Designing a Training Strategy

Highly effective group leaders generally don't just walk into your office—they are developed over time.

I have always believed that leading a small group is not rocket science. You can take people with moldable hearts and teachable spirits and shape them into average group leaders. However, who wants to be average? Who hungers for mediocrity?

What we want to be—and to have in our ministry—is highly effective small group leaders who truly "get it." We seek leaders who understand the vision and own it and leaders who are a joy to coach. We want groups that are growing spiritually, and where stories of life change seem to emerge weekly. These leaders are the ones that you would love to clone, yet it is a rare day when these leaders call the church office and volunteer.

Ever get one of these voicemails? "Hi, my name is Susan. I went on a spiritual retreat this weekend to try to discern where God wants me to invest the next five years of my life in serving. Through a series of conversations it became clear to me that God is asking me to consider leading a small group. I led groups for ten years in my previous church, and I wondered if you might have some time to talk. Please call me."

Me neither. Here is the hard, cold reality for most of us: highly effective group leaders are developed over time. They often start as group members who feel God moving them toward leadership. When the occasional "gem" of a leader drops in our laps, we are, at that moment, simply the beneficiaries of someone else's efforts to develop them in the marketplace or another church setting.

It can be challenging to craft an intentional, strategic, proactive plan for developing current and future group leaders. Perhaps that is why many churches simply fire randomly with their training, hoping that some of it will hit the mark.

While some staff members have the privilege of being singularly focused on group life, many wear multiple hats. The immediate and urgent pressures of ministry can crowd out the important task of leadership development.

How can we make progress on this? Here are some steps to help us move towards a long-term leadership training and development strategy.

Assemble the Team

You do not want to craft your strategy alone. The best thinking and planning happens in teams. As you consider potential team members, include a mixture of people. What types of people can best help you?

people living in community and serving in the trenches with you. They can help discern the actual impact of your strategy on leaders, coaches, and the overall quality of group life.

Instructional designers, corporate trainers, and those who understand the adult learner.

Big picture people:
Individuals who can sort through how the leadership development strategy will affect individual ministries and fit within the church's overall vision.

Critical thinkers:
Those who like to take things apart, examine them, and understand why they work and why they do not. These are the "why" and "why not" people.

Outside the box thinkers:
Individuals who are creative and who love to shatter the old paradigms and create new ones in your church.

Determine the Goal

Now it is time to dream. Grab a clean sheet of paper and brainstorm with your team. Why does your small group ministry really exist? What are you hoping to accomplish in and through the groups? If an individual is a part of your group ministry for five years, how will their life be different?

When we did this at Willow Creek, we ended up with four key purposes for our group life ministry: transformation, compassion, community, and mission. Allow plenty of time for this discussion. Depending on the size of your church, this can be a lengthy process. We wrestled with our key purposes for a couple of months before landing on those four.

This step is important because it will help form the foundation for your overall training strategy. Once you have clarified the overall purpose of the ministry, then you can begin to answer the next question: What kind of leader do we need to achieve that goal?

Decide the Skills

Educators are familiar with the terms scope and sequence. Scope deals with the topics and content of the training you will offer your leaders. The key question in training is what do you want your leaders to be able to do when the training is over?

Then it is time to brainstorm again. Gather with your team and begin to list all the possible training needs in your ministry. As you work through this process, keep in mind the overall purpose of your ministry as defined above.

We did this a number of years ago at Willow. We pulled 20 people in a room and handed them all sticky notes. For over an hour, we brainstormed. When we finished there were scores of notes stuck to the walls (and the doors and the windows). The list was not exhaustive, but it was exhausting! It included things like:

How to plan a small group meeting
How to listen well and ask good questions
How to add new people—fill the open chair
How to choose and use curriculum in a group
How to do conflict resolution
How to solve problems within group life

Each note has the potential to become a training topic. Once the list is complete, begin to group them under the purposes of your ministry. Look for similar themes that would work together in a training package.

This can be a difficult and time consuming task, but the payoff—a well-crafted training strategy—is more than worth it!

