By Allen White My guest today is Alan Danielson, the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.
Q1: You’re not new at small groups. Over the years, what trends/methods/strategies in forming groups have stood the test of time?
Oh boy, I have several things that come to mind. The first and most obvious answer is leadership. Every group that lasts needs a leader. There are “leaderless” methods for starting groups but these groups only last long-term when someone in the group demonstrates leadership. They may never actually give someone the title of leader, but make no mistake a truly “leaderless” group won’t be a group for long. The second thing that pops into my head is coaching. I’m a huge believer in small group coaches. I’ve heard lots of people claim that coaching doesn’t work, but that has certainly not been my experience. By providing coaches to connect with and guide my small group leaders, I’ve given them all a lifeline and a partner. I once asked my friend Dave Treat why some people are down on small group coaching when it has proven to be so important to me. He said, “Coaching works, but people are lazy.” What that means is that coaching is hard work and it only works if pastors and other leaders will put in the effort needed. Thirdly, I think of church wide small group campaigns. Campaigns are such a simple tool for launching new groups and getting new people connected. If a campaign is followed up by capable small group coaches, the new groups can last a long time and provide a great platform for discipleship.
Q2: When you think about methods like church-wide campaigns and other ways of rapidly forming groups, do you see these srategies going the long haul? Why or why not?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected only to see those groups fizzle out after a few months. I’ve also seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected and then see the groups last and build tremendous relationships that change lives. So what’s the difference? The first two things I talked about after your first question: leadership and coaching. At some point someone in the group has to take up the mantle of leader (whether they want the title or not). The perfect person to guide the would-be leader through that process is a small group coach. A well-trained coach can help people make the transition into leadership well. Without leaders and coaches, small groups quickly implode, collapse, dissolve or just fade away.
Q3: You’ve served as a small group champion as both a small group pastor and a senior pastor. Where have you been the most effective in group ministry? What made it more effective?
Well, it depends on what you call effective. When I was a campus small group pastor at Life.Church we developed 544 groups on a campus of 7,000 people. 544 groups sounds really impressive, but I was never impressed. We averaged 8.45 people per group which translated 4,597 people connected. That still sounds like a lot. But when compared to our campus attendance of 7,000 it meant that just under 66% of our weekend attenders were in groups. In school 66% is a D. When I was promoted to executive groups pastor over all of our campuses we got to nearly 1,100 groups total for all of our campuses. That came out to 9,295 people in groups. At the time we were running 28,000 on all campuses meaning we had 33% of our total attendance in groups. That’s an F. Now I’m the lead pastor of a church of 300 and we have about 80% of our people in groups. That’s much better. What made the difference in these three different settings? Leadership and coaching. On the one campus where I led the small group ministry, coaching was a critical component. When I was given charge of all 13 campuses, we were in the middle of implementing our coaching ministry on all campuses. If I’d stayed there longer I believe we would have broken the 66% mark and gone even further. Here’s the big takeaway: small groups and coaching work in all churches of all size. Success is determined not by the slickness of the strategy but by the break-neck-work-ethic of every leader involved (from the pastor to the group leader) and high value of small groups in the church. My current church will one day hit, and I believe exceed, the 100% mark because, as the lead pastor, I am committed to our strategy. Then I hire staff who share that commitment, who recruit coaches who share that commitment, who train leaders who share that commitment.
Q4: What is different about Group Life in Oklahoma than in other places?
The Food! When I was a pastor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you could be sure that every small group had some form of green chile every week. In Oklahoma there are lots of veggie trays, followed by some kind of meat and dessert. Seriously though, I don’t really think there’s much difference. People are people everywhere you go. As I’ve consulted with churches all across the country I’ve noticed that people crave connection everywhere. Every neighborhood needs groups who will care for the neighborhood. Every person in every church needs healthy relationships and needs to grow spiritually. The biggest difference is simply one of awareness. In the Oklahoma (often called the buckle of the Bible Belt), more people in the culture are aware of small groups or Bible study groups. In Portland, Oregon the average person hasn’t heard of such a thing.
Q5: When we first met, you were the small groups pastor at LifeChurch.tv (now Life.Church). What did you small group structure look like across multiple campuses? Were groups consistent across campuses or did that matter?
