Isolation from the pandemic is basically over in most quarters. You can freely roam about the country and the world. But, if your church is like most, your worship attendance is not back to the where it was pre-COVID. There really is no reason to stay away, so why aren’t some of your people coming back? Here are a few reasons why.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Caution.
Some haven’t returned because they or a loved one have a health problem and can’t risk exposure. They’re probably not just staying away from church. They’re staying away from everyone. This is understandable. How are you reaching out to these folks and helping them feel connected to the larger church body?
Once restrictions were lifted in most places, some who felt comfortable attending when masks were required, now feel uncomfortable to worship maskless. Regardless of your personal feelings on masks, part of your congregation who were worshipping in-person are now staying away. They will be back, but not right now. How are you connecting with them?
They Went Somewhere Else.
If they weren’t with you, they did you a favor by going somewhere else. The pandemic sped everything up. If people were headed for the door, then COVID gave them a push. I’ve even heard of churches splitting over everything from mask preferences to politics or whatever else. (And, you know they’re disagreeing from all sides of these issues). If you’ve had people leave out of petty disagreements, figure out a way to bless them. Then, move forward with the people you’ve got.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Comfort.
Most people’s couches are much more comfortable than those $30 chairs your church bought online. They can sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the service. Or they can multitask during worship. It’s not uncommon to hear about people cleaning their houses and worshipping at the same time.
Here’s the deal: if your worship service is largely built on programming, people can access programming online. Some churches have decided to end their online worship services in an effort to get people back into the building. Those folks are now watching another church’s worship service online.
As I said, if your worship service amounts to merely programming, people can get programming online. But, it takes more than programming to engage people in worship. The key is community.
If no one has reached out to them in the last two years or if no one‘s giving them a call to see how they’re doing, why would they come back? As John Maxwell says, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” When everyone was worshipping in-person, it was easier to shake a hand or give a greeting, or was it?
I attend a church of about 50 people. It’s the church that I grew up in. The pastor is a good man. I get to sit with my dad every week. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. But what I observe on Sunday at this church of 50 people is that like every other church, people tend to talk to people they already know. They tend to shy away from people that they don’t know. This is true of churches of 50, 500, 5,000, or 50,000. People gravitate to the people they know and ignore the people they don’t. Now, I’m trying my best to do my part to be friendly and welcoming. But, how do you get everybody to be hospitable?
Let me be frank: the lack of community in your weekend services has kept people away. Our holy huddles have also kept people away. You’ve got to loosen this up a little bit. You’ve got a find a place where people can connect in a meaningful way. As Roy Moran says, “The worship service is a great place to start, but a poor place to finish.” For every new person who walks through the door, what is their next step into community? How can they get to know others? How can they feel more connected.
If people felt more community in your church, they would attend more often. How are you connecting people into small groups? How are you leveraging existing relationships to start groups and invite friends and neighbors to church?
Think About This
Clearly it’s time to move forward. You have to accept the fact that the church you have is everybody you’re going to get back with just a few exceptions. We’re not going back to 2019. This is not necessarily bad news.
As your church moves forward, how do you create an environment that will welcome people, accept people, love people, and connect them into community? What do people in your area need right now? How can you connect with them? If they can’t make it to church on Sunday, then how do you help them connect with others?
You work hard. You’ve learned a lot. You are growing your small groups both numerically and spiritually. Your hard work should pay off. But, a promotion is not necessarily a bigger salary or a larger title (but it could be!) Your small group ministry will grow. Your time will not. How are you preparing yourself for what’s ahead?
Many small group pastors and directors start out as small group leaders. By virtue of the fact that you are now leading the small group ministry at your church, you have already received a promotion somewhere along the way. Who are you leading now? Maybe you’re leading a handful of groups. Then you’re probably okay for now. Maybe you’re leading dozens of groups. You’re probably not doing as well as you did when it was only a handful. You need help. Maybe you’re leading hundreds of groups. If that’s the case, then you are completely overwhelmed. You are either barely keeping your head above water, or you’ve convinced yourself that an email newsletter, occasional meetings, and a reporting system are adequate to sustain a large small group ministry. Don’t kid yourself.
If you’ve got dozens of groups, then give yourself a promotion. Recruit and develop coaches to serve the small group leaders, then you will serve the coaches. If you’ve got hundreds of groups, then you deserve two promotions – not only should coaches serve the leaders, but a small group team should serve the coaches. You only meet with eight or so leaders of leaders. These leaders could be paid staff, but in the churches I’ve served these leaders volunteered their time and abilities. Honestly, I had a better team than I could ever afford to hire. But, where do you find these leaders of leaders?
