Build a Small-Group Ministry Team
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Build a Small-Group Ministry Team

With a team, there's no ceiling on the ways God can use your small-group ministry.

Without a team, your impact is limited to the number of leaders you can recruit and the number of groups you can support. With a team, there's no ceiling on the ways God can use your small-group ministry.

If you want to have an effective team, the first thing you have to do is establish the team framework and draft the players. You need to define roles, figure out whether you're going to hire staff or utilize volunteers, and then start recruiting.

Of course, reality is often not that linear. Frequently, we have the players—or some of the players—and have to figure out where they fit on the team. So while we'll talk first about the framework and then about finding the players, there's often a back and forth interplay between these stages.

Differentiation of Roles

There are a million ways to break down job responsibilities, and a larger church will have more division within each of these categories. Most churches I've seen, however, divvy up responsibilities in one of three ways (or use a hybrid of these methods).

By Expertise
Small-group ministry teams naturally start with this model. The person running the ministry brings people onto the team who can help with those tasks and responsibilities that he or she isn't good at or doesn't have time for. If someone's a great writer, he writes curriculum. If another person is a good speaker, she teaches at the training events. If someone is great at pastoral care, he's responsible for the leaders. There's a natural shake-out of responsibilities. As the ministry grows, a decision is made (by intention or default) whether to stick with this model or move to another one. Most tasks in small-group ministry fall into three categories:

Content is the informational side of group ministry, primarily consisting of curriculum and training. The person in charge of content needs to be an effective communicator and understand the dynamics of individual small groups.

Leader Engagement
This is, perhaps, the most critical component of any small-group ministry, no matter how it's organized. As John Maxwell says, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." This person is responsible for investing relationally in leaders. He or she is also in charge of recruiting new leaders—otherwise there won't be any leaders to invest in relationally. It's critical that this person is continually recruiting new leaders.

Assimilation and Logistics
Assimilation is the process of actually getting people into small groups, while logistics are all of the processes, procedures, and systems needed to help the small-group ministry run smoothly. These two responsibilities are pretty easily separated, but a lot of the skillsets overlap, so they're often lumped together. Marketing and organization are the primary skills required for this position.

By Geography or Campus
A second way of structuring a team is geographically. In this model, each team member is responsible for everything within a particular region or neighborhood.

One benefit of organizing the team geographically is that it's simply easier to connect with people who are close to you. Over time, you'll get to know the people who live around you much better simply because you have more opportunities to interact.

Another benefit is that the relational responsibilities are spread around. Even the most social, gregarious, outgoing people have a limit to the number of people they can meaningfully invest in.

The downside is that team members are no longer able to play to their strengths to the same degree. Rather than the most organized person being in charge of logistics, each team member shares in the logistical workload, even the ones who may not be good at logistics. And rather than the best writer and teacher doing the writing and teaching, those responsibilities are divvied up.

In a multi-site context, this model is especially effective. Depending on your church size and the number of groups, one person may be able to take the lead on leader engagement at two or even three campuses, but as the number of campuses and the distance between them increase, the ability of that individual to continue investing in those leaders becomes less and less. It's exponentially more difficult to care for 100 leaders spread across four campuses than it is to care for 100 leaders at one campus. Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend having a strong point person for groups at each location if you are multi-site.

By Category
You can also structure a team according to ministry type. You might have one person responsible for men's groups, another for women's groups, a third for couples' groups, a fourth for singles' groups, a fifth for seniors' groups, and so on.

Similar to the Expertise Model which allows leaders to be specialists in a particular skill set, the Categorical Model allows someone to be a specialist in a particular people group. Rather than a 20-something kid trying to figure out how to advise a group of octogenarians or the couple that got married at 21 attempting to understand the challenges of being single in your thirties, each team member can become intimately familiar with the needs, challenges, and quirks of people in different life stages. This structure lends itself well to churches that offer a lot of group based on life stage.

But like the geography/campus model, you end up with folks operating outside of their primary giftings, which can be a strain.

Staff vs. Volunteer

We'd all love to be able to hire someone every time we have a responsibility that we don't have time to handle, but alas, that's not reality. So when should you utilize volunteers? And when should you bring someone onto the staff team?

