Design a System That Identifies Potential Leaders

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“We can’t find enough leaders!”  This is one of the most common responses when I ask small group champions around the country what they’re biggest challenges are.  If it sounds familiar…read on.

The underlying reason that finding enough leaders is a challenge is a design issue.  I love Andy Stanley’s line that “your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results that you’re currently getting.”  Implication?  The problem is in the design.  Here’s how:

Most small group ministries have incorporated one or more of the following leader recruitment strategies as their main source of potential leaders:

  1. Announce (or run a blurb in your bulletin) that you’re taking sign-ups for new small group leader orientation.
  2. Tap the shoulders of the usual suspects (deacons, elders, etc.).
  3. Require each small group leader to have an apprentice.

Design Flaws

The problem with the most common strategies is that they each have a design flaw.  Here’s what I mean:

  • When you announce an upcoming new small group leader orientation it is very common to end up with a mix.  There is no guarantee that those who sign up can actually engage small group members.  Worse, it is often the way into the system for people with wrong motives (power trip, want a group to teach, etc.).  To test your design, think about the success of your most recent new small group leader orientation.
  • The qualifications for deacon or elder don’t predict the best qualities of a potential small group leader.  They might predict a type of leadership, but it is often a type at odds with what produces the right environment in a group.  To test your design, evaluate whether you would want to be in a group led by that deacon or elder.
  • Requiring each leader to have an apprentice is not the problem.  Developing and sending out the apprentice is the problem.  To test your design, determine the percentage of apprentices who actually left their group to successfully form a new group in the last 12 months.

Effective Designs

So what are the elements of a more effective design?  I’ve found three:

  • Develop and celebrate the practice of rotating facilitators in all your existing groups.  Begin by surveying your existing groups to see how many have already embraced this practice (this establishes a benchmark).  Teach your existing leaders how to implement the practice.  Measure again at 6 months and one year.
  • Use a process like the Small Group Connection that allows participants to identify leaders they would follow.  If you’re familiar with the premise of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, people can accurately assess other people very quickly.  In my experience, adults can easily identify the relative shepherd after a 45 minute conversation.
  • Promote an annual opportunity for adults to host a short term group using a church-wide curriculum and inviting their own friends and neighbors.  Note: their ability to fill their own group (inviting their own friends and neighbors) is a predictor of long-term suitability.

Have you found another effective design for identifying potential leaders?  We’d all love to hear them!

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  1. Ben Reed on March 31, 2010 at 7:45 am

    I’ve read Blink…love the connection you made here with people knowing quickly if they would follow a given leader.

    The problem that we have, though, is that people are so limited with their personal schedules that, if “the leader they would follow” has a group on Tuesday nights, the couple isn’t willing to bend their life around small groups.

    Next time we have a Connect event, though, I’m going to encourage those interested in groups to look for somebody they can follow…and not JUST pick a night that works for them.

    Thanks for the post, Mark. It was really helpful!

  2. Mark Howell on March 31, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Thanks for jumping in Ben! One of the things we learned early on at Fellowship of The Woodlands was to sort people out by affinity first (geography, life stage, etc.), let them go thru the connection process, choose a leader, and THEN negotiate the night they will meet. It’s been our experience that once they’ve connected with the group and the leader they are much more likely to shift their schedule to accommodate a 6 week test-drive.


  3. Ben Reed on March 31, 2010 at 8:01 am

    The way we do it now, we allow the people to sort themselves by geography and night of the week.

    I’m questioning right now whether that’s placing too high an importance on affinity, and too low an importance on leader connections.

    So you have a Connection event that lasts a couple of hours, right? It seems that that would be the only way to accomplish the goal of a person finding out if a certain group leader is worth following.

  4. Mark Howell on March 31, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Our connection event lasts about an hour and involves enough of a conversation to help the participants get to know each other pretty well. If you haven’t read thru my 4 part series on the Connection, you might want to check it out. It works very well.


  5. jim zeilenga on March 31, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Yes, I agree with the rotating facilitators idea. Another one that I have found effective is looking through the lists of small group participants and picking off some of them as potential leaders and challenging them. Identify these people based on their ability to influence people and their apparent positive spirit. This has worked, to say nothing of the affirmation they receive when someone thinks/feels that they have the ability to host a small group.

  6. Mark Howell on March 31, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I like it! Thanks for jumping into the discussion Jim!


  7. Robert Johnson on April 6, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Our connection event last about 1-1 1/2 hours. We structure the event to produce conversaton among the participants. Only at the end do they choose which group to participate in. We have just begun restructuring our design.

    If we do not have a leader for the group, we choose someone we know from the participants that will serve as a facilitator for the first few weeks. They do not have to lead the group, but they are asked to be the liaision between the group and myself. We ask them to get someone different to lead the group each week for the first four weeks. During that time someone usually emerges as the leader. The failitator and I communicate each week to insure that the person who is emerging is capable of being a strong small group leader. We provide coaching as we move through this process.

    We have used the apprentice model but haven’t found it to be very successful. I have been trying to decide on a new model. I think we will push for our leades to rotate facilitators which should help us identify potential leaders.

    Your article has provided some great ideas and thoughts for me to consider. Thanks!

  8. Mark Howell on April 10, 2010 at 4:32 am

    Thanks for jumping in here Robert. I definitely suggest that you take a look at how my style small group connection works vs. North Point’s group link process. You can read my outline right here.