Small Groups are a Leadership Development Factory

Small Groups are a Leadership Development Factory

If you need more leaders and even people just to help in your church, you are in good company these days. With low attendance numbers dragging on into the third year since COVID began, the leadership deficit in most churches is bigger than it’s ever been. Small groups are a great catalyst for growing leaders.

Every Disciple Can Make a Disciple

Sometimes you can get a little triggered when we hear the word “leader.” It’s a weighty word. Your mind goes to Paul’s qualifications for elders in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But, as my friend Randal Alquist at Vertical Church in Connecticut says that when it comes to small group leaders, “We’re not recruiting elders here.” You have more knowledgeable and willing people than you give your church credit for. Give them a chance. If they have friends, they can make disciples. But, you don’t want to lower the bar on the title of “leader.”

Paul says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Keep the leadership bar high. Only call someone a “leader” once they’ve met the requirements and have received training. But also remember that you don’t need a “leader” to make a disciple. You need a disciple to make a disciple.

When you read “every disciple can make a disciple,” your mind immediately goes to some special people in your church. They’re probably people you would never imagine leading a group or discipling anybody. First, don’t be so closed minded. Crazy people have the unique ability to minister to other crazy people. Second, as my friend Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You might be tempted to create an entire system to account for the exceptions. Don’t. Remember that 98% of your people will do a great job leading a group and discipling others. Don’t avoid trying something new or moving forward because someone might cause a problem. As my friend Mark Howell says, “There is no problem-free.” (I just realized that I’m blessed to have so many great friends).

Create an Easy Entry Point

For your people who are not ready to be called a “leader,” create an opportunity for a low risk trial run. This could be as simple as “getting together with your friends and doing a study” for a short-term study of six weeks or so. Provide a video-based curriculum, so they don’t have to teach. (You don’t want them to teach if they’re not trained). You provide an experience leader to walk alongside them to both help and supervise. Then, they invite their friends. Who will they invite?

Let’s say the scale of spiritual growth is 0 – 10. Zero are those who haven’t committed their lives to Christ. Tens are those who are “Jesus Jr.” Everyone falls somewhere on the scale. Now, if a spiritual three starts a group open to anybody and fives, sixes, and sevens show up, what’s going to happen? It will be a terrible experience. The spiritual three is still trying to figure out where the book of Habakkuk is, which makes the group rolls their eyes. But, what if that same three invites his or her friends. Who will be invited? The group will probably be threes, twos, ones, zeros, negative twos, etc.

Don’t Advertise These Groups

If you truly want to take the risk out of these groups, then don’t advertise them or send anyone to these groups. If you put the groups on your website or refer the group to someone, you’ve given the group an implied endorsement. If the “leader” hasn’t met the requirements to lead a group or lacks experience in leading, then those who sign up will experience disappointment. Their expectations weren’t met.

But, if someone gathers their friends, then their friends should know what they’re in for. It’s their friend. In my experience, I’ve never heard someone complain, “My friend’s group is terrible. I can’t believe you let them lead a group. They don’t know what they’re doing.” If they complain about their friend, my reply would be, “It’s your friend. This is on you, not on me.” But, I’ve never heard that complaint. People give grace to their friends.

A Six Week Study is Just a Start

An alignment series or church-wide campaign is the start of a leadership development process. If they enjoy doing a study with their friends, then offer them another study to continue. Once they have two studies under their belt, then begin to reintroduce the leadership requirements you delayed. Once they have met the requirements, then you can call them “leaders.”

Churches who keep a low bar on leadership for years create a situation with a diminishing return. If series after series is presented as too easy, then campaigns will become unimportant to your members. After all if you don’t increase the requirements for leaders and expect more of group members, then they will regard what you’re offering as unimportant. As my friend Carl George once said, “Churches have a one to three year window to get people into groups with campaigns.” After that, your members will suffer what I call campaign fatigue. They become weary of church-wide push after church-wide push.

You’ve got to know when to offer an easy entry point, when to reintroduce the requirements, and when to challenge your groups in their spiritual growth and commitment. While you don’t want to leave anyone in the dust, you also don’t want to keep everybody in Kindergarten. An easy entry point will get admitted non-leaders started, but keeping the bar low will not keep them engage long term.

On-going Leadership Development

Everyone in your groups, both leaders and members, should be taken through a process to discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Use a great resource like Discover Your Spiritual Gifts the Network Way by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback, or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Your people should know their spiritual gifts and abilities, then be offered a way to use their gifts in the ministry of your church. Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee is a great resource on how to implement a ministry development process in your church.

Of course, within every group, every member can learn to lead a group. Pass around the responsibilities from bringing refreshments to hosting in their homes to leading the discussion. You can develop every group member to lead a group.

Think About This

The global pandemic has rapidly and dramatically caused culture to change. It’s almost like we’ve experienced a decade’s worth of change in the last two years. Things aren’t going back to normal. What we are experiencing now is the normal. You have to lead the church you’ve got.

Not every ministry your church offered in 2019 is worth keeping. While COVID brought a great deal of chaos, it also brought a significant amount of clarity. Have you evaluated what your church no longer needs? If your worship center is only half full on Sunday mornings, then you probably don’t need a parking team. Could your parking team make disciples instead? It’s time to evaluate your ministries. Eliminate what is no longer working or is not meeting a need. “Right size” the ministries that are working. Then, readjust the culture of your church for what lies ahead. Don’t be afraid to lose the people you have. They are with you. They are ready to move forward. If there ever was a time to change things, now is the time.

Small groups have proven to be quite resilient through the pandemic. Rock Church in San Diego increased their groups by 211% in 2020.

Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan increased their groups by 176% in 2021. What can your church do this year? Small groups are a leadership factory. What’s holding you back?

