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Four Decisions Wise Small Group Pastors Make Once

You know the decisions you have to make every time you turn around?  The decisions that seem almost forced upon you in moments of weakness?  The decisions that catch you off guard and lead you to agree to things you don’t really want to do?

I think all of us could make a quick list of decisions we’ve made that we immediately (or eventually) regretted.  All of us.

Some of us, though, have learned from the consequences and decided to never make that mistake again.

Here are four decisions wise small group pastors make once:

  1. Prioritize launching new groups over adding members to existing groups.  This is such an important decision!  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, launching new groups must be a high priority.  Wise small group pastors decide to focus their energy on strategies that launch more new groups.  They also decide to train existing group leaders to fish for new members.  See also, Critical Decision: Launch New Groups vs Add Members to Existing Groups and Skill Training: Top 10 Ways to Find New Group Members.
  2. Step down from the role of matchmaker.  Your time and energy (and your team’s time and energy) is better devoted to higher priority aspects of small group ministry.  Taking sign-ups to join a small group sets in motion the time and energy draining activity of finding the best group for each member.  The larger the sign-up, the more difficult the role of matchmaker becomes.  Instead of spending time and energy matchmaking, wise small group pastors decide to stop taking sign-ups to join a group and start taking sign-ups to attend an event that launches new groups (i.e., a small group connection or GroupLink type event).  See also, What’s the Best Way for People to Sign Up and Commit to a Group?
  3. Never recruit new coaches. Always recruit “helpers”.  Wise small group pastors understand that it is much harder to get someone out of a role than into a role.  This is true whether the role is a staff position or a volunteer position.  When you recruit some to be a small group coach (without observing them in action first) you set up the potential for a difficult conversation.  Wise small group pastors decide to engage potential new coaches in a test-drive first and decide whether coaching is a good fit based on fruitfulness and fulfillment.  “We’re launching some new groups this fall and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to walk alongside 1 or 2 newbie small groups leaders for their first 6 to 10 weeks?”  See also, Three Keys to a Coaching Tune-Up and Recruiting Additional Coaches for Church-Wide Campaigns.
  4. Invest time and energy in the right things.  There are many things that must be done by somebody that aren’t the best way for a small group pastor to spend their time and energy.  Wise small group pastors spend their time doing a few simple but vital things.  (a) Identifying, recruiting and developing leaders of leaders (coaches).  They understand that whatever you want to happen in the lives of group members must happen first in the lives of group leaders and whatever you want to happen in the lives of group leaders must happen first in the lives of small group coaches.  (b) Planning an annual series of group launching and leader development strategies.  And (c), developing an effective partnership with their senior pastor (i.e., the small group champion).  See also, The 7 Biggest Problems Facing Small Group Pastors and What Some Small Group Pastors Know…that Others Don’t.

What do you think?   Have a question?  Have one to add?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry

Wrestling with questions like, “Are we really making disciples?”  Or maybe, “Where are the mature disciples?”  I want to suggest that while those are valid questions, they might not be the most helpful questions.  In addition, asking the right questions is essential if you want to discover discover the best solutions.

W. Edwards Deming said, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”   Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The questions you ask determine whether you arrive at the discovery you seek.  The questions you ask determine whether you arrive at the best solution.

6 essential questions about making disciples and small group ministry

  1. What is a disciple?  This is a foundational question.  The answer to this question will inform what your next questions should be.  I find two Dallas Willard quotes helpful on this.  First, “As a disciple I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.”   Not a bad definition.  And second, “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”  That is a very good end in mind, don’t you think?
  2. What is the best way to help the largest number of people to take a first step toward becoming a disciple (or a better disciple)?  When this is not the second question, or an early question, it’s easy to be led in a direction that does not scale (i.e., one-on-one discipleship, triad discipleship or groups with high entry requirements).  When you think steps, not programs, you determine to create steps that are easy, obvious, and strategic.  Let me add that the very best followup question is, “What would have to be true for that option to work?”  See also, How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium?
  3. How might we build a pathway that would help the largest number of people take next steps toward becoming better disciples?  A pathway is a series of next steps that lead in the direction of the destination.  I love Andy Stanley’s line, “Path, not intent, determines destination.”  Again, an excellent followup question is, “What would have to be true for that option to work?”  See also, 5 Main Causes of “Failure to Thrive” in Small Group Ministries.
  4. What are we not doing about making disciples that we should start doing right away?  Isn’t this an obvious question?  The absence of a sense of urgency about making disciples should make our dashboard light up with flashing lights and piercing alarms.  See also, Beware of the Lure of the Status Quo.
  5. What should we immediately stop doing in order to allow for the emergence of a better pathway?  Perpetuating an ineffective status quo is standing in the way of a better way.  Peter Drucker pointed out that, “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon.”  See also, Growth’s Counterintuitive First Step.
  6. What are the obstacles that keep the most people from taking a step toward becoming a better disciple?  This question is only slightly different than #5, but it is an important difference.  Designing an effective pathway requires the elimination of obstacles, barriers and stumbling blocks at the entrance and along the way (i.e., the first step is hidden or hard to find, the next step menu includes too many choices, etc.).  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

