stood out over and above every other one: the weekly bulletin and email. At the time, the darling of our church communication was promotional videos that ran before the service. It didn’t take a survey to understand that less than 10% of our 2,500 seat auditorium was filled when the videos played. When the communications department offered to make a video for my small group launch, I declined saying I would prefer something in the bulletin and an email blast. They thought I was just being humble. I knew what actually worked.
Secondly, nothing beats an invitation from the senior pastor from the stage before/during/after the sermon. How do you overcome your pastor’s overarching need for fairness? Put your pastor’s teaching on the curriculum. (There are a variety of ways to do this). When your pastor makes an investment in the curriculum, you are guaranteed to have airtime for groups.
3. If your senior pastor is not in a group, there is a reason.
The experience of a pastor is abnormal in the life of the church. Pastors and church staff don’t experience church the way the members of the church do. Imagine the characters that would show up if there was an open call to join the pastor’s small group. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be in that group (and I’m a pastor!). An open group for a senior pastor could be risky. If you pressure your senior pastor too far about getting into a group or leading a group, don’t sit around wondering why your pastor won’t get behind groups.
Every pastor is different. One pastor and his wife opened up their home and invited young couples to join their group. Another pastor met with two close friends and didn’t make an open invitation. In both cases, this was the pastor’s group. You have your own story.
Rather than pressure your senior pastor and other staff members to join a group if “they really support small groups,” help them identify the relationships in their lives that could be considered their group. Some may do a study together. Others may not. Either way, the pastor can talk about his group, regardless of the form.
4. Your senior pastor wishes you would relieve the burden instead of adding to it.
Every senior pastor is in favor of ministries that solve problems instead of those that create problems. Learn to solve your church’s problems with groups. What is your senior pastor concerned about? How could groups meet the need? I’m not saying this in the vein of “Let the youth group do it,” and now it’s “let the groups do it.” Rather, sit with your pastor to hear his passions and concerns, then design a way to connect those passions or concerns to groups.
If your church is growing steadily, the concern is for connection and assimilation. Groups can be the answer.
If your Sunday school and adult electives are declining, the concern is over discipleship. Groups can be the answer.
If your church needs more people to serve or give, well, people in groups tend to serve and give more than people not in groups. (For more information, see pages 45-46 in Transformational Groups by Eric Geiger and Ed Stetzer).
The first time we launched groups in a big way in our church in California, my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series. Advertising was set. When I asked if we could launch groups off of The Passion, he was fully on-board. (I jumped on his “ship.”) We even created our own homemade video curriculum. When my pastor invited our people to open their homes and do The Passion study, we doubled our groups in one day.
What is your pastor worried about?
What is your pastor passionate about?
How can groups help to relieve the burden or propel the vision?
By virtue of the senior pastor’s role, God speaks and directs the church through him. Get onboard with that vision. Your groups will thrive.
5. The simpler you can make the senior pastor’s involvement, the more they will be open to what you need.
If your pastor is willing to talk about groups in the weekend services, then script out exactly what you want them to say or create bullet points in advance. Then, wait until they need the direction. Some pastors want it ahead of time. Others want it just before the service. Do what works for your pastor rather than wishing your pastor would do what works for you.
At my last church, on the weeks my pastor offered to promote groups, I trotted up the staircase to his study, gave him the list of bullet points, walked through the points, then left him to execute the announcement. He was always spot on. Then, the next Sunday, I did the same thing. He didn’t need to come up with the invitation. I provided what he needed when he needed it, and it worked.
When I’ve created video curriculum with senior pastors, sometimes they taught on 6 out of 6 sessions. Sometimes, they’ve taught 1 of 6 with other teaching pastors filling in. Sometimes they taught from a script. Others taught with bullets. Still others just stood up and talked. We always scheduled the video shoot around the senior pastor’s schedule. If others had to wait, then they waited. Senior pastors gladly participated if they knew everything was set from them. Some would even prefer someone else to create their scripts from past sermons. As long as they knew they didn’t have to attend 10 meetings about the shoot and sit around for two hours until the crew was ready, they were in.
Your pastor has the ability to write his own scripts and create his own invitation to groups, but your pastor often does not have the time to do these things. Give your pastor something to start with. Make his job easier, and you will have wholehearted participation.
Remember, your senior pastors don’t work for you. You work for them.
You might wish that your senior pastor was more like someone else’s senior pastor. If only my senior pastor led a group, made curriculum, announced groups, and so forth. Be careful what you wish for. If you go about this the wrong way, you will be working for another senior pastor before you know it.
Work with what you have. It’s okay if your senior pastor doesn’t have small groups on the brain as long as you do. Any place where groups can intersect with the needs and passions of your senior pastor, you’ll have success.