Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training tool called Re-Launching a Small-Groups Ministry.
John Atkinson is the discipleship pastor and home-teams director for Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is co-author ofGo Big with Small Groups.
Building Small Groups: Can you give us a brief summary of your experience with re-launching a small-groups ministry?
John Atkinson: When I came on staff at Bay Area Fellowship, there were about 16 groups. But because there wasn't a pastor or ministry leader overseeing the effort, about half of them were completely unhealthy—they were basically mini-churches out on their own. So one of the first things I did was "grow" our home-team ministry from 16 teams to 8, which I know is not a very auspicious start.
We re-launched at that point with a whole new vision. I think one of the biggest problems I see with small-group ministries that fail is that there is no vision. There's no answer to the question, "Why do we have a small-groups ministry?" A lot of small-group ministries are out there because churches think, "Well, we're supposed to have one." But if you don't have a vision for what you're trying to accomplish, you'll never accomplish it.
What are some of the first steps that church leaders need to take when re-launching a small-groups ministry?
Well, the first step is to identify a vision, for all the reasons I just mentioned. The second step is to set goals. What percentage of your congregation would you like attending small groups? Setting numerical goals gives you something to strive for. And I really challenge church leaders not to set achievable goals. Instead, set God-sized goals. Because if you set goals you know how to achieve, you don't need God. Once you have some goals, the next step is to put a plan of action into place to make the vision a reality through the goals you set.
But if I was to look back at all the churches I've worked with over the years, I think the most important step is to make sure the leadership of the church is on-board with what you're trying to do. I see more small-group ministries fail—or even if they're still there, they're not healthy—because the vision of the ministry doesn't match the vision of the church.
Oftentimes as small-group pastors, we have this grand idea about how we're going to grow the small-group ministry and get all these people involved. And we think: I'm going to do it my way. This is how to get it done. Then we sit down and talk with our senior pastor, and it's not the same vision.
So, as leaders in the church—those of us in the second chair and below—we need to make sure that our vision for ministry matches that of the senior pastor, because we're called to serve him. And oftentimes that means we have to humbly change our plan so that it falls in line with the plan of the senior pastor.
In fact, the most important thing you can do when re-launching a small-group ministry is to get with your senior pastor and say: "We want to re-launch this thing. Here's our vision, here's our goals, and here's our plan. And for these to be successful, this is what we'll need from you." Because if the senior pastor isn't talking about small groups on a regular basis, or isn't part of launching the vision for small groups, then the body of the church doesn't know they need to be in one.
Besides a lack of support from the senior pastor, what are some other obstacles that specifically attack an effort to re-launch a small-groups program within a church?
One of the biggest things that destroys small-group ministries is when they begin to compete against Sunday school. As a leader, you have to make sure that when you cast a vision for small groups, everyone in the church recognizes that you're not competing against Sunday school. You're not telling anyone not to go to Sunday school, or that Sunday school is bad. Small groups are just something different.
Resistance from existing leaders is also something you're likely to deal with. Several people have asked me, "What do you do with those leaders that have been there a long time and just aren't willing to follow you?" Well, making hard decisions is part of leadership. You have to be willing to say: "I've prayed my way through this vision, I've prayed my way through these goals, and I've prayed my way through this plan. I'm sure this is where God wants us to go." And maybe that means removing some leaders who've been with the ministry a long time if they're not on board with the vision you've laid out.
Third, sometimes you have a stagnant ministry because you have a stagnant leader. A lot of churches decide they want small groups, so they go out and find someone with the right pedigree and the right seminary degree—but with no passion for small groups. So sometimes getting a small-groups ministry to move forward means replacing the leader with someone who's really got a heart for small groups.
How can church leaders decide whether their small-groups program requires a total re-launch, or is only in need of a few tweaks?
For a ministry to be totally scrapped and re-started, it almost has to be completely unhealthy. And it's not hard to figure out when something is just a mess—the attitudes will be bad and the ministry will be completely stagnant.
But most ministries, if they are still operating at all, will contain a remnant of good, solid, godly leaders who are willing to follow the new direction wherever it goes. And you should always give existing leadership within the ministry a chance to jump on board. The key is to firmly lead and say, "This is the direction we're going." You'll find out quickly who's willing to follow you.
If a small-groups ministry needs to be re-launched, it's a good assumption that it wasn't growing. So how can church leaders sustain and increase numerical growth after the re-launch?
One of the healthiest things you can do for any small group, or any small-group ministry, is to keep it multiplying. The reason small groups get stagnant is because you can't put the same people in the same group year after year and keep them exciting.
We train our leaders to drop the seed on the first day of a new group. "I'm really glad you're all here, and we're going to have a lot of fun together. But a year from now, some of you will be leading a group." They don't want to scare anybody, so they just mention it. Then, a month later, they mention it again. And again. And they start building a process for multiplication by picking the people who have the most leadership potential.
We have coordinators that oversee 25 groups each. They're constantly talking to the leaders about multiplication. I never get in a room with a bunch of leaders without talking about multiplication. I never send out a training e-mail without talking about multiplication. So we've reached a point now where nobody goes into one of our small groups without recognizing that the group will multiply. And this always keeps new life coming into the groups; it keeps them from getting stagnant.
Would we categorize our church's small-groups ministry as healthy or stagnant?
Which of the steps necessary to re-launching a small-groups program has our church already taken? Which steps are missing?
Are any of the obstacles mentioned affecting the health and growth of our church's small-groups program? How could those obstacles be overcome?
Interested in learning more about re-launching a small-groups ministry? Check out these training downloads from BuildingSmallGroups.com:
• Re-Launching a Small-Groups Ministry: It can be tough to get everything right in a small-groups ministry the first time around—not to mention the second, third, or fourth. With devotional thoughts from John Ortberg, case studies, activities, and how-to articles from experts like Dan Lentz and John Atkinson, this Training Theme has everything you need to rebuild and maintain a lasting small-groups ministry.
• Small Groups—Assessment Pack: Often small groups run on autopilot, and no one steps out of the picture to see how the group, or the ministry as a whole, can be made more effective. The seven assessments in this download help your group measure some common issues.
• Tools for Evaluating Your Small-Group Ministry: Identify the six key components of an effective small group ministry that will help you assess the strengths and weaknesses of small groups in your church.