See also, Four Questions that Evaluate Small Group Model Effectiveness and Supercharge Your Ministry Impact with These 5 Questions.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Rick Warren on Building Great Relationships

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 6.34.57 PMIf you didn’t catch Rick Warren’s message this last weekend at Saddleback, you missed a truly amazing experience.  In a classic example of how to cast vision for the importance of small groups, Rick invited his own small group of 13 years to join him onstage and help deliver the message.

There are many, many great moments in the message.  I loved it when Rick said, “You’re not really going to feel like you’re part of Saddleback until you’re in a small group.  We have more people in small groups than we do at our weekend services.”

I’ve written about Rick as an Exhibit A example of a small group champion.  This is such an inside look at the real deal.  I wish all of you would take the time to watch the message and then pass it on to your senior pastor and every other influencer on your staff.  See also, The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Groups and Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.

If you haven’t seen this message, you’ve got to watch it.  It lasts about an hour, but there really is so much to learn and capture it is definitely worth the investment.  Just like me, you’ll be ready to watch it again right afterwards!  You can watch the message right here.

5 Moves that Will Help Your Small Group Ministry Get Unstuck

We are just stuck!  We’ve been at this level for over 2 years (or 5 years).  We can’t seem to break out of this rut.  We add 10 new groups and lose 12.  We finally recruit enough coaches to care for new leaders only to have them drop out after one semester.  Our small group ministry is just stuck!

“Our small group ministry is stuck” is one of the most common concerns I hear from small group pastors and senior pastors about small group ministry.  “How can we get unstuck?” is definitely one of the most common questions.

There are a number of moves you can make that will help get your small group ministry get unstuck.  None of these moves are painless or easy, but all of them will pay off.  The movement they bring will be worth the pain.

5 moves that will help your small group ministry get unstuck: 

  1. Evaluate the suitability of your current system or strategy.  Although it is true that there are no problem-free solutions (systems, models or strategies), underestimating the problems that come with the system you’ve chosen is often the root of the issue.  See also, Breaking: No Problem-Free Small Group System, Model or Strategy.
  2. Prioritize launching new groups over adding new members to existing groups.  It may seem to be a small thing, but this is actually a very powerful move.  Train existing group leaders to find new members and fill their own groups.  Focus your energy on launching new groups.  See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Start New Groups?
  3. Plan to sustain new groups into their 3rd study.  This is a very important move.  Launching new groups takes a lot of energy.  Launching new groups without doing the work necessary to sustain them is irresponsible and poor stewardship.  It is also a very common reason that many small group ministries are stuck.  If you want to make this move, you’ll choose the right next curriculum, you’ll assign a great coach out of the gate, and you’ll talk it up from the stage.  See also, 5 Keys to Sustaining New Groups.
  4. Evaluate and upgrade your coaching structure.  With few exceptions, most of the complaining that coaching does not work is done by pastors who have settled for available and willing instead of holding out for shaped and called.  If you want the members of your groups to have a good experience (i.e., if you want them to know they are loved, known, cared for, held accountable, forgiven, etc.), you must acknowledge that the leader must have that experience first.  Unless you have a lot of staff members or very few groups, you cannot provide that experience for your leaders.  You will have to provide it through a coaching structure (making an appropriate span of care possible).  See also, Diagnosis: The Coaches in Your System and 20 Frequently Asked Questions about Small Group Coaching.
  5. Trim your belonging and becoming menu.  Actions speak louder than words.  If you want to connect more people in groups, you must make joining a group an easy and obvious step.  Choices and options don’t make it easier to take next steps.  Choices and options make next steps harder.  Narrowing the focus to a single best step is a powerful move.  You may not be able to drastically eliminate all choices and options in one move, but you can reshape which are promoted (announcements, mentions, website, bulletins, etc.).  In addition, you may not be able to make sweeping changes in one move but you can begin to trim options (even if it is eliminating the weakest link this year).  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

