Your life is busy. This is true of every pastor, especially if you are a senior pastor. When you started ministry, you were focused on shepherding and teaching. But, as things it turned out, the senior pastor’s role feels more like being the CEO of a small (or not so small) company. Your time and attention are greatly divided. And, the ministry of every staff member is important. But, research shows how small groups contribute more to the overall ministry of any church.
I’m not going to waste your time delivering a sales pitch about why I think small groups are the best thing since sliced bread. I want to present you with the facts based on over 30 years of research from multiple sources.
Why a Post-Pandemic Edition? The world has changed. The culture has changed. Your church has changed. It’s time to stop leading the church you lost and to start leading the church you have. This guide will help you to move your church forward.
Every church I’ve worked with since March 2020 has increased the number of group leaders and the number of group members. While many other aspects of church ministry are struggling, groups are thriving. While worship services have struggled in decentralized environment, groups have thrived.
By Allen White A major factor in a successful group launch is the leadership of the senior pastor. As the leader of the congregation, when the senior pastor points the direction, the members will follow. In the two churches I served, we reached over 125 percent of our average adult attendance with our senior pastor leading the way at New Life in Califonia. In the other church, Brookwood Church in South Carolina, we launched 400 new groups with the pastor’s leadership (We had 30 percent of 5,000 people in groups to start). I have not personally recruited a group leader since 2004. But, how do you get your senior pastor more interested in groups?
Align Groups with Where Your Pastor is Going
Many small group pastors are frustrated with their senior pastors. Maybe you are one of them. I’ve heard complaints like, “I just can’t get my pastor on board with groups.” After serving as an Associate Pastor for most of my 28 years in ministry, let me give you a little insight here – It’s your pastor’s boat. That’s the boat you need to get on. Now, where is that boat headed? What is your senior pastor talking about? Where is your pastor’s heart? Whether it’s outreach and evangelism, a capital campaign, or something else, when you align groups with where your pastor is going, you will make far more progress than complaining about your pastor not going where you want him/her to go. After being stuck at 30 percent at New Life after seven years of handpicking leaders, I finally got a clue and listened to where my pastor was headed. Back in 2004, he was excited about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series, because he knew people would have spiritual questions after they watched the movie. When I asked him about launching groups along with The Passion series, he gave an enthusiastic “Yes!” Your best ideas are your pastor’s ideas. Hitch your wagon to that horse.
Create Video-based Curriculum with Your Pastor’s Teaching
Your congregation wants to hear your pastor’s teaching more than any other teacher, even nationally known pastors. When you offer a study based on your pastor’s teaching, your people will become very enthusiastic about it. But, this gets even better. Not only will your pastor show interest in seeing his weekend teaching go into the week through a small group curriculum, once your pastor has created the videos, he/she will become very interested in recruiting new group leaders and starting new groups. This was the case at Bay Hope Church in Florida. After a day of shooting video for the church’s upcoming alignment series, the next morning the pastor pulled us into his office. “Now that we’ve shot this video and are creating curriculum, how are we going to get leaders for the groups? How are we going to get people into groups?” Their Discipleship Pastor came to me later in the day and said, “I’ve been trying to get my pastor interested in groups for two years, and you just did it!” It was practically an accusation. I just smiled and said, “Well, I’m Allen White.” No, I did not. Once their pastor had made an investment in developing curriculum, he was very interested in seeing people use it. When we handed him talking points each week, he recruited leaders like never before. After three similar campaigns in a single ministry year, the church had over 2,000 people in groups and yet only 1,800 people in their weekend services. Six 10 minute videos for a six week series will do a lot to motivate both your pastor and your congregation into forming groups. You can do this with a professional crew, a wedding videographer, or an iPhone. Your pastor’s teaching is the draw.
Find Small Group Answers to Your Pastor’s Concerns
What keeps your pastor up at night? What does he/she worry about? A lot of pastors are concerned over reaching their communities, fundraising and general giving, getting people connected, helping them grow in their faith, serving in the community among other things. How can groups help your pastor reach these objectives? Research shows that people in groups are better connected, grow more, serve more, give more, and reach more than people who are not in groups.* Who wouldn’t want that for their church? What are your pastor’s greatest concerns? How can groups serve to address those issues?
President Ronald Reagan had a quote displayed on his desk that read, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” I think this is a good motto for any pastor who works for a senior pastor. How can you help your senior pastor win? And, of course, if your pastor wins, then you also win. *Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger (B&H, 2014) and Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow (The Free Press, 1994).
