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Ministry is more decentralized than ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, many of the things you typically count on to monitor the health and activity of small groups aren’t functioning at their optimal level. How can you know what’s going on with your groups when your “dashboard” has short circuited?
Don’t Just Hope It Works.
If you launched a lot of new online groups in the last year or moved your established groups online, then your reporting system is probably not functioning quite as well as you’d like. But, if you are depending on a report to know what’s going on in your groups, you’re already in the weeds.
In-person leader meetings aren’t happening and online leader training is poorly attended. While it’s great to see everyone’s face, meetings are okay at dispensing information, but you still don’t know what’s going on in your groups.
Some have basically given up. They are hoping that one way or another, groups will survive the pandemic and come out okay. The truth is what you don’t know will hurt you.
Where Do Online Groups Need Help?
Your group leaders are facing issues they’ve never faced before. The stress of the global pandemic, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and political chaos has taken a toll. Overall mental health is precarious. Your group leaders may or may not be equipped to handle what they’re facing.
The sheer numbers of issues coming up among your people are too much for you to manage alone. You need a level of leadership between you and your leaders. This doesn’t mean becoming aloof to your leaders’ needs. It means that you have very quickly become stretched too thin. It’s time to bring in the reinforcements! Which of your established leaders could help you carry the load and care for your group leaders?
What’s the Next Step for Your Online Groups?
Where are you leading your online groups? Are they just a stop-gap until the pandemic ends? There is more potential in your temporary, online groups that you realize.
If people have stepped forward to lead a short-term online group with their friends, they have essentially self-identified as a potential group leader. If they are leading an egroup, book group, or something else that you’ve come up with, then give them the next step into small group leadership. But, don’t make the step too big. (If you haven’t launched short-term online groups, then start promoting now and launch “egroups” for the 30 days prior to Easter, which is the Lenten season.)
As I talk to pastors every day, churches and small groups are faced with very different restrictions and regulations depending on their region of the country. Even if churches and groups aren’t limited in meeting, some of your members may be avoiding physical contact out of an abundance of caution. People need connection and conversation. Use this season to experiment. Tell them you’re only doing this “because of COVID.” For every group that is divided over meeting in-person or online, start two groups. Then, give them a next step.
Give the group a study or a sermon discussion guide to use after Easter. Most short-term groups disband because they aren’t invited to continue. (That isn’t rocket science, but it sure took a long time for some of us to figure out.)
Give the “leaders” of these temporary groups a next step into training. Start by inviting them to your basic training (I recommend Steve Gladen’s Small Group Leader Training kit, which is completely customizable.)
The link to successfully getting new groups launched and to help them continue is a coach who will encourage and instruct the leaders as they need help. You can’t host the meetings you used to. You can’t personally check in on dozens or hundreds of new leaders. You can’t write off these short-term groups and hope things get back to normal.
You have an amazing opportunity to grow your small group ministry in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Many of the other ministries in your church which might have competed for the same leaders and group members have been postponed or shut down. Nothing has cleared the deck of church activities like COVID. This is your opportunity. Assess your established leaders to recruit coaches. Ask your senior pastor to promote “egroups.” Then, buckle up!
For a Complete Guide to Coaching: the Coaching Exponential Groups course.
COVID has done a lot of things in 2020. The pandemic has caused people to lose their jobs and pivot their business trajectories. It has created economic uncertainty for many and fueled political polarization. COVID has caused people to rethink what they do and how they do it. It’s done a lot of things, but COVID didn’t break your small group ministry.
That doesn’t mean that small groups haven’t suffered in 2020. Groups have suffered Zoom Fatigue. Group members have become overwhelmed by working at home while their children are doing school online. Or even more stressful, group members are in health care or other essential work and face the tragedies of the pandemic every day on top of everything else. Sometimes it’s hard to gather a group meeting in-person or online. But, while some churches are seeing a decrease in small groups, others are increasing their groups by 50-211% in 2020. Here is what I’m seeing:
Groups that Broke Were Already Breaking
Like most things in 2020, the businesses that went bankrupt were already on a downward slide. That restaurant you never frequented went out of business. That place you rarely shopped had to close their doors. Century-old institutions like JCPenney filed for bankruptcy when it was once the king of mail order. Do you see the irony there?
Similarly, your groups that struggled the most in 2020 were struggling before. This is not to place blame, but it is a wakeup call. If all of your groups had ended when the pandemic hit, then you could blame the pandemic. But, when you look at the groups that have struggled this year, what was particular about them that caused them to end? What was the quality of their relationships? What was the group’s level of commitment? Were you aware of how the group was struggling?
I don’t mean to blame the group. People have faced devastating circumstances in 2020. But, the groups that fell apart already had cracks in their relationships. When things got harder, the group got worse. For those who didn’t connect with the group regularly, they just disappeared. For leaders who didn’t regularly check up on their group members outside of the group meeting, relationships continued to fray. The bottom line is what held the group together previously wasn’t sufficient to keep the group together during a crisis.
If It Was Hard for You to Connect with Leaders Before…
…Then trying to connect with group leaders during 2020 has seemed nearly impossible. Churches as a whole have depended far too much on the weekend service as a place for connection, discipleship, evangelism, worship, and everything else. The church is more than a worship service. This year has demonstrated that more clearly than ever. Yet by relying on chance meetings in the lobby with group leaders to take the temperature of groups is an insufficient measure of the health of groups anyway. Once that was gone, small group pastors began to realize how little connection they had with their groups.
