Small Group Leaders: Finding, Recruiting, Developing

One of the most common questions in small group ministry is how do I find enough leaders? Right on it’s heels are two other very common questions:

  • How do I recruit leaders (once I’ve identified them)?
  • How do I develop leaders (once they’ve been recruited)?

How Do I Find and Recruit Enough Leaders? This is a very common question.  I’ve asked it.  You’ve asked it.  Here are a few of the best ways to find leaders:

  1. The easiest way to find leaders is the Connection strategy.  You’ll find a four part series on how to do it right here.  The key to its effectiveness is that the Connection identifies leaders at the event.  Especially in a growing church or church with a lot of new or unknown attendees, this is a huge advantage.  In my experience, once a church is larger than about 300 adults it reaches a stage where there are attendees that are recognized by sight (maybe even by name), but their ministry experience, work experience, and leadership potential is unknown.  The Connection strategy will help you find the leaders you need.
  2. The HOST strategy is another great way to find potential leaders.  Best used with a church wide campaign (like One Month to Live, Live Like You Were Dying or Life’s Healing Choices), the HOST strategy allows you to recruit potential leaders from beyond the core.  If your whole leader identification strategy has been to tap the usual suspects…you need to shift your focus to the people you don’t know as well.  HOST will help you do that.  Important: Many churches believe they have tried the HOST idea, but unless you’ve made the ask this way you’ve only used an unreasonable facsimile.
  3. Ask your existing groups to consider taking a small group vacation.  Many small group systems or strategies have an apprenticing concept built in (i.e., every leader needs to be developing an apprentice who will one day leave to start their own group).  There are a couple challenges with the apprenticing idea.  First, it instills the notion that it happens over time.  If you need leaders now, strategies that might produce more leaders in 18 months are little consolation.  Second, many groups are full of people that really ought to be leading a group.  Identifying one as an apprentice allows the others who ought to be leading to breathe a sigh of relief as they all point to the apprentice!  The essence of the take a small group vacation idea is that the whole group agrees not to meet as a group during a church wide campaign.  Instead of meeting together they pair up and help launch multiple new groups.  Read more right here.
  4. Well down the list of strategies to find new leaders is the turbo group idea.  This has been around for years and is essentially an invitation for potential leaders to join a group led by an experienced leader with the expectation that at the end of the study they will each launch their own group.  It works best if there is some exclusivity to the invitation.  That is, the turbo group is led by someone it would be appealing to rub shoulders with.  Additionally, this is a limited duration group (8 to 12 weeks) that uses a study chosen as a way of modeling how to lead.  Once the group begins, members of the group take turns leading the group under the supervision of the leader.

In the next article I’ll cover several strategies for developing leaders.  You can read it right here.  If you’re not set up to automatically get the update…you can do that easily right here.

Resolve To Become An Innovator

Do you have what it takes to be really effective at small group ministry?  Like anything else there are a number of ingredients to this kind of effectiveness.  I really think you’ve got to be a learner.  You can be an introvert but it really helps to be a relational person.  After all, it’s important that you’re modeling what you want others to reproduce.  It makes a big difference to be strategic.  There really is a good, better and best time to do everything.

Those are just a few things you need to be really effective at small group ministry.  It’s not just one thing.

In fact, I think there’s one more thing that is really, really important if you want to be effective at small group ministry.  I think you’ve got to be at least a little bit of an innovator.  I don’t mean that you have to come up with ideas like the small group connection or the HOST strategy.  That kind of crazy, extraordinary innovation is only in a very few brains.  But you do need to be an innovator.  Here’s what I mean.

An innovator looks for ways to improve the performance of whatever they’re doing.  That happens when you’re observant and ready to thoughtfully tweak the ordinary pattern.  Let me talk about both.

Be Observant

Albert Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Great line.  A very true line.  And yet…aren’t many of us guilty of running a strategy the same way over and over again and remaining disappointed in the results?

Being observant comes into play when you watch what happens and note the results.  You might even jot down the specifics of your promotion, the set-up of the room, the exact personnel that you used to pull off the event, and the follow-up you used.

Once you’ve accumulated all of this information you might even pull together a small team to thoughtfully sift through the data looking for any angles that could explain what happened.  Be sure to write down their observations.  This is the time to gather insight.

Thoughtfully Tweak the Ordinary Pattern

Once you’ve carefully examined what happened last time (what Jim Collins referred to as an autopsy without blame) it’s time to make a tweak or two of the normal pattern to see if you can improve the outcome.  Don’t be content to repeat the event the same way.  Instead, look for ways to innovate and improve it.