Are You Sharing Responsibilities?
Think about all of the things you are doing right now. Make three lists — what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you hate to do. Take a minute right now and make your lists. I’ll wait.
Now, make a plan to give away everything you hate to do. There are people in your church who would love to do the things you hate to do. Years ago, every member of our church filled out a paper health assessment during a service and turned it in. Now the task was to input all of those paper surveys into a database. (Why did we use paper? Well, it was pre-COVID and pre-smartphone. Stay with me.) I asked for volunteers to help with data entry. Three people stepped up, and three days later the job was done. If that was up to me, those surveys would still be sitting on my desk. There are people who would love to do what you hate to do. Let them do it! This was the easy one.
What are the things you like to do? How can you recruit and develop people to do these things? John Maxwell says, “If someone can do the job 30 percent as well as you can, let them do it. Most likely they can do it 60 percent as well.” But, if you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you’re the only one that can do it, and people like coming to you. Moses had this same issue in Exodus 18. Read more about delegating leadership here.
You need more help, but you need the right help. When you look at your small group leaders, whose groups would you like to see more of? Recruit those leaders to coach others. Which groups do you not want to see more of? Skip those. For more on recruiting coaches, go here.
The biggest issue is not finding qualified people to lead at a higher level. My biggest issue was getting out of their way and letting them use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve other leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely hands-off. Everyone and everything was supervised. I just had to come to the realization that my coaches could be more available and serve the leaders better than I could, and that the leaders didn’t need me as much as I thought they did.
Now, let’s take stock. If you’ve given away all of the things you hate to do and are in the process of giving away the things you like to do, then what’s left? The things you love to do. Wouldn’t you love to have more time to do the things you love to do. You can, if you follow this plan.
Are You Raising Up Leaders?
Ask others to read the books you are reading. Bring them to the conferences you attend. Share the podcasts you listen to. Then, get together and talk about what they’re learning and how they’re applying it. Develop a monthly circle of leaders who get together for lunch to discuss leadership principles. If you want to draw out the leaders in your church, offer a group, a conference, or a workshop on leadership. Simply by calling something a “Leadership [Fill in the Blank],” you will quickly identify the leaders or wannabe leaders in your church. Once you know who can lead, then give them a next step.
You don’t want to give anyone the keys before giving them a test drive. If you love to mentor individuals or small groups of people, then pour your efforts into a small group of people who can lead others. Start by asking them to help you by walking alongside new leaders for one alignment series or semester. See how they do. See if they like helping other leaders. See if they’re any good at it. For those who do well, invite them to coach more. For those who didn’t do well (or didn’t do it at all), just thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
The Legacy You Leave is the Leaders You’ve Developed
Think about the steps you took in becoming a leader. Did someone just ask you one day to step into the role where you currently serve? Probably not. Someone saw something in you. Someone gave you a chance. Someone invested in you. Who can you invest in?
In a recent conversation with Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church, Washington DC, she shared how a number of former small group leaders who got their start at NCC are now leading in larger capacities across the US. Heather mentored Will Johnston (Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA), Ashley Anderson (Campus Director, NCC), Brad Dupre (Next Level Church, NH), Jonathan Shrader (Reservoir Church, CA), and Clynt Reddy (River Valley Church, Minneapolis, MN). (Catch my interview with Heather Zempel on the Exponential Groups Podcast in a couple of weeks).
What will your legacy be?
Think About This
Ministry done right is all about working yourself out of a job. You might like your job, but sometimes you have to give up to go up. What are you willing to give up? What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years? How are you preparing for what’s ahead?
When you leave your current position and/or your current church, will the small group ministry you’ve built stand or fall? While the church’s next hire will fill the position you left, the success of your small group ministry is a leadership team who will outlast you. Who are you investing in? What are you letting them do?
As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
At some point you encounter the thought, “There’s just not enough of me to go around.” When you consider your spouse, your family, your church, your groups, (and don’t forget yourself), this admission is accurate. You are insufficient to accomplish all that God has called you to do. But, this is not necessarily bad news.
Have you ever called tech support only to hear that your problem is “user error?” I am so relieved when it’s just user error. I don’t have to send my device in or buy a new one. The problem is me! This is great news, because I can fix me. Once you discover this, you can fix it!
Don’t Put a Lid on Your Small Groups.
Once upon a time my groups were stuck at 30% after seven years of very hard work building a small groups ministry. I handpicked all of the leaders. I trained all of the leaders. I coached all of the leaders. Our small group ministry had grown as far as it could under my leadership. At this point, there was a choice: (1) Blame my senior pastor for not promoting groups, (2) Blame our people for being selfish and unwilling to leave their groups to start new groups, (3) Find another job, or (4) Change myself.
