Have you ever sat down and listed the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Here are 10 big lessons I’ve learned about small group ministry:
1. The interests of insiders are different than the interests of outsiders. Insiders can sometimes be guilted into caring about things senior pastors care about (theology, missions, capital campaigns, etc.). Unconnected people respond almost exclusively to topics that interest them.
2. Belonging precedes becoming in the hierarchy of needs. This is why I say you must focus on making disciples as you connect unconnected people. Don’t lose sight of the fact that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again. Jesus knew what Abraham Maslow would propose 2,000 years later and invited his earliest followers to come and see first, then to come and die.
3. The best leader candidates are often not currently in a small group. Yes, it is true that some leader candidates are in existing groups and could be tapped as apprentices or leaders of new groups. However, in all but the smallest churches and churches with already very high percentage connected numbers, the best leader candidates are most likely not already connected (and in most cases are people who are unknown by staff). If the main strategies used to recruit additional leaders depend on cherry picking from the usual suspects, there is no question that the majority of the best candidates are flying under the radar and will never be spotted.
4. A test-drive is an easier first step than a long-term commitment. This lesson impacts both how you invite unconnected people to join a group and how you recruit additional coaches. When joining a group feels like a lifetime commitment (i.e., longer than about six weeks) or signing on to be a coach requires life-altering commitments (i.e., one year commitments, quitting other ministry commitments, etc.), you shouldn’t be surprised at hesitation. A toe-in-the-water allows an easier beginning than diving headfirst into the pool.
5. Coaching has very little to do with technique. Yes, the best coaches know the ins and outs of leading a group. Yes, it makes a lot of sense to recruit experienced small group leaders as coaches. But the real value of a coach is to do TO and FOR small group leaders whatever you want your leaders to do TO and FOR the members of their groups. That means long after the leader knows everything they’re going to need to know about leading a group, they will still need someone who loves them and cares for them in a way that models whatever you want to happen at the member level.
6. Settling for warm and willing (instead of hot and qualified) is a loser’s game. Filling a coaching org chart with the wrong people is a poor substitute for holding out for the right people and asking for a full commitment. Never settle for favors. Favors almost always result in unmet expectations.
7. Exceeding span of care limits has unavoidable consequences. A wise and realistic span of care (everyone needs to be cared for by someone, but nobody can care for more than about 10 people) leads to long-term coaching teams and, just as importantly, the highest levels of new groups sustained. Burning out personally, or burning out your best players, is a rookie mistake. Learn this early and avoid the pain.
8. There are no problem-free small group systems, models or strategies. Fortunately, I learned this lesson very early. The realization that there is no problem-free systems saved me from the fruitless pursuit of something no more real than the abominable snowman or a formula that turns lead into gold. The sooner you learn the lesson, the sooner you realize that wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.
9. Results are determined by design. Success or failure is not determined by a fluke. “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).” “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity (Albert Einstein).” Learn this lesson earlier, not later. Life is just better when you learn that results are determined by design. Focus your attention on a adopting or adapting a design that produces the results you need.
10. Propping up existing groups (instead of starting new groups) leads to fewer groups. It happens to all of us and if we let it, it will happen over and over. “We are down to three couples … if you could send us a couple more it would be helpful.” This is a losing proposition. Far better to prioritize new groups and teach existing group leaders how to be on the lookout for new members.