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Fall 2022 promises to be the largest small group launch season you’ve ever seen. Now that COVID is behind you for the most part and the weather is warming up, people are gone. Don’t believe me? Go price an airline ticket right now. For more on this prediction, go here.
Now that you are convinced, partially convinced, or skeptical that this small group boom is a few months away, how do you prepare? What do you need to have in place? Here are some things to consider:
Maximum Groups Require Maximum Leaders
If you want to launch a group, you have to have a leader. No leader means no group. It’s as simple as that. This reminds me of a conversation back when our church was on-boarding a new children’s pastor. I said, “There are two parts to children’s ministry: (1) Recruiting the leaders, and (2) Keeping the leaders happy.”
Our new children’s pastor asked, “But, when do I get to work with the kids?”
I replied, “You weren’t listening.” He chose to invest his time and energy into leading the kids instead of leading the leaders. His children’s leaders weren’t happy and started quitting. We hired a new children’s pastor not long after that.
You could say the same for small groups. There are two parts to small group ministry: (1) Recruiting group leaders, and (2) Supporting those leaders. Don’t get bogged down trying to find groups for people. Don’t hold the hand of every person who fills out a sign up card for groups. To put it bluntly: this is a waste of your time. Put your effort into recruiting leaders, and then teach the leaders to gather their groups.
Don’t Worry About Connecting 100% into Groups
In the early days of church-wide campaigns, this was the rallying cry: Connect Your Entire Congregation into Community! Been there. Done that. What we discovered was that connecting 100% of a church’s adult attendance into groups is too small of a goal. The more significant metric is the percentage of your congregation LEADING groups.
Our family moved back to my hometown of Topeka, Kansas last summer. We attend the church where I grew up. I get to sit next to my dad every Sunday. It’s nice. But, the church is probably 10% of the attendance it was back in the day. On a good Sunday, there are about 50 people there.
When I showed up, the pastor said, “Well, we’re doing pretty good with small groups. We have one group. That takes care of everyone who wants one.”
I wanted to grab him by the lapels and yell, “You’re looking at this all wrong. You don’t want 50 people in groups. You want 50 people leading groups!” But, I refrained, primarily because he wasn’t wearing lapels, and I promised my wife that I wouldn’t wear my consulting hat to church. I just sit there biting my tongue (until I’m asked). This is also a good marriage lesson for some.
How do you launch 100 groups in your church?
You don’t need 1,000 people to start 100 groups. You need 100 people willing to lead a group. If you have a leader, then you have a group.
Think about who you have in the church. These are the people who rode out the pandemic with you. These are the people who stuck with you and the church through thick and thin. You have to admit that the last two years were not for the faint of heart. Do you think they stuck with you to just take up space? These are your leaders. This is your army. Give them their marching orders.
I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking about that guy or that gal who is a little off. Right? You’re afraid that if they step up to lead a group that you will just have another headache. Your biggest problem is found in the first two words of the last sentence: You’re afraid. Fear not!
Janet Logan gave me a priceless thought about 25 years ago: “Some of the most unlikely people will make some of your best leaders.” That has proven true.
Everybody has friends. If the people who are a little odd invite their friends and acquaintances, those folks know what they’re in for. They know the person. They’re friends! If they don’t have any friends, well, that’s different story.
Loosen Up Your Leadership Requirements for a Season
Don’t lower the bar, but delay some of your requirements to let people test drive a group. You can attempt to convince people that small groups are awesome until you are blue in the face, but they won’t understand until they experience it for themselves. If you invite your people to gather a group of friends, meet online or in-person, give them easy-to-use curriculum, and support them with a coach, most people will have a very good experience that they’ll want to continue. Once they’ve completed a study or two, then you can invite them to fulfill the requirements that you initially delayed.
Most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. But, most people DO regard themselves as being a friend. If they have enough influence to gather their friends, then they have promise as a group leader. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”
Think About This
Things aren’t going to go back to 2019. They’re just not. The world has changed. The culture has changed. What used to work for your groups will not work as well now. It’s time to try something new.
Spend some time thinking about a new approach to recruiting leaders. Pray about what’s next for you and your church. If you need to talk about this, then click this link and set up a time with me. No charge!
If you’d like to move forward, but you’re not sure how, then a church-wide assessment might be in order. For more information, go here.
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You’ve probably got a story about how you’ve tried coaching group leaders and how it failed. I actually have a few of those. But, let me assure you that coaching can and does work. You need coaches. You must multiply yourself in order for your small group ministry to grow. So, let me help you get out of your own way when it comes to coaching just like I had to once upon a time. Here are the three biggest reasons that coaching fails.
1. Lack of Relationship
You’ve probably heard coaches complain that their leaders won’t call them back. As much as you try to reassure your new leaders that when their coach calls it’s not a spam call about their car’s extended warranty, the reality is that small group leaders will only take time to call people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. The leaders aren’t to blame. The challenge is how coaches can become important to your leaders.
