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.
By Allen White
By Allen White
Nothing will accelerate your group launch faster than the right topic. When you choose a theme for an alignment series that is a common felt need in your congregation and your community, people will run to join groups. But, the reverse can also be true. Choosing the wrong topic will drive them away.
1. More “Mature” Topics Will Limit Your Launch
Several years ago, I was working with a church that started every year with a 21 day fast. They wanted to design a curriculum to support the fast. While I would never attempt to talk a church out of such a significant initiative, I did caution them that forming new groups might be a little challenging. On the bright side, the refreshments would be very easy. They started a handful of new groups for their members and had a great experience with their fast. But, they were far from involving the entire congregation.
Some topics are for more mature believers rather than for people in the community who may have never darkened the door of your church. Anything to do with money: budgeting, giving, generosity, capital campaigns, and so on are challenging to form groups around. While many people need help managing their finances, too many evangelists desiring $65 million jets have created a poor association between the church and money for most of the world. Don’t go there.
Other topics like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual gifts are great for the congregation, but probably won’t draw much interest from the community. There are ways to promote these topics more indirectly.
Instead of creating an alignment series around a capital campaign, why not create a series around what the church is raising money for? If the church is taking new initiatives to help the poor or become a resource in the community, then these are the topics to promote. Maybe the church is investing in the next generation. People are very concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They can get behind the vision of the church to reach the community, and then they might even give.
Instead of creating curriculum to teach your people evangelism, why not produce a series that is evangelistic? Talk about the needs in the community. You could even include a presentation of the Gospel. You could do evangelism with the curriculum rather than teaching how to do evangelism. A series like All In focuses on the story of Jesus and offers the Gospel message.
There are ways to introduce mature topics to a broader group. But, the largest group launches come from topics that touch a nerve.
2. Felt Need Topics Will Attract People Who Need Help
When you talk to your neighbors and others in your community, what are they concerned about? Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, and their parenting. These are great felt need topics which can reach a broad audience.
People also deal with anxiety, worry, and stress. Some feel like giving up or are lost in even successful careers. What will bring them meaning and hope? Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who recently committed suicide once asked, “What do you do after your dreams have come true?” Even those who seem to have it all often feel a deep void. How can your series help them?
Of course, the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Other series which have drawn in the community include Kerry Shooks’ One Month to Live, Live Like Your Dying, and Half Time by Bob Buford. I’ve worked with churches to produce series that deal with leaving a legacy, common fears, hope, or ambition that have helped some churches more than double their current numbers of groups. A couple of churches now have twice as many people in groups than they have in weekend attendance.
3. What is Your Senior Pastor Passionate About?
The best topic you can choose for a successful curriculum and group launch is the idea that your pastor is the most passionate about. Does he have a life message or dominate them he speaks about often? Does she have a clear direction on what the Fall series should be? The best topic is not necessarily the hottest topic to the church, but the hottest topic for your pastor.
Once you have that direction, you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Most pastors have files full of sermons they’ve preached over the course of their ministries. There is no shortage of content. Why not research the pastor’s hot topic in past sermon files? You’ll be surprised what you come up with.
And, remember, you’re not creating the next Purpose-Driven Life! Your study may not make the bestseller list, but your pastor’s teaching on your video-based curriculum will be very popular with your congregation. What’s even better is that when your felt need topic draws in the friends, neighbors, and co-workers of your members into groups, they will be introduced to your pastor through the video curriculum. When these new folks are invited to church, they will feel like they already know your pastor from the videos!
Where are you headed this Fall? If you’re creating your own curriculum, I hope you’ve already started. If not, there are semi-custom offerings from allinsmallgroups.com and other sources that have scripts and study guides already written. The hard work is taken care of. Your pastor just needs to personalize the scripts and shoot the video. If push comes to shove, curriculum you purchase can also help you form new groups as long as your pastor is passionate about it.
The topic will make or break your next alignment. Where are you headed?
