Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Notice I said “start” a group and not “lead” a group. “Leader” is a loaded word. Maybe you don’t need a “leader” to start a group. But, beyond semantics, what is a risk you are willing to take? And, what seems too risky?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
When you look at your current leaders and other mature people in your church, who cares enough to walk alongside leaders? Oh, and here’s a great resource: Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller.
#6 What will the groups study?
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
Some churches prefer to have their groups follow a weekly sermon discussion guide. There’s a certain genius in this approach. Some churches offer seasonal church-wide campaigns. This is a great first step in a leadership development process. But, in all of these efforts, as Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Not every group needs to do the discussion guide or join the church-wide campaign…and that’s okay.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
What is your church’s leadership passionate about? Align small groups to follow those passions. After all people in groups will serve more, give more, attend more, reach more, and grow more than people who are not in groups. These findings are research-based: Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow, Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, the 2020 Megachurch Report by Dr. Warren Bird and Dr. Scott Thumma. (One study is 30 years old and another is a year old — all three validate each other).
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Looking to start or restart your small group ministry, let me guide you step by step. The Small Group Reset is a free, on-demand video resource. Get started now!
Every small group pastor wants healthy leaders and healthy groups. Sometimes that feels like an unattainable goal.
How do you connect with every leader and every group on a regular basis when you always seem to be putting out fires? Let’s face it – you spend a good deal of time addressing the latest crisis which robs time away from your strategic planning. It’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time.
While you do your best to keep up with your leaders, the reality is there is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in the day. You have a limited amount of time, energy and attention. If you’re like me, small groups are not your only responsibility. You tend to resort to email blasts and training meetings that are half full to invest in your leaders, but you’re always left wondering how you could help your leaders more?
A small group leadership team with coaches to care for every leader would be ideal. But, it’s difficult to build a coaching team when the demand rests in finding a group for the person who signed up last Sunday. When there’s not a group to plug them into, the prospective member has to wait until you can recruit a new leader and start a group. When do you get to think about a coaching structure?
But, let’s say you get a reprieve from the tyranny of the urgent to form a coaching structure. How would you build it? Who would you recruit to coach? What would they do? Those three questions delay most small group pastors from even starting.
Like you, I was very frustrated with coaching group leaders. I have made about every mistake that can be made with coaching, but in the process I’ve figured out some things that have helped many churches like yours.
Let me guide you through a proven way to build your coaching structure that is customizable to your church. I understand that your church is different from other churches. There is a way to have both what works in coaching leaders and what will work for you.
You don’t have to go through the heartbreaks of watching excited new leaders become discouraged to the point of not even starting their new group. You can avoid the aftermath of poorly supervised leaders taking their group away from the vision of your church. The lack of a coaching structure means the problems and issues of your small group ministry is solely your burden to bear.
But, if you took the same energy it takes to recruit leaders and place people into groups and invested yourself in building a coaching structure, your groups would get further faster than you could imagine. More of your new leaders would actually start groups because someone was walking alongside them and offering encouragement. All of your group leaders would be healthier, which in turn will create healthier groups. And, your burden would be lightened. You could actually have the margin you need to plan for the future of your ministry.
In the Coaching Exponential Groups Online Course, I will guide you around the pitfalls of small groups ministry and help you build a coaching structure, define the coaching role, recruit the right people, equip coaches to serve leaders, and disciple your people through groups. In about an hour a week for six weeks, you can follow a step by step process to get the help you need to effectively lead your groups.
Give the course a try. If it doesn’t work for you, then I will give you a full refund in the first 30 days. I will assume all of the risk, because I believe these strategies will help you significantly.
But, don’t just take my word for it, hear what others have to say about the course.
Let me help you make every group a healthy group.
By Allen White
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.
The only thing harder is not having one.
By Allen White
By captainvector via 123rf.com
After the dismissal of our founding pastor, our church was devastated. Everyone left who was in favor of our pastor. Everyone left who was against our pastor. And, all of the staff left, except for me. There I was with the 85 remaining members praying about what to do. It was a hard year.
On the very last Sunday of that year, our new pastor joined us, and hope reappeared. Our church started growing — not dramatically, but consistently.
When we reached 250 people, we heard our congregation say, “I don’t know everybody anymore.”
When we went to two services and reached 400 people, the comments changed to, “I can’t find the people I do know.”
