FAQ: How Are You Training New Leaders These Days?

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leader trainingI get questions. A lot of questions. Some come in a comment right here on the blog. Others come in an email. And some come when I'm speaking at a conference or workshop.

Here's a very frequent question:

"How are you training new leaders these days?"

Great question! I love it because in the question you can see that the asker already understands that times change and what may have worked in the past may not work today.

Marshall Goldsmith said what got you here won't get you there. And that means the way we train small group leaders must adapt to meet the needs of leaders today.

Marshall Goldsmith said what got you here won't get you there. And that means the way we train small group leaders must adapt to meet the needs of leaders today. Share on X

A Short History of My Leader Training Journey

When I stepped into the small group ministry role at Fellowship of the Woodlands in 2000 there were two important factors in how they were training new small group leaders:

  1. They were offering a periodic opportunity to "sign up to be placed in a group." I've written extensively about the problems of taking the responsibility to "find a group" for everyone. Far better to offer several connecting opportunities a year and make everyone responsible for attending an event that connects people or saying "yes" to an invitation to join a group with a friend. Note: The last time I allowed anyone to sign up to be placed in a group was in 2000.
  2. They offered an 8 session small group leader training class several times a year. They were recruiting small group members who seemed to have the potential to be good leaders. They were also publicizing the class and allowing anyone who wanted to lead a group to sign up. Graduates of the class were assigned new members out of the sign up sheets unconnected people filled out when they signed up "to be placed in a group." I'm sure it may have been a good idea at one time. However...I ran it one time and then determined that requiring potential leaders to complete an 8 session leader training class as a prerequisite to leading was not a good idea. Note: I have held the assumption that the people who had the most potential to lead a group were not currently in a group and were likely to be reluctant to volunteer to lead.

I have held the assumption that the people who had the most potential to lead a group were not currently in a group and were likely to be reluctant to volunteer to lead. Share on X

The small group leader training class was not a good idea for three reasons:

  • First, it was a serious barrier to entry to many reluctant leaders (and as you know, the best leader candidates almost never volunteer to be a leader).
  • Second, it turned out that completing the class was not a good predictor of who could attract and retain group members.
  • Third, adults learn on a need to know basis. On-the-job training is much more effective because as adults lead they will be confronted with many situations that will inspire an eagerness to listen to a coach.

Enter the Small Group Connection Strategy

Shortly after we realized the 8 session leader training class was an ineffective strategy (both for identification and training), we discovered the small group connection. We learned that the small group connection was a much better leader identification strategy. We also discovered that the leaders who were identified were very coachable (because they had not expected to end up being chosen to lead).

How did we train the leaders who were identified at the connection?

Then: We invited new leaders to a 90 minute leader orientation meeting that consisted of some coffee, donuts and very basic training. We also connected them to a coach who provided on-the-job training as required.

Note: Today, in place of the orientation meeting, we assign a coach to every new leader at the Connection. They spend a few minutes talking and arranging their first face to face meeting, usually within a week. See also, The Best Way to Connect a New Leader to a Coach.

Enter the HOST Strategy and Church-Wide Campaigns

One of the limitations of the small group connection strategy is that it only connects the people who attend the connection. Self-evident, I know, but it is a limitation.

How to connect people who don't (or won't) attend the connection? Invite people who...


  1. Have a HEART for unconnected people (that's the "H" in HOST).
  2. Will OPEN their home six times (that's the "O").
  3. SERVE a simple snack (you get the idea).
  4. TELL a few friends.

Today: We've used the "if you've got a couple friends" strategy for the last three church-wide campaigns. This is a game changer, but...it is more difficult to provide a coach immediately.

How do you train people who volunteer to do the study with a couple friends?

Then: For a number of years we required them to attend a short HOST orientation meeting at a convenient time. Very similar to the small group connection strategy.

Now: The best way we've discovered to provide training today is a two fold strategy:

First, we provide a set of short videos that cover "the need to know" skills a new leader needs right out of the gate. I tripped across a couple hints of how this could work back when I interviewed Steve Gladen about Saddleback's Leadership Pathway. We make them available on our website and on a thumb drive that is distributed in the HOST kit.

Want to see a very good sample of what the video looks like? Saddleback is leading the way in this innovation and you can see their videos right here: Saddleback's Video Training for New Hosts.

Second, when they sign up to do the study with a couple friends they are added to an email list for new "hosts." They receive a weekly email from the Groups Team with tips and ideas about how to get started, what to do along the way, as well as regular coaching on things they need to know about each session of the study. This email "drip system" eventually invites new hosts to attend a Host Gathering and when they take that step they are assigned a coach (who they meet face to face at the Host Gathering).

A Few Concepts That Made This Change Inevitable:

There are several factors converging that make it obvious that a change is needed:

  • People are busy and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to get new, toe-in-the-water hosts to make time for an orientation.
  • It's more and more common for people to come from further than 20 minutes away, making meeting times even more difficult to schedule.
  • Mobility is a key to training and leader development. If you're not yet providing mobile options for training yet, you will have very little choice in the very near future.

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

Further Reading:

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  1. Ruth Summey on May 17, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Mark, your http://www.markhowelllive.com/ postings have given this 87 year old woman hope for some time for improved church health. (My participation in a local church with home small groups began years ago.} My question is would you talk about online small groups for those of us who are housebound, or who want the convenience of online meetings or who attend a church somewhere that doesn’t see the value of small groups? We meet only online. When I hear that home groups are encouraged to get online to use church resources but no mention of groups meeting totally online, I feel as if I belong to an online group that will never be as acceptable as face to face groups. We are step children. I know Saddleback has a super small group ministry but hosts are expected to be committed to Saddleback so that would prevent my wheelchair bound, baptized by sprinkling, online friend in another state from facilitating (hosting) an online small group. A recent article you posted gives me the courage to make this request. Thanks.

  2. markchowell on May 17, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Hi Ruth…you should email and I might be able to help you. Mark@MarkHowellLive.com

  3. Roger Carr on May 17, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Mark, I reall like the idea of using videos for the training basics for a couple of reasons.

    First, group leaders can learn on their schedule. An advantage of small groups is they meet on different days and different times of the day . These times may be convenient for some people but not for training in person with all group leaders at the same time (think of night shift workers as an example), Videos can be viewed for learning at convenient times and pace.

    Second, videos are available to be watched multiple times. Repetition and practice are important. This allows that to be done without any additional actions by others.

    Unfortunately, learning from each other is lost if this is the only form of training a leader gets. Some of the most powerful training comes from leaders sharing experiences with each other. Maybe an online forum (or other asynchronous communication method) could be used as a step towards this type of learning for those who have a difficult time attending in-person training sessions.

  4. markchowell on May 17, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    Absolutely right, Roger. This is a solution for orientation ONLY. Connecting new leaders to a coach will give them both the one-to-one equipping they need as well as the huddle opportunities that are so valuable.