Stuck is not a good feeling. It’s that place where you feel you’ve tried everything you can think of to recruit more leaders, connect people into groups, and keep them going, yet your numbers aren’t showing the success you would hope for.
Getting stuck is common in small group ministry. Some people get stuck at the start of a groups’ ministry and just don’t know what to do. More commonly, groups get stuck at having only 30-50 percent of the congregation connected into groups. This is the point where a single strategy typically runs out of steam. The temptation is to scrape the strategy that got you part of the way there and replace it with another strategy that will get you all of the way there. But, there’s a problem.
No single strategy will help you connect 100 percent of your adults into groups. It simply does not exist. But, there’s good news. There is no rule that says you can only use on strategy at a time. Rather than replacing a strategy that got you 30-50 percent there, just add another strategy that will help you connect the next 30 percent of your congregation. Then, add a third strategy after that.
One size does not fit all. Everyone won’t say “yes” to the same thing. If 30 percent said “yes” to say, the metachurch model or the host home strategy, then celebrate that success. While if you persist, you can bump participation up to 50 percent or so, neither of these strategies will get 100 percent. And, that’s okay. If half of your congregation said, “no” to these approaches, then you need to figure out something different that they might say “yes” to.
If this sounds like your story, then you’re in good company. This was also my story. I worked for seven years handpicking leaders and forming groups only to see 30 percent of our adults connected into groups. My leaders couldn’t identify apprentices in their groups, so recruiting new leaders all fell on me. Not only were there no apprentices, but groups didn’t want to divide and make new groups. After seven years, we were stuck. But, then we tried something different.
We actually did a few things different. We created our own curriculum based on our pastor’s teaching videos. My pastor recruited leaders from the pulpit rather than me handpicking them. We even reached a place where people just invited their friends to do a study together. They didn’t even call themselves “leaders” or “groups.”
Long story short, within six months, we had connected 125 percent of our average adult attendance into groups. We were actually using five different strategies at the same time! Everybody in our church found something they could say, “Yes” to.
Then, we faced the task of keeping these groups going. It’s fairly easy to generate a lot of excitement about groups for a six week study, but motivating groups for the long haul takes some effort. We supported our new leaders with coaches and offered them next steps for studies to continue their groups. We also discovered that how the groups were formed made a big difference in whether or not the groups would stay together. Hint: Groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
By Allen White
You can’t have groups without leaders. Let’s face it, if you have a bunch of people interested in joining groups, you may or may not have groups. But, if you have a leader, you’ll have a group. Where do the leaders come from? There are several schools of thought on how and who to recruit. There is not a right or wrong for this. The method you choose depends on how many people you have to connect into groups, how quickly you want to connect them, and how big of a risk you are willing to take.
High Requirements and Incremental Growth
In this method, prospective leaders must meet certain requirements and complete comprehensive training before they lead groups. Some churches will even ask prospective group leaders to co-lead or apprentice with an experienced leader for a certain period of time before they are commissioned to lead their own group.
The benefit of this method is small group pastors/directors feel they know the prospective leaders better before they are invited to lead. Also, the pastors and staff may feel the leader is better prepared by completing comprehensive training prior to leading a group.
In order to recruit leaders, either the small group pastor will need to personally recruit prospective leaders for the training process or take nominations from other group leaders about prospects in their groups. The number of leaders recruited will depend on how many people are recruiting and how well the recruiters know the church members. As the church grows this becomes a more difficult task.
From my experience using this method is very slow going in offering new groups. If your church is large or is rapidly growing, this method will leave you in the weeds very quickly, especially if your church doesn’t offer much else beyond the weekend worship service. I personally handpicked leaders for seven years and ended up with 30 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. The recruits joined a six week training group with the purpose of launching all of the members as small group leaders. Some years we started 10 new groups. One year we started two groups. One year we started zero groups, even though the prospects completed the training. Then, we got stuck and couldn’t grow further.
