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.
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 small group ministry model is a constant inability to find enough leaders. Another symptom is an inability to develop leaders who are more than hosts.
Give some thought to those two symptoms. If you're constantly trying to replace leaders who leave or quit (instead of adding new leaders) it could very well be driven by an inadequate small group ministry model.
Alternatively, if one of the symptoms is leaders who tend to stay in the host/facilitator mode (rather than growing to become a true shepherding leader caring for, discipling and developing the members of the group, this is another symptom of an inadequate model.
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 failure to thrive 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.
Read incorrectly the failure to thrive 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… Click To Tweet
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. When the next step pathway is poorly designed, there will be a lack of interest on the part of unconnected people.
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.).
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 small group model is proposed after every conference attended or book read, 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.
How to Diagnose Your Small Group Ministry is one of my most popular video courses. The four 60 minute video sessions take you through the process of diagnosing your small group ministry. You can take a look at the course right here.
Image by César Rincón