There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” You’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s old, but the meaning is relevant. No matter how well you coach and train your leaders, they need to know that you care. Lack of care often leads to burnout. You don’t want to go there.
As the typical ministry season (September – May) beings to
wrap up, it’s a great time to show your appreciation to your group leaders. You
don’t necessarily need to make over-the-top gestures, but it’s important to do
something. After all, there are only two parts to small group ministry: (1)
Recruiting Leaders, and (2) Keeping Your Leaders Motivated, Equipped, and
Happy. They’ll gladly do their job, when you do yours. Here are some ways to
show your leaders that you care:
Plan a Fun Event.
When you think about events, they really can run the gamut
depending on your budget. You could go the route of team building events like
ropes courses, trampoline parks, or escape rooms. If you’re in the vicinity of
a campground, they might have an affordable facility available for your event.
If you’re on a budget, think about a picnic or tailgate. You
could either cater the event or invite all of the group members along with the
leaders to the event. The group members can provide the food for their groups,
so there’s nothing to budget for.
One year our church in California had a picnic like this and
asked each group to present an award to their group leader. Every group got up
and expressed appreciation for their leaders publicly. Then, they would present
either a homemade award like a plaque or a trophy. One group even created a
Barbie doll to resemble their leader. Some groups went way over the top and
gave restaurant gift certificate, a weekend away, or something else their
leader really enjoyed. No matter how it was done, every leader left feeling
very appreciated by the church and by their group.
Give a Small Gift.
small gift communicates a lot. You don’t need to give away a car for leaders to
feel appreciated. Think about what the leaders might enjoy – a Starbucks card,
movie tickets, or an ice cream cone.
One year I gave every one of my leaders a book. I purchased two cases of John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s Making Small Groups Work and gave one to every leader. Not only did they feel appreciated, I also put some training into their hands. Many churches have done the same with my Leading Healthy Groups book.
don’t need to be large. But, even something small communicates a lot.
Give Public Recognition.
In addition to a small gift or some other form of
appreciate, publicly recognizing your group leaders in a worship service is
meaningful to leaders. If this comes from the senior pastor, you get bonus
Asking group leaders to stand, come to the front, or come up
on stage, communicates the importance of small groups and the role of small
group leaders in your church. Either you or your senior pastor can publicly
thank leaders for letting God use them in the past year. You could even give
some statistics like the number of people who came to Christ as a result of
groups, or the number of people currently involved in groups.
While you’ve got your congregation’s attention, this would
be a great opportunity to give them a heads up about your next group launch,
even if it comes in the Fall. People like to plan ahead. And, remember, what
you are saying to your current leaders is also being said to your future
leaders sitting in the congregation.
Leader appreciation is only limited to your creativity. If
you have no budget, then get even more creative. Even simple things like a
handwritten note are significant. After all, who gets personal mail anymore? A
personal email is not the same.
How will you appreciate your leaders this year? What have
you done in the past? I would love to hear what you’re doing.
When it comes to launching groups in a smaller church, there is a dilemma. There aren’t many great models. Most materials and training about small groups come from pastors of megachurches. Their models don’t work well in smaller churches. What works in a large church typically doesn’t work well in a smaller church, but what works in a small church will work in any church. Over the last 15 years, I have coached churches as large as 40,000 and as small as 40.
The first church I served grew from 300 adults to 85 adults in the first 18 months. We went through a great deal of turbulence related to the departure of our founding pastor. Starting with 85 people, we watched the church reach various milestones. At 250 people, the complaint we heard was “I don’t know everybody any more.” In reality, most people can only keep up with about 150 people. Facebook doesn’t count. The next milestone was when we reached 400 in attendance and went to two services, then we heard, “I can’t find the people I know!” While groups helped us keep people connected, groups also helped in many other ways.
Here are some thoughts on how to launch groups in a smaller church.
Bet on a Winner.
When a smaller church launches any new initiative, there is much more at stake. If a larger church has a failed initiative and loses 100 people, they can recover fairly easily. If that happens in a smaller church, well, you might have just lost everybody. While every church is unique and is open to trying various things, you only want to offer major initiatives that are more of a sure thing. If you bet the farm, you just might lose the farm.