Fortunately, there were some lessons learned. First, the invitation was to lead a group basically for the rest of their lives. This was too much of a commitment. Secondly, I didn’t know everybody in the church, so there were a lot of great prospects being overlooked because I had never met them. Third, I felt I needed to maintain control over the groups and the leaders to make sure we didn’t have a bunch of problems, which turned out to be our biggest problem. I had become the bottleneck for leadership.
A few positives in this method are certainly worth keeping. Most people do not regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. For the small group pastor, a staff member, or a group leader to say, “I think you have what it takes to lead a group,” is huge in people’s lives. Many people who don’t regard themselves as leaders would make great leaders, they just need someone to call that out of them. Those personal conversations won’t get all of the leaders you need, but they will make a significant impact on the life of the potential leader.
Then, there’s the term “leader.” We should be hesitant to call someone a leader. Whether that means someone must meet the qualifications and fulfill the training requirements before they are designated “leader,” or if they start a group with their friends, no one should be designated as a leader until they’ve proven themselves. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs his apprentice, Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” No matter how people have entered your leadership pipeline, wait and see how God uses them and gifts them before you give them the title of leader.
Low Requirements and Rapid Growth
After being stuck with 30 percent in groups after seven years of using the first method, my pastor and I decided to do something different. We created our own video-based curriculum, so the group meetings would be easy to prepare and lead. Rather than handpicking leaders, my pastor made a public invitation in the service that went something like this: “We’ve prepared video curriculum materials for you. If you would be interested in opening your home to host a group, then we will help you get the group started.” With that invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. And, I got out of the recruiting business permanently.
Every church must choose their own acceptable level of risk in “lowering the bar.” I don’t even like that term any more. I’d rather say “delaying the requirements.” For some churches, anyone who is willing to lead a group is qualified to lead a short-term group. (I prefer not to advertise these). For other churches, the recruit must be a member, complete Growth Track, provide references, or be interviewed. Choose the acceptable level of risk that’s appropriate for your group. For more on this, see Chapter 3 of Exponential Groups.
Once people said “yes” to my pastor’s invitation, we brought them into a briefing to give them a start on how to gather and lead their group. Eventually at the briefings, we introduced them to an experience leader who would walk alongside them for the six week series. For us, by providing the curriculum, we knew what was being taught in the groups, and by offering a coach, we knew what was going on. This gave us more on-going reassurance of quality groups than we had ever had.
The number of new groups you start this way is limited only by the number of people who attend your church. Every person in your church could do a Bible study with their friends. I know you’re immediately thinking of who you don’t want to start a group. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Only 2 percent or less will be a problem. The other 98 percent will do a great job.
In the first church I served, we quickly reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, compare that to 30 percent in groups after seven years of doing it the other way. We had 1,000 people in groups and 800 on the weekend. In the second church I served, we had about 4,000 of our 5,000 regular attenders in groups. (That church offered a LOT of other options to our adults).
While there is more risk in this method, there is also more reward. Like I said at the beginning, you can go either way. Neither is wrong. It all depends on how much time you have to get everybody in a group. If you have months, then the second method is the way to go. If you have years, then the first method is fine. If you’re not sure, then run a pilot with a few groups and see what works.
Requirements and training should never go away permanently. If you “lower the bar,” remember you must eventually “raise the bar.” In the first one to three years, most churches can get their entire congregations connected. After that window passes, you must up the ante for groups. Qualify “unqualified” leaders. Create a discipleship pathway. Offer more mature topics in addition to felt need topics.
It’s up to you. What are you willing to risk? If you go too fast, you might be embarrassed or blamed. But, if you go to slow, you can miss out on some great leaders and an opportunity to disciple your members. What are you willing to try?
By Allen White
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them).
In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets.
Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service.
As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.)
There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission.
When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend.
This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church.
But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not.
Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation.
You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture.
I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire.
Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base?
In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out.
It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake.
What is your church discovering?
Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.