When it comes to methods for training small-group leaders, there appear to be three schools of thought. First are those who recruit a leader, hand them the curriculum, pat them confidently on the back, tell them to call if they have any questions, and toss them into the fire—I mean the small group.
The second school of thought is at the other end of the continuum. The group leader gets recruited and is subsequently scheduled for a couple of small-group leadership classes. These classes, instead of being a practical overview, are intensive training sessions that cover virtually every possible issue and contingency the group leader might ever possibly run into. Six months later, those few who "graduate" from Small Group University are more suited for teaching college courses in small-group dynamics than actually teaching Bible studies.
I "discovered" the third school of thought from Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Resources many years ago, and I've been using an adapted version ever since. This training method adequately prepares the small-group leader for action, while at the same time sparing them the agony of training overload. It's called "Just-in-Time Training."
Defining the Terms
The premise of Just-in-Time Training is that a small-group leader, or any leader for that matter, will be highly motivated and ready to thoroughly learn and practice a leadership skill when they are faced with a learning opportunity. Learning opportunities—sometimes referred to as "problems"—arise when the leader is out there in the ministry field. These learning opportunities seemingly just appear, often out nowhere, and when they do the group leader will be ready to take on the next level of learning, whatever that may be.
Of course, there's an underlying presumption in this style of training: that a small-group coach has been meeting with the group leader for mentoring or coaching often enough to address the learning opportunity when it arises. If the coach simply waits for the small group leader to reach out when an issue pops up, the training style defaults to the first school of thought mentioned above—which is essentially no training at all.
Let's presume, though, that the coach has been meeting with a group leader regularly, say weekly or at least monthly. And let's suppose that leader has suddenly realized they've got an interpersonal issue brewing between two of their participants. If the second approach to training had been used as few as six months ago, it's likely that in the crush of information, the leader will have forgotten the key crisis management skills for conflict intervention and will be unprepared for dealing with the problem.
On the other hand, if the coach is practicing Just-in-Time Training, then the leader is primed to find a solution and ready to accept the coach's guidance.
Here's one other thing to keep in mind when it comes to Just-in-Time Training: the best repository for future small-group leaders is almost always found within existing small groups. Indeed, one of the basic training tasks necessary for every group leader is how to apprentice future leaders in their small groups. A leader who isn't intentionally apprenticing new leaders weekly needs that Just-in-Time Training task right away.
Basic apprenticing is about as simple as it comes: ask participants to share the small-group load. Get someone else to lead the prayer time next week. Show someone else how to take attendance. Ask someone else to lead the study session. And so on. A good small-group leader should be able to pass off 100 percent of the typical leadership tasks within eight weeks.
I want to close this out with an example of Just-in-Time Training from my own experience. I was coaching and mentoring a network of small-group leaders in the Seattle area when one of my leaders began asking about doing funerals. I was puzzled, but took the time to listen to her story.
Her small group was made up of families who had medically fragile children in their homes. One of the children had taken a turn for the worse, and it was likely that he would be passing in a few weeks. Several of the families who attended the small group were unable to attend weekly public worship, and this small-group leader had become the de facto pastor. Over the next several weeks I worked with the leader and trained her how to walk with the family during the first days of the child's inevitable passing, as well as how to arrange, coordinate, and conduct a funeral.
The fateful day came and the small-group leader was as prepared as she could be. Apparently she learned well—the next training session she and I had was how to do baptisms, because several adults and children decided to become Christian in the days that followed the funeral service.
Just-in-Time Training helps keep coaching and mentoring fresh for your small-group leaders—and it can be especially gratifying for those of us who coach, as well. There's simply nothing like a well-motivated student to bring out the best in us coaches.
—Bill Tenney-Brittian; copyright 2011 by the author and Christianity Today International