The Secret to Being an Innovator

The secret to being an innovator is to do the above…and then repeat the process.  Much like shampoo, rinse, and repeat…becoming an innovator is a continual process.  It’s an every time process.  And you can do it.

Resolve To Be A Student

What was the last book you read that was a little outside your field? What was the last conference you attended or talk you listened to that was not quite on the topic of choice? Who’d you buy coffee for last that has an expertise that’s different from yours?

If you’ve been reading, if you’ve been listening to podcasts, if you’ve been buying coffee for people you could learn from…then you’re probably a learner. If you had to admit that it’s been a while since you did any of those things…you’re probably in trouble and don’t even know it.

Of course, the truth is that you’ve got to be some kind of learner or you wouldn’t be reading this! But if you’re reading here, then I’m assuming you’re interested in sharpening your group life skills and understanding. Still, I want to encourage you to read broadly, listen broadly, and rub shoulders broadly.

Whether curiosity killed the cat or not I don’t know. What I do know is that only curious people are learners and only learners have breakout and breakthrough ideas.

How To Get Started

If you answered no to my questions above, here are some ideas that will help you jump-start your learning engine.

Here’s the key: In everything you do, whether you’re reading, listening to a podcast or talking with someone you’re just getting to know…be a learner. Jot down insights, thoughts to follow up on later, other books to read or talks that are mentioned. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll begin to notice ways that ideas from outside your expertise will suddenly appear relevant.

The Summit: A Convergence of Small Group Experts

If you haven’t heard about The Summit: A Convergence of Small Group Experts, now is the time to jump in and register.  This FREE 90 minute online event features many of the most recognized small group names including Lyman Coleman, Bill Donahue, Steve Gladen, and Carl George.

Thursday, February 18, 2010, 10:30 a.m. to Noon Central Standard Time

You can find out more or register for this free event right here.  I want to encourage you to take advantage of his online event.  I learn from these experts every time I’m around them.

Skill Training: Four Questions Every Coach Should Be Asking

What are you training your coaches to do?  Have you trained them?  Or is it every man for himself?

I’ve found there are four key questions that every coach should be asking.  Here they are:

  1. What is the best thing that happened in your group meeting this week? (Praise) Notice that it’s not a question about numbers.  It’s not a quantitative question.  It’s a qualitative question.  It encourages a conversation.  It’s a question that helps spark opportunities for the leader to be commended for their service.
  2. What’s the worst thing that happened in your group meeting this week? (Problem) This question allows the leader to grumble a little; sharing the things that aren’t working.  This is a great opportunity for the coach to use diagnostic follow up questions or prompts like, “Why do you think that happened?” or “Tell me more about that.”
  3. What are you going to do next? (Plan)  This question allows the leader to talk about next steps for their group or what they plan to do about what’s not working.  It’s not necessarily a time for the coach to be directive.  Instead, it encourages the leader to think out loud about what they should do.
  4. How can I pray for you? (Prayer)  This is the key question among the key questions.  More than anything else, this question helps establish the coach as someone who genuinely cares about the leader, about their family, their job, their relationship with Christ, etc.

Keep in mind that actually listening is very important.  In fact, I recommend that every coach keep a simple journal with notes from their conversation.  Whether you have 3 groups or 10 groups it will pay off to be able to look at those notes before your next call or cup of coffee and refresh your memory!  I’ve also found it very helpful to keep post-it notes on my desk so that I can jot down prayer requests and have a visible reminder during the week.

Another really helpful practice is to call and follow up on things like health concerns, job interviews, and family challenges.  Paying attention to the concerns and challenges of your leaders speaks loud and clear about your genuine appreciation for them.

Finally, these four questions can also be used during huddle time at a leader’s meeting.  Here’s a downloadable copy of a form I use to generate discussion in the coach’s huddle time during a leader’s meeting.

I need to thank Brett Eastman for this idea.  His, along with Carl George, Lyman Coleman, Jim Dethmer and Bill Donahue, are some of the broad shoulders the rest of us stand on.

What Questions Are You Asking?

One of my goals here at MarkHowellLive is to provide answers to basic small group ministry questions.  Although I provide a full range of consulting and coaching options, I’m hoping it helps to be able to find a lot of what you need online, right here, or at one of the websites/blogs in my blogroll.

It will help me to know a little bit about who reads my articles and what questions you have about small group ministry.  Would you take 2 or 3 minutes and complete my 5 question survey?  Here’s the link.  Thanks for your help!

Lowering the Leader Bar

Great conversation continues to come out of the comments generated by my response to Randall Neighbor’s article over at  If you missed out, be sure and read them to catch up.

