Heather Zempel serves as the Discipleship Pastor and Ministries Director at National Community Church in Washington, DC. With a background in biological engineering and experience as a policy advisor in the United States Senate, she brings a unique perspective to ministry, leadership, and discipleship. Heather is the author of several books including the most recent, Amazed and Confused and Big Change, Small Groups. She loves football, BBQ, and having adventures with her husband Ryan and fun-loving daughter Sawyer Elizabeth.
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.”
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
Your members are not watching your online services. Well, at least not all of them are. According to a recent survey by the Barna Group, in the past four weeks, churchgoers have:
Streamed My Regular Church Online: 40%
Streamed a Different Church Online: 23%
Where did they go?
A pastor friend of mine told me last week that he just discovered that two core, committed families had left their church – 5 months ago! He just found out. Their senior pastor had taken a stand that they disagreed with, so they “left” the church. No one knew because churches in their state have not been allowed to meet in-person for worship since March 2020. These members didn’t need to move to the church down the street. They just changed the channel.
Most churches who are regathering for worship are only seeing about 30% of their attendance from 12 months ago. Most are continuing to see high levels of streams for their online services, but every pastor has to admit that there are a fair number of people in the “Neither” category.
While I believe this season presents a great opportunity for the church to reach people far from God, the church also has to change how they serve in this season. Most pastors have counted on the sermon and the weekend service to accomplish far more than it’s capable of doing. [LINK] As Andy Couch said, the church should keep the Who and Why, but change the What and How.** Here are the key areas to lean into in this season:
Create an Interactive Worship Experience
Just because it’s online doesn’t mean people are really watching. Three of our four children are doing online school this year. Our oldest graduated from high school this year. (What a bummer of a year to graduate, right?) Our daughter attends a charter school with about half the students in the physical classroom and the other half watching the stream of the class at home. She has to have her camera on. She has to wear her school uniform. She has to do her assignments. Mostly she sits bored in front of a Chromebook all day, but as she says, “It’s just like going to school in person except I have a more comfortable chair.”
Our two sons attend a completely online school. The classes are intended for an online-only classroom. They interact with their teachers. The lessons are taught for the small screen. While school is still school and still boring, our sons’ school does a much better job of keeping them engaged than our daughter’s streaming school.
Now, do you see your church’s online worship services in that example? Are you streaming the in-person service or are you creating an online experience? There’s a difference. Here’s an example. Morningside Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia was a legacy church of about 400 members pre-COVID. When their services went online, their online attendance jumped to 800 views overnight. While the church has started to regather on Sunday morning, only about 120 people are attending in-person, but another 1,600 are viewing online. But, the innovation I would like for you to see is what they are doing with their midweek service called The Living Room.
The pastor and two of the staff appear on a living room set that they built. They bring in a guest via Skype and then take questions from Facebook and Instagram DURING the service. It’s a digitally, interactive service. Now, The Living Room is a work in progress, but it’s developing into something very interesting. Check it out (They’ll be thrilled with the views!).
There are better preachers online. There are more interesting services online. What is unique about what you are putting online? How do you build a relationship with your online audience? How do you KEEP a relationship with your members? Eventually your church will regather if it hasn’t already, but what is your responsibility to your online congregation?
Don’t Leave Kids Behind
Church online is great for adults, but it’s a bummer for kids. It’s like we’ve gone back 50 years when there was only a nursery on Sunday morning and no children’s church. As my wife and I have been watching church online for 26 weeks now, our kids are not interested. Our 7-year-old will join us for the singing, but exits when the preaching starts. But, kids engage online just not with the same things as adults.
My 7-year-old is a loyal viewer of Ryan’s Toys Review and the Izzy’s on Youtube. It’s almost like they’ve become part of the family. While we limit his viewing, their Youtube shows have sparked his creativity in building intricate Thomas the Train tracks, unique Lego projects, and his own DIY set pieces for these creations. He can’t get enough of it. Recently, he got hooked on new Youtube videos – Saddleback Kids (Early Childhood and Elementary). Taking cues from these other Youtube sensations, Saddleback has entered my 7-year-old’s world, and he loves it!
Connect Them into Groups
Your Fall 2020 Small Group Launch could be the MOST IMPORTANT LAUNCH you’ve ever had. (YES! I’M YELLING.) As far as fall group launches go, it’s a bummer. Many people are tired of Zoom. (There are other ways to meet online). Many people are not showing up to the online groups they joined. (There are better ways to get them there). People, including small group pastors, are ready for things to get back to normal, but normal may not be here for a while.
Resist the temptation to write your Fall 2020 launch up as a loss. There are new online followers who need a group. There are faithful members who need community and conversation amid the pandemic. Your calling and your mission did not stop because there’s a pandemic. The church has been through far worse and thrived.
Check Your Giving Records
I don’t want to sound crass, but I hope someone on your team has compared the current individual giving records with those from a year ago. Since pastors can’t count noses, you can still count nickels. This isn’t about money. This is about your people. If your people have stopped giving, it’s probably for one of a handful of reasons:
They are no longer financially committed because they left your church. You’d better find out why.
They no longer see the perceived value of giving to your church. You’d better talk about how your church is serving the less fortunate in your community and how many you’re reaching.
They have experienced a significant drop in income or a job loss. How can you help them?
I really don’t even like suggesting this, but how else do you know who’s still around? This leads to the last point.
Get on the Phone
Whether your staff is five or 500, every staff member should be on the phone with a dozen or more church members EVERY DAY. (I also think every staff member should be leading a small group. After all, what else are they doing right now? They’ve got time on their hands.) In one very large church I’m working with, the staff members were tasked with making 160 calls per day! Why?
People need to know their church cares about them. The call isn’t to ask why they stopped giving or serving, but it could certainly be triggered by that information. The call is to see how they are doing. The call is to offer help. The call is to offer connection.
Smaller churches have the advantage. The average church in America is 90 people. By calling three people per day, a pastor could connect with every member of the congregation over a 30 day period.
Call every giver. Call every core member. Call every leader. Call everyone who’s not attending in-person. Pick up the phone so your sheep can hear your voice!
The American Church is at the crossroads of opportunity and extinction. As David Kinnaman said, 1 in 5 churches will permanently close in the next 18 months. Some estimate there are 300,000 churches in the U.S. That means 60,000 churches will close! This isn’t “waiting until things get back to normal.” This is an emergency! How is your church connecting with your people?
If you are ready to up your game with digital ministry, I am hosting a webinar with Phil Cooke on Thursday, October 1 at 2 pm Eastern. Phil has a PhD in Theology and is an active media producer. He is saying some things about the church that you need to hear. Registration is limited. In fact, registration is not even set up yet, so if you’re interested email me at firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.