An ill timed launch is nearly as bad as no small group launch at all. You probably launch groups along with everything else in the fall and in the New Year. Those are great windows to launch groups, so what’s the problem?
In most churches, the senior pastor wants to kick off a big fall series as soon as everyone has settled back into church. The pastor will give a “State of the Church” message right after New Year’s Day, then launches into a major sermon series. If these sermon series are aligned with a small group study, then when do you recruit group leaders? And, when do you form groups? Before everybody gets back?
How Does This Work?
Let’s say that everyone is back onsite in the fall around mid-August. This will vary from church to church by a few weeks either way. If your pastor plans a big fall kick off with a sermon series starting in mid-August, you have to recruit leaders and attempt to form groups in July and early August. For most churches that means you are trying to recruit leaders when many of your people are on vacation.
The same goes for the New Year. If your series begins in early to mid-January, then you are recruiting group leaders and forming groups in December. But just in case you haven’t discovered this: nothing happens in December expect for Christmas.
Attempting to recruit leaders in the middle of summer or in December is completely futile. (Okay, maybe you recruited a couple of leaders once, but for the most part it’s futile.) You have to recruit leaders and form groups when your people are actually back. What does this mean?
If your people are back in church physically and mentally in mid-August, then start recruiting group leaders in mid-August. But, what happens to your senior pastor’s fall kick off? Your pastor can still launch the fall with a great sermon series, but wait to align your small group study with the NEXT sermon series (provided your pastor doesn’t do 20-week sermon series). You recruit group leaders in mid- to late August. You form groups in early September. You launch groups with a sermon-aligned study in mid-September.
Here’s a Great Result
One church in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group made this adjustment and went from 30% of their adults in groups to 42% in groups just by launching with the next series instead of launching with the kick off series. At our church in California, our people weren’t back until after Labor Day. We recruited group leaders in September. Our Connection event to join groups was in early October. We launched our six-week aligned series on the second Sunday in October with it finishing just before Thanksgiving. Our next study started in late January or early February. The groups focused more on group life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
But, What About Semester-Long Studies?
And, this strategy relieves another problem for you: every group and every ministry wants to launch all at once. By delaying your aligned series launch for a few weeks, people can sign up for Financial Peace, Rooted, or a Beth Moore study first, then you can recruit the remainder of folks to lead or join series-based groups. After all, a group is a group is a group. As long as they’re doing something intentional about their spiritual growth, does it matter what type of group they’re in? Everyone certainly doesn’t need to do the same thing.
Think About This
Recruiting leaders takes a lot of time and effort. By adjusting your alignment schedule, you put in the same amount of effort, but you get a better result simply by changing the timing. As long as your fall series ends by Thanksgiving and your New Year series ends by Easter, you’re in really good shape.
What does your fall church calendar look like? How can you make this adjustment to maximize your recruiting?
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You can agree that it takes disciples to make disciples. When you think about groups, there are many parts – leaders, curriculum, group dynamics, training, coaching, and supervision. But, the most basic part of any group is someone who is willing to make themselves available to other people for the purpose of helping them to become more like Christ. While there is a definition of “disciple” that means student. There are other words translated “disciple” that mean “to follow” or “to rub off on.” Making disciples is a multidimensional enterprise. What does this have to do with getting the most new leaders next year?
Obstacles to Recruiting Leaders
Often the limitation of how many new leaders you can recruit stems from your definition of a leader. If you are looking for leaders according to the definition in Paul’s letters, then you are looking for a select group. You have a very small fishing pond in which to recruit new leaders. But, do you really need elders to lead small groups? Sometimes the word “leader” gets in your way.
If you think of disciples as students who are following a course of study, then you need very knowledgeable people to impart biblical and theological knowledge to the students in their small groups. You may have a few seminary trained folks or even a few who have spent copious hours in self-study, but you don’t have enough teachers or leaders to disciple as many people as you are responsible for.
