Before I began consulting churches about small groups, I had the privilege of leading the small-group ministry at LifeChurch.tv, one of America's largest churches. Through my experience as a consultant and my time at LifeChurch, I have enjoyed hundreds of conversations with small-group ministry champions and leaders. One of the most frequent questions I hear from these ministry leaders is "What can I do to get my pastor to support small groups?"
Regardless of how things currently are between the senior pastor and the small-group director, these tips can improve and maintain the relationship. If you’re a small-group ministry leader, you’ll learn several things you can do. And if you're a senior pastor reading this looking for ways to improve on your end, you'll learn great tips, too. The key to having a healthy and productive relationship between small-group ministry leaders and senior pastors is one word: communication.
Communication always has two sides. I'm currently a senior pastor and I've been a small-group ministry leader, so I've experienced both sides. Because of that, I can address both sides of the relationship. My goal is to improve communication between pastors and group ministry leaders so group ministry effectiveness is maximized.
Small-Group Ministry Leaders
Regardless of your title (small-group pastor, champion, director, etc.), if you are the person responsible for group ministry in your church, this portion of the article is for you. To improve communication with your senior pastor, I urge you to implement the following suggestions.
1. Put yourself in your lead pastor's shoes.
Ask the following questions regarding your senior pastor. Is my pastor in a group? Does my pastor speak about groups at weekend services? If you answered "yes" to either or both of these questions, it's likely that your pastor is supportive of small groups.
Ask yourself, is my pastor stressed? I'm willing to bet that you answered "yes" to this question. Most pastors are worked hard, spread thin, stretched, attacked, and criticized. You may feel like your pastor doesn't support your ministry because he or she doesn't pay as much attention to your ministry as you'd like. Keep in mind, however, that senior pastors face the same kind of stresses that CEOs face. On top of that pressure, senior pastors are Satan's favorite targets. Our spiritual enemy wants us to think less of our pastors. Don't add to your pastor's stress by falling into Satan's trap.
2. Get inside your pastor's head.
The only way for you to truly understand your pastor is to seek honest answers to honest questions. Interview your pastor. Spend time with your pastor figuring out what aspects of biblical community make his or her eyes light up. Use the following questions as a template for your interview:
- From your perspective, why do we have small-group ministry?
- What is your desire for our small-group ministry?
- What are your favorite biblical passages and/or stories related to small groups?
- In your mind, what will successful small-group ministry in our church look like in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years?
- How will I know the small-group ministry is successful in your eyes?
- Are there any group strategies or approaches that you believe won't work in our cultural context?
- Are there any group strategies or approaches that you think will work in our cultural context?
- Does our church need or want a small-group ministry that grows quickly or one that grows steadily?
- What would you like to know about progress in our small-group ministry?
- How often would you like me to communicate with you about small-group ministry progress?
Small groups will work better in your context if you are committed to asking and getting answers to these questions. This exercise will give you immediate insight regarding expectations, strategies, and communication. Realistically, if you aren't willing to spend the energy getting answers to these questions, you're in the wrong church or you've already given up on the relationship you have with your pastor.
3. Communicate how your ministry is winning and losing.
Tell your pastor about your successes. Celebrate your wins! Share stories of changed lives and victories of goals met. Sharing the good news helps your pastor know what efforts are being successful in the small-group ministry.
You can't just share the good news, though. Tell your pastor about your ministry struggles, too. Be honest about how you assess your ministry's progress. Don't ever blow smoke. Nothing erodes trust with a leader faster than false or inaccurate information. Your pastor wants you to succeed, so don't be afraid to share your honest evaluations about the ministry. Your pastor can't help you be successful while being kept in the dark.
4. Ask for your pastor's support.
I once had a young small-group pastor ask me how to get the support of his senior pastor, and I replied with a question: "Have you asked for his support?" The young man stammered for a moment then said, "It never occurred to me." The moral of this story: ask your pastor for help when you need it. If you need your pastor to make an announcement regarding groups, ask for it. If you need your pastor to come to a training meeting, ask him or her to be there. If you need your pastor to promote a curriculum, ask him or her to review it and write a recommendation. If you need help recruiting or need suggestions for new leaders, ask for your pastor's support. The bottom line is this: never say "no" for your pastor. Clearly communicate what you need and when you need it. Give your pastor the opportunity to say "yes" or "no" on his or her own.
