By Allen White People hate meetings. Meetings are inconvenient. People are busy. So, we really need to ask the question: What is training? Training can be a blog post. In fact, that’s how my blog at allenwhite.org got started. I would answer one of my leader’s questions each week and send it to all of the rest. Training can also appear in your video-based curriculum, if you are developing your own. By adding weekly training to the video, leaders have what they need when they need it as they go through the materials. Training can be sent by video through an email. Any small group pastor/director with a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop can record a 2 minute video (not longer) and send it out to his/her small group leaders each week. This is even better than training delivered with video-based curriculum, because you can answer timely questions as they are asked rather than anticipating what questions they might ask. Yes, we still need initial training to get a group started. This could happen between services or even during a service, but we need to rethink small group training. If leaders are learning through blogs, books, articles, or video emails, then that IS training. One day I was talking to a pastor who came from a career in corporate training. As we talked about delivering training to group leaders when they needed it, he said, “You know, considering my background, this is going to sound funny, but the best training comes from the person who is proximate to the group leader when he or she is facing a problem.” Rather than creating a seminar on common group issues and rounding everybody up at the church on Tuesday night, a conversation with an experienced leader or coach at the right time produced more meaningful training. Group leaders are best served when the training meets a current need as they are facing it. Leaders aren’t concerned with difficult group members until they have one. Leaders can be trained and prepared to a certain extent, but chances are they won’t remember what’s given to them if they are not currently facing the problem. One Sunday morning a group leader who was a former member of my small group came up to me in the church lobby. She was concerned about an overly talkative member of her group and how to handle the situation. I had to laugh to myself because this former overly talkative member of my group was asking her former overly talkative group leader about a problem she was having with an overly talkative person in her current group. Ironic, huh? In just a few minutes, I gave her a couple of tips on how to handle the situation. She thanked me. After the next meeting, the problem was solved. The over talkative group member felt insulted and never came back. Okay, that’s not true. The group member received the message loud and clear and cooperated from then on. This group leader didn’t need to wait for the next training to come around, she came directly to me. She didn’t need to take copious notes from my training, it stuck in her head. Why? Because I gave her the training she needed when she needed it. Those are the lessons that stick. While there is certainly a place for centralized Basic Training, the best training comes from the coach when group leaders need solutions to their problems. Rather than conducting meetings, develop relationships. Blogs and video training can certainly supplement what the coaches are doing, but the coach is the primary trainer. Small Group Pastors and Directors should invest their time in training coaches and developing their Small Group Team rather than overshadowing their coaches and micromanaging group leaders. The world of training has changed. Online courses are replacing university campuses. Crash courses in some fields are all someone needs to build a successful career. If centuries-old educational institutions can innovate how they train and equip the future workforce, then it’s time for the church to innovate as well. Training tools should be developed for individual leaders through digitally, interactive technology. Groups of leaders can be trained online, but meet individually with their coach in person. Mobile devices, social media, and voice mail have made it possible to literally “encourage one another daily.” Excerpt from Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potentialby Allen White. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright (c) 2017 by Allen White Consulting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
While every small group pastor is unique, most fall into one of four types of small group pastors. Having talked to thousands of pastors over the years, I have found some change their strategies very willingly, while others are very reluctant. Some are ready to take the hill. Others prefer to analyze the approach before they take the hill. Whether your style is ready, fire, aim or ready, aim, fire, the way you are wired reveals a lot about how you lead your groups. While no one fits perfectly into any one category, in general, pastors are closer to one approach over the other three.
Are You the Innovator?
Innovators are quickly attracted to new ideas. In fact, they become easily bored with the strategies they’ve implemented. Often, they will switch to a new strategy before they’ve allowed the current strategy to bear any fruit. They thrive on change. Innovators are a lot of fun to be around, but since they have an idea a minute, they can quickly overwhelm other people. They tend to change approaches so often that their followers can become fatigued. Eventually, they find that their latest and greatest new ideas are met with an eye roll instead of a drum roll. If you’re an innovator, you tend to be impulsive. Because you come up with idea after idea, often you can be accused of being flaky. Innovators tend to be great starters, but poor finishers. They need people around them who will keep them focused, allow them to play in the lab, but keep things consistent for those they lead. If you live on the bleeding edge, you just might be an Innovator.
Are You The Shepherd?
Now, before you get all messianic on this one, let me give you a few insights. The Shepherd’s chief concern is how their decisions will affect people. Often their concern is to the point of not making a move forward at all. They would rather take a pass on a great idea than rock the boat in any way. Shepherds are highly relational. Often a shepherd becomes a small group pastor because he or she was a really great small group leader. They are great at managing the relationships they can handle, but there is a threshold for the number of group leaders they can effectively lead. These folks are very reluctant to change, especially if they perceive a change would adversely affect people in any way. They would prefer to ignore new strategies than embrace them. Often a shepherd is the victim of the Peter Principle: everyone is promoted to their own level of incompetence. This means the shepherd was an awesome small group leader. They might have even been an amazing small group coach, but when they are put in charge of the whole thing, they keep the number of small groups small and manageable. After all, how could they personally care for 50 or 100 or 1,000 small group leaders? Shepherds perform best in smaller churches with a couple dozen groups. In larger ministries, they would quickly become overwhelmed and would need to learn leadership in a completely different way. Their focus would need to change from connecting with every group leader personally to being personal with a small group leadership team, who along with their coaches, would care for the group leaders. This is not impossible, but it’s unlikely.