Coaching is built on a relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no coaching. Period. Adam Grant says that it takes 50 hours to become a friend and 200 hours to become a close friend. If your coaches are starting at zero relationship with their leaders, then it will take a lot of diligent effort and cups of coffee to build a relationship with their leaders. But, you can get a jump on this.
First, match your coaches up with small group leaders they already know. If they already have a relationship, then you’ve got a great foundation for coaching. If the small group leader came out of another group, then the obvious coach is the leader of the group they came out of. If you are starting a new coaching structure, then ask your coaches which leaders they already know. Let the coaches choose their leaders (or even let the leaders choose their coaches). Either way you do it, start with relationship. The only exception is coaching close relatives. Once I allowed someone to coach his son-in-law. I had to unplug that rather quickly and apologize profusely. Ben, I am still sorry. Other than in-laws, start your coaching based on established relationships.
Next, make sure your small group leaders understand that coaches are important people who will help them get their groups started. Remember why leaders don’t call their coaches back? They only return calls to people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. For new leaders this may mean including your coaches in the new leader briefing and leader training.
When our church started groups, I led the briefings and the training, and then assigned the new leaders to the coaches. This did not work. My coaches complained that this was like cold calling. They were right. It was! To make coaching better (and avoid a revolt by my coaches), I started including coaches in the briefings and training. For the new leader briefing, the coaches were instructed to invite the new leaders they knew to join them at a round table. (See we were putting point #1 into practice). Then I introduced the coaches as “important people who would help them get their groups started.” I gave them reason to call their coaches back. Lastly, after I introduced the coaches, I left the room. The coaches did the rest of the training.
If your coaches are struggling to connect with their leaders, then you need to check the temperature of the relationship. The closer the relationship, then the better the coaching. The more unreturned calls, well, you do the math.
2. The Wrong Approach
If your leaders are not responding to coaching, then they’re probably being coached in the wrong way. Probably the second biggest mistake in coaching is attempting to coach all of your leaders in exactly the same way. Your leaders have very different needs and abilities depending on their experience. Coaching should start with what the leaders need. Don’t go into coaching with a prescribed coaching process that you will inflict on every small group leader. That simply won’t work. After all, ministry is not something we do to people.
Are your leaders starting their very first groups? Then, they will need direction and support to get their group started. This might involve weekly contacts. It will certainly involve a great deal of encouragement. But, if you’re leaders have led for a while, this is the last thing they need. In fact, if you attempt to coach an experienced leader in the way you would coach a new leader, don’t be surprised if that experienced leader disappears, even if the leader and the coach have a good relationship.
Think about your children. If you have a variety of ages of children, you don’t treat them the same way. Infants depend on you for everything. Teenagers and young adults can hopefully do more on their own. In fact, if you attempt to tell a young adult what to do like you would tell a younger child, you’re probably in for a fight. At this stage, you ask more questions and help them reach their own conclusions. You also wouldn’t attempt to teach your toddler to drive the car. In the same way, coaching must be appropriate to the leader’s experience.
When you think about your leaders, who is just starting out? What type of coaching do they need? Then, who’s starting a new group, but has experience leading groups from previous groups or another church? They don’t need to go back to kindergarten. Which leaders have been around for a while? They probably don’t need to be told what to do. But, they do need support in difficult circumstances and accountability to fulfill their group’s purpose.
When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. If you are attempting to coach all of your leaders exactly the same, then you’re making a big mistake. Start with what your leaders need, then coach from there.
3. You Won’t Let It Work
I’m not going to accuse you of this last one, but I will explain how this was my problem. I recruited people with good character and great small group experience to coach my leaders, but I held them back. They were more than capable of coaching and supporting their leaders, but I kept them on a short leash. They had given no evidence of doing a poor job coaching leaders or being untrustworthy in any way. I was just insecure. Under the guise of being responsible for the small groups, I assigned tasks to my coaches but I did not give them the authority to lead. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” As the pastor, I felt that I needed to be involved in everything and know everything that was going on. No one really needed my intervention as much as I needed to be needed. I believe that’s called co-dependency. The result was that my leaders were okay but not excelling, my coaches were frustrated, and our groups were stuck with only 30% of our adults connected. My coaching wasn’t working, and
I was the problem.
The best decision I ever made was to gather a team of coaches to lead the small group ministry with me. We led together. We learned together. We troubleshot issues together. The small group leaders had better coaching. The coaches felt empowered and enabled to lead. I had the most fun I’ve ever had in small group ministry. Oh, and our groups went from 30% of our adults connected to 125% connected. I wasn’t managing 30% very well. I never could have kept up with the growth of our small groups except for that team.
Here’s a hard truth: your small group leaders and coaches don’t need you as much as you think they do. They need someone who is available when something really big happens in their groups. They need a friend to coach and encourage them. But, they don’t need another leaders’ meeting. They don’t need another newsletter. They need a coaching relationship. And, you need to let capable people lead with you. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.