Establish the Pace

Next is the sequence portion and it matters a great deal. In mathematics, it is critical that the learners have basic skills before moving on to more advanced content. Teaching math might sequence out like this: Counting—writing numbers—addition—subtraction—multiplication—division—algebra—geometry—trigonometry—calculus—church treasurer. Likewise, sequencing is important in your leader training. Rising leaders, new leaders, and seasoned leaders each have unique developmental needs. Conflict resolution skills are important, but may not be necessary in the first round of training for rising leaders.

Keep it simple at first. What are the basic skills that leaders need? What will be the core of your training? There will be time to make the training more robust later. For now, keep it simple.

Another issue in establishing the pace is to determine the most opportune times in your church life to offer training. How frequently can leaders be expected to come to classroom training, check in on the web site, or meet with a mentor or coach? What is a sustainable pace—one that equips leaders and still enables them to shepherd and guide their group?

Begin to chart what the overall training calendar could look like for the next 12 months.

Choose a Delivery System

Not every training need is best met in a classroom setting! Make use of all four of the training quadrants.

This is one aspect of a coach's relationship with their leaders. Many skills are taught and modeled in one-on-one settings. Other methods of mentoring could include peer mentoring (seasoned and new leaders paired for a time), table discussions at leadership gatherings, or seeking out time one-on-one with a legendary leader in the church. One church has established a hotline that leaders can call with questions or challenges and receive peer mentoring. Leaders know they can call the hotline on Tuesdays, for example, to get their questions answered.

Books, tapes, CD's, and web sites are great training resources for group leaders. Build a lending library and encourage leaders to sharpen their skills as they drive to work or over their lunch hour. Monthly web-based newsletters and online training are also great tools for self-directed learning.

This is the hardest quadrant to deliver well on a consistent basis. While it has its place, classroom training is overused. Reserve this quadrant for skills that cannot be learned any other way.

There is no substitute for this! Roger Schank, a respected authority on adult learning at Northwestern University in Chicago, says that we really only learn one way: trying, failing and practicing. That is what this quadrant is all about.

Match the delivery system to the way the skills are best learned. For example, shepherding conversations are best learned in a role-play or in a one-on-one conversation.

Variety is the key. The more variety you have in your delivery systems, the more accessible your training becomes. Which approach makes equipping more accessible? "Our monthly training is on the first Tuesday from 7-9", or "We offer training on the first Tuesday from 7-9, as well as a monthly newsletter, a web site, and leadership training CD's are sent out once a quarter."

Identify the Obstacles

Try to determine what might keep people from participating in your training. As simple as this step sounds, this step is easily missed.

A few years back, I asked my leaders about the classroom training we offered. "Why are you not attending?" The answer: "It's all on Sunday night, and that's when my group meets!" We were doing training when it was easiest to get trainers and rooms at the church, not when it was best for leaders.

Talk with your current coaches and leaders. Float your team's training ideas past them and get their insights into potential obstacles. If you want the real scoop on the obstacles, gather some of the leaders who never participate in training. Give them the freedom to tell you why. It is an eye-opener. Here is what I have found from those individuals:

  • Location: Too far to travel or too inconvenient

  • Content: It is not relevant, helpful, fun, or creative in the way it is delivered. Hear that as "boring."

  • Duration: It is too long! Give me training in bite-sized pieces. Make it an hour long or two at the most, not a four week, 8 hour training.

  • Communication: I did not learn about it in time. (I also heard that the publicity did not strike at a felt need, sso they opted out.)

  • Childcare: If care is not provided by the church, attendance at training events can become costly or simply too much of a hassle.

Once you have identified the obstacles, do your best to remove them. Continue to listen to leaders to see if new or unforeseen obstacles arise.

Gather Feedback

Once you have launched the first components of your new training strategy, check in with leaders. Is it helpful? Is it worth the investment of time and energy? Did it add value to their leadership? What would they change?

At a 30,000 foot level, go back to your leadership team and evaluate. Are we producing the kind of leaders we desire? Is the atmosphere in the groups what we desire it to be? How is our plan working, really? As Ken Blanchard says, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." Get feedback from every angle possible to help determine the effectiveness of your strategy.

Your commitment to craft, refine, deliver, and evaluate a long-term training strategy is essential to the sustainability of your ministry. To be honest, this is not glamorous work, but equipping, motivating, and encouraging your group leaders will keep them in the game long-term and will encourage them to invite others to join the leadership team. It will raise the quality of group life, and it will help you achieve the purposes of your group ministry.

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