Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training tool called Ministering to Struggling Small-Group Leaders.
In a perfect world, every small group would be healthy. Small-group leaders would always be effective and life-change would be a weekly occurrence. The role of a small-group pastor would be a stress-free position because we would never lack effective leaders. Yes, this would be a great place to live!
In reality, James 3:2 reminds us, "We all stumble in many ways." This means small-group pastors will oversee a ministry containing people who stumble in many ways. Small-group pastors and church leaders are not immune to the truth in this verse either. It's important to have biblical expectations for people and be prepared to handle those seasons of stumbling.
At some point in ministry, every small-group pastor (or ministry point person) will have to deal with ineffective leadership. I'm not talking about leaders who commit major sins or mistakes. I'm referring to the leaders who simply are not getting the job done. These leaders tend to fly under the radar, sometimes for several months, before a church leader is aware of the issue. Once ineffective leadership is brought to the surface, however, it must be addressed quickly—a difficult task even for veteran pastors.
Five Common Causes for Ineffective Leadership
Below are several factors that often contribute to a leader's ineffectiveness. Understanding why leaders struggle will give you a great foundation for ministering to them.
- Lack of training. Training is a major key to successful leadership. Every group leader must be equipped to lead a small group, and if a ministry lacks quality training, the leaders will struggle. Small-group leaders need two types of training: startup and ongoing. The startup training should provide practical skills for beginning a small group, and the ongoing training helps leaders overcome obstacles as group life progresses.
Does your church offer both? It's common for small-group pastors to leave out some needed ingredients, especially when the ministry is new. So evaluate your training process. Have the leaders been properly equipped with start-up training? Are they facing obstacles that were not addressed during training?
- Lack of understanding. In order for your training to be properly applied, it must first be understood. If leaders aren't performing well, perhaps they haven't processed the training they experienced. Don't assume that people understand something just because they hear it.
You can also prevent this by allowing for time to process during training. Have leaders meet together in pairs to talk through possible scenarios, or engage leaders in a game that tests their knowledge of the topics covered that day. Very few people learn simply by listening. Engage your leaders by training them in multiple ways.
- Lack of communication. The lines of communication must be open between small-group leaders and church leadership. Sometimes group leaders will not report a problem, perhaps assuming it isn't big enough to bother with. But withholding information is never a good thing. Ignoring a problem will not make it go away. In fact, problems tend to grow with time. Have you been in regular communication with the leader who is struggling? If not, you may have pinpointed the cause of their trouble.
- Lack of preparation. Leading a small-group meeting is not easy, and some leaders struggle simply because they don't prepare enough. They neglect to put enough time into the process of preparing. They procrastinate and try to cram some ideas at the last minute. All of this leads to mistakes and missed opportunities. How often do you ask your leaders how they're preparing? Hearing about their process can help you understand a lot about how meetings are run.
- Lack of initiative. Sometimes small-group leaders are not as enterprising or resourceful as we'd like them to be. This lack of initiative may stem from a variety of factors: distraction from the stresses of life, low self-esteem, personality types, extreme shyness, fatigue, and so on. Some leaders are simply lazy or apathetic. Any of these factors must be addressed in order for the leader to improve. Knowing which factor is contributing to a leader's lack of initiative is imperative to effectively minister to him or her.
How to Help Leaders Get Back On Track
There are several steps you need to take when working with a struggling small-group leader. Here are the major landmarks.
- Set up a meeting. This initial meeting needs to be accomplished face-to-face. Find a good time to meet in an environment where you both can be open. The location must allow both you and the leader to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and feelings without worrying who may be within earshot. Psalm 34:14 says, "Seek peace and pursue it."
When the meeting happens, don't skip the small talk. Having a formal (or even chiding) tone will make the meeting awkward. Be yourself and talk to the leader as a friend.
- Remember the vision. 2 Peter 1:13 says, "I think it is right to refresh your memory…." Sometimes we assume that our small-group leaders will remember everything we say. This assumption comes from our passion to eat, drink, breathe, and dream about small-group ministry. The fact is that it is impossible to remember everything we hear, and we, and our leaders, deserve to be reminded.
Leaders need to be reminded of God's vision for your church's small-group ministry. As you do this, include stories of life-change. Personal stories will help them see the importance of the vision. They will come face-to-face with the reality that Christ desires to use them for life-change.
- Cast the vision of a healthy group. This is your opportunity to evaluate the leader's ability to picture a healthy group. Ask them to describe the attributes of a healthy group. If a struggling leader can envision a healthy group, they know where they need to be moving group members. This helps them establish a desired destination. Philippians 3:14 says, "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." If a leader does not understand the attributes of a healthy group, then he or she will settle for second best.
Be sure to listen for false expectations during this step. Rookie leaders often think that a healthy group is a perfect group. This sets them up for a huge let down. Healthy groups still have problems from time to time. People will argue, selfish motives will be exposed, and feelings may be hurt. What determines the health of a group is how the group members respond to a problem.
- Identify what is holding them back. This can be the most difficult step because it requires a leader to be vulnerable. So be sure to affirm leaders that your intention is to help them grow. If leaders are to grow, they must be able to recognize any obstacle the group faces. They also must be able to see how it is negatively affecting the health of the group.
This step requires absolute honesty from the group leader. As you listen, be sure to pick up on the condition of the group. This step normally will give you a clear picture of the group's life.
- Plan to overcome. Philippians 4:13 says, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." This is where the rubber meets the road. Once the leader has identified obstacles, he or she must find a way to navigate their group toward some victories. Help the leader create practical steps to overcome the obstacles.
Make sure that each step is realistic. For example, perhaps a leader's group contains a high level of conflict between members. Maybe they've had a falling out of some kind. It would be unrealistic for a leader to think the group members would become the best of friends in a matter of days. Relational healing can take time.
Stopping leaders from creating unrealistic steps will prevent them from further ineffectiveness. It will also help them learn to invest more time in preparation. Once leaders have established practical steps, put them on a timeline. Ask them: When will you accomplish this step?
- Give them a choice. It is crucial for leaders to take responsibility for their words and actions. They must commit to take ownership of their group's past, present, and future. A verbal commitment can create powerful momentum to follow through on established plans. By choosing to pursue a solution, the leader will be claiming ownership of the practical steps that must be taken.
Help leaders see the natural consequences of their actions, too. "If you commit to this plan, then you can expect my ongoing support. But if you cannot commit to this plan today, we need to re-evaluate some things." Be clear and speak directly. This step places a small-group leader in a position to make a choice. Step back and let the leader choose.
- Set up a future evaluation. Romans 14:12 says, "Each of us will give an account of himself." This step helps ensure leaders will follow through. They know that on a specific date, they will be held accountable for taking action. It also helps them sense that you care for them. Taking the time to set up a follow-up meeting communicates the fact that you value that particular leader.
—Seth Widner is Family Pastor of The Journey Church in Fernandia Beach, Florida.
- Which of the five common causes does your church need to improve on?
- How can you improve training, understanding, communication, preparation, and initiative in your ministry so you can prevent leaders from struggling?
- How does your ministry seek to get leaders back on track? Are there things you can add from this article?