In his classic work, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, John Maxwell teaches that "Knowing how to lead is only half the battle. Understanding leadership and actually leading are two different activities." Your small-group ministry rises and falls on your leadership. But just understanding leadership isn't enough. Leading is about relationships, and relationships rise and fall on communication. So if you want to move your leadership from something you know to something you actually do, you have to communicate well.
Effective communication is two-way. We could talk about the different messages a small-group pastor needs to communicate and the various ways he or she could communicate them, including social media. However, I want to tackle something much more difficult. I want to look at the issue of getting feedback from leaders on a weekly basis. Listening to your leaders and knowing their hearts will make you a better leader. It will also help you craft the e-mails, training, and curriculum they really need. I am convinced that weekly feedback is essential for excellence in small-group communication and leadership.
Trial by Error
I have been working on communication within small-group ministries for over two decades. When I started, I loved the idea of weekly communication with my group leaders, and I had weekly meetings with them for several years. Those were great days for relationship building and laying the foundation of the ministry. However, over time my leaders gained competency and familiarity with our vision and values. I felt the value of those weekly times began to wane. It became a major task to get people to come. For a while I added various guilt techniques to get them there. I realize now, that wasn't the right thing to do. Something had to change.
I moved our meetings to monthly gatherings and added coaching huddles in between meetings. This took the leaders down to two meetings per month and empowered a new level of coaching leadership and relationships. I really like the model of mixing coaching huddles (or clusters) and larger group meetings for building relationships with leaders. However, due to busy schedules and lifestyles, I eventually revised this and held large-group leader meetings four times a year, letting the monthly coaching huddles tackle the everyday needs of leaders. We made a big deal out of these four larger events and had a blast with them.
But because my weekly communication had changed, so had my relationship with the leaders. I wasn't getting feedback from them like I used to, and frankly, I'm not sure I was leading them as well. The larger a ministry grows, the more important it is to multiply relationships and bring other volunteers alongside to coach or shepherd leaders, but does this mean that weekly feedback from leaders should go the way of the cassette player? The "genius of the and" that Jim Collins introduces in Built to Last, challenges us to creatively engage seemingly polar opposite sides of an issue to figure out how they can actually work together. So I began to wonder, What if we could multiply ministry and listen to leaders better at the same time?
I took into account that leaders are busy, and that each of us has the capacity to genuinely care for and disciple at most 10 or 12 people. As I came to terms with that reality, I saw the beauty of the principle of multiplication and began looking for ways to invest in leaders so they could invest in others. This was when 2 Timothy 2:2 came alive for me! I started eating lunch with my coaches on a regular basis, intentionally investing in them at those meetings. They, in turn, met with a small group of leaders regularly. Regular communication felt natural again.
A New Kind of Weekly Communication
But then one of my coaches, a retired army colonel, taught me that to lead effectively, you need to lead two layers down. In other words, in order to relate well to my coaches and lead them well, I needed to know the leaders they led. For coaches, that meant that in order to lead their leaders well, they needed to know the people in their leaders' groups. I realized that even if I wasn't going to meet with the leaders on a regular basis, I needed a way to get leaders to initiate weekly communication that would inform both their coaches and me. In this way, we could be assured that they were aligned with our ministry's goals and vision. A web application seemed to be the most logical way to accomplish this. So in August 2000, we rolled out our first run at such an app. Over the next eight years of use, the app expanded greatly, and we found ourselves leading a tribe of group champions committed to better communication. Three key lessons emerged: A weekly communication system must be simple, useful, and accountable.
I was part of a church that had transitioned from Sunday school to small groups. Weekly attendance numbers had always helped gauge growth, and we were committed to that metric. Unfortunately, it's hard to keep track of attendance when groups meet throughout the community all week long.
I tried everything. I asked leaders to call in their information to the office. This required a lot of staff time. Plus, it usually meant staff had to call leaders who had forgotten to report. Next, I put an option on the Internet and worked hard to get leaders to go there and log in after their meetings. We even e-mailed leaders weekly to encourage them to do it. Finally, it dawned on us that we should modify the software we were developing to automatically send an e-mail to leaders on the night they meet. This e-mail gave them a link to click which brought them to a meeting report page that included attendance reporting and space for them to write down notes and prayer requests. This definitely made it simpler. Still, adoption was only at about 50 percent.
Then I noticed that my best leaders communicated to their group weekly, usually by e-mail. So, we modified the system so that the meeting report would go not only to the coaches and pastors who oversaw the group, but also to the entire group. We trained the leaders to see these e-mails as a weekly reminder for them to communicate with and build relationships with group members. As they communicated with their group, they were also communicating with their coach and pastor. This helped tremendously.
A by-product was the discovery that coaching is more powerful when you watch leaders communicate with their group. Looking back, I should have realized that coaching a leader works best when you see the leader interacting with the team. Can you imagine a football coach meeting with his quarterback yet never watching him play or practice? This was a great lesson on using communication to train coaches. It was also a great lesson on the need to make the communication system useful to leaders in building relationships with their group members. It moved adoption up another 10 to 20 percent.
The third strand of a strong, weekly communication plan is accountability. Even with the best intentions, people just plain forget. So we added a feature to automatically send out a reminder e-mail two days after the first e-mail with the link, and a third one if both of the others were ignored. Having a software system that automatically did this for each leader each week took a tremendous strain off staff and got our response rate up to about 70 percent. The capstone to getting 100 percent response to weekly communication from leaders was a fourth e-mail reminder sent to the coach or staff person who oversees the group. All the staff member had to do was call one or two times to ask if the group was okay. Then the leader would quickly respond and get on board with the application.
What Shepherds Do
Getting weekly feedback from leaders is hard, but it's not impossible. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd counting his sheep. Why does the shepherd count? It surely wasn't to brag. It was to notice each sheep and to find the ones that are lost. He counted because he cared. That's what shepherds do. It's in their job description. In John 10, Jesus pointed out that the Shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd's voice. Your leaders need to know your voice. Share your heart and vision for the ministry in multiple ways: blogs, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, postcards, newsletters, handwritten notes, and marketing products. But remember, if your leaders are to follow you, they need to know that you know their heart and voice as well.
—Boyd Pelley is co-founder and president of ChurchTeams; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.