Think About This
Some churches have the staff and budget to hire all of the pastors they need to coach their small group leaders. Other churches have a simple church approach and just don’t offer very many ministries. Their staff is devoted to group leaders. Good for them, I guess. But, whether coaches are paid or volunteer, these lessons apply. How are the relationships going between coaches and leaders? What kind of coaching do your leaders need? And, are you empowering others to lead and getting out of their way?
It might seem easier to coach and train small group leaders all by yourself. But, I guarantee you that it’s not better.
Coaching Healthy Groups Course
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay
The loneliness of small group leadership seems like a misnomer. After all, small group leaders, coaches, directors, and even small group pastors are in a group. Why would they feel lonely? This isn’t the loneliness as a person. This is the loneliness of the leader. It’s the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. The experience of leadership can be a lonely experience. Here’s how to alleviate loneliness for your leaders and yourself.
Offer Community Experiences for Group Leaders
Recently one of my small group leaders from a previous church was reminiscing about a retreat we did over 10 years ago. It was a great retreat. I had budgeted to bring in an excellent speaker. Our speaker was Carl George in this case. We planned the weekend to offer some down time in addition to having Carl take us through the Nine Keys of Effective Small Group Leadership. The setting was great. The teaching was stellar. However, the memory my small group leader shared was a group of leaders gathered around the fireplace sharing stories with each other. Internally, I thought, “Man, that was the highlight! What about Carl George!” People who offer community to others need community for themselves.
Community for small group leaders is easy to take for granted. Like I said, they’re in a group. They have community. But small group leaders need a community of leaders. My friend, Alan Pace, gave me the idea of gathering small group leaders in small groups every month to take the pulse of small group ministry in the church. These were informal lunches and coffee meetings just to hear what was going on in the groups. Usually the small group leaders answered each others’ questions. I just sat there and took notes. In fact, I often felt my most valuable contribution was initiating the gathering and picking up the check. Those informal conversations meant a lot to the leaders.
At Westover Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, the small group pastor, Johnny Junkhout, offers a hang out setting in a room at the church every Sunday. Leaders gather as they will to hear the latest about small groups at the church, have a question answered, meet a new coach, or just enjoy a community of leaders.
How are you offering community to your small group leaders?
Give Every Leader a Coach
Our church in California offered small groups for the first time in 1994. We chose 10 of the best and brightest in our congregation to lead the groups. All of the groups started in January. Then, all of the group leaders quit in December. The senior pastor and I asked them what happened. The response was, “We felt like lone rangers.” I have to admit that we were surprised. The church at the time was only about 350 adults. We talked to these leaders every week. But, we weren’t doing anything intentional for them as group leaders. They were experiencing community personally, even with the pastors, yet they lacked community as leaders.
We took a couple of years off from small groups to rethink our strategy. When we launched groups in 1997, every leader had a coach. Now, you may have a strong reaction to coaching. Building a coaching structure is hard work. But, it’s worthwhile work. Some of the largest churches in the country lack a coaching structure because they pay staff to coach their leaders. You probably don’t have that luxury.
At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina, we grew our small groups to 400 groups from 120 groups over four years. Every leader had a coach. Every coach had a director or community leader. I met with the community leaders once a month. I met with the group leaders twice a year: once for our annual church-wide campaign announcement in the fall, and the second at our annual off-campus retreat. The eight directors and 40 coaches were all volunteer positions. My only paid staff was my assistant and a part-time senior adult director. Yet, the leaders of leaders of leaders I had the privilege of working with were tremendous.
If you don’t care for your leaders, eventually you won’t have leaders. For more on coaching leaders, click here for the benefits of coaching and click here for my coaching mistakes.
Find a Small Group Leadership Community for Yourself
Speaking of lonely, your job as the small group point person can also be a lonely experience. Even on a staff team, no one understands or appreciates small groups the way that you do. The student pastor is passionate about students. The worship pastor is passionate about worship. But, you’re probably the only one passionate about groups. But, you know, you should be. If you’re not passionate about groups, then who is? But, that doesn’t keep it from being a lonely experience.
Intentionally connect yourself to others in small group ministry. Find a local huddle of small group pastors through the Small Group Network. Join the SGN Facebook group and connect with others online. Reach out to other small group pastors in your denomination or association and invite then to lunch. (If you need a guest facilitator, give me a call!) If there’s not a group in your area, then start one. Join a cohort of small group pastors in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
What’s Your Next Move?
Small group leaders at every level need others to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It’s as easy as a lunch meeting or a text message. You don’t need to stand alone.
Image by Vishnu R from Pixabay
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.
Book: Exponential Groups and the Exponential Groups Workbook
Course: Leading an Exponential Groups Launch
Coaching: Small Group Ministry Coaching Group (Starts in January!)