Everybody didn’t need to know everyone, but everybody needed to know someone. We knew it was time to start groups.
I attended conferences, read books, and interviewed other pastors about small groups. The more information I collected, the more confused I became. We launched our groups for better or worse. Some of what we experienced was better than expected. The things we didn’t expect were worse.
Here’s what worked for us:
1. Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
As our church continued to grow, we didn’t want to see people get lost in the shuffle or fall through the cracks. Even though they didn’t come all at once, they were coming in a steady stream. We needed to start connecting and discipling folks ASAP.
As our couple of Sunday school classes and our midweek Bible study were declining, we found that groups were a great place for people to connect and go deeper into God’s Word. We offered a variety of curriculum for our groups to choose from. Since we only started with a few groups, it was easy to keep an eye on them and know what was going on. If a group started to stray toward the “loony fringe,” we very gently guided them back into the fold. Things were under control.
We made announcements in the services, sent postcards in the mail and emails, and featured groups regularly in the church bulletin. Our groups started to gain momentum.
In fact, we couldn’t recruit new leaders fast enough to keep up with the demand.
2. A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Now to make sure we didn’t set ourselves up for trouble, I took on the task of personally recruiting every group leader. I had been at the church for seven years at that time. I pretty much knew the good apples from the rotten apples. (And, God loves the rotten apples, too.)
The easiest place to start was to round up the usual suspects. You know, the folks we counted on for everything. I personally invited board members and founding members as well as other solid citizens. It didn’t take much effort to quickly find 10 willing leaders who I believed would offer a quality experience.
Admission: I also knew that they wouldn’t cause any problems for me. I was wearing a lot of other hats like children’s ministry, leading worship, and overseeing all of our ministries, plus speaking on Wednesday nights and occasionally on Sundays. I did not need any more problems. I had enough already.
We weren’t reaching for explosive growth. After all, since our church was growing steadily, but incrementally, we felt the gradual growth of groups would serve us well. I mean, we weren’t Saddleback or Willow Creek. There was something special about them. Normal churches like ours weren’t seeing huge percentages of people connected into groups…at least not yet.
We offered the groups to our people, and they signed up. Once the groups were full, then the rest of the folks who wanted to join a group had to hang out in the midweek Bible study with me or in a Sunday school class until the next batch of group leaders were ready to go. Even though we let a year pass before we offered groups again, we launched six more groups the following year and quickly filled them up as well.
Things were going well in the “trouble-free” department. Our groups were coming along. And, our church kept growing steadily.
Value: A quality group experience starts with a quality leader.
3. Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Every year I would gather my new recruits into a “turbo group” by way of Carl George and his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. We spent six weeks as a small group with the intention of every leader or couple starting their own group when the training was over.
I trained them on why groups were important; how to deal with various issues in the group like over-talkers and conflict; how to recruit an apprentice leader; and how to birth a new group. The training was in the format of a small group, so based on a Bible study, I was modeling a group meeting while I was training the leaders.
After the training ended, and the leaders started their new groups, we met monthly for group huddles. While I did have a couple of other people helping me coach the leaders, I was still learning about group life myself, so I did all of the training and led the monthly huddles. The coaches visited groups and connected with the leaders.
Result: We developed a solid groups system with 30 percent of our adults in groups.
As our church continued to grow, our groups also continued to grow. Groups weren’t keeping pace with the growth of the church, but we achieved 30 percent in groups, which somebody told me once put us in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S. — not too shabby.
The plan was for every group leader to indentify and train an apprentice leader. Then, once a year, the group would help a new group get started either by the leader starting a new group, the apprentice starting a new group, or the group dividing into two groups. With group multiplication and the new recruits I was inviting, we were on a good pace to double our groups or better every year. I looked forward to the day when group attendance would exceed worship attendance.
But, it started to feel like I needed another 100 years to catch up with the increasing size of the congregation.
Secret #1: Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
Secret #2: A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Secret #3: Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Where We Failed: Bottleneck!
Failure #1. The way we recruited leaders and launched groups couldn’t keep pace with the growth of the church.
The harder I tried to recruit more leaders and launch groups, the behinder and behinder I got. Some years we started 10 groups. Other years we started two groups. One year my training yielded zero new groups.
As the church continued to grow by 13 – 33% per year, our group formation just couldn’t keep up. More people were getting lost in the shuffle, and more leaders were not stepping up at the rate we needed them.