By Allen White As you’re about to take a sigh of relief at the end of a ministry year, planning a successful Fall launch begins now. This doesn’t mean you will work all Summer on the Fall launch, but it does mean getting some plans into place to recruit more leaders, form more groups, and keep those groups going. In order to start more groups than you ever have, you need to reevaluate a few things now.
Engage Your Senior Pastor
The Senior Pastor is the #1 recruiter for groups. In the churches I’ve served, when I gave my senior pastor the same script that I would have used, the results were typically 3 times better than if I had said the same thing. How do I know? I recruited leaders myself for seven years and was able to connect 30 percent of our congregation into groups. When my pastor made the same invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. Within six months, 125 percent of our congregation was connected into groups. Did I mention that it took me seven years working alone to get to 30 percent in groups? Not only did we connect more people into groups than attended our weekend service, we turned around and did it again the next year. Think about this, if your pastor has lead the church for more than a few years, the reason most people attend, other than Jesus, is because of your senior pastor. They enjoy his teaching. They laugh at her jokes. They follow his leadership. Now a word of caution: don’t mention this to your worship pastors. It will break their hearts. When your pastor stands up and makes the invitation, people will listen and respond. What if you senior pastor is not interested in groups or sees groups as one of many options in the church? Look for next week’s post.
Change Your Recruiting Methods
How are you currently recruiting group leaders? What do you require for someone to lead? What I have discovered is most people don’t see themselves as leaders. When you ask them to lead a group, they will probably turn you down. I’ve even convinced people to go through the group leader training, and then they turned me down. A trial run, like a church-wide campaign or alignment series, is a great way to help prospective leaders take a test drive with groups. Once they’ve had the experience of starting and leading a group at least 80 percent will continue. Here’s the dilemma: in order for most people to agree to the trial run, you have to make it easy, accessible, and short-term. I used to basically recruit leaders for the rest of their lives. That’s really too much to ask. But, six weeks is a good start. The opportunity must also be easy and accessible. A video-based curriculum makes it easy. There is little preparation time, and the new leaders don’t need to be experts. They just need to have friends. We also must wave some of our requirements for these six week groups. I used to say, “lower the bar,” but then I discovered some churches would lower the bar, but never raise it back up. The end goal is to develop leaders who can make disciples, lead a Bible discussion, and mature in their own lives and leadership. But, to start they need to see if they even like leading a group. Delay the requirements temporarily, then bring them back at the right time.
Reconsider How Groups are Formed
Relational approaches to group formation are far more effective than task-based approaches. Sign up cards, websites, and group directories are efficient, but they are not effective in creating long lasting groups. Start with the relationships the new leader already has. Among their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others, who would be interested in the group’s topic? After praying over a list of potential group members, the new leaders should invite them. Then, the people they invite should invite others. If you’re church is experiencing rapid growth or high turnover, then chances are potential new leaders might not know who to invite or prospective members might not get an invitation to a group. If they’ve been in town for any length of time, they might know a few neighbors or co-workers they could do the study with. Don’t be shy about asking them to lead a short-term group. If they would prefer just to join a group, then create an environment where prospective members can meet new group leaders face to face. This way they will have a sense of who the leaders are and choose the group they want to join. As a last resort, if a handful of people contact the church office and need to be placed into a group, then find a group for them. If it’s more than a handful, then you have an epidemic. Don’t revert back to task-oriented approaches. Get the prospective members and leaders in the same room. Rethink your approach to forming groups. You will find more relationally-based approaches will help you to form lasting groups.
Announce Your Fall Campaign This Week!
If new groups formed this Spring or after Easter, give them something to look forward to. All you need is a start date and a topic (or just a start date if your pastor doesn’t plan that far ahead). The groups can meet socially over the Summer. Do a service project together. Even do another study. They may meet only once a month. But, they will know when Fall comes around, there is a new series for them to jump into.
You can persist in the ways you are currently recruiting leaders and forming groups. You will probably experience some incremental growth of 5-10 percent. But, by tweaking a few things, your Fall launch can bring more success in connecting people than you could ever ask or imagine.