After spending a fair amount of time on options 1 and 2, I finally came to the realization that the solution was to change myself. This wasn’t easy. After all, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.
John Maxwell coined “The Law of the Lid” which states, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” We were stuck at 30% of our congregation in groups, because that’s the most I could effectively lead by myself. If I didn’t multiply myself and raise my level of leadership, then our groups would never have grown.
Where Do You Start?
The bad news was that I wasn’t adequately serving my small group leaders. The good news was that I still had small group leaders. They had figured out how to lead their groups and keep them going. Now, I didn’t completely neglect them. We did a lot of training meetings that were half attended at best. (Did I also mention that I oversaw the entire children’s ministry, some of the church administration, and led worship for a season? It wasn’t a very good season.) I’ll stop making excuses. As John Maxwell also says, “People who are good at making excuses are usually good at little else.”
My motivation to shift my leadership came in the form of a crisis. We doubled our groups in one day. From a coaching perspective, I now had twice the problem. I wasn’t adequately coaching the leaders I had, then suddenly I had an equal number of new leaders. I was overwhelmed. Then, something dawned on me.
If half of my leaders were new, then that meant that the other half had some experience. While they weren’t trained as coaches, they had enough to answer the new leaders’ questions and encourage them. I matched them up in a buddy system. Looking back, it was quick and dirty and very chaotic, but it moved my leadership enough for the next time our groups doubled, which was six months later.
Empower Coaches to Serve.
Even though I had leveraged a crisis to recruit coaches, I still had another problem. Remember that part about “My name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” Yea, that didn’t go away quickly.
I had coaches. This was a big step. I had willing, capable, and experienced leaders to coach new small group leaders. But, my coaches became bored and frustrated.
I was still running the monthly huddles. I did all of the training. I sent the coaches into the groups to gather information for me. No wonder that one coach, Carol, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” She was!
This forced another leadership growing pain for me: if I didn’t get out of my coaches way, then I would lose my coaches. I’ll admit it – I was insecure. I had never led a small group ministry with 60% of our adults in groups. If 30% was too much for me to handle alone, then 60% was way beyond my ability individually. I couldn’t lose my coaches. But, I had only given my coaches half of what they needed.
I gave my coaches the tasks of coaching, but I hadn’t given them the authority of coaching. I trusted them to do the grunt work, but I didn’t trust them to make wise decisions. At this point two major shifts were necessary: (1) I needed to get over myself, and (2) I needed to invest more in the relationships with these coaches and allow them to invest in the leaders. This worked.
When I began to regard my coaches as partners rather than subordinates, they began to shine. They loved helping other leaders. And, I was grateful for the help.
Carl George, my friend and mentor, often asks: “How are you getting in the way of accomplishing your goals?”
How easily can you multiply your ministry? Let’s say tomorrow you are given the opportunity to duplicate your church in another location. How quickly could you assemble an exact replica of the church you currently serve? What leaders would you need? What budget? What buildings? Could you turn on a dime, or what kind of lead time would you need? Let’s go the other way. Let’s say your church has hit a low point (or is starting from scratch). You have no building, no money, and no staff. How would you do church? How would you reach your community? Multiplication is key to mission. The mission, we know well, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV). Did you read it, or did you “yada, yada, yada” it? Maybe read it again. Simply put, we have Jesus’ authority and presence to carry out his mission. What else do we need? Motivation, yes. Obedience, for sure. Multiplication, absolutely – generationally and ethnically. What’s holding us back? The only thing slowing many of us down is the lack of focus on multiplication. We’ve become skilled at distributing fish. Now’s the time to raise up fishermen.
Throughout the seeker movement, we gave people a pass on discipleship. We invited them to sit back, relax, and get comfortable. For the boomer generation who is chief interest was self-interest, this formula actually worked. (Other generations also have similar interests). But then we ran into a dilemma: when we needed people to help, we discovered that everyone had taken us up on the offer to be comfortable. No one wanted to help. Now much has been said in lowering the bar on small group leadership. Some people despise that thought. But the heart of lowering the bar comes from I thought by Neil Cole where he said we need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple. We are all called to go and make disciples. By allowing members to gather a group of friends and facilitate a discussion with an easy-to-use video-based curriculum (initially), we’re not creating a multiplicity of shallow rooted people. We are helping our people become obedient to the Great Commission. Everyone is called to make disciples. No one is exempt. And yet we have created such a convoluted, unclear method of discipleship, which I hesitate to even call a method, because there’s no systemization to it. We will take up this issue in another post over the next month. Forming groups is not the only way to align the purposes of our members with the purposes of Jesus’ mission. It’s a start. Often people need a trial run before they can commit to a longer-term role. The nature of multiplication is that every member should be making disciples of others. Every disciple should make disciples who in turn make disciples. We must multiply disciples.
