The Truth about Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry

truth washington monumentI talk and write a lot about building a thriving small group ministry. You might say I am preoccupied by it! Some might even say I am obsessed by the idea. See also, 10 Principles for Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

As part of the community here, I have no doubt that you’re thinking about what it will take to build a thriving small group ministry. You’re probably already working on building one!

Still, there a few things I need to remind you about.

You can’t build a thriving small group ministry…

  1. Overnight. Thriving small group ministries are never built in a day. They are never built as a result of a single small group launch or church-wide campaign. They are built over years as a result of an enduring commitment on the part of many. They are built over many seasons and are the result of determined resolution.  See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run.
  2. By accident. Thriving small group ministries are the result of intentional choices made over many seasons and years. They are the result of design and not chance. They are the result of strategic preference and choice. See also, 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact.
  3. On your own. Thriving small group ministries are built by teams; they are built by bands of committed men and women who know deep in their own experience the life-changing potential of a circle. A lone small group pastor can never accomplish what a committed core of leaders can. See also, 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor.
  4. Without your senior pastor’s help. Building a thriving small group ministry cannot be done without the full support of the most influential person in the church. It won’t happen without your senior pastor as visible and unmistakable champion. See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful and Conflicted Senior Pastor.
  5. With a buffet. Thriving small group ministries are built when next steps are easy, obvious and strategic. Larger and more extensive menus never make choosing the right next step easier. Smartly tailored and hand-crafted steps lead to more movement and a greater willingness on the part of unconnected people to take first steps. See also, 5 Totally Obvious Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out. The truth about building a thriving small group ministry is that it’s not easy. It can’t be done overnight or by accident. You can’t do it alone. You need your senior pastor’s help and you can’t do it with a buffet.  See also, 5 Easily Overlooked Secrets to Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

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Insights That Sharpen Small Group Ministry Perspective

1911519592_90f62ac01f_zHave you noticed that reading more books (and blogs) sometimes increases confusion and indecision about the best way to do small group ministry? Add the input from conferences you attend and experts you listen to and you can end up with a pretty complex soup.

What should you do? It’s good to read, right? Leaders are learners, right?

Short answer: Yes, it’s good to read and it’s good to attend conferences and listen to experts. I’m right there with you.

Slightly longer answer: Computer theorist Alan Kay pointed out that “Point of view (or perspective) is worth 80 IQ points.” While it’s good to read, attend conferences and listen to experts, developing the filter of a point of view (or perspective)–through which to absorb new content–provides more clarity and less confusion.

Insights that sharpen point of view (or perspective):

Start with why. Building a small group ministry (or choosing a model, system or strategy) without clarity about the why behind your effort is a recipe for wandering in the wilderness. Did you begin with why? Is it still clear? Was it ever? Simon Sinek notes that “All organizations start with why, but only the great ones keep their why clear year after year.”

Start with why. This is a truly foundational insight. If you’ve never watched Simon Sinek’s brilliant TED talk on this idea, stop what you’re doing and watch it right now. See also, Wrestling with “Why” We Do “What” We Do and 6 Questions We Should All Be Asking.

Determine the what that must be done. Only after identifying why you care enough to do anything about it can you begin to think about what it is that actually must be done. Can you see that it would be foolish to have chosen a small group model, system or strategy before determining what must be done?

Decide how to do what must be done. This is about determining the best way to do what must be done. You are finally in a position to make a wise choice about a model, system or strategy).

I love an Andy Stanley line on this that make so much sense. “Don’t fall in love with a model. Fall in love with the mission and date the model.” When you are clear on the why (and the what) it is easy to choose the how (the model) that is the best way to do what must be done. See also, How to Choose a Small Group System, Model or Strategy.

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Quotebook: The Choice Between Risk and Comfort

boatI love this line from John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.

“The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort. This means that to be a follower of Jesus, you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life.” John Ortberg

As I’ve been thinking about next steps for our ministry (and challenging you to do to the same), this quote is a powerful reminder of an essential choice.

The line also begs a question: What have I chosen? Comfort? Or risk? See also, What Baby Steps Will You Take Today?

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Thinking Thursday: Derek Sivers: How to start a movement

derek siversWith help from some surprising footage, Derek Sivers explains how movements really get started. (Hint: it takes two.)

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What Baby Step Will You Take Today?

running on the beachMost changes begin as baby steps. As I write this post I am learning to be a runner. Three (or four) runs a week with two (or three) walks interspersed for recovery. I am averaging 16 running miles a week (with another 8 walking). Most days my run is a combination of run, walk and breathing hard. I used to say, “Run, Walk and Gasp,” but there’s no gasping going on anymore. I began learning to be a runner to lose weight. I’ve lost 30 lbs and feel very good. I’m also learning to enjoy the run. In fact, I actually crave it…right up until the moment I leave the driveway and begin. ;-) I didn’t begin learning to be a runner by running a half marathon or even running one mile. I began by going for a run or a walk every day. On the days I went for a run it was mostly walk with a twist of running. I used the Nike running app to track my time and set goals to reduce my time. Most changes begin as baby steps. In the same way I began running to lose weight, you may need to take a baby step that simply starts your small group ministry moving in the right direction. See also, 10 Simple Things You Can Start Doing to Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry. Are you ready to take a baby step? Image by A. Strakey

Quotebook: What Successful People Do (and Failures Don’t)

 success failureRecently I wrote about 7 Skills Every Small Group Pastor Needs.  I know of no workaround that will enable a small group pastor to avoid the development of these skills.  I’ve met many small group pastors who have tried to get by without them, but the truth is these skills are essential and unavoidable.