Pastor Matthew Hartsfield, Bay Hope Church, Lutz, FL
For most churchgoers, the initial draw to a church is the pastor’s teaching and the music. As hard as the other church staff work in their roles, this is the simple truth. The senior pastor plays a highly significant role in the spiritual lives of his congregation. By connecting the small group study to the weekend message, you can leverage the influence of the senior pastor in leading his people to connect in small groups. Once the pastor has created a video curriculum, his next question will be “How do we use this? How do we recruit more leaders? How do we get people into groups?” Don’t you want your senior pastor asking those questions? What’s important to the senior pastor will be what’s important to the congregation. Bulletins, video announcements, website – none of these come close to having the #1 influencer in the church direct the congregation. When the pastor asks for people to host groups, people will host groups. When the pastor invites members to join groups, members will join groups. When E.F. Hutton talks… I learned this lesson over a decade ago. I had spent seven years recruiting and training leaders to find only 30 percent of our congregation in groups. But, the first time our senior pastor stood up and asked for host homes, we doubled our groups in one day. I never looked back. He did all of the recruiting and leading from that point forward. I have not recruited a group leader myself since 2004, even though I have served in another church since then. The Pastor’s Teaching on Video Curriculum Moves the Weekend Message Beyond the Church Walls. When church members invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives and others to join them for a church-produced Bible study, the senior pastor is introduced to many more people than actually attend the church on Sunday. In homes, workplaces, Starbucks and even commuter trains, the pastor’s teaching goes out to many new people. Often new people will meet the pastor via video before they meet him in person. But, the transition from the living room to the church auditorium now is not quite as daunting. New folks feel they’ve already met the pastor through the weekly group studies. And, don’t tell the group hosts and leaders, but they’re actually doing evangelism. Shhh. A Simple Teaching Tool Puts Group Multiplication on Steroids. A video curriculum is easy to use. In fact, someone who has never led before simply needs to follow the instructions. The teaching on the video provides the wisdom and expertise. The questions in the book provide the pathway for a great discussion. Pushing play and reading questions is not so hard. Think about this: every person in your church has friends. The people who are less involved in the church will actually have far more friends outside of the church. What if your church members each gathered a group of 8-10 people for a video-based study featuring your senior pastor? Could a church of 100 members reach 1,000 people? What about a church of 1,000 going after 10,000? What about a church of 13,000 reaching over 100,000? Is it possible? The Bible says all things are possible with God. Excerpt from Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potentialby Allen White. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright (c) 2017 by Allen White Consulting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Over the last 26 years, I’ve served two senior pastors and one Brett Eastman. My titles started as Minister of Christian Education, then Associate Pastor, then Executive Director, then Discipleship Pastor, and at last, Vice President. A year ago I became President of my own organization. Finally, I’m the top dog. Of course, at this point, there are no other dogs, but that’s okay. Leading from the second chair or a shared second chair with half a dozen other pastors has taught me a different style of leadership. From this vantage point, and from working with over 1,500 churches in the last 11 years, I have learned what your senior pastor wishes you knew about their stance toward small groups. [Please note: I know there are senior pastors who are both men and women. I struggle with gender-inclusive language, so if I refer to the senior pastor with male pronouns, please forgive me.]
1. Senior pastors don’t think a lot about groups, because they hired you.
As the small group pastor, you should be the most passionate person on your team about groups. If you’re not, you might be in the wrong role. Your senior pastor does not have small groups on the brain like you do. Senior pastors don’t have to, they have folks like you. If your pastor was not in favor of groups, you would not have a job. Whisper to yourself: “My pastor must like groups, then.” I have met many small group folks over the years who have run themselves ragged over the notion that their senior pastor just won’t get on-board with groups. “If only my senior pastor supported groups more…If only he would talk about groups more…If only he was in a group…” I’m from Kansas, so I’m just going to say it —
Your senior pastor doesn’t need to get on-board with you.
It’s his boat!
If you’re not in his boat, then guess where you are?
2. When small group pastors ask for “airtime” in the weekend services, you put your senior pastor in a predicament.
Now, I’m not a believer that all ministries in a church deserve equal airtime. Read more here. But, senior pastors wrestle with fairness among ministries. They don’t want to play favorites. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to prefer one ministry over another. When you ask for airtime for groups, you are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a battle you should fight, but you need to learn to be strategic about this. First of all, how do most of the people in your church keep informed about church events? If you don’t know this, find out ASAP. In the last church I served, we had a variety of ways to communication with the congregation. Through an online survey, I discovered that two communication methods stood out over and above every other one: the weekly bulletin and email. At the time, the darling of our church communication was promotional videos that ran before the service. It didn’t take a survey to understand that less than 10% of our 2,500 seat auditorium was filled when the videos played. When the communications department offered to make a video for my small group launch, I declined saying I would prefer something in the bulletin and an email blast. They thought I was just being humble. I knew what actually worked. Secondly, nothing beats an invitation from the senior pastor from the stage before/during/after the sermon. How do you overcome your pastor’s overarching need for fairness? Put your pastor’s teaching on the curriculum. (There are a variety of ways to do this). When your pastor makes an investment in the curriculum, you are guaranteed to have airtime for groups.