Start with a pilot. Ask a couple of loyal folks to open their homes for a short-term group. The commitment should be 6-8 weeks. Initially, these groups could start by having the newly appointed leaders invite people they know. You want to make the groups easy to prepare for and easy to run, so a video-based curriculum will take much of the pressure off of an unseasoned leader. At the end of the commitment, evaluate how it went. Did the leaders enjoy leading? Did the group members enjoy the group? At this point, give them an opportunity to re-up for another study if they are ready to move forward.
Don’t Break What’s Working.
You shouldn’t stop other things to start groups. If your church has Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other groups, then allow these groups to continue to meet the needs for the people they are working for. You don’t need to have everyone in the same system. One size does not fit all. When you do the math, more than likely, there is a considerable number of people who attend worship or at least call your church their church home, who are not doing anything outside of attending worship services. These are the folks you should invite to join groups.
If your church has a high percentage of people in Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other types of groups, then you may not need to start more groups in your church. That’s okay. If these other opportunities are providing a place for people to care, connect, and grow spiritually, then you’re doing what you should be doing. If there are people who are more marginally associated with your church or people in your community who might join a group, then you can look at groups as an outreach opportunity to bring more people to Christ.
As you are launching groups, you should let the folks in classes and other groups know what you’re up to. It’s okay if they don’t want to join groups, but you don’t want them to be opposed to groups. As someone once said, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” Explain to them how you are launching groups to connect folks who for whatever reason don’t want to join a class or current Bible study group. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. You just want to offer more opportunities for people to learn and grow.
Develop Coaches — Even for a Few Groups
Even if you have a small number of groups, don’t try to manage the groups ministry by yourself. You already wear plenty of hats. You don’t need one more. Find someone in your church who enjoys groups and is spiritually mature to coach and mentor group leaders. They don’t need to have all of the answers. They just need to be available to the leaders and answer their questions when they can. If they don’t have the answer, then they can bring the question to you.
If you care for your leaders, your groups will thrive. If you don’t offer them the care of a coach, then your groups will fail. No one wants to build something only to watch it fail.
Years ago, a pastor of a church of 42 people joined our coaching group. He had two groups. After a few months, we invited all of the pastors from the coaching group to get together. This pastor not only reported doubling his groups (two groups to four groups), but he also brought his volunteer groups director to the event.
Give Permission and Opportunity.
I used to think if you wanted 10 groups in a church, then you needed to have 100 people (10 groups with 10 members). That’s not true. To have 10 groups, you need 10 people to lead those groups. Then, invite those 10 to invite people they know who would enjoy or benefit from a group study. Who’s in their lives? Friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, relatives, and others. Their groups could grow very quickly.
Now, let’s imagine something else. If you have 50 people in your church, you have 50 potential leaders. (Now, I know that some of those people you could never see leading. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Stick with me here). If 50 people in your church each gathered a circle of 6-8 people in your church or outside of your church, you could very quickly have 300-400 people in groups if the study topic matched a felt-need in your community. (Think about topics like marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, relationships, etc). What would that do for your church?
I’m working with a pastor in the inner city of Baltimore. His church has 600 adults on a Sunday. They launched groups with a series a year ago. Before the launch, they had seven groups in their church. After the launch, they started 167 groups in a church of 600! Years ago an Episcopal church of 260 people in Florida launched 75 groups for 40 Days of Purpose. Groups have great potential to reach your community. And, many of those people started coming to church as a result.
Groups will help your church. People will feel more connected and cared for. They will grow spiritually, and they will reach others. You won’t build the same way a megachurch does and that’s okay.
The temptation to start new groups after Easter is fairly irresistible. Easter is by far the largest Sunday of the year. Why not launch groups from the largest crowd you’ll see all year? You might not see them again until Christmas.
But, there are three group killers after Easter: June, July and August. Why start groups in the Spring only to watch them die out over the Summer? It seems they would have a better chance of survival in the Fall.