Case Study: 176% Group Growth in 2021

Case Study: 176% Group Growth in 2021

“We want to connect 80 percent of our people into groups in 2021,” announced Pastor Kevin Berry. That seemed like a loaded statement. To start, the church only had 19 percent of their adult worship attendance in groups. Next, small groups had never been a high priority at the church. Lastly, did you catch the date? 2021 was just more of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, but God gave Pastor Kevin a vision. Here’s what happened.

Mount Hope is an Assemblies of God church in Lansing, Michigan. They have an in-person worship attendance of 1,000 adults and an online worship attendance of 500 (2021). The church was founded in 1925 but became what it is today under the leadership of Pastor Dave Williams (1981-2012) and is currently led by Pastor Kevin Berry. Mount Hope is known for global missions and supports works in over 150 countries. They are also known for serving their local community. Mount Hope has a goal to reach everyone within a 50 miles radius of Lansing, which they call the “Soul Zone.” But, small groups have never been a high priority for the church until this year.

Mount Hope began 2021 without a Life Group Pastor and only 29 groups. After a conversation with Pastor Kevin in early 2021, the Mount Hope Executive Team decided to hire me (Allen White) as their outsourced Life Group Pastor for 12 months. Our goal is to connect 80 percent of the average adult worship attendance into groups, connect every leader with a coach, and develop leaders for longer term service.

The Senior Pastor Led the Charge

The vision caster for every church is the senior pastor. It just makes sense. The senior pastor hears from God and shares the vision with the people. In this case, Pastor Kevin became the spokesman for small groups. He announced the series. He invited people to gather their friends, open their homes, and host online groups. He asked them to text “Host” to the church’s text line, then asked them to meet him after the service for a host briefing, which he introduced then handed off to other staff.

This is the influence of the senior pastor. I have served in full-time ministry since 1990. Most of that time I served as the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, Vice President, and now outsourced Life Group Pastor. What I’ve learned is that even if I said the very same words as the senior pastor, I would only get 30 percent of the result. How do I know? I cast vision for groups in my church in California for seven years and connected 30 percent of our adults into groups. That number was no coincidence. The day my senior pastor invited people to host a group, we doubled our groups in one day.

In the two alignment series at Mount Hope this year, groups grew from 29 at the start to 53 groups in the first series. Then in Fall 2021, groups went from 53 to 83. When student ministry groups under Pastor Peter Reeves as well as support groups under Pastor Josh Goodman were added in, Mount Hope peaked so far at 99 groups and 59 percent of the congregation connected into groups.

The Church Created Their Own Curriculum

In order to get more people into groups and raise the value of small groups at Mount Hope, the church launched two alignment series based on the sermon series. One series ran in the spring of 2021 (May-June). A second series ran in fall 2021 (September-October). A third series is being produced now for new year 2022. This seems like a lot to create, but several important factors drove all of this forward.

First, Pastor Kevin recognized that if the groups were aligned with where the teaching team taught on the weekend, the people would follow along. For most people who aren’t connected to groups, the reason they attend worship services is because of the senior pastor’s teaching. When you connect the small group study with the senior pastor’s teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already want.

Second, Pastor Kevin shares the pulpit with a qualified team of men and women who serve alongside him. Rather than creating every lesson for every aligned small group study, the teaching pastors created the video teaching for each week they preached. This created both continuity between the pulpit and the group study as well as shared responsibility for creating the resource.

Third, the church enlisted the help of Executive Pastor Joe Mead, Communications Director Roger Ackerman, and their outsourced Life Group Pastor to create either a downloadable resource (Spring 2021) or a full study guide (Fall 2021 and New Year 2022) to accompany the video teaching. Again, with a team approach, the church has produced three high quality small group studies in just nine months along with regular sermon discussion questions for the weeks between alignment series.

Lastly, the church made a consistent effort for groups with a sequence of small group alignments. Since they did not have a strong track record with groups, the consistency of offering three alignment series in one 12 month period showed the congregation that Mount Hope is serious about groups. Also, the people who might have been reluctant when the first series was announced joined the second series. And, those who were skeptical haven’t joined yet, but should warm up to the third series in New Year 2022.

Leadership Requirements Were Delayed

Prior to 2021, Life Group Leaders had to meet some stringent leadership requirements in order to start a group. Candidates needed to complete Growth Track and become church members in addition to completing a 12-part online or in-person leadership course called Accelerate. To maximize the number of new hosts, the church leadership chose to delay the requirements. This gave folks a chance to test drive a group before they decided to move forward. Now that many groups have completed one to two alignment series, these requirements are being gently reintroduced by invitation for those who have found their niche in leading a Life Group.

Every New Leader Connected to a Coach

There is a risk to starting groups with unproven group leaders. There I said it. It’s a calculated risk, in that, only about 2 percent of the people recruited in over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years have been any kind of a problem. And, by problem, I simply mean having a warm pastoral conversation about an issue they might be struggling with. To reduce the risk and to help more groups get started, each new leader was given an experienced leader to walk alongside them from when they first attended the briefing through the end of the alignment series. This experienced leader made a phone call to the new leader once a week to answer their questions, encourage them, and see how they were doing. This was also a great format for identifying and recruiting new on-going coaches. (Here’s more on why coaching matters).

The Rest of the Story

Mount Hope has accomplished a lot in building their Life Groups through a very difficult year. But, rather than waiting for everything to get back to normal (which it’s not so start leading the church you have), the pastors at Mount Hope are moving forward in leading the church they have into community, care, and growth through their Life Groups.

Mount Hope’s journey toward reaching 80 percent in Life Groups is still being written. Check back for updates. In the meantime, for more complete details of what’s working right now with small groups, join the Small Group Restart.

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