I thought I had a good thing going by recruiting well-known people myself. The problems were kept at a minimum. But, now we faced a much bigger problem — where were the leaders going to come from?
Failure #2: Our leaders couldn’t identify an apprentice leader.
I put a lot of pressure on the group leaders to identify and train their apprentice. After all, the future of our small groups depended on apprentices, or at least, that’s what it seemed like. In every huddle and every encounter with the group leaders, I would emphasize the significance of raising up an apprentice leader. My words didn’t fall on deaf ears. They fell on stressed ears.
My leaders would pass me in the hallways on Sunday morning and say, “I’m working on my apprentice.”
I thought, “Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?”
The apprentice strategy was going nowhere good.
Failure #3: No one wanted to give up their group to start a new group.
Since the group leaders weren’t recruiting apprentices, I took the initiative to recruit potential leaders right out of their groups. There were great candidates right under the noses of the group leaders, but they just didn’t see them. I did!
Before they knew it, the new recruits were in my Turbo Group and headed toward leading their own group. The only problem was that while these potential leaders agreed to participate out of loyalty to me and the church, their hearts weren’t in it. They didn’t want to give up the group they loved. They were torn.
After the six weeks of training was complete, instead of going forward with a new group, many of them went back to the group they came from. This wasn’t progress. This was regress. My efforts were actually working against me.
Failure #4: After seven years of effort, our groups were stuck…
While we had 30 percent of our adults in groups, and our church was allegedly in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S., I felt like a loser. The church continued to grow. The groups were stuck. No new leaders. No new groups. No apprentices. So, I gave up on this strategy.
At the end of my time at this church, 125 percent of our weekly adult attendance was connected in groups.
I want to share with you a new strategy we created to recruit more leaders, form more groups faster, and maintain a quality group experience.
By Allen White
I am a coach. The reason I’m a coach is because once upon a time, I was greatly helped by a coach. In fact, I still have several coaches and mentors I turn to regularly for help and advice. They ask me thought provoking questions. They offer me their experience. They care about my success. Here is the story of my success in working with a coach.
After attending conferences and reading every small group book I could get my hands on, our groups hit a wall. I followed what I understood from the best and brightest. We made a plan and executed it wholeheartedly for seven years. We connected 30 percent of our average adult attendance into groups, then we got stuck. I was up against a wall, and I was banging my head against it. As our church continued to grow, our groups fell further and further behind. I needed help.
2. A Laboratory and a Network
I found help in a coaching group with 40 other churches from across the country. While we tended to be from churches of the same size, the group crossed denominational lines and represented about every region of North America. While it was a little ridiculous to have 40 other pastors on a weekly conference call, we learned from each other and from our coach. Some pastors would jump ahead and try a new idea when it was thrown out. I was one of those. Others would hold back and see if there were any survivors before they jumped in. And, that was okay. Everybody adopts new ideas at their own rate.
3. Place to Discuss Small Group Stuff
As I became more enthused about discussing small groups, some of our church staff became less enthused to hear about it. While my senior pastor was completely on board (after all he found the dollars to fund it), other staff weren’t so thrilled to hear about small groups. The coaching group provided a place with like-minded people who also had small groups on the brain. This was our community. Our band of brothers (and sisters) in the small group trenches.
Everybody faces setbacks, especially when they try new ideas. After all, when you’re performing experiments, sometimes an experiment blows up. The coaching group provided a place to test new ideas; debrief less than stellar results; and gain the momentum to move forward. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As one of my friends and mentors, Carl George said, “Do whatever it takes to keep yourself inspired.” The coaching group kept me encouraged.
5. I didn’t have to walk alone.
What I discovered in my coaching group is that everyone else’s coaching structure was also lousy or nonexistent. They struggled to recruit leaders. Air time in the weekend service was scarce for small group announcements. Their group leaders didn’t like to attend meetings either. Leading up was always a challenge. I soon realized I wasn’t defeated. I was normal.
Now don’t get me wrong.
I love conferences. In fact, I wish every day was a conference, because at a conference your mind is filled with vision and grand ideas. But, as soon as you get home, reality slaps you in the face. Reality stinks.
But, what if you could take the benefits of a conference and spread it over an entire year for basically the same money?
My next coaching group is starting in a few weeks. Will you join me?