The goal was to have a consistent group strategy and structure on all campuses. It was to be built on three basic building-blocks: leaders, coaches and campaigns. We did two campaigns every year, so we needed coaches on every campus who would develop great leaders in a very short time. That’s a pretty over-simplified summary, but I think you get the gist. Anyway, when I became the point person overseeing groups on all campuses, the group ministries did not have a very consistent look. My predecessor had encouraged lots of experimentation on every campus, so there were definitely differences from one campus to the next. These differences were both good and bad. The good thing was that each of our 13 campuses was a laboratory where we could try different strategies and tactics. The bad thing was the tendency of the campus groups pastors becoming too attached to their own way of doing things. This led to quite a bit of tension. Okay, before I continue I have to give you a little more context. What I’m saying may sound like I’m running down Life.Chruch, but that’s most definitely NOT my intent. Remember, when I was at Life.Church, the multi-site movement was still very new. In many ways we were making things up as we went along. We quickly became the biggest multi-site church in the country and had few examples to learn from, so we made a TON of mistakes. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing that we got an “F” for only 33% of our people in groups. But in this case and “F” is not automatically a failure. We didn’t necessarily view each experiment as “success” or “failure”, but as an “opportunity to learn”. Even things that didn’t pan out like we’d hoped taught us a lot. So through all of this I learned that the most important part of leading multi-site small group ministry came down to the campus small group pastor. If the campus small group pastor was a teachable, team-player, he/she was far more likely to utilize the basics that we wanted to implement on each campus (the basics being the things I mentioned earlier: leaders, coaches and campaigns). The independent-type campus group pastors had a tendency to try to blaze their own trails. Rather than building upon something proven effective, they often tried to start building from a new foundation. This often led to slower success. Under my leadership, the ideal personality-mix for a campus group pastor was a creative person who is willing to learn from and follow their leadership. Rather than being trail blazers (or sometimes even rebels), these types of campus group pastors implemented the basics and experimented with ideas only if they would enhance or improve the basics.
Q5.5: As the co-owner of the second largest Star Wars fan site in the world, what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
By Allen White Michael Mack leads Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com), a ministry that partners with churches in making disciples in authentic, audacious community. He writes and equips leaders on the subject of small groups and teaches on small groups and discipleship at his alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University. He founded SmallGroups.com, has led the small group ministries in several churches, and is the author of numerous small group books and study guides. He and his wife, Heidi, and their four young adult children live in Pewee Valley, Kentucky.
Q1: Ok, you said to bring the tough questions about groups. A few years ago a pastor in Hawaii told me one of his new group leaders came to him and said the night before a man in his group asked, “How do I tell my wife that I used to be a woman before we were married?” How would you have advised this leader?
As Heather Zempel has wisely said, “Community Is Messy”! The truth is, small group leaders don’t have the answers to every small group question, and often neither do their pastors! Yet we serve the One who does have the answers, so the first thing I would do and advise this leader to do is to spend time in God’s presence, including in his Word, seeking his wisdom. After doing that, I’d tell the leader that the most important answer he gives this person is not the words he says but the love he gives him. As England Dan and John Ford Coley put it, “Love is the answer.” I’d tell the leader that this person in your group needs your acceptance, encouragement, partnership, support, and compassion more than a “right answer.” Be sure he knows you’re in his corner no matter what. The pastor needs to ascertain whether this leader has what it will take to walk through this with this man in his group. Is he a shepherd? Is he willing and does he have the time, energy, patience, and spiritual and emotional maturity to help this man whom God has placed in his care? If so, he can move on to the following steps. If not, someone else from the church might need to be involved. After I’d put those things in place, I’d counsel this leader to tell the man from his group to prayerfully find a Christian counselor whom he and his wife trust. The man should make an appointment with this counselor himself first to discuss this issue and seek the counselor’s advice. Then, if the counselor believes this is the best course of action, the man can invite his wife to join him in meeting with the counselor, at which time he can tell his wife this news. The leader should promise the man he’ll be praying for him throughout this process, as long as it takes. He’ll support him as he takes strides to tell the truth, ask for forgiveness, and whatever steps he will need to take along the way.
Q2: A number of well-known churches have abandoned their coaching structures. Personally, I think this is a mistake. Why do so many churches struggle with a coaching structure for their groups?