The churches who have communicated best with their leaders in 2020 have a coaching structure in place. They never relied on leader meetings, reports, or lobby conversations to gauge the health of their groups. Coaches are the glue that holds these small group ministries together. If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know I’m a huge advocate for coaching. Here’s why.
It would be easy to assume that the solution for connecting with leaders will come in six months or so when everything is back to normal and you can go back to bumping into your leaders in the lobby. If you don’t hear anything else in this post, please here this: COVID didn’t kill the communication with your leaders. The lack of a coaching structure was already working against you. You didn’t have as much of a grasp on the health of your groups that you thought you did. If your leaders aren’t calling you back, there is a problem, but this problem didn’t just happen.
You don’t need a coaching structure to prepare for the next national crisis. (Let’s hope there isn’t one soon). You need a coaching structure for the health of your groups and the benefit of your leaders. If you are personally trying to coach more than eight leaders, you are beyond your capacity already. Get started on your coaching structure ASAP!
If It was Hard to Train Your Leaders Before…
…Training feels nearly impossible now. Whether you’re attempting to gather leaders in-person or online, it’s hard to get people together. But, the reality is that it was hard to get everyone to training before.
Years ago, a pastor asked me why I thought his leaders didn’t attend his training meetings. I told him it was because his training was boring and irrelevant. He was more than a little offended and shot back with “How would you know? You’ve never been to my training.” I told him I knew because that’s why my leaders didn’t attend my training meetings – they were boring and irrelevant.
Training that works is centered around what small group leaders tell you they need. Otherwise, to attempt to train all of the leaders together will result in either being over the heads of new leaders or taking experienced leaders back to Kindergarten. Poll your leaders and ask them what they’re dealing with, then select three topics and publish the agenda for your next training meeting. Better yet, create two-minute videos with training on each of those topics and send them out to your leaders. You don’t need a meeting at all.
In both coaching and training, it’s best to determine the least amount of structure needed to keep your leaders and groups healthy and to help them succeed. Now, by “least amount of structure” I don’t mean you doing it by yourself. You don’t want a structure that’s too cumbersome, but you do need something that’s flexible and scalable.
If It was Hard to Track Your Groups Before…
…It’s doubly hard to get reports from your groups now. COVID didn’t break your report-taking. The disruption to the normal pattern of ministry has revealed the weakness in regular reporting and your group metrics. Nobody’s report-taking is perfect. There are always those group leaders who will never complete a report. If they’re good at relationships and bad at reporting, then consider yourself blessed.
If group leaders aren’t task-oriented and won’t complete reports, then designate someone else in the group to give a report. Use a database like ChurchTeams.com that sends report reminders automatically and notifies you when reports are completed.
Reports are only one metric. If you’re waiting for a report to understand the health of your groups, then you’re already in the weeds. This is why coaching is so important.
The stresses of 2020 have revealed many weaknesses in small group ministry. That’s a good thing, because now you know what you need to work on. When COVID subsides, don’t expect your prior small group ministry to just snap back into place. The problems will still be there.
Make a plan and begin to work on the weaknesses in your ministry now. Build a coaching structure. Align your metrics. Make your training more relevant. Deepen your leaders and your groups. Once you have these things in place, your small groups will be stronger for it.
By Allen White
I learned the hard way that coaches help launch more groups.
One church I served had a weekly average adult attendance of 800. During our third launch in Fall 2004, we start 103 small groups. Those were pretty amazing numbers. In the middle of that series, I sent out a survey to determine how many of those groups would continue. I was hoping for at least 80 percent moving forward.
The results came back: 70 percent would continue with 30 percent ending. These were not the results I wanted or expected, so I sent a survey to the 30 leaders who were ending their groups. The response was startling. Out of the 30 leaders, only two leaders had actually led a group for the six week series. The other 28 groups had never started. This lead me to a very important principle:
Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.
It’s almost a proverb, isn’t it? It might deserve a needlepoint cushion.
Why didn’t the groups start? The new leaders got cold feet. Some of them were rejected by the people they invited. Some had good intentions starting out, then life just got in the way.
They didn’t miss the boat. I missed the boat. So, we did something new, immediately.
On the next campaign, we added 32 new groups to the 73 groups that continued from the Fall for a total of 105 groups. Every new leader met an experienced leader who would coach them at our New Leader Briefing. Their “coach” called them every week starting after the briefing through the end of the series. When they had a setback, the coach encouraged them. When they had a question, the coach gave them an answer. All of these groups started and most of them continued.
How many new groups are you starting? Divide that number by two. That’s how many coaches you need. One experienced leader for every two new groups. The experienced leaders are still leading their own group, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Then recruit experienced leaders to help the new leaders get started. And, they will start.
Where do you find these experienced leaders to coach? Make a list of your best leaders. Pray over the list. Then, invite them like this: “We are going to be completely inundated with new leaders. Our coaching structure is completely overwhelmed. I NEED YOUR HELP.” That is a very compelling invitation that will get a “Yes.”
At the risk of overstating my point, it is Mission Critical to have someone calling your new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” to starting a group until the study starts. More groups will end in that window than at any other time.
Start making your list right now.
By Allen White
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.
The only thing harder is not having one.