5 Essential Practices of Thriving Small Group Ministries

5 Essential Practices of Thriving Small Group Ministries

Building a thriving small group ministry requires  a certain mindset. It also requires the development of a very particular set of practices.

You must have both.

You can have the mindset (the worldview, the belief system, the assumptions, the attitudes) alone and not be able to build a thriving small group ministry.

You can have the practices alone and not have what it takes to persevere at building a thriving small group ministry.

What are the practices you must master in order to build a thriving small group ministry?

I believe there are at least 5 essential practices:

Thriving small group ministries understand the needs and interests of unconnected people.

Building a thriving small group ministry requires a deep understanding of unconnected people. It requires the ability to empathize with a large population who don’t yet have your mindset.

There are people in your congregation (and in your crowd and community) who are predisposed to be connected. They connect without any prompting or suggestion. In fact, they will move toward community even when there is no intentionality on the part of the church.

Unconnected people usually don’t have that predisposition. While there are exceptions (i.e., new to the community, newly divorced or widowed, etc.), most unconnected people often don’t easily respond to standard invitations to connect.

At the same time, unconnected people almost always have interests and needs that will pull them toward community. Practicing empathy and learning to think like unconnected people is an essential skill if you want to build a thriving small group ministry.

See also, Could Our Lack of Empathy Be Limiting Our Ministry Impact?

Thriving small group ministries streamline the path to connection.

Follow me carefully on this one.

Since building a thriving small group ministry requires connecting a large number of people who lack the motivation to overcome great barriers to connection, if you want to build a thriving small group ministry you must become an expert at making it easy to get connected.

Can you see it?

You must become an expert at making it easy to get connected.

The practice of streamlining the path doesn’t seem to come naturally to everyone, but it is a skill-set that can be developed. Carefully evaluating and diagnosing your church’s first steps out of the auditorium is a beginning. Learning to spot less-than-obvious disconnects is a skill that can be acquired.

The practice of streamlining the path requires both the ability to see disconnects and design (and implement) a better path. Designing a better path may require experimentation and a willingness (and even permission) to fail forward.

See also, How to Design Next Steps and First Steps.

Thriving small group ministries prioritize the identification of new leaders and the launch of new groups.

If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you must learn to prioritize the right things. The tendency of most small group pastors is to prioritize the needs of existing group leaders and the interests of already connected people.

Prioritizing the needs of existing group leaders comes at the expense of connecting beyond the usual suspects.

Better to focus your attention on strategies that identify new leaders and launch new groups (while training your coaches to care for and develop group leaders).

See also, Are You Prioritizing the Launch of New Groups?

Thriving small group ministries care for and develop leaders via a healthy span of care.

This practice is counterintuitive for many small group pastors. We often come predisposed to believe that our primary role and responsibility is to care for and develop each of the group leaders in our ministry when the truth is, just like Moses (see Exodus 18), our responsibility is to ensure that they are cared for and developed.

It may be that the greatest challenge in building a thriving small group ministry is the persistent and concurrent development of a healthy span of care.

I am often asked, “What should be done first? Prioritize identifying new leaders and launching new groups or build an effective coaching structure to care for the leaders?”

It is always a “snatch the pebbles from my hand, Grasshopper” moment, as the correct answer is, “Both must happen at the same time.”

You cannot build a thriving small group ministry without developing the essential practice of developing a healthy span of care.

See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders

Thriving small group ministries invest in leaders (and leaders of leaders).

Investing in leaders (and leaders of leaders) is not a nice extra thing to do when we have time and a budget surplus. It is an essential practice.

How should we invest in them? Providing a healthy span of care is a non-negotiable, but is only the beginning. Training experiences can be helpful. Status recognition meets certain needs. Time and attention, especially from your senior pastor and other senior leaders, is rarely provided but might be the most important investment you can make.

If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you must develop the practice of investing in leaders (and leaders of leaders).

See also, 5 Ways Senior Pastors Can Affirm the Value of Small Group Leaders.

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  • Jason P. Franklin

    I’m fairly new to your site. I’ve read the phrase, “healthy span of care” in several of your posts, but if you’ve provided a clear description of what you mean, I’ve missed it. Maybe I missed that article.

    I am a pastor of very little brain. Could you either expound on exactly what you mean or point me to the article where the catch phrase is unpacked?

  • Mark Howell

    Hi Jason! Great question! “Span of care” is a reference to Carl George’s keen insight into caring for and developing leaders (i.e., everyone needs to be cared for by somebody, but nobody can care for more than 10). In Exodus 18 Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, makes the same point.