I have to admit this is exactly what I used to think about launching groups off of Easter, but I had a change of heart once I discovered ways to sustain 80 percent of those new Spring groups in the Fall. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other factor here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
The first time we launched groups in the Spring, we gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday ofOctober. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
If your groups were launched with a video-based curriculum, you should offer another video-based curriculum as a next step. This could be your next church-wide campaign or a curriculum about how to be a small group. Over the years, I’ve challenged churches to create their own new group curriculum, but no one has taken me up on it so far. I decided to make this easier for you. I have written a new study called Community: Starting a Healthy Group which comes with the video scripts for you to record your own videos! (Releases March 30, 2019).
Whatever you choose, offer a next step to your groups and most will continue.
2. Very Few People Take the Entire Summer Off.
Only a handful of folks spend the entire summer at the beach. For the rest of us, chances are we will miss more weekend services in the Summer than group meetings. Before the group hits Memorial Day ask everyone to bring their calendars. Then, find six dates during the Summer when the group can meet. You might choose a six session study or you might choose one of the options below.
The six dates probably won’t fit neatly in a row, but that’s okay. Even if the group can only meet once per month, it’s a great way to stay connected to group life, even if you don’t have a formal group meeting.
3. Summer is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
You will find more neighbors outdoors during the Summer than any other time of year. With longer days and kids out of school, why not host a neighborhood block party with your group? Roll the barbecue grill out onto your driveway to grill a few hot dogs. Rent an inflatable bounce house for the kids. Bring plenty of lawn chairs. Maybe even have a little music. Invite everybody.
People will wonder by and join in before you know it. This is a great way to meet your neighbors, and maybe even invite them to your group. By putting the party in the front yard rather than the backyard, neighbors will come and see what’s going on.
4. Get Your Group Outside.
Group discussions don’t work so well outside. The neighbors haven’t agreed to confidentiality for what they hear over the backyard fence. Outdoor Bible studies usually don’t work, but there are plenty of other reasons to go outside.
Who does your group know who needs help? Plan a service day and help a neighbor. They don’t need to ask the church office, or even inform the church. They just need to look around and get to work.
Experiencing life together in a different setting will add depth and richness to your group. Once everyone sees the group in action, the dynamic of your meetings and studies will become dramatically different.
Summer shouldn’t be the death of small groups. In fact, June, July and August can breathe new life into both new and existing groups. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, Summer could become the best time of year for group life.
I must admit. I’ve never had a one night stand. But, I have offered them in a way over the years to the church.
Here’s what I’m getting at — church events are often one night stands, so to speak. These are conferences and seminars, retreats and even worship services. You get people all pumped up. You move people to a decision or commitment. People leave filled with hope only to run directly into real life. Decision is the first step to making a change, but change requires further steps to actually happen.
A classic example is the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990’s. The dynamic of bringing tens of thousands of men together in a stadium was truly inspiring. Every man pledged to be a better husband, father, brother, and son…and they really wanted to. I really wanted to. Before long, Promise Keepers inevitably became promise breakers. There were some exceptions. The issue centered around the lack of a plan. There was no next step for the men to take in order to keep those promises. This isn’t just my observation. This is the conclusion Randy Phillips, the former president of Promise Keepers, reached.
Should churches stop doing events?
Events are powerful. Women’s conferences, Men’s retreats, Marriage conferences, worship services — all of these things can be powerful catalysts for life change — but events alone do not produce transformation. Every dieter and debtor can attest to this.
Imagine the wife who has been longing for her marriage to improve. Her husband decides they should attend the church’s marriage conference. They have a great weekend. He aspires to be the godly husband she needs. She pledges to be the godly wife. The conference ends and things are different for a little while. Eventually, old patterns and routines begin to emerge. While they aspired for more, they are programmed for less. The marriage conference didn’t produce lasting change. In fact, it produced a great deal of frustration for both husband and wife.
To answer the question — if churches offer only standalone events with no next steps, then they should stop doing events. Decisions without deliberate steps lead to defeat.