Think about all of the people attending your in-person services, attending your online services, and listed in your church database. (To gauge the true size of your church, go here.) You have a much bigger responsibility than you realize. Yet, your methods of recruiting and developing leaders are lagging behind. (You’re probably thinking: Good grief, Allen. I thought you were trying to encourage me here. We are apparently still in a pandemic. Give us a break). Okay, I hear you, let’s talk about how you can get the most new leaders.
Every Church Attender Can Lead a Group
Every person in your church can lead somebody. If they can recommend a restaurant, they have influence. If they have influence, then they are leaders. If they know Jesus as their Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit (according to your definition), they have the light of the world. They have hope. They have truth. They have something to offer.
Start looking at your congregation (in-person and online) as an army instead of an audience. Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders. The people you have in your congregation right now are ready for their marching orders. The consumer Christians are gone. Don’t hesitate from challenging the people you have with bigger responsibilities. In the last two years you’ve lost just about as many as you are going to lose. If you ever wanted to change your church’s culture, now is the time.
Challenge every person in your church. Challenge every person in your worship service. Challenge every online attender to gather a group of friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. For the people you aren’t sure about, don’t advertise the group they gather. Start leading the church you have.
Stop Babying Your People
Your people have more to offer than you give them credit for. But, the only way you will find that out is if you stop doing things for them and encourage them to do things for themselves. I know some pastors are stuck on the “leader” or “teacher” concepts mentioned in the last section. Most of your people fall more in the category of “by now you ought to be teachers, but you still need to be taught” (Hebrews 5:12 – paraphrased).
Your people can gather a group of friends. Have they ever had a party?
Your people can follow the instructions of an easy-to-use, video-based curriculum. Have they ever watch a show on Netflix, followed a recipe, or built a piece of furniture from Ikea?
Your people are doing what you expect them to do. Or as Andy Stanley once said, “Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you’re getting.” (Amen or Ouch!?) Your people would do more if you expect them to do more. And, here’s the deal, your church has been through it over the last two years. The people you have right now are the survivors. They are committed. They are ready for action. If you give them permission and opportunity, they will start groups – even in a pandemic, even if they’ve never done it before, or even if you don’t think they can.
How did you get your children to move out of your house and become productive members of society? (I’ll be careful here. I’m still trying to launch one.) If you pay their bills, guide their every move, and let them stay, they will live in your basement for a very long time. If you expect them to pursue a career, start a family, and find a life on their own, they’ll do it. It’s natural. It’s normal. So, why do pastors create an abnormal relationship with their congregations? You will gain far more from sending people out than you ever will by keeping them. Who’s the next group leader? Who’s the next coach? Who’s the next small group pastor? Who’s the next church planter? Who’s the next senior pastor? They are sitting in your congregation just like you were at one time.
Think About This
God has given you a calling and a mission. God has also given you the ability to fulfill your calling and mission. You cannot possibly care for and disciple every person in your church in a personal and profound way. But, that is not your calling. You are called to “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). That doesn’t mean you need to stop teaching and making disciples. But, it does narrow the focus of who you teach and what you teach them. You must be a ministry multiplier to effectively disciple everyone who is truly part of your church. To disciple every online attender you must multiply yourself. Sure you can dispense content, but content only does half the job of development and discipleship. It takes a disciple to make a disciple.
How will you activate your people to make disciples this next year?
Now, before you take all of this and create a mess for yourself, you need to have a system in place to manage and develop this new crop of “leaders.” You need coaches. You need training. You need next steps. Don’t get stuck here. Because your success only requires developing the minimal amount of structure necessary to support this. For a glimpse of what this looks like, follow the 5-part video series called the Small Group Restart. It provides a road map of how to build this. If you start right now, you can launch the most new group leaders in just a few weeks.
If people had no objections to leading small groups, your job would be very easy. They would just line up and sign up to lead a group. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. If you can help them overcome their objections, recruiting new leaders can get a whole lot easier. Here are some common objections and ways to overcome them:
“I am not a leader.”