3. If your senior pastor is not in a group, there is a reason.
The experience of a pastor is abnormal in the life of the church. Pastors and church staff don’t experience church the way the members of the church do. Imagine the characters that would show up if there was an open call to join the pastor’s small group. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be in that group (and I’m a pastor!). An open group for a senior pastor could be risky. If you pressure your senior pastor too far about getting into a group or leading a group, don’t sit around wondering why your pastor won’t get behind groups. Every pastor is different. One pastor and his wife opened up their home and invited young couples to join their group. Another pastor met with two close friends and didn’t make an open invitation. In both cases, this was the pastor’s group. You have your own story. Rather than pressure your senior pastor and other staff members to join a group if “they really support small groups,” help them identify the relationships in their lives that could be considered their group. Some may do a study together. Others may not. Either way, the pastor can talk about his group, regardless of the form.
4. Your senior pastor wishes you would relieve the burden instead of adding to it.
Every senior pastor is in favor of ministries that solve problems instead of those that create problems. Learn to solve your church’s problems with groups. What is your senior pastor concerned about? How could groups meet the need? I’m not saying this in the vein of “Let the youth group do it,” and now it’s “let the groups do it.” Rather, sit with your pastor to hear his passions and concerns, then design a way to connect those passions or concerns to groups. If your church is growing steadily, the concern is for connection and assimilation. Groups can be the answer. If your Sunday school and adult electives are declining, the concern is over discipleship. Groups can be the answer. If your church needs more people to serve or give, well, people in groups tend to serve and give more than people not in groups. (For more information, see pages 45-46 in Transformational Groups by Eric Geiger and Ed Stetzer). The first time we launched groups in a big way in our church in California, my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series. Advertising was set. When I asked if we could launch groups off of The Passion, he was fully on-board. (I jumped on his “ship.”) We even created our own homemade video curriculum. When my pastor invited our people to open their homes and do The Passion study, we doubled our groups in one day. What is your pastor worried about? What is your pastor passionate about? How can groups help to relieve the burden or propel the vision? By virtue of the senior pastor’s role, God speaks and directs the church through him. Get onboard with that vision. Your groups will thrive.
5. The simpler you can make the senior pastor’s involvement, the more they will be open to what you need.
If your pastor is willing to talk about groups in the weekend services, then script out exactly what you want them to say or create bullet points in advance. Then, wait until they need the direction. Some pastors want it ahead of time. Others want it just before the service. Do what works for your pastor rather than wishing your pastor would do what works for you. At my last church, on the weeks my pastor offered to promote groups, I trotted up the staircase to his study, gave him the list of bullet points, walked through the points, then left him to execute the announcement. He was always spot on. Then, the next Sunday, I did the same thing. He didn’t need to come up with the invitation. I provided what he needed when he needed it, and it worked. When I’ve created video curriculum with senior pastors, sometimes they taught on 6 out of 6 sessions. Sometimes, they’ve taught 1 of 6 with other teaching pastors filling in. Sometimes they taught from a script. Others taught with bullets. Still others just stood up and talked. We always scheduled the video shoot around the senior pastor’s schedule. If others had to wait, then they waited. Senior pastors gladly participated if they knew everything was set from them. Some would even prefer someone else to create their scripts from past sermons. As long as they knew they didn’t have to attend 10 meetings about the shoot and sit around for two hours until the crew was ready, they were in. Your pastor has the ability to write his own scripts and create his own invitation to groups, but your pastor often does not have the time to do these things. Give your pastor something to start with. Make his job easier, and you will have wholehearted participation. Remember, your senior pastors don’t work for you. You work for them. You might wish that your senior pastor was more like someone else’s senior pastor. If only my senior pastor led a group, made curriculum, announced groups, and so forth. Be careful what you wish for. If you go about this the wrong way, you will be working for another senior pastor before you know it. Work with what you have. It’s okay if your senior pastor doesn’t have small groups on the brain as long as you do. Any place where groups can intersect with the needs and passions of your senior pastor, you’ll have success.