Starting Over

re-launching a small group ministry with finesse.

Once upon a time, someone tried to start a "small group program" in your church and it failed miserably. The whys and wherefores of the failure are irrelevant. The fact is, though, now you are stuck with the ever-present naysayers whose mantra is, "We tried that…." In spite of that, you know small groups are still the most efficient way to disciple, so you are committed to a resurrection. The question is, will you use a bulldozer or something with a bit more finesse?

The bulldozer method seems to be the approach most often used in the local church. You know how it is done: Preach up a storm about the need for effective small groups. Write articles for the newsletter. Try to convince a majority of the congregation who will trump any opposition if it comes to a vote. Do not forget to put a date on the calendar for small group leadership training.

Bulldozers are excellent pieces of equipment, but they tend to make a mess of the landscape, ruffle a lot of feathers, and create as many problems as they solve. On the other hand, finesse is a bit gentler, and it is certainly less confrontational. In my experience, it is a lot more effective when re-launching small groups.

In congregational reality, the difference between using a bulldozer and using finesse is only quantitative. Using a bulldozer means trying to get a lot of people on board at one time, typically by trying to bulldoze your way through the opposition. Finesse, on the other hand, means getting a lot of people on board one at a time. Just a subtle difference, but it could mean the difference between success and another failure.

Finessing a Re-Launch

Finessing your way into an effective small group movement means starting slowly. The goal is to get a lot of people on board, but you do it one person at a time. To finesse a small group movement generally means the movement begins with just you and a few potential small group leaders.

One of the main complaints/concerns about budding small group programs is the inability to successfully recruit new small group leaders. The rest of this article is a micro-version of a seminar I teach on how to multiply leaders and small groups. If you can multiply small group leaders and small groups, you can successfully re-launch a small group movement in your church.

Step 1: The Passionate Eye Test

Before trying to re-launch a small group movement in your congregation, you will want to recruit some potential new small group leaders. If you do not multiply yourself as a small group leader, you will end up with just one small group (or a dozen small groups each led by one exhausted you). The issue is finding potential leaders.

One way to discover potential small group leaders is to administer the Passionate Eye Test. The Passionate Eye Test is a simple and effective tool based on the "Hire for Passion, Train for Skills" principle. In other words, find someone who is passionate about small groups and then train them. The Passionate Eye Test checks for passion. It is not the end-all-be-all of recruiting, but it's the first step to launching a small group movement. Here is how it works:

Whenever you are in a small gathering of church people, or when you are in a one-on-one situation, share your vision for a small group movement. You will not need to get verbose, but I am assuming you are sharing from your own passion. As you do, watch your listener's eyes. If they glaze over, you have ruled them out as a potential small group leader. Do not bother trying to convince them. Simply move on to someone else. However, as you share, if the lights go on in their eyes, you have found a potential leader. Make a mental note to yourself: "Invite _______ to my first small group gathering" and move on. Do not tip your hand yet. Above all, do not mention their potential as a small group leader. Remember, this is about finesse.

Step 2: Launch

Once you have seen twelve pairs of eyes light up, it is time to get something going. There are two schools of thought here. One school would invite these passionate people to a get-together where you would share your small group vision and invite them to become small group leaders. If you have done an exceptional job at interpreting the Passionate Eye Test, you may wind up with eight to ten new small group leaders who are ready for training.

On the other hand, if you are like me, just an average Passionate Eye Test Optometrist, then you may find ten of the twelve suddenly struck with myopia and unwilling to lead a small group. Personally, I am a student of the second school of thought—the school of finesse. That school invites the passionate people to a get-together and starts an effective small group with them. Then, as you gather every week, you would take the next steps to launching a small group movement.

Step 3: Apprentice

Whichever school of thought you choose to follow, the next step is to apprentice your leaders. If you have tipped your hand (the first school of thought), then the agenda for the gatherings will likely be task oriented—a series of "how to" lessons to cover whatever format your small groups are going to take.

However, for those committed to finesse, you can do no better than practicing what I call Shadow Apprenticeship (because your apprentices walk in your shadow). Over the first eight to twelve weeks, share the leadership tasks with members of the small group. Again, you need not tell them they are in training to become small group leaders, you simply apprentice them without them knowing. For instance, in our small groups, each week we do the following:

  1. Have a meal;

  2. Spend time in prayer, both "scheduled" and spontaneous;

  3. Spend time in worship (music, Psalms or poetry reading, etc.);

  4. Share life events and use the Bible to keep us on track;

  5. Ask about one anothers' spiritual practices during the week;

  6. Take an offering;

  7. Plan evangelistic efforts and review recent efforts;

  8. Share communion.

Although it may sound like a lot goes on, once an expectation has been set, prayer, Bible use, and discussion naturally bubbles up during conversation. In the beginning, the small group leader handles most of these tasks. However, during the apprenticeship process, s/he quietly asks different people to be responsible for one or more of the specific tasks. Each week, the small group leader provides positive one-on-one feedback as well as helpful hints to each participant who handled a task during the week. Ultimately, the goal is for each participant to become adept at every task.

Step 4: Recruit

Recruiting is probably the most important step in multiplying leaders. Of course, if you began the small group with each participant knowing they were being groomed for leadership, you have already taken care of this. However, if you are finessing your small group movement, step 4 is for you.

If you have fully trained your small group participants, you have removed the most common objections raised when asked to take on leadership:

• "I can't lead!"


• "I don't know how."

Since you have already trained them, and they have already been leading, these objections are taken care of. However, if you are committed to a movement of small groups, recruiting your apprentices is more than just inviting them to lead. You should also be asking them to participate in both a mentoring and a coaching relationship, as well as becoming a mentor themselves for future apprentices.

When it comes to recruiting, remember this is not a group event. Go to each participant you have successfully apprenticed, and recruit them individually. Second, when you ask them to be a leader, assure them that they will be fully supported with ongoing mentoring and coaching.They will not be abandoned. Finally, be honest about your expectations. We expect our leaders to apprentice the participants in their groups and to be models of the faith (cf., Phil. 3:17). We also let them know that we not only provide ongoing mentoring and coaching, we expect them to engage in both.

Step 5: Mentoring and Coaching

As I close out this article, I want to mention mentoring and coaching.

Mentoring is training by participation, and we expected our small group leaders to be part of our weekly leadership small group. In that group, we basically follow the regular small group model, except the discussion revolvs around small group leadership issues.

Coaching can be defined as encouragement, but it is more than lavishing praise on someone. Coaching is expecting and bringing the best out of another. We offer one-on-one coaching appointments monthly. During these appointments we review personal goals and issues.

Do we require a lot of our leaders? Most definitely, but by setting the bar high, it was amazing how many were not only willing to take the leap, but they saw the small groups as pivotal in their lives.

If you are committed to re-launching a small group movement in your congregation, I recommend being finesseful (I know, that's not a real word…). I also recommend that you provide all the training and follow-through that is possible. By doing so, you increase the possibility of multiplying new disciples, new leaders, and new small groups.

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Small Groups and Sunday School

Small Groups and Sunday School

Rick Howerton is a church consultant in the south-central region of Kentucky
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