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.
The month prior to an alignment series or church-wide campaign is prime time to recruit new leaders and form new groups. If you want these groups to actually start (and keep going), they need a coach. Even if you only have a half dozen new leaders, it’s too much for you to add to your plate, and they won’t get the care they deserve. Here’s how to do it and why:
Coaches are Mission Critical
Your new leaders need the most help immediately after they say “yes” to starting a group. The window between making a commitment and starting a group is mission critical. In fact, you will lose more new leaders in this window than at any other time. Here’s how I know.
Our church in California launched 103 groups for an alignment series one fall. For a church of 800 adults, this was pretty good. After patting ourselves on the back, we surveyed these groups midway through the series to see how many planned to continue in the next series. Out of the 103 leaders, 30 of them said they weren’t going to continue. Of course, I always want them all to continue. I would have been happy if only 20 or fewer had dropped out. But, I wasn’t comfortable with 30 ending their groups. So, I sent another survey just to the 30.
Out of the 30, two of the leaders said their group enjoyed the study and just couldn’t continue at this time. The other 28 groups had never started! This led me to a very valuable principle: “Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.” These leaders had become discouraged. Some got cold feet. Others had invited some people to join their groups but got turned down. Overall, the enemy had done a number on these leaders to discourage and deflate them.
From that point on, every new leader received a coach to walk alongside them from when they said “yes” to starting a group through the end of the study. We had 105 groups for the next group launch. With the support of a coach, these groups started and thrived. Very few dropped out.
Coaches Help You Multiply Yourself
Without coaches, you tend to hold more meetings and send more emails. You’re not coaching your leaders. You’re spamming them.
As John Maxwell says, “Find someone who can do the job 30% as well as you can, then let them do it.” The truth is they can probably do the job 60% as well.
Face it – there is just not enough of you to go around. To make the biggest impact, multiply yourself and help more leaders. Bigger meetings are not the answer. More emails are not the answer. You must multiply yourself in order to truly serve your new group leaders.
Coaches are More Available
If your experienced leaders will make a weekly call to new leaders, they will receive the support they need to start (and continue) their groups. The job description is simple: (1) a weekly phone call, (2) encourage them, (3) answer their questions, and (4) pray for them. It’s up to you to call your “coaches” every week to hear what they are learning from the leaders.
Don’t ask your experienced leaders to give up their groups to coach. You don’t want to lose your best leaders (and most of them aren’t willing to give up their groups). But, don’t ask them to coach 10 new group leaders either. Invite them to coach one or two new leaders.
Remember that expectations should be Clear, Reasonable, and Accountable. If you re-read this section, that’s what has been outlined for new coaches here.
Think About This
Before you start recruiting new leaders, recruit a coach for them. Consider your current leaders. Whose groups would you like ten more just like them? Invite them to coach. Think about mature believers in your church. Would they care enough to make a weekly call?
You don’t need to coach all of your group leaders. If you currently don’t have a coaching structure, coaching every leader is a laudable goal. But, you don’t need to coach 100% of your leaders right off the bat. Your new leaders need the most help. Find a coach for them. Then, work your way toward a coach for every leader. And, remember, every leader doesn’t need the same type of coaching.
Your established leaders are okay for now. After all, they’ve been without a coach for a while. Ask them to use their experience to help your new leaders. Their experience will help new leaders get their groups started.
The small group in a box seemed like a good idea. The small group director secured the topic from the pastor and the logo from the graphic designer, then went into the hard work of writing curriculum, designing a study guide, gathering goodies for the box, and printing these branded boxes for the next small group launch. So far, so good.
As the launch approached, the small group director made an announcement in the service that anyone interested in starting a group could come to the lobby, grab a box, and do the church-wide study. This was the start of the trouble. A few people attended the online briefing for new leaders. The director reached out to a few others. The end result was disappointing. The small group in a box was not a bad idea, but it was only half a strategy. While I applaud the effort at trying something new, here are the problems I see in this director’s approach:
The Small Group Director Promoted the Study.
For most of my 30+ years of ministry, I’ve been the associate pastor or the vice president. You know — the #2 guy (or lower). In my experience, when I made the announcement about groups, it would receive only 30% of the result that my senior pastor would get by saying the exact same words. How do I know this? I recruited small group leaders for seven years and connected 30% of our adults into groups. We averaged 0-10 new groups each year…
The first time my senior pastor stood up on a Sunday morning, we doubled our groups in one day. Six months later, we doubled again to the point where we had 13% of our people leading groups and 125% connected in on-going small groups. Long story short: I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004 (and I serve a church of 6,500 since then). The small group director should have asked the senior pastor to make the announcement.
The Series was Only Promoted for One Week.
This small group director promoted groups for one Sunday and got a disappointing result. I’ve heard this story before. One year, I had two churches promoting groups on the same dates. One was in New York; the other in Florida. The New York church promoted for one week and recruited 20 new leaders. The Florida church promoted for three weeks and recruited 60 new leaders. Both created their own curriculum. Both had the senior pastor inviting people to lead. The difference was recruiting for one week instead of recruiting for three weeks. Oh, and on the first week, the Florida church also only had 20 new leaders, but they kept recruiting.