Today I want to expand the discussion on a potential strategic difference that a crowd-to-core strategy brings…that is not present in the cell group strategy.  Here it is:

Who you encourage (or allow) to host a group absolutely determines the outreach potential.

Take a moment and let that statement sink in.

Now let me unpack the idea.  What I’m suggesting is that there is a strategic advantage in allowing those who are newer to the congregation (who might even still be part of the crowd) to host a group.  I am acknowledging that there will be problems, but I pick up a key strategic advantage by not insisting that group leaders come from the core.

What’s the advantage?  Newer participants still know more people outside the congregation.  The longer a person has been involved in the core (or part of a closed group) the more likely it is that their closest friends, their best connections are also members of the core.  Newer participants don’t have that issue.  Ask new participants who their 10 best friends are in the community they live in and they’ll almost always identify 8 to 10 people who have never even been to the church.  I wrote about this phenomenon right here.

That’s a big advantage from an outreach standpoint.  Huge even.  Do you run risks when you lower the bar of leader requirements?  Absolutely.  But those risks can be controlled (see yesterday’s article for more) and lowering the bar opens up exponential opportunities.

Contrast this with the more customary pattern within the cell group concept where next leaders develop as apprentices and then one day enable the group to birth.  One reason that Mario Vega writes about the need for personal evangelism within the cell strategy is that it must be intentionally promoted as priority for the cell idea to work.

What do you think?

Crowd-to-Core, Quality Control and Problem-Free

We’ve had a very good discussion here over the last 48 hours about the difference between “cell groups” and “small groups” (prompted by Randall Neighbour’s article on and my response).  The comments here have been very engaging and have all had a great spirit and attitude.  It’s been very fun to watch!

Several of the the comments really require more comprehensive answers.  This article is the result of Brian Owen’s observation that he is “excited by the possibilities of reaching out to more people but find myself really concerned with the potential lack of ‘quality control’ for lack of a better word.”

Brian’s comment begs further unpacking of the crowd-to-core philosophy, quality control, and the pursuit of problem-free.  Here’s what I’ve got.  Follow along.  And feel free to jump in any time.

First, while it’s an oversimplification to say that the crowd-to-core philosophy is just the opposite of core-to-crowd, it’s a good place to start.  Core-to-crowd is the idea that if I pour into my core, teach them, equip them, love them and challenge them…they will go out and do what Jesus was talking about in the great commission.  In some ways this is the essence of the cell group idea.  Can you see it?  If I build into my members and focus on them they will one day leave to start their own group (the apprentice notion).

Crowd-to-core on the other hand is a philosophy based on reaching into the crowd by providing simple steps that make it easy for them to respond and do the next thing that will ultimately help them join the congregation, make commitments that lead to service, and develop the mindset that puts the needs of others first…but all the while inviting their friends to come along.

Second, a little discussion of quality control in group life in general and group leadership specifically.  The cell strategy usually relies on building into an apprentice with the idea that they will eventually birth their own group.  The cell will divide (to use the biological metaphor) and you’ll have two groups and two qualified leaders to include on your roster of available groups to send potential members to.

Although it may not be a key component, this is an important distinction.  If the system includes the church sending potential members to a leader, then quality control is a greater liability.  On the other hand, if the leader (or host) is the one recruiting members, then you can make an argument that the upside outweighs the downside (i.e., if I invite you to my group, I am most likely a step or two ahead of you from a spiritual standpoint and more importantly, I am likely to invite friends that otherwise wouldn’t be part of a group).

Third, the contrast between core-to-crowd and crowd-to-core, along with concerns about quality control, lead directly to an understanding about the pursuit of problem free.  Here’s what I mean.  Take the two ideas: core-to-crowd (high quality control, cell-driven, apprenticing as source for leaders, etc.) vs. crowd-to-core (lowering the leader requirements, leader’s own friends become members, etc.) and list the problems associated with each system in a column beneath.

An honest evaluation will help you see that both ideas have sets of problems.  Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.

Personal Conclusion:  I enthusiastically embrace the crowd-to-core philosophy and would much rather have that set of problems, believing it is easier to mitigate those problems than the set that comes with a core-to-crowd strategy.  An example of a problem that is immediately pointed out with a lower leadership bar is that it makes quality control more difficult.  I believe that is more than offset by it being much easier to recruit hosts who will invite their own friends than to pre-qualify enough leaders to care for the number who are unconnected.  I can mitigate the risk by requiring new leaders to attend an orientation, to use the pre-approved curriculum, and to have a coach.  I make no guarantees of sending any members to any leader and can choose who to list on the website or catalog of available groups.  Are there problems?  Absolutely.  Am I going to make it possible for a much larger number of people to be connected in community where they can grow in Christ, love one another and further the work of the Kingdom?  I believe so.  To me, crowd-to-core wins every time.