My philosophy is to utilize volunteers as much as is practical. If I find a volunteer to do something rather than hiring a staff member, then I will. But if what is truly needed is someone who has the time and expertise that you're only going to find in a staff member, continuing to use volunteers will short-circuit your growth.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when trying to decide whether you need to add staff:

What are appropriate spans of care?

There's a limit to the number of people that any one leader can lead and care for effectively, and volunteers can care for fewer people than a staff member with dedicated time for ministry. When you and your volunteers begin to reach the limits of your span of care, you'll either need to change your system or bring on additional staff. Assuming each coach is caring for 10 leaders, I've found that a good rule of thumb is to hire an additional staff member once you hit 80-90 leaders.

Is it a good idea to change our system?

Some systems require a great deal more work to keep them running than others, so a system change may allow you to continue growing without adding additional staff members.

If you're coming up to a point where you're going to need additional help to continue doing things the way you're doing them, then you should take a hard look at whether it's time for a system change. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Are groups accomplishing what we want them to?
  • Are our leaders being effectively trained and cared for?
  • Will this system continue to scale as we grow for the next 2-3 years?

If your answer to any of these is no, then it might be time to change your system. If your answer to all of them is yes, then you probably need to hire someone.

Also note that a system change could actually end up being more labor-intensive. For instance, if your leaders aren't being cared for because you don't have a good system to do that, then any system you implement as a fix will probably require more staff time, not less.

What type of work needs to be done?

In my experience, it's usually easier to find volunteers to do direct ministry than it is to find volunteers to do behind-the-scenes logistics and support. In other words, it's easier to recruit coaches than it is to find someone who will manage the database.

Most people would rather spend their time investing in people than coordinating details. Keeping track of numbers and processes is the sort of stuff that a lot of people do at work all day long, and they'd rather use their free time to invest relationally.

Plus, relationships tend to be a bit more flexible. If a volunteer coach is a week late in following up with leaders, it probably won't have a huge impact one way or the other. On the other hand, when a volunteer database administrator is late on processing the guests who inquired about groups so that someone can follow up with them, it will likely impact the effectiveness of connecting new people into groups.

Find Your Teammates

Whether you're looking for staff or volunteers, having the right people on the team is critical. A great team will accomplish a great deal. A sub-par team will not only fail, it will likely make everyone miserable in the process. Here are five things to look for in potential teammates.

They want it.
Some of my worst leadership experiences involve times when I've brought people on board who weren't excited about being on the team. People who want to be on the team go the extra mile. They do things without being asked. They're excited and they improve morale—including yours.

People who don't want to be on the team just check the boxes. They do the bare minimum. Not only will they drag you and your team down, they'll drag your leaders down as well.

When you talk with a potential teammate, watch for signs of excitement. Do they light up when you talk about what you want to accomplish and how they can contribute to that mission? Do they start coming up with ideas or asking great questions? If there aren't clear signs, it's okay to ask them how they feel about it. Make it clear that you don't want them to sign up just to fill a need or because they like you. You only want them to do it if they're passionate about what you're doing and ready to make time to do it.

They get it.
There are two critical things they have to understand. First, they have to be fully invested in your vision for groups. That doesn't mean they agree with every decision you make or every little thing you do. But if they're constantly debating the overall direction of the ministry, then you'll end up spending a lot of energy just trying to keep your team on board with the vision—energy you could be using to invest in your leaders.

Second, they need to have an intuitive sense of what needs to be done. If you have to help them with every little decision or point out every little thing that needs to be done, they're probably not the right person for the job. They have to have a sense of ownership and empowerment to carry out their responsibilities.

You like them.
Frankly, if someone is going to serve on my team, I have to like them. Life is too short for me to pick team members that I don't like. And they have to be compatible with the other people already on the team.

I don't have to be best friends with everyone on every team I lead, but if we really don't get along, or if they mess with the overall team dynamic, productivity will suffer. It doesn't matter how good they are at what they do if the relational dynamics are off.

They know how to get things done.
For every job opening, whether staff or volunteer, I want to find someone whose skills fit the needs of the role. But I'm also looking for someone who knows how to get things done, regardless of what's in their job description.

It's inevitable that something is going to come up that isn't in anyone's portfolio or area of expertise. The lead pastor will make a request. The demographics of the church