In the church we are more comfortable with managers than leaders. Managers take direction and implement. They make sure a greeter is posted at every door and a teacher is present in every class. Managers follow the rules and do what they’re told. Leaders show the way. Often we are threatened by the idea of allowing others to lead, because their leadership proves to be better than ours. But when you think about it, this is actually a good thing. After all, all of us are smarter than anyone of us. As pastors, our role is to nurture and bring out the best in people. The challenge is that we must grow our own leadership and develop trust to the point where we can allow our people to lead without becoming “helicopter pastors.” A leader is not someone who merely follows instructions, although they should abide by the vision and mission of the church. A leader is someone who takes initiative. You have plenty of leaders in your church. Some of them you have labeled as problems. The reason they seem to work against you is that you haven’t delegated something to them to help them work for you. You will never be able to hire enough staff to fulfill all of the needs of your church and community, nor should you. But in your congregation you have a wealth of leadership potential that must be tapped. As you develop leaders, they will multiply the efforts of your church and help you to accomplish far more. The easiest way to identify leaders in your church is by hosting a leadership seminar. You can lead that seminar. John Maxwell could lead the seminar via video. You could host something like the Chick-fil-A Leadercast. You can bring in a speaker. But as soon as you announce a leadership seminar, your leaders will come out of the woodwork.
Multiply your staff
The ability to hire staff often comes with the relief of no longer depending on volunteer help. When the job is tied to a paycheck, we can bring in a more qualified and more reliable person, right? No one has ever had to terminate staff before. Over-staffing a church creates two problems. First, the hire eliminates the need for members of the church to exercise their gifts and abilities. As one pastor told me, “Our motto is like Greyhound, ‘Leave the driving to us.’” Secondly, and I’ll tread lightly here, the accumulation of staff often changes the role of pastor to managing rather than leading. You must manage their time, their benefits, their progress, and their ROI. Or, I suppose you could ignore and assume. My point is that staff hires don’t necessarily bring about the relief a pastor needs, unless they are able to multiply themselves. The future requires staff members to multiply themselves. Every staff member – pastor, assistant, receptionist, custodian – everyone should multiply their lives and ministry. In fact, the true measure of a staff member’s worth should not be how many tasks they can perform, but how many people they can develop. Merely hiring more staff will not help your church fulfill the mission and reach your community effectively. But, if staff members get other people to do their work, what do they do? You can go one of two ways here. Either you no longer need the staff member, or the staff can delegate responsibilities and authority to others thus giving the opportunity for the staff to explore and develop new things. As staff members work themselves out of their jobs, then direct them toward fulfilling Jesus’ mission by starting another church and doing the same there.
Maybe you are a staff member, or maybe you are the senior pastor, either way, multiplication is not just the church’s future, it’s your future. How do you grow and expand your leadership? How do you prepare for what’s next? Start by working yourself out of a job. The easiest place to start is by making a list of all of the things you don’t like to do. Those tasks are easy to delegate. You’ll be amazed to find people who will delight in those duties. Not only can you pour yourself into what you’re best at, but you also give others an opportunity to get their gifts in the game. Don’t hoard your worst tasks. Eventually, you will reach a place, as the ministry grows, where you will have two choose between things you love. Develop apprentices in these areas. Start with asking them to observe. Then, give them responsibilities that you will supervise. Then, give them the authority they need to fulfill their mission. While you must always check in with them, you shouldn’t micromanage them. John Maxwell said years ago, “Find someone who can do something 30 percent as well as you and let them do it.” The reality is they can probably do it 60 percent as well. The motivation is to engage people in meaningful ministry so Jesus’ mission will be accomplished, and they will find significance along the way.
Ministry will always have limitations – not enough money, time, talent, or buildings. If your ministry is flush in these things, then you are not risking enough. If you disappeared, how would the ministry continue? Who are you developing to duplicate your efforts and eventually take over? Invest yourself in capable people who can multiply what you do. Stop fulfilling tasks and bending over backward for “consumers.” Leaders are your legacy. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Feel free to disagree with me. Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.
By Allen White Exponential Groups is not so much a strategy or model as it is a focus and an attitude. Your focus determines your result. Exponential results require exponential thinking. What are you thinking about?