How to Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry

I’ve written about the powerful benefits of a thriving small group ministry and the five easily overlooked secrets to building a thriving small group ministry.  But it turns out I’ve never written a how to guide.

  1. Thoughtfully (and honestly) diagnose the current state of your church.  Ask yourself the questions I ask when evaluating a small group ministry.  Determine your percentage connected and the complexity of your next step menu.  Without an accurate sense of where you are, you should not expect to make correct choices about how to get where you want to go.
  2. Determine what you hope to see happen in the lives of group members.  This, it turns out, is one of the most important questions you can answer.  The answer to this question tells you what you need to do to and for your leaders (the kinds of experiences you need to give them) and that should inform your understanding of the importance of coaching.
  3. Choose an appropriate small group system, model or strategy.  This is a critical decision.  An honest diagnosis of the current state of your church, coupled with clarity about what you hope to produce in the lives of group members, should inform your decision about the small group system that will get you where you want to go.  The most common cause of small group ministry failure to thrive is choosing an inadequate model.
  4. Allocate resources sufficient to the task.  If you thought steps one, two and three were hard…step four is going to make them seem like a piece of cake.  In order to build a thriving small group ministry you must allocate resources sufficient to the task.  That means you are going to need to make changes to the budget.  It probably means you’re going to need to REallocate your existing budget.  After all, most of us are not in a position to add significantly to the existing budget.  Further, you’re going to need to reallocate sufficient high-capacity volunteers.  You’re going to need to reallocate the events and ministries that are promoted in the weekend service.  You’re going to need to reallocate the space on your website.  I like what Carl George said about this very topic.  “Leaders allocate the finite resources of the organization to the critical growth path.”  See also, Budgeting for the Preferred Future.
  5. Keep one eye on the preferred future and the other on the very next milestone.  Building a thriving small group ministry is not a sprint.  It is a marathon.  It is not something you do in 12 months.  It is something you do in 12 years.  Staying the course; becoming better and better at building next steps that are easy, obvious and strategic; learning the very best way to connect unconnected people into groups that make disciples is an epic adventure.  It is a journey worth taking.  See also, Are We There Yet? Milestones that Lead to the Preferred Future.

Ready to get started?  I’ve included enough right here to get you moving in the right direction.  Need more help?  Take a look at Design, Build and Sustain a Thriving Small Group Ministry (my four session short course).  It may be just the thing to help you on your way to building a thriving small group ministry.

What do you think?  Have a question? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

What Some Small Group Pastors Know…that Others Don’t

There are a few things that all of us need to know.  Some of them are obvious (i.e., how to identify and recruit small group leaders, how to train leaders, etc.).  And some of what we need to know is just not obvious.  In fact, I think it’s very possible to function in the role of small group pastor for many years without ever catching the significance

All of us need to know these things:

  1. My primary customer is not the members or the leaders of existing groups.  If I want to connect beyond the usual suspects I have to look for ways to connect people no one else is connecting.  The loudest voices in my congregation will almost always be insiders (who are already connected).  Unconnected people have no one listening to them.  See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People and Three Keys to Connecting Beyond the Core and Committed.
  2. The window is always closing on certain unconnected people.  It may seem like next year will be a better time for starting new groups, but for certain unconnected people, right now is their best opportunity.  Next year will be too late.  This ought to influence my choice of small group model, who can be a leader, and how to determine which programs or strategies ought to be prioritized.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  3. The most effective small group champion is not me.  I may be the most passionate about small groups.  I may have the most personal experience with small groups.  But I am not the most effective small group champion.  My senior pastor is.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  4. I can’t take care of more than about 10 people.  Jethro’s point to Moses was that everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one can take care of more than (about) 10 people.  That’s why there need to be leaders of 10, leaders of 50, leaders of 100, and leaders of 1000 (Exodus 18).  If I want to build a thriving small group ministry where life-change happens at the member level, I need to invest in leaders of leaders (and sometimes in leaders of leaders of leaders).  And, whatever I want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first.  See also, Span of Care and Model What You Want to Happen at the Member Level.
  5. Some of the highest capacity leaders in my congregation won’t hear “well done” unless I invite them into the right role.  Helping high capacity leaders find the right seat on the bus might be one of my most important contributions.  When I read between the lines in the Parable of the Talents it is painfully clear that we each have been given an amount to invest and the amount is determined “according to ability.”  Isn’t it obvious that when someone is given certain capacity according to their ability there will be an accounting?  Could it be that some of the highest capacity people in our congregations are actually serving in a role where they cannot possibly hear “well done?”  See also, 5 Assumptions that Set Small Group Coaching Up to #Fail.
  6. There are unidentified leaders in the crowd that no one on my staff knows.  Once my church grows beyond about 250 it will become more and more difficult for my senior pastor and the other staff members to actually know everyone.  It will also become more and more likely that some of the very best potential leaders are sitting unidentified and their gifts unused every week.  If my strategy for finding and recruiting new leaders relies on tapping the shoulders of those I already know (or those who are already in a small group), I will probably miss out on many of the most capable leaders.  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System.
  7. The least connected people on the inside are the most connected on the outside.  This is a game-changing understanding that only certain small group pastors know.  When I am deeply connected with the members of my small group or serving team, I don’t have time to hang out with my neighbors (obviously, there are exceptions).  When I’m a face in the crowd in the auditorium and I slip in and out without anyone even knowing my name, I am much more likely to spend time with my neighbors, co-workers, and friends.  Want to reach your community?  Think about who you’re recruiting to lead groups.  See also, Do You Know This Game Changing Connection Secret?

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

My Most Intriguing and Haunting Takeaway from re:group

I don’t know about you, but I usually come away from a conference with lists of ideas to definitely try, statements to ponder and strategies to learn more about.  This year’s re:group conference was no exception.  I’ve got a notebook packed with underlined, starred and scratched out/rewritten takeaways.

I’ve already written about Yesterday’s Big Idea and Andy Stanley on “Matters of the Heart.”

My most intriguing and haunting takeaway:

Can I tell you what my most intriguing and haunting takeaway from re:group?  Here it is: The impact and growth of North Point’s small group ministry is the result of their development of a leadership culture.

I don’t actually have a note that I can find about it.  It’s more like a stream of consciousness recollection of hints caught here and there in both the main sessions and the breakouts I attended.

The impact and growth of North Point’s small group ministry is the result of their development of a leadership culture.

It’s intriguing to think that this is a not so secret ingredient that could be the missing ingredient for many of us.  It’s haunting to conclude that the absence of the development of a leadership culture could explain why so many small group ministries struggle with failure to thrive.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Yesterday’s Big Idea (Literally)

I think this is a big idea.  You might already be on to it, but it was big to me.

Usually, when I tell you about the latest and greatest idea it’s pretty well baked.  That is, we’ve already tested it or we’re about to tweak a strategy that we think you might like to know about.  Yesterday at Day 2 of re:group I heard something that I think connects a pretty important dot.  And I want to bring you along on the idea as it unfolds.

Here’s the scoop:

On Day 1 of re:group, in a breakout called “Clearing the Path for Community” by Chris Kim, we caught the idea of shaping the training that we do to center on the three stages of a small group leader:

  1. Relational leadership… think HOST and help create a safe place for people to start trusting.
  2. Developmental leadership… think CRUISE DIRECTOR and plan ahead with ideas to build ownership.
  3. Visionary leadership… think MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER and help group members want to multiply into more groups.

It was a comment that seemed to come out of nowhere and wasn’t in the notes, but we immediately thought, “What a concept!”

On Day 2 of re:group, in a breakout called, “Developing Leaders Who Lead Well” by Justin Elam, I caught a reference to 8 tactical essentials (think things you’d want a leader to know at certain stages along their journey).  Here’s what I wrote down:

Stage One:  Cultivate Relationships and Promote Participation.

Stage Two: Stay Connected, Provide Care, Serve Together, and Celebrate Change.

Stage Three: Replace Yourself and End Well.