You can invest tens of thousands of dollars into video curriculum production (I can help you), or you can shoot a video on your iPhone and upload it to Youtube (I can help you with that too). Either way you remove a barrier – the leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert. The pastor is the expert.
The Box and the Training were Disconnected.
If you want to get people to your briefing, only allow them to pick up the box at the briefing. The first time I did “small group in a box” back in 2004. People picked up the bag of materials. They put their name on a signup sheet. We never heard from them again. When I started inviting them to a briefing after the service, which was the only way they could get the curriculum, not only did they receive enough training to get them started, they also walked out of the room with a coach and not just curriculum. Keep the training and the resources connected. They will come to training.
The New Leaders Lacked Support.
Most small group pastors and directors are overwhelmed with the current number of leaders in their ministries. In fact, sometimes this is why the small group ministry isn’t growing any faster or any further. You have to multiply yourself. The other side of the equation is that many prospective group leaders will never actually start a group because they can be easily discouraged in the time between the briefing and the start of the study. I’ll be honest – I’ve lost far more group leaders before the group started than after the series ended. If the new leader has an experienced leader to walk alongside them, this will go a long way to get the group going, support the new leader, and help the group continue.
I applaud this small group director on trying something new. That takes guts. But, I also agonize with this director at the opportunity lost. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. I have. Half a strategy just doesn’t cut it. Yes, take initiative and try new things. But, also realize that most strategies have a history and a few secrets to success.
At some point you encounter the thought, “There’s just not enough of me to go around.” When you consider your spouse, your family, your church, your groups, (and don’t forget yourself), this admission is accurate. You are insufficient to accomplish all that God has called you to do. But, this is not necessarily bad news.
Have you ever called tech support only to hear that your problem is “user error?” I am so relieved when it’s just user error. I don’t have to send my device in or buy a new one. The problem is me! This is great news, because I can fix me. Once you discover this, you can fix it!
Don’t Put a Lid on Your Small Groups.
Once upon a time my groups were stuck at 30% after seven years of very hard work building a small groups ministry. I handpicked all of the leaders. I trained all of the leaders. I coached all of the leaders. Our small group ministry had grown as far as it could under my leadership. At this point, there was a choice: (1) Blame my senior pastor for not promoting groups, (2) Blame our people for being selfish and unwilling to leave their groups to start new groups, (3) Find another job, or (4) Change myself.
After spending a fair amount of time on options 1 and 2, I finally came to the realization that the solution was to change myself. This wasn’t easy. After all, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.
John Maxwell coined “The Law of the Lid” which states, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” We were stuck at 30% of our congregation in groups, because that’s the most I could effectively lead by myself. If I didn’t multiply myself and raise my level of leadership, then our groups would never have grown.
Where Do You Start?
The bad news was that I wasn’t adequately serving my small group leaders. The good news was that I still had small group leaders. They had figured out how to lead their groups and keep them going. Now, I didn’t completely neglect them. We did a lot of training meetings that were half attended at best. (Did I also mention that I oversaw the entire children’s ministry, some of the church administration, and led worship for a season? It wasn’t a very good season.) I’ll stop making excuses. As John Maxwell also says, “People who are good at making excuses are usually good at little else.”
My motivation to shift my leadership came in the form of a crisis. We doubled our groups in one day. From a coaching perspective, I now had twice the problem. I wasn’t adequately coaching the leaders I had, then suddenly I had an equal number of new leaders. I was overwhelmed. Then, something dawned on me.
If half of my leaders were new, then that meant that the other half had some experience. While they weren’t trained as coaches, they had enough to answer the new leaders’ questions and encourage them. I matched them up in a buddy system. Looking back, it was quick and dirty and very chaotic, but it moved my leadership enough for the next time our groups doubled, which was six months later.
Empower Coaches to Serve.
Even though I had leveraged a crisis to recruit coaches, I still had another problem. Remember that part about “My name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” Yea, that didn’t go away quickly.
I had coaches. This was a big step. I had willing, capable, and experienced leaders to coach new small group leaders. But, my coaches became bored and frustrated.
I was still running the monthly huddles. I did all of the training. I sent the coaches into the groups to gather information for me. No wonder that one coach, Carol, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” She was!
This forced another leadership growing pain for me: if I didn’t get out of my coaches way, then I would lose my coaches. I’ll admit it – I was insecure. I had never led a small group ministry with 60% of our adults in groups. If 30% was too much for me to handle alone, then 60% was way beyond my ability individually. I couldn’t lose my coaches. But, I had only given my coaches half of what they needed.
I gave my coaches the tasks of coaching, but I hadn’t given them the authority of coaching. I trusted them to do the grunt work, but I didn’t trust them to make wise decisions. At this point two major shifts were necessary: (1) I needed to get over myself, and (2) I needed to invest more in the relationships with these coaches and allow them to invest in the leaders. This worked.
When I began to regard my coaches as partners rather than subordinates, they began to shine. They loved helping other leaders. And, I was grateful for the help.
Carl George, my friend and mentor, often asks: “How are you getting in the way of accomplishing your goals?”