Generals are ready to charge the hill. They’re not quite on the bleeding edge of Innovators, but they are right behind them. Generals don’t need a fully proven and complete strategy to move forward. They just need the marching orders and the green light. They are ready to go. Generals easily abandon ineffective strategies. If something over a given period of time doesn’t produce the desired results, then that method will quickly be replaced with effective new ideas. Generals are not impulsive like Innovators, but they are impatient with things that don’t move at a steady pace. Sometimes things that are working on a small scale are abandoned before they’ve been given the opportunity to flourish. But, at other times, the General calls the right shot and refuses to waste his or her time and energy on something that is not bearing fruit. Generals are early adopters of new ideas. When they see a strategy that has potential, they are ready to take action and make it happen. Sometimes in their haste to take the bull by the horns, they run over people and even lose a few in the quest to accomplish the goal. Shepherds are horrified by the temperament of Generals. Generals need the insights of Innovators. They’re not going to come up with all of the new ideas, but they will execute like nobody’s business. Generals would be wise to hire an Analyst to help with the details. Generals see the big picture, but often jump over several steps to get there. If an Analyst (below) is subject to perfectionism, the General is subject to what I call “Good-enough-ism.” A wise General would also hire a Shepherd to stay in awareness of the emotional condition of the sheep especially during major transitions.
Analysts are, well, analytical. They carefully and deliberatively study a strategy before they make a move. While their due diligence can be admired, they often can become stuck in the paralysis of analysis. This is partly due to need to see the whole picture before they get started, which unfortunately is rarely afforded to pastors trying a new approach. They also tend to be perfectionist, so they do not want to make mistakes. This often causes them to miss opportunities. Analysts are going to let someone else (or a lot of somebodies) try an idea and then evaluate their results before they serious consider making a change. They are inspired by Innovators and Generals, but are also frustrated that their emotional make up doesn’t allow them to venture out to the cutting edge of things. The good news about analysts is they save their ministries and their people from the trial and error that others might recklessly inflict on their people. The other side is their reluctance and often skepticism holds them back from what they could achieve. An Analyst who is coached by an experienced small groups pastor can make great progress with a much lower level of risk. The Analyst would be a great team member for a General or an Innovator. They could certainly offer balance and consistent follow through to their leader. Analysts work well as the leader in a more traditional environment. A General or an Innovator would blow up a traditional environment. An analyst would be careful to study changes and move only when it’s advantageous within the organization.
Which Type Are You?
No one fits neatly into any one of these categories. In fact, it would be good to consider which type would be your secondary approach. For instance, a General-Innovator will lead much differently than a General-Analyst. Lead with your strengths. Don’t try to lead like someone else. God wired you the way He intended to. Lead with your strengths, then staff to your weaknesses. If you’re an Innovator, you will always leave out details. Hire an Analyst. If you’re a Shepherd, then either lead a small flock well or work for someone who needs your relational skills to keep things in balance.
Over the last 26 years, I’ve served two senior pastors and one Brett Eastman. My titles started as Minister of Christian Education, then Associate Pastor, then Executive Director, then Discipleship Pastor, and at last, Vice President. A year ago I became President of my own organization. Finally, I’m the top dog. Of course, at this point, there are no other dogs, but that’s okay. Leading from the second chair or a shared second chair with half a dozen other pastors has taught me a different style of leadership. From this vantage point, and from working with over 1,500 churches in the last 11 years, I have learned what your senior pastor wishes you knew about their stance toward small groups. [Please note: I know there are senior pastors who are both men and women. I struggle with gender-inclusive language, so if I refer to the senior pastor with male pronouns, please forgive me.]
1. Senior pastors don’t think a lot about groups, because they hired you.
As the small group pastor, you should be the most passionate person on your team about groups. If you’re not, you might be in the wrong role. Your senior pastor does not have small groups on the brain like you do. Senior pastors don’t have to, they have folks like you. If your pastor was not in favor of groups, you would not have a job. Whisper to yourself: “My pastor must like groups, then.” I have met many small group folks over the years who have run themselves ragged over the notion that their senior pastor just won’t get on-board with groups. “If only my senior pastor supported groups more…If only he would talk about groups more…If only he was in a group…” I’m from Kansas, so I’m just going to say it —
Your senior pastor doesn’t need to get on-board with you.
It’s his boat!
If you’re not in his boat, then guess where you are?