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

The Difference Between a Cell Group and a Small Group | A Response

Tripped across Randall Neighbour’s response to this question over at and needed to respond.  Two preliminary observations need to be made:

First, I think it’s critical that we all learn to recognize and acknowledge our own biasAlan Kay rightly pointed out that perspective (point of view) is worth 80 IQ points.  In any evaluation of a system (cell vs. everything else) it is very important to look at the issue from more than one point of view.

Second, it is also very important to acknowledge that there are no problem-free solutions to anything.  Every solution (small group system or method) comes with a set of problems.  Wise leaders simply learn to choose the set of problems they’d rather have.

Disclaimer: I am an enthusiastic advocate of group life strategies that make it possible for the largest number of unconnected people to connect in community where they can experience life-change.

Observations about Randall’s article:

  1. Cell church and cell group advocates often pit their methodology against all comers as authentic vs. inauthentic (or biblical vs. man-made concoction).  I prefer to describe it as idealistic vs. pragmatic.
  2. Whether 8 of the 10 largest churches are cell churches or not, I have no idea.  There are clearly worldview elements at play in the developed countries of the west that explain the absence of cell church success here.
  3. In my experience, most growing churches, even the “big box come and see churches,” are growing on the basis on friends bringing friends.
  4. It is true that “theology breeds methodology.”  As a result, the fastest growing churches tend to be those that are preoccupied with reaching people for Christ (as opposed to being preoccupied with keeping the ones they already have).  It is the difference between a crowd-to-core strategy and a core-to-crowd strategy.  In the contest between making it easy for those on the edge to take a next step in vs. building up the core with the expectation that they’ll reach out…it is no contest.
  5. Many of the fastest growing churches in the western world are making small group participation a priority.  The best example of this is Saddleback where the current group participation is about 130% of their weekend adult attendance.  The reason?  Group life is prioritized as essential in the life of a believer.

Remember, I’m acknowledging my bias for what I refer to as a wild-west approach to group life and the fact that it’s not problem free.  I’d just much rather have these problems than any other set.

There have been some great comments on this post (both for and against).  Be sure and read them and then take a look at my follow-up post: Lowering the Leader Bar.

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

How To Implement Coaching for Existing Group Leaders

One of the great challenges in developing a coaching structure is providing care for existing group leaders.  It’s one thing to connect a new leader with a coach.  It’s another thing entirely to retrofit seasoned, existing leaders with a coach.  This is true for at least three reasons:

  1. Survival of the fittest: Once an existing leader has survived without a coach, any suggestion that they need a coach is counter-intuitive…it just doesn’t make sense to them.
  2. Perspective:  While coaching is almost always explained as a means of encouraging and equipping, from the perspective of an existing leader it is about control or keeping score.
  3. Lack of genuine affinity:  The tendency is to select coaches and then evenly and randomly deal out the existing leaders.

Strategies for Implementing Coaching (for Existing Group Leaders)

It’s very important to embrace an easy-going attitude when you are introducing coaching after the fact.  Command and control does not work very well.  Much better to gradually whet your existing leader’s appetites for the upside of a mentoring/encouraging relationship.  Here are four strategies I’ve used to begin to provide care for existing leaders:

  1. Reposition the idea of coaching in your leader’s minds.  It’s not about score-keeping or control.  Instead, establish and build on the idea that coaching is about encouraging spiritual growth.  In the same way that group members benefit from the support and encouragement of the leader and other group members, group leaders can benefit from the encouragement of someone a step or two ahead.
  2. Introduce peer-to-peer accountability in a leader’s meeting.  Ask leaders to form huddles of 3 or 4 and then share the answers to the following questions: (a) What’s working in your group, (b) what’s not working, (c) what’s next for your group, and (d) how can we pray for you?  Have them share contact information (cell phone and email) and follow up later in the week.
  3. Introduce the Purpose Driven Life Health Assessment and the Purpose Driven Life Health Plan in a leader’s meeting.  Have leaders complete the assessment and plan and then huddle up to share their plan with a group of their peers.  You’ll find out more about these tools right here.  Have them share contact information (cell phone and email) and follow up later in the week.
  4. Think through the natural affinities within your existing leaders.  Do your best to group them by affinity around tables in a leader’s meeting.  Lead them through a scaled down version of a connection and have them choose a coach from amongst themselves.

Have you found a way of implementing coaching for existing leaders?  Why not use the comment section and share it with the rest of us!