In my last 11 years of coaching over 1,500 churches in North America, I’ve observed that the senior pastor’s attitude and involvement in small group launches is more significant than any other factor in a church’s success. I’ve seen churches of 2,000-2,500 launch 500 small groups or more and keep those groups going forward. Another church recruited 30 percent of their adults on one Sunday to lead groups in their church. Now that wasn’t a church of 100 adults with 30 new leaders. It was a church of 4,000 with 1,200 new leaders. In all of these successes, the senior pastor was leading the charge.
Yet, many pastors have not seen the benefit and have not felt the need to focus on groups in their churches. In conversations with some of these pastors, I have discovered some mistakes in the pastor’s thinking that are holding back the momentum and impact of groups in their churches and communities.
Mistake #1: Relegating Small Groups to a Staff Member.
Most churches that are serious about small groups have already hired a small group pastor or director to oversee the groups. While the commitment to a staff position for small groups is significant, depending on a staff member to grow and maintain a high percentage of the congregation in groups is unlikely. Even the best small group folks out there typically can only maintain about 30 percent of a church’s adults in groups, unless the senior pastor takes a larger role.
Now, some senior pastors will argue that they do care about small groups, after all didn’t they hire staff members to oversee groups? Doesn’t that mean they care? Well, it does, but it doesn’t. If a senior pastor has relegated a small group pastor or director’s ministry to one of many ministries in the church, groups will not grow. If the senior pastor desires to connect the majority of the congregation into groups, then the pastor needs to get involved. While there are many dependable small group pastors out there, should the senior pastor turn the care of the entire congregation over to the small group pastor or director? Absolutely not. Would the senior pastor turn the entire weekend service over to the worship pastor? To connect a large percentage of the congregation into groups, the senior pastor must take the lead.
I’ve been an associate pastor for most of my 25 years of ministry. Once I discovered the impact my senior pastor had in inviting the congregation to lead groups, I never recruited another small group leader. That means after working seven years to connect 30 percent of our adults in groups, then watching my senior pastor recruit enough leaders to double our groups in a day, I haven’t recruited a single group leader since 2004. (I served two more years in that church, then served a whole other church since then, but I did not recruit any more leaders. My senior pastor did.)
As the senior pastor, you are the key influencer in your church. If you say the very same words your small group pastor/director would say, you will have three times the result. We’re seeing this across the country. Churches of 2,000-2,500 adults are launching 500 groups at a time. Imagine if 20-25 percent of your adults were leading groups. What would discipleship look like in your church? How would that change assimilation? What difference would it make in reaching your community? The answer is a huge difference.
Mistake #2: Using Someone Else’s Curriculum
Your members don’t need Rick Warren’s curriculum. They want your teaching.
The 40 Days of Purpose is by far the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns. Some 30,000 or more churches went through the series with Rick Warren’s teaching on the curriculum aligned with the pastor’s sermon on the weekend. At first, it seemed the key to the campaign’s massive impact on a congregation was Rick Warren’s curriculum. What we later came to find out was the secret was not in the curriculum. The link to the senior pastor’s messages and leadership in the campaign made the results happen.
While I have nothing against Rick Warren or the 40 Days of Purpose, what I know now is that your congregation wants to be involved with what you are doing, pastor, not with what another senior pastor is doing. In fact, if your members are not already connected to each other in groups of some kind, I would venture to say the reason they attend your church other than Jesus is because of you. They like you. They like your teaching, your jokes and your personality. When you offer your people more of what they already like—your teaching on a group curriculum—you will find greater interest and involvement in groups than ever before.
Mistake #3: Thinking Everyone Sees Small Groups Like You Do
Many pastors don’t want to be in a small group. Let’s face it. You’re busy. You have essentially a term paper due every week. You get called out at odd hours to help people. I’ve never met a lazy senior pastor. If there was one, then he got fired.
Small groups can be awkward for senior pastors. It’s risky for them and their spouses. If they talk openly about their personal struggles, where will those admissions go? Will open sharing somehow undermine their leadership in the church?
After 25 years of serving churches, I’ve come to understand that church staff, and especially senior pastors, are not normal. We are not like the rest of the congregation. We don’t focus on the things they think about. We aren’t motivated by the same things. Pastors have a unique calling on their lives that can only truly be understood by other pastors. What works for pastors is very different from what works for church members, and what works for church members is very different from what works for their pastors.
Senior pastors are surrounded by other believers on a daily basis. Every staff meeting is filled with believers. Every person they encounter in the office hallway is a believer. For the most part, the people they hang out with are believers. This is not the case with most people. They don’t have these regular interactions with other believers unless they worship with them, serve with them and group with them.
Often pastors will feel guilty about promoting groups if they are not in a group. Here’s the deal: Find something you can call “your group” and go with it. Whether it’s your foursome at golf or a pastor in a neighboring town you connect with, make that your group. You don’t have to do exactly what your members are doing, but you need to do something in community with other believers to set the example.
Mistake #4: Not Realizing the Benefit of Small Groups in Their Churches
If your church is larger than 250 people, then everybody can no longer know everybody any more. If your church is 400 or more and has two or more services, then your people can’t find the people they do know. But, the good news is everybody doesn’t need to know everyone, as long as everyone knows someone. This is where groups come in.
Much of the burden of care and support in your church could be served in groups. Imagine if the counseling appointments on your calendar disappeared because your people were caring for each other. Now, we all know that serious counseling cases would be referred to a professional counselor most likely anyway. But, those folks who need a listening ear, some encouragement and prayer can find that in a group.
If groups are helping people grow as they study your curriculum, it may lessen the need for additional Bible studies or classes your congregation expects you to lead. Now, a word of caution here, don’t transition this too abruptly or you could have a mutiny. But, if you turn the heat up and talk for 90 minutes, your midweek Bible study will shrivel up in no time (just kidding … kind of).
Once people find their need for spiritual growth met in a group, some of the other offerings at your church will dwindle. Over time, they will disappear. The needs have changed. Imagine that day.
The pastors I know worry about a number of significant things in their church. Attendance, spiritual growth, closing the back door, outreach and finances are just a few. Research has shown that small groups meet all of these needs. In their recent book Transformational Groups, Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger show how small groups are the solution for assimilation and spiritual growth. People in groups attend more often and serve more than people who are not in groups. And, group members also give more than other people in your congregation.
How should the senior pastor lead the groups ministry in the church? Take the charge. Create your own curriculum. Challenge your members to lead. By leveraging the weekend service to launch groups who study the pastor’s curriculum during the week, the church will grow and its people will grow. Senior pastor, do you really think the small group pastor or director can do all of that alone?
Churches I’ve coached who’ve launched hundreds of new groups at a time were led by their senior pastor. Don’t blame your small group pastor for not doing your job. The church has only one leader. It’s time for you to step up.
I am offering a webinar for senior pastors on May 3-5, 2016. If you want to go big with groups in your church this Fall, you need to sign up. Don’t send a staff member. Register at allenwhite.org/webinars.