1. Are You Focused on Group Members?
If your focus is connecting people into groups, you are not thinking exponentially. Your groups are growing by addition. Think about it. You handpick the leaders and train them. You collect sign up cards or have a website to connect people into groups. It’s not a bad way to go, except that you work hard to start a few groups at a time or to plug people into groups only to find the leader doesn’t call the prospective members, the new members don’t show, or they do show, but they don’t stick with the group. Now, you can arrange the connections by geography, affinity, age, hobby, and so on, but let’s face it: growth by addition is a lot of work with very few results. Just the administrative task of processing all of those sign up cards is nightmare enough. Then, you face the heartbreaking result of how ineffective all of your efforts were. It’s time to change your focus.
2. Are Your Focused on Group Leaders?
If your focus is on group leaders developing apprentices and multiplying, dividing, or splitting your groups, your focus is not exponential. Your groups might be growing by multiplication…maybe. At one point, I had encouraged, challenged, and possibly threatened my group leaders to find an apprentice for seven years. They couldn’t find one. No one in their groups looked like an apprentice. The irony was that I recruited members out of their group to train to become leaders, so we could at least continue growing by addition. Finally, one of my leaders, Carlos, trained an apprentice and launched a new group. After seven years of effort, that was the only one. Some multiplication, huh? Now there are places where this focus is successful, but I have found this is less common. If this is what you’re doing, and it’s working for you, then you might not need to listen to me. Multiply away, but you’re still not thinking exponentially.
3. Are Your Focused on Church-wide Campaigns?
If your focus is on recruiting leaders, you still aren’t thinking exponentially. Maybe your pastor makes the cattle call for leaders or hosts to lead your next church-wide campaign. Now this thinking is more exponential than addition or multiplication, it’s on the right track, but it’s still not there. On the positive side, church-wide campaigns delay the requirements for leadership, so there are more potential leaders. These leaders self-identify, which eliminates the task of recruiting. They can even gather their own groups. After all, followers are the requirement for leadership. As John Maxwell says, “If you think you’re a leader and have no followers, you’re only taking a walk.” The other thing a campaign brings is a easy to use tool, like a video-based curriculum, which enables the new leader to be more friendly than scholarly, but it also maintains quality, because you have determined what is being taught in the group. The non-teacher feels good about teaching, and pastors feel good about letting them lead. But, when the campaign ends, even if the groups continue on with another study, this growth is still more like multiplication and less like exponential. It has the potential to be exponential, but it’s not there. The goal is usually to connect 100 percent of the people into groups. But, what if this thinking is too small?
4. Are You Thinking Exponentially?
Exponential thinking is a shift in how we view our congregations. Are they sheep who need a shepherd? Can their needs only be met by a pastor? Careful: that might betray some co-dependency on your part. Is your congregation full of people who are unqualified to lead? How do you see them? Some pastors see their congregations as an audience. The people are given worship and teaching on Sunday. They receive Bible studies throughout the week. The pastors direct the ministries they serve in. The people are cared for by the pastors: hospital visits, counseling sessions, cups of coffee. For some pastors this is a comfortable situation. Then, your church grows beyond 10 people, and you have a problem. But, what if your congregation wasn’t an audience to be served, but an army to be empowered? What if every person in your church was empowered to gather a few people, maybe just one person, and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? What if pastors focused more on equipping people and not doing the ministry themselves? Please keep your excuses at bay for a minute and dream with me. If everyone — church member or attender — is leading a group, who is in their groups? Good question. People who are not in your church. This doesn’t mean stealing sheep from another flock. There are plenty of people with stressful lives, marriage problems, parenting challenges, life controlling problems, and spiritual questions who could be invited to these groups. The challenge is providing resources that are biblical, yet less churchy to those who need help. I’ve seen glimpses of this. Neighbors gathered. People with similar hobbies and interests. Whether the group is the Holy Smokers in South Carolina who make barbeque or the Holy Smokes in Colorado who light up cigars. I’ve seen commuters on the same morning train doing a Bible study and coworkers meeting at lunch. This doesn’t need to be coerced. This doesn’t require a grand strategy. It only requires a shift in the pastor’s thinking and an opportunity for their people to lead a “group.” Not everyone will do this all at once. In fact, I’ve never seen 100 percent of any church do anything all at once. Start with your innovators — that 4 percent who are willing to try anything. Then, tell their stories to your early adopters, the next 12 percent. Now, you have 16 percent of your church leading. If you’ve got 16 percent leading, then you’re becoming exponential already. They will influenced the next 34 percent of early mid-adopters. You’ve made it past 50 percent. The other half will take a little more time, but it’s worth it. God wants to use your people. Whether you focus on addition or multiplication, imagine how God could use them. But, imagine if the impact of your people touching the lives a four, six, ten, or twelve people outside of your church. Imagine. That’s exponential.