Turn Wishful Thinking into Willful Action
For every event a church plans, you must ask the question: What’s the next step? Decisions without steps and support lead to discouragement and failure. This is why so many people in your church are faking it — they don’t want anyone to know that they aren’t as together as they appear. They know what they’re supposed to be. They’re just not that good. None of us are, really.
You may not have any influence over what events are offered at your church, but you are not helpless. Look at every event, every retreat, every conference, and every service as an opportunity to offer a next step. What is your church promoting right now?
A financial series — offer Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.
A marriage conference — Does the speaker have a book or a study to start groups?
A parenting seminar — Start groups with parents at various stages.
A weekend service — Create a sermon discussion guide (maybe with a short video).
You get the picture.
If you are responsible for these events, then you can insist on a next step. If you’re not, then you could certainly recommend one, and even offer to run it.
Is your church offering spiritual one night stands? If you are not capitalizing on the decisions and momentum of an event to create groups for lasting change, then you are squandering a great opportunity (and frustrating your people). Aren’t you ready to see lasting change?
You know that you need to train your leaders. The problem is half empty training meetings and leaders who are just difficult to reach. How do you train people who will never show up?
Your leaders like most people are inundated with information that further complicates their marginless lives. It’s probably all they can do just to lead a group. I’m not saying this is right. Unfortunately, this is your reality.
I graduated from seminary believing my purpose in life was to conduct meetings. When I started leader training meetings, most would attend. But, over time, the numbers dwindled. In fact, some days I would stand in an empty meeting room shortly after the start time. I would listen to the crickets and question the call of God on my life. Then, one day I had a realization – people hate meetings. But, how do you train your leaders if they don’t want to attend meetings? This led to a new question.
What is Training?
Maybe like me, you equated training with meetings. But, if your people won’t come to meetings, then how do you train them? You have to think outside of meetings.
You can train your leaders through conversations, blog posts, short videos, text messages, coaching, Facebook, and many other methods. You have to push the training out to them. If they won’t come to you, then go to them.
What Do They Want to Learn?
Your leaders don’t all need to know the same things at the same time. While it would be great to think you can equip your leaders by supplying them with answers to all of the questions and issues they will ever face in their groups, the reality is that leaders are only interested in solutions to the problems they are currently facing. The more your training is customized to the leaders’ needs, the more meaningful and memorable your training will be.
How Do You Know What Your Leaders Need to Know?
How Do You Deliver Individualized Training to Each Leader When They Need It?
Let me back up for a minute. There is some general training that you should deliver to all of your leaders live and in-person to get them started. All of your leaders should have an understanding of what it means to lead a group in your church and the basics of group dynamics. This should happen once during your on-boarding process.
Beyond that, give specific answers to specific issues. Use technology to deliver training that your leaders can access at any time. Whether you use Facebook Live or Youtube, push out short videos to your group leaders on relevant topics (answer the questions they are asking). You’ll need to archive these videos in some way so that if your group leaders don’t have an overly talkative person in their group today, then they’ll have access to the training when that person shows up in their group. You can do the same by writing and categorizing blog posts. You can even offer some training meetings – at the church, over Zoom, or even on a conference line. Whatever format you use, record and archive the content for future use.
In my church in California, I bought two cases of Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book, Making Small Groups Work. It’s an outstanding book, and it’s still in print. I gave a copy to every one of my leaders for future reference. You could do the same thing with my book, Leading Healthy Groups, which is based on questions that my group leaders asked me. You could even use my book as content for your training videos.
Lastly, there is no adequate substitute for a coach. The best training is delivered by the person who is the most proximate to the leader when a problem occurs. The key is the relationship. Proximity trumps knowledge every time. The coach may not have the best answer, but if they can deliver a good answer in a timely way, then the leader is served well.
You may find that training leaders is difficult, but it is necessary. The key to equipping busy leaders is to provide training that is proximate, timely, and relevant. The good news with a variety of formats you can reach all of your leaders. You have to choose to move away from ineffective means of training, and maybe try something new. Don’t get stuck in a power struggle over meeting attendance. Take it to them.
How are you effectively training your leaders? Leave your comments below.