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The 5 Biggest Problems of Small Groups and How to Solve Them

The 5 Biggest Problems of Small Groups and How to Solve Them

I’ve said it before, there is no problem-free system, model or strategy. All systems, models and strategies come with a set of problems. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have. And a corollary is that there are a few problems that are common across all small group ministry systems, models and strategies. Here are five of the biggest problems of small groups.

A senior pastor who is reluctant or ineffective as small group champion.

If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you must have the weight of the most influential person in the congregation squarely behind you. And in 99.9 percent of all churches, the senior pastor is the most influential person.

If you want to build a small group ministry that connects well beyond the usual suspects, your senior pastor must effectively play the champion role. That is, your senior pastor must be a passionate and an enthusiastic champion. Listlessly going through the motions, half-heartedly participating in the effort, does not help. In most cases it actually hurts the cause.

While this is certainly one of the biggest problems of small group ministry it is often an undiagnosed problem plaguing small group pastor and senior pastor alike. After all, a significant number of senior pastors will tell you, “We hired a small group pastor to be the small group champion!” Do you face that problem? Does your senior pastor?

How to solve this problem:

First, make sure your senior pastor knows two things:

  1. That the role of the small group champion is simply to be the number one spokesperson for small groups: the optimal environment for life-change.
  2. The role of the small group pastor is to take care of the planning, the organization, the design, etc., making it easy for the senior pastor to simply focus on the champion role.

Second, determine why, exactly why, they are reluctant to be the small group champion. 

How to go about this may require some gentle trial and error. Depending on your relationship with your senior pastor, your tenure on the staff, etc., determining the background for their reluctance may have to be learned over time. But…it is worth learning.

Third, it may be that this is a game of inches, not yards (or miles).

If every season is a step in the right direction, you will eventually arrive in about the right place.

Fourth, be sure you are doing everything you need to do. 

Do the planning well in advance (i.e., What weekends could the small group launch be highlighted? What is the best sign-up method? How will the follow-up happen?) Fine tune the details (i.e., When must the sign-up form be printed? When will the names be entered into the database for follow-up? How will you be able to email sign-ups on behalf of your senior pastor? etc.). Script the ideal version of what you would like your senior pastor to say.

Equal status and promotion for every ministry and program.

When everything is important, nothing is.

As self-evident as that saying may be, it is at the root of one of the biggest problems faced by small group ministry. While the individual ministries of a church should all be important (or they should be revamped or eliminated), they are never equally strategic.

Churches that promote everything equally should not expect anything to thrive. And yet, that is exactly what many churches do to the detriment of those ministries they privately view as most significant.

How to solve this problem:

First, begin working to determine which ministries are strategically most important.

Clearly, this is not something that can be determined apart from the senior leadership of the church. This determination will require purposeful discussion and deliberation, but the payoff will be well worth the effort.

Second, determine which ministries or programs may serve the same purpose (or are intended to serve the same purpose).

For example, many churches have extensive menus of ministries or programs that are intended to serve the purposes of fellowship and/or discipleship. They are at what I refer to as “the corner of belong and become.” These ministries or programs might include off-campus small groups, on-campus Sunday School classes, on-campus studies (Precepts, Beth Moore, Men’s Fraternity, etc.), discipleship triads or groups, etc.

Third, begin the effort to prioritize certain ministries or programs and de-emphasize or eliminate others.

This is an obviously challenging and potentially emotionally charged effort. While it should never be undertaken without great wisdom and grace, this exercise is at the heart of optimizing the effectiveness of overall ministry. Until what is truly important are the only things being promoted, comparatively little will be accomplished.

Codependent catering to the usual suspects.

There is almost always a big difference between the easiest thing to do and the wisest thing to do.

The easiest thing to do is to satisfy the already connected. Choose curriculum and studies that satisfy their interests and curiosities (and pay for it, as well). Faithfully restock existing small groups with new members to replace those who stop attending or move away. Find new leaders for groups whose leaders are “taking a break.”

The wisest thing to do is to become preoccupied with the needs and interests of the right people (i.e., the still unconnected, unreached people in your crowd and community).

Again, if everything is important (or everyone), nothing is.

How to solve this problem:

I have found the best solution is to prioritize launching new groups and connecting unconnected people while training existing group leaders to take care of their group members and groups.

The first steps of the move from satisfying the already connected to prioritizing the needs and interests of unconnected people may seem like a high-wire act, but is an essential move if you want to build a thriving small group ministry that connects far beyond the usual suspects.

There are two steps that must be taken:

Step One: Begin training existing leaders to take care of their group members and groups.

Especially if you’ve not already initiated this practice, begin training your existing group leaders to “fill the open chair” by keeping their eyes open for unconnected people in their relational sphere of influence. Remember, you cannot expect your leaders to train their members to do anything they’re not learning to do themselves.

Additionally, existing leaders should be trained to (1) identify and begin developing co-leaders or apprentices, (2) care for their members, (3) select serving opportunities that will engage their members, and (4) choose appropriate curriculum for their group’s needs and interests.

Step Two: Begin prioritizing launching new groups and connecting unconnected people. 

Again, this can and should be simultaneous (or nearly) with step one. Developing an appropriate sense of urgency about the unconnected people in your congregation and crowd will help you both take action and have the right explanation for your existing leaders.

Strategic mismatch between the small group system or model and the percentage unconnected.

This problem plagues both the small group pastor and senior pastor alike. Falling in love with systems or models without acknowledging and choosing the set of problems that come with them often comes back to haunt.

Have a high percentage unconnected? Be sure you are paying attention to the number of new groups you are actually launching every year. Problems finding enough new leaders? Be sure you are connecting that result to the design of your system.

How to solve this problem:

Evaluate for design flaws and inconsistencies

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply look for consistent misses on essential building blocks:

  1. Can’t find enough leaders.
  2. Can’t find enough coaches.
  3. Percentage of connected adults is not increasing.
  4. Connecting unconnected people but not making disciples
  5. Making disciples but not connecting unconnected people.

Identifying the sweet spot between accepting the status quo and unrealistic expectations.

Building a thriving small group ministry is a challenging endeavor. It never happens in a single triumphant season. It always happens over years of blood, sweat and tears.

The problem for many churches is the easy acceptance of the status quo. After all, “we’ve tried this before and it doesn’t work here.”

At the same time, the problem for many churches is a failure to recognize the disconnect between their expectations, hopes and dreams, and the built-in obstacles in the design they’ve chosen.

How to solve this problem:

First, determine the true preferred future for your small group ministry.

This is an ambitious exercise that will require focused concentration and effort. It will also require the participation of the right people (i.e., not just the small group pastor and team). For all the difficulty of this step, determining your true preferred future will provide great clarity about legitimate next steps and milestones.

Second, identify the milestones that prove you’re heading in the right direction.

As important as determining your true preferred future is, wrestling out the right milestones and the leading indicators that predict successful arrival is an essential step.

With these two steps completed, you’ll begin to experience the sweet spot of movement toward an ambitious but attainable destination.

This article originally appeared here.