I agree with you, Allen, that the coaching structure is critical in a growing group ministry, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as some make it out to be. The reasons it’s a hassle are: (1) small group point leaders would much rather work directly with their leaders than develop a structure that inherently separates them from the leaders; (2) it takes time and effort to discover, develop, and deploy coaches, and you have to not do other things in order to accomplish it; (3) the point leader may need to recruit coaches out of their pool of good leaders, and who wants to lose or overburden good leaders? (4) Some point leaders believe they must use a certain coaching structure from some book, another church, or conference, and it all sounds intimidating. I believe the church needs to develop a coaching strategy that actually works for them That might end up looking like the good ol’ 5×5 model, peer coaching, or something totally different. The key is to provide each leader with just the right amount of coaching they actually need; no more and no less. I developed a coaching model similar to Steve Gladen’s. We provided new leaders with a 1:1 coach, who was usually the leader of the group they were previously in. But this was short-term, until the new leader didn’t need that much oversight. Next, I had a team of coaches who would work with about 3-8 leaders who still needed some but not a lot of direction and support. The largest group of our leaders, however, those who were experienced or senior leaders, had what we called PEPs: Prayer and Encouragement Partners. These were mostly older couples who had led or even just had a significant role in groups. Their job was to get in touch with their leaders (about 10-30 leaders) once a quarter or so just to say, “How are you doing? How can I pray for you? and Is there anything you need? The PEPs also sent them birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards. The leaders in this group knew where to go for help—to me or other leaders they knew, They also were the ones who would say, “I don’t really need a coach.” In fact, many of them were coaching other leaders. The point is, this was a structure and process that worked well for us, but might not for someone else. God had already given me the resources I needed to put this structure together, so it made logical sense. I’d suggest that point leaders become very familiar with Ken Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership” model (Leadership and the One-Minute Manager) and use it in their training and coaching of leaders.
Q3: Give some examples of what successful coaching should look like.
From my answer to #2, it all depends on what the coach needs to do to coach that leader well. A new or inexperienced leader might need a bit more direction at first. But as the leader grows in competence, they probably need less and less direction and more coaching. As leaders become more competent, they need support—that is, praise, listening, and encouragement. As the leader becomes fully competent as well as fully committed to their role as a leader, the coaching becomes a delegation model; the leader can make almost all day-to-day decision on their own. Every leader needs to know they are valued; they need continual encouragement; and they need people praying for them and their vital ministry.
Q4: I first “met” you through your book, The Synergy Church. As Sunday school continues to decline across the country, what mistakes do you see churches making in transitioning from Sunday school to groups?
That was a lonnnnng time ago! I see two big mistakes churches make here. One is replacing one ministry for the other. Of course, that makes small groups the enemy in some people’s minds. Instead, I counsel churches to run both the old and the new parallel to each other. If it’s necessary to eventually replace SS with SGs (building space issues, for instance) continue to care for and support the classes and love the people there, while, at the same time, putting your energy into building your groups ministry. The other mistake I often see is not really using a well-designed strategy to phase in the new small groups ministry. The point leader should be familiar with how the change bell curve (infusion of innovation curve) works, for instance. Develop a strategy to get from here to there and then work on all the tactics that will move you in that direction. The BIG question is not about what programs to use, but what our mission is and how we will accomplish it. Some churches have moved away from adult Sunday school and toward small groups … just because. Just because other successful churches are doing it. Just because small groups are the hip thing for churches to do. Just because Rick Warren’s church has small groups. None of those are great reasons.
Q5: How do you disciple people who are so distracted by the things of this world?
My good friend Murphy Belding always says, “The only person you can disciple is a willing one.” Willingness includes, I believe, a commitment to growing as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, and that commitment includes a willingness to live out Romans 12:2, not conforming to the world, but being transformed into a new person. So, I start with people who will make that commitment. This is what Jesus did, and when, as in the example of the rich young man, they are unwilling to count the cost and make that commitment, I must let them walk away from an authentic discipleship opportunity. We must believe the truth that God is drawing every person to himself, that he is standing at the doors of their hearts knocking, asking to be invited in. If someone has not invited Jesus to come in and change them, I’m not going to get very far at all in trying to disciple that person. I think one of the key roles of teaching pastors is to call people from conformity to the world and into transformation. Small groups and one-on-one discipleship are environments where that transformation can take place, as the Holy Spirit works as only he can in a person’s life.
Q5.5: As the founder of smallgroups.com, which is now owned by Christianity Today, do you ever wish you’d kept it?
No. … Ask a closed-ended question and get a one-word reply! Yeah, like I could give one-word replies! I believe God called me and gave me the opportunity to start this ministry, and early on I saw the potential of it, but then I also sensed that other people in God’s kingdom could move it to that potential better than I, so it was an easy decision to do just that. I’m simply a steward, not an owner of whatever God entrusts to me. A servant doesn’t get to keep anything.