2. When small group pastors ask for “airtime” in the weekend services, you put your senior pastor in a predicament.
Now, I’m not a believer that all ministries in a church deserve equal airtime. Read more here. But, senior pastors wrestle with fairness among ministries. They don’t want to play favorites. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to prefer one ministry over another. When you ask for airtime for groups, you are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a battle you should fight, but you need to learn to be strategic about this. First of all, how do most of the people in your church keep informed about church events? If you don’t know this, find out ASAP. In the last church I served, we had a variety of ways to communication with the congregation. Through an online survey, I discovered that two communication methods stood out over and above every other one: the weekly bulletin and email. At the time, the darling of our church communication was promotional videos that ran before the service. It didn’t take a survey to understand that less than 10% of our 2,500 seat auditorium was filled when the videos played. When the communications department offered to make a video for my small group launch, I declined saying I would prefer something in the bulletin and an email blast. They thought I was just being humble. I knew what actually worked. Secondly, nothing beats an invitation from the senior pastor from the stage before/during/after the sermon. How do you overcome your pastor’s overarching need for fairness? Put your pastor’s teaching on the curriculum. (There are a variety of ways to do this). When your pastor makes an investment in the curriculum, you are guaranteed to have airtime for groups.
3. If your senior pastor is not in a group, there is a reason.
The experience of a pastor is abnormal in the life of the church. Pastors and church staff don’t experience church the way the members of the church do. Imagine the characters that would show up if there was an open call to join the pastor’s small group. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be in that group (and I’m a pastor!). An open group for a senior pastor could be risky. If you pressure your senior pastor too far about getting into a group or leading a group, don’t sit around wondering why your pastor won’t get behind groups. Every pastor is different. One pastor and his wife opened up their home and invited young couples to join their group. Another pastor met with two close friends and didn’t make an open invitation. In both cases, this was the pastor’s group. You have your own story. Rather than pressure your senior pastor and other staff members to join a group if “they really support small groups,” help them identify the relationships in their lives that could be considered their group. Some may do a study together. Others may not. Either way, the pastor can talk about his group, regardless of the form.
4. Your senior pastor wishes you would relieve the burden instead of adding to it.
Every senior pastor is in favor of ministries that solve problems instead of those that create problems. Learn to solve your church’s problems with groups. What is your senior pastor concerned about? How could groups meet the need? I’m not saying this in the vein of “Let the youth group do it,” and now it’s “let the groups do it.” Rather, sit with your pastor to hear his passions and concerns, then design a way to connect those passions or concerns to groups. If your church is growing steadily, the concern is for connection and assimilation. Groups can be the answer. If your Sunday school and adult electives are declining, the concern is over discipleship. Groups can be the answer. If your church needs more people to serve or give, well, people in groups tend to serve and give more than people not in groups. (For more information, see pages 45-46 in Transformational Groups by Eric Geiger and Ed Stetzer). The first time we launched groups in a big way in our church in California, my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series. Advertising was set. When I asked if we could launch groups off of The Passion, he was fully on-board. (I jumped on his “ship.”) We even created our own homemade video curriculum. When my pastor invited our people to open their homes and do The Passion study, we doubled our groups in one day. What is your pastor worried about? What is your pastor passionate about? How can groups help to relieve the burden or propel the vision? By virtue of the senior pastor’s role, God speaks and directs the church through him. Get onboard with that vision. Your groups will thrive.
5. The simpler you can make the senior pastor’s involvement, the more they will be open to what you need.
If your pastor is willing to talk about groups in the weekend services, then script out exactly what you want them to say or create bullet points in advance. Then, wait until they need the direction. Some pastors want it ahead of time. Others want it just before the service. Do what works for your pastor rather than wishing your pastor would do what works for you. At my last church, on the weeks my pastor offered to promote groups, I trotted up the staircase to his study, gave him the list of bullet points, walked through the points, then left him to execute the announcement. He was always spot on. Then, the next Sunday, I did the same thing. He didn’t need to come up with the invitation. I provided what he needed when he needed it, and it worked. When I’ve created video curriculum with senior pastors, sometimes they taught on 6 out of 6 sessions. Sometimes, they’ve taught 1 of 6 with other teaching pastors filling in. Sometimes they taught from a script. Others taught with bullets. Still others just stood up and talked. We always scheduled the video shoot around the senior pastor’s schedule. If others had to wait, then they waited. Senior pastors gladly participated if they knew everything was set from them. Some would even prefer someone else to create their scripts from past sermons. As long as they knew they didn’t have to attend 10 meetings about the shoot and sit around for two hours until the crew was ready, they were in. Your pastor has the ability to write his own scripts and create his own invitation to groups, but your pastor often does not have the time to do these things. Give your pastor something to start with. Make his job easier, and you will have wholehearted participation. Remember, your senior pastors don’t work for you. You work for them. You might wish that your senior pastor was more like someone else’s senior pastor. If only my senior pastor led a group, made curriculum, announced groups, and so forth. Be careful what you wish for. If you go about this the wrong way, you will be working for another senior pastor before you know it. Work with what you have. It’s okay if your senior pastor doesn’t have small groups on the brain as long as you do. Any place where groups can intersect with the needs and passions of your senior pastor, you’ll have success.