Remember, adults learn on a need to know basis.  Don’t these tactical essentials feel like things adults will want to know when they’re at these stages?

*Chris Kim probably had another term for a beginner leader, but I missed it.

Andy Stanley on “Matters of the Heart”

I am at re:group today.  Yesterday’s main session was so good and so important I thought I’d better let you in on one of my most important takeaways.

In Andy Stanley’s main session to start the conference, he used a series of statements to make a point that all of us–every single one of us–need to know.  Not only do we all need to know this, we all need to figure out more and better ways to use this knowledge to persuade everyone to get connected.

"Community is not optional. It is critical. What you do is not optional. It is critical." Andy Stanley

Andy built the premise for the talk with a set of 5 statements and then told the story of David and Bathsheba to illustrate the idea.

Here are the statements:

A small group is a voluntary structured relationship designed to address matters of the heart.

We avoid matters of the heart in spite of the fact that heart matters matter most.

Matters of the heart determine our relational satisfaction quotient.

Matters of the heart only get dealt with in trusted relationships (or with a professional counselor who costs a lot of money).

We resist most what we need most for the relationships that matter most.

Here is the essence of the story:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army” (2 Samuel 11).

Andy told the story with another series of statements.  Here are two of the most important.

David permanently undermined his credibility and moral authority with his adult children.

David got into trouble when he isolated himself from the community of men to whom he was most accountable.


We, who are working hard to build a culture of small groups in our churches, have a mission that is critical.  We must keep working to help connect unconnected people who are one tough thing away from never being at our churches again.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People.

I loved Andy’s closing words.  Speaking to a room full of small group pastors and leaders, he said, “Community is not optional.  It is critical.  What you do is not optional.  It is critical.”

5 Main Causes of “Failure to Thrive” in Small Group Ministry

Failure to thrive is a term used primarily in pediatric medicine “to indicate insufficient weight gain or inappropriate weight loss.”

Because I write so often about building a thriving small group ministry, failure to thrive seemed like a good term for a small group ministry that struggles or where growth is stunted or blocked.  There is a short list of primary causes for a small group ministry that has a failure to thrive.

Here are the 5 main causes I’ve identified for failure to thrive:

  1. An inadequate model: This underlying cause of failure to thrive is rarely diagnosed.  If one of the marks of a thriving small group ministry is an increasing percentage connected, certain small group ministry models struggle with the catch a moving train syndrome and simply cannot keep up with demand.  One of the main symptoms of an inadequate model is a constant inability to find enough leaders.  Another symptom is an inability to develop leaders who are more than hosts.  See also, How to Choose the Right Small Group System or Strategy and You Know You Have the Right Small Group System When…
  2. The wrong person in the role of small group champion: This is very commonly the cause of failure to thrive but is often misdiagnosed.  Read incorrectly the symptoms may indicate the small group pastor is not up to the task when in reality, small group ministry struggles are due to the senior pastor’s resistance to accepting the role of small group champion.  The role of small group champion cannot be delegated away from the senior pastor.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.
  3. A poorly designed and/or defined next step pathway: For a small group ministry to thrive, it must be an easy and attractive next step for unconnected people.  Along with being easy and attractive it must be an obvious step.  When there is no defined next step pathway (when it is not clear what to do next), indecision will be the most common response.   step pathway is poorly designed, there will be a lack of interest on the part of unconnected people.  When the nextSee also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #3: Indecision about the Best Next Step.
  4. Small group participation is seen as a helpful elective: A very common cause of failure to thrive in a small group ministry is hesitation about declaring group participation as an essential ingredient.  When attending the worship service is seen as the main thing and participating in a small group is seen as a nice extra thing, you should expect failure to thrive.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, group participation must be consistently declared an essential ingredient (i.e., consistently in the worship service by the senior pastor, on the website, in the bulletin, etc.).  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group Ministry.
  5. Small group model fatigue: Building a thriving small group ministry takes time and a long commitment to a strategy.  Once you’ve chosen an adequate model (see cause #1) you must stay the course over a number of years.  When a new model is proposed after every conference attended or book read, small group model fatigue sets in.  Churches with thriving small group ministries are examples of churches with long term commitment to a single small group model or strategy. See also, 5 Easily Overlooked Secrets to Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

What do you think?  Have something to add?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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