I’ve been working my way through an excellent book over the last two weeks.  Resolved: 13 Resolutions for Life by Orrin Woodward might turn out to be the book of the year for me.  When I read this paragraph I immediately thought about those small group pastors that struggle to get the job done.

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their dislike is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” E.N. Gray

I don’t know what you think. But I do know this. If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, developing these 7 skills is a non-negotiable. Further, truly successful small group pastors will do the things that unsuccessful small group pastors won’t.

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Skill Training: How Transparent Should I Be as a Group Leader?

transparentQuestion: How transparent should I be as a small group leader? Should I share my struggles with the group? Or should I seek to be an example to my group?

This is a good question, don’t you think? Isn’t it the internal debate that every leader has?

In my post, 8 Habits of Life-Changing Small Group Leaders, I point out several interrelated habits that I believe must be cultivated by every small group leader.

First, small group leaders need to make time with God a daily priority.  A regular and ongoing conversation with God adds an essential ingredient to spiritual growth. Spending consistent time with God, reading His word and praying, are not elective activities. Jesus modeled this essential habit. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Mark 1:35 NIV

Second, small group leaders need to follow the best example and offer a good example. The Apostle Paul urged the members of the church in Corinth to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV).” This is an important teaching. He’s not asking them to do anything he’s not doing. He’s challenging them to follow his example (as he follows the example of Christ).

A little frightening, right? But is it too challenging for a small group leader? I love Paul’s words to the ordinary church members at Ephesus: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3 NIV).”

Third, small group leaders need to know they haven’t arrived.  One key to this habit is developing an openness about your journey that allows you to share the fact that while you are becoming more like Jesus, you are not yet fully like Him. You still have struggles. You still stumble.

I love the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Philippi: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV).”

Let’s get practical: The question today is how transparent should I be as a small group leader? Here are 5 guiding principles:

  1. Trying to appear to have it all together isn’t helpful. If the Apostle Paul acknowledged that he was a work in progress, you can too.
  2. Use discretion when determining what to share and with whom to share. Some hurts, hangups or habits can be shared openly. Some specifics are better shared with an accountability partner or coach/mentor.
  3. Model the depth of appropriate sharing. As you are open about your own journey, your members will often begin to develop a comparable openness. See also, Life-Change at the Member Level Begins with You.
  4. Practice sub-grouping for prayer and accountability. Developing the practice of sub-grouping for prayer and accountability will help you and your members to learn to be transparent. See also, Skill Training: Sub-Grouping for a Deeper Connection.
  5. Enlist an accountability partner. Modeling this spiritual practice will help your group members to do the same. There are some hurts, hang-ups and habits that should be shared at this level. See also, The Power of a Spiritual Training Partner.

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Quotebook: John Ortberg on Leadership and Disappointment

disappointmentLove this one from John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Influence of the Inescapable Jesus.

“Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.”

Image by Phil Warren

Thinking Thursday: Seth Godin: The Tribes We Lead

Seth GodinSeth Godin argues the Internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Founded on shared ideas and values, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change. He urges us to do so.

Can’t see the video? You can watch it right here.

5 Things You Need to Know about Your Small Group Model

assembly lineWhen you choose a small group model, system or strategy there are several things you ought to know. Need to know, really. The model you choose should be based on an informed choice. One of the worst things you can do is flip abruptly or frequently between models. See also, 5 Totally Obvious Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail and Top 10 Signs Your Small Group Ministry is Schizophrenic.

Here are 5 Things You Need to Know:

  1. There is no problem-free small group model. Every model comes with a set of problems. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have. See also, Breaking: No Problem-Free Small Group System or Model.
  2. The to-do list that come with the model you choose. In addition to a set of problems, every model comes with a list of activities that must be accomplished in order for the model to work effectively. For example, most Semester models necessitate confirming the availability of every leader and the study they will be doing for the upcoming semester. Sermon-Based models require a quality study to be written every week and distributed to group leaders. See also, An Analysis of the Sermon-Based Model and An Analysis of the Free Market Small Group System.
  3. What your model will make simple and ordinary. One advantage of a model is that it makes complex things simple. Another advantage is that the right model makes extraordinary things ordinary.
  4. What your model will make more difficult. A slightly different issue, every model makes a small set of things more difficult (when compared to another model). For example, the Free Market model can make finding new leaders more difficult (when compared to other models). The Meta Church model rarely births new groups fast enough to absorb unconnected people in a growing church. See also, Choosing What Not to Do.
  5. What your model won’t do. Don’t miss this. Every small group model has limitations (i.e., things it won’t do). For example, apprenticing new leaders takes time and the Cell Church model won’t reproduce leaders faster when the need is greater.

I’ve written quite a bit about the distinctions of small group models, systems and strategies. Your choice of model is one of the 7 decisions that predetermine small group ministry impact. See also, Small Group Models and How to Choose a Small Group Model or System.

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