5. Give more support than you request.
This final point is the most important. Do you remember Jesus' command, "Love your neighbor as yourself?" The principle of that command applies to your relationship with your pastor. If you want your pastor to support you, you must support your pastor. Be your pastor's number one advocate. Never talk negatively about your pastor. Don't disrespect his or her authority. Don't roll your eyes at his or her suggestions. Ask how you can help. Serve your pastor. By putting yourself last, you will gain your pastor's respect. Your pastor will be much more likely to support your ministry when there is mutual respect and support.
Every church with small-group ministry must have one indispensable staff person. No, I'm not talking about a small-group pastor. I'm not talking about a small-group champion, administrator, director, or coordinator. The position every successful small-group church must have is a Senior Pastor of Small Groups. What do I mean? As a senior pastor myself, I can say with absolute certainty that no church can have a truly successful small-group ministry unless the senior pastor is the number one supporter of the ministry. Below are some practical ideas that can help you make your small-group ministry a smashing success.
1. Be the loudest voice.
Don't waste money hiring a small-group pastor or budgeting for your small-group ministry if you aren't committed to being the most vocal proponent of the ministry. Rick Warren sets a fantastic example for us all when he says, "I'm the small-group pastor of Saddleback Church." That philosophy has become my own, and I can't recommend it strongly enough.
Champion small-group announcements from the stage and on video. Mention groups in every sermon. Tell a story about your own group or say something simple like, "Maybe you need to talk about today's message in your small group." The point is this: talk about groups as often as possible so they will become a part of your church's DNA.
2. Share the blame.
Senior pastors who are not the Senior Pastor of Small Groups in their churches can find themselves quickly frustrated with the results of their small-group ministries. They'll sometimes blame the staff members who are in charge of groups by saying things like, "I made a bad hire." They might blame the members of the church saying, "My people just aren't interested in groups." They occasionally even blame the culture at large by saying, "Small groups just aren't relevant anymore." Before leveling blame for small-group ministry failure, ask yourself how you may have contributed to the failure.
Resist the urge to blame staff. I'm currently a senior pastor, but I've been a small-group pastor. I've also consulted with churches all across America regarding small groups. In all of this I've learned that no small-group pastor, no matter how gifted, will be successful without the senior pastor's partnership.
Resist the urge to blame the church. I've seen clear evidence that the people in a church will value what their senior pastor values. When church members see the senior pastor's strong commitment to groups, their own commitment grows as well.
Resist the urge to blame the culture. People in our culture are desperate to belong. They are naturally "grouping" with people who love them, accept them, challenge them, and care for them all the time. TV shows like "Friends" and "Big Bang Theory" demonstrate this readily. With coffee shops on every corner, it's hard to honestly say that small groups are not culturally relevant.
When groups aren't working like you think they should, ask how you can take some of the blame and be part of the solution. This humble approach will earn the respect of your followers. It will also help you focus more on their successes than their failures.
3. Become passionate about small groups.
You'll most effectively promote groups when you're in one and when you are educated about them. So be in a small group and be committed to it. Then read some books on the subject. A few suggestions are Creating Communityby Andy Stanley and Bill Willits, The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Simple Small Groups by Bill Search, and Small Groups Big Impact by Jim Egli and Dwight Marable.
There are many other ways to support small-group ministry as well. Consider writing a few small-group discussion questions and tacking them on at the end of your sermon notes in the bulletin. Champion small-group real estate by making sure small groups have great representation in the lobby, on your website, and in your bulletin. Refuse to focus on groups only when something is out of place or broken; instead, stay up to date with progress. Demonstrate your care for the ministry by being interested in it all the time.
I recognize you are stretched thin, and that the demands on your time are huge. I also realize that expecting small-group ministry success without showing your full support and commitment is an exercise in futility. Your time is valuable, so don't waste it by only partially being committed to small groups.
—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma. Copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.