Most people don’t feel they are a leader. But, most people have more leadership ability than they give themselves credit for. When the word “leader” gets in the way, change the word. Twenty years ago when the 40 Days of Purpose launched, churches started using “host” instead of leader. Now if your church has used “host” for the last 20 years, well, the jig is up. People know you just mean “leader.” But, there are other ways to recruit “leaders.”
Instead of recruiting to a title, recruit to a role. Last Sunday when I was recruiting new leaders at Mount Hope Church where I serve as the outsourced Small Group Pastor, the senior pastor and I invited people to “start a group” and “get together with a group of friends and do the study.” We recruited for the role.
If people can gather their friends, even if it’s “you plus two” or “me plus three,” they have the ability to lead a group. John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.” If they have enough influence to gather the group, they can keep the group going.
“I don’t know enough about the Bible.”
This objection can be overcome in a variety of ways. The church can provide a video-based curriculum which is either purchased or created by the church. The new leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert, because the expert is your pastor teaching on the video. That’s the quickest way to overcome this objection.
While the ultimate goal is to teach leaders to rightly divide the Word of Truth and lead a solid Bible discussion, a teaching video can help them get started. Once they start, then you can bring them along in their understanding of God’s Word. Think about Sunday school curriculum. Publishers created a teacher’s guide so that if at a minimum the person leading the class merely read the teacher’s quarterly, you would be assured the class would receive solid content. Teaching videos serve a similar purpose.
You’re not looking for teachers (because they will turn their groups into classes). If you don’t use a teaching video, then your new leaders will need to know the basics about the Bible. You could provide a short course on understanding the Bible either live or on-demand. Or the new leader could apprentice in a group for a while. This definitely lengthens the process of developing new leaders.
The small group leader’s role is to facilitate a discussion that leads to Bible application rather than to teach a lesson. You can provide a leader’s guide or leader notes in the lessons if that will help. You could send a coaching video to help the new leaders navigate the lesson topic or even meet with them weekly before their meeting to review the lesson. While I am partial to using a teaching video, these are several ways to prepare your leaders to facilitate a discussion.
“I don’t have time.”
Everybody has the same amount of time. When people say they don’t have time, what they are saying is that a small group is not a priority to them. Now, you could start hammering away on why a small group should be a priority to them. That might get a few more. But, how are your people spending their time?
Some churches offer Sunday school classes, midweek Bible studies, men’s prayer breakfasts, and women’s Bible studies. This might be their group. If it meets their needs for care, connection, and Bible application, then they might not need a group. In fact, you should count them as a group. More than likely they won’t double up and join a small group in addition to this class or Bible study. If their group or serving team doesn’t qualify as a ”small group” (What is your church’s definition of a small group?), then how could they become more “groupish.”
For people who are not in a group, class, or team, maybe you should ask, “Who do they spend time with?” Would they be willing to do a Bible study with the people they regularly spend time with? Many people will take you up on an offer to do a study with those they regularly spend time with– friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and others.
“I don’t want to meet with strangers.”
Then, gather a group of friends. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. Offer “Invitation Only” groups. In these groups the new leader invites 100% of the group. These groups aren’t advertised. They can do the study with people they are already comfortable with. The ultimate goal is not comfortable, but it comfort will help them start a group, then go with comfort.
“I don’t have my life together.”
Nobody has their life completely together. Look at the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. You’ve got murderers, prostitutes, polygamists, and a whole cast of sinners. God used them. God will use imperfect, broken people to lead groups. After all, those are the only people God has to work with.
Now, if someone is going through a personal crisis, you should address their personal issue before you give them the green light to lead a group. People who are experiencing marital problems and are separated or divorced need care themselves before they’re ready to care for others. People who are living an on-going immoral lifestyle need spiritual guidance before they can guide others. People who struggle with a life-controlling problem need to seek help and recovery first. You never want to give the impression that you care more about people serving than you care about them. Give them help, then when the time is right, let them lead.
How do you discern these issues? Ask them, especially if they are leading a group that will be advertised in any way. On the new leader application, ask them what’s going on in their lives. Oftentimes, they won’t turn in the application, but if they do it, then follow up with a warm pastoral conversation about what help they are open to.
You are not looking for perfect people to lead groups. There are no perfect people. To help imperfect people lead groups, give them a coach to walk alongside them. These coaching relationships will go a long way in both developing them as a leader as well as guiding their spiritual next steps. For more on coaching, click here.
“There are too many requirements to lead a group.”
Your simple answer is to delay as many requirements as possible. This is not permanently “lowering the bar.” You are putting aside requirements to attract more new leaders. You will gain the maximum number of new leaders with the minimal amount of requirements that your church leadership will tolerate. Don’t push your leadership beyond where they’re willing to go. Some churches’ only requirements are people who are breathing and willing. Other churches require church membership to lead a group. Others might require training, apprenticing, coaching, co-leading, etc. What could you delay? Start thinking about gathering a group of friends as the first step in your leadership development process. The requirements will all be brought back in due time.
“My home is not big enough or nice enough to host a group.”
If people invite their friends, they won’t be uncomfortable about meeting in their home. Their friends have already been there! They may need to start a smaller small group. That’s okay. If they are really uncomfortable meeting in their home, or if there is a family situation that doesn’t allow it, give them options to be creative. Groups can meet in coffee shops, bookstores, breakrooms at work, outdoors, community rooms at apartment complexes, a friend’s house, or online. At our church in California, we had a group who met on a commuter train. Just give your new leaders permission and opportunity to start a group in a way that works for them.
For 2021: “I’m nervous about COVID.”
Much information and misinformation exists about COVID. You don’t need to wade into accommodating every position and opinion. But, in every church there are those who are convinced that COVID is a killer and others who are convinced that COVID is a conspiracy. Then, there are yet others who are just trying to live their lives. With differences of opinion and differences in information, there is no one solution to address every concern over COVID. The good news is that this isn’t your problem to fix.
To help your potential leaders navigate their concerns over COVID, give them permission and opportunity to gather of group of anyone, anywhere, and any time. They may want to meet online, but that doesn’t just mean Zoom. Groups meet on Facebook, Marco Polo, text message, Slack, and any other place where people gather online. Facebook friends have become Facebook groups. Here are a few more thoughts about online groups and COVID.
The big lesson in 2020-2021 is that even when the church building is closed, Jesus will continue to build his church. Here are the trends I’m seeing. Across North America, while in-person worship attendance is down, giving is steady and salvations and baptisms are up. Could the church be doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission amid all of the chaos?
For your groups, go back to the principles that help groups thrive anyway — release control. Encourage your people to invite like-minded people to join their groups. Gather friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others. You don’t need to worry about what group is wearing masks or is vaccinated or is meeting online. Let your people figure this out for themselves. The more permission you give and the less involved you are, the stronger your groups will be.
Think About This
Most of your people are not chomping at the bit to add another responsibility to their lives. The easier you can make starting a group, the more groups you will have. And, once they get started, then you can develop them into the “qualified” leaders you desire.
What other objections are you hearing from prospective small group leaders? Reply in the comments.
My friend, Lorraine DeMarco, passed from this life on October 8, 2020. She was a friend, a coach, a cheerleader, my hairstylist, and a reluctant leader. She taught me many important lessons. She was a reluctant leader. In fact, she wouldn’t have lead a group if our pastor hadn’t recruited for multiple weeks.
To capture the most new leaders possible, a longer promotional period followed by a short registration period is key. In addition, registering for three weeks is also a major factor. If the church registers new leaders for more than three weeks, then the invitation becomes “Yada, yada, yada,” and everyone waits until the last week to sign up anyway.
I was talking to the gal who cuts my hair about this one day. Why was I talking to her about this? Well, we talk about everything, and I have a captive audience. She’s not a barber, and I don’t like having a “stylist,” so we’ll just call her “Lorraine,” since that’s her name. Lorraine is retired, but she still has mercy on my hair. She is also a member of Brookwood Church, where I served. As I was spinning the tale of two churches with group launches and the importance of recruiting for three weeks, Lorraine spoke up, “I’ll tell you why it’s important to recruit for three weeks. That’s how Rich and I ended up leading a group.” (Lorraine is Italian and grew up in New Jersey. Do you have that picture in your mind?) She spun me around in the chair and started telling me her story, brandishing the comb toward my face for emphasis. (I was looking out of the corner of my eye to locate the scissors. I was safe.)
Lorraine went on, “The first week when our pastor from the stage invited us all to lead groups, I said, ‘Nope, there is no way I’m going to do that. No way!’ ” The comb wagged faster. “ ‘Then, the next week, he invited us again. I thought, ‘Hum, maybe I should think about this?’ When he invited us the third time, I said, ‘That’s it, Rich, we’re leading a group.’ See if the pastor didn’t ask three times, I wouldn’t be leading.”
I would have offered a high five, but I still wasn’t sure of where the scissors were located, so we just had some congratulations and a little laughter instead. Then, the haircut resumed.
If you only recruit leaders for one week amid many other announcements, you’ll miss the Lorraines who might lead if you asked them again. Lorraine led that group for 6-8 years, then she and Rich started attending a church closer to their home. The first thing Lorraine did was to start a new small group in her new church.
The number of groups any church can launch and maintain is limited by the number of leaders available. It’s simple. If you have a leader, you have a group. If you don’t have a leader, then no group. The problem is most churches can’t recruit all of the leaders they need to meet the demand for groups. The problem goes even further because most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. Without more leaders, how do you launch more groups?
Problem #1: Not Everyone Qualifies as a Leader
Churches place various qualifications for leadership. They may require church membership, leader training, apprenticing in a group, a background check, an interview, or any number of qualifications to lead. For most churches the bar for leadership is set pretty high – as it should be.
In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Commissioning someone as a leader is a serious thing. In order to recognize someone as a leader in the church, they must have good character, and they must be proven as a leader. If you hand out the title to just anyone, then you dilute the meaning and authority of leaders in the church. But, this leads to the second problem.
Problem #2: Most People Don’t Consider Themselves to be Leaders
If they must be a leader to lead a group, then they must fulfill leadership requirements and receive leadership training before they can lead, but they aren’t leaders so why would they do that? My apologies for the run-on sentence, but it’s a legitimate question. How many times have you invited someone to lead a group only to be turned down with “I’m not a leader”?
Admitted non-leaders don’t get excited about meeting leadership requirements or taking leadership training. They’re not leaders. If they have to be a leader to lead a group, then it’s probably not going to happen.
Think about this for a second – what did Jesus call us to do? He didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus didn’t even call us to start small groups although He modeled it. Jesus called the church to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). What do you need to make a disciple? You need a disciple to make a disciple. How many disciples do you have?
By inviting disciples to make disciples in groups, you can help your people walk in obedience to the Great Commission. Rather than continuing to allow your people to borrow from your spirituality, you can give them an easy-to-use tool like a video-based curriculum and a coach to supervise them. They can live in obedience to Jesus by making disciples. They can prove themselves and learn to lead by doing. You can have more groups ASAP. And, eventually, these disciples can be recognized as leaders.
The bar for leadership should remain high. When you do church-wide campaigns, group launches, or alignment series, these are part of the leader recruitment process. These are not ordination events for new leaders. It’s a trial run to give them an opportunity to prove themselves as leaders. Once they’re ready, then you can commission them as leaders. As one of my leaders, Doug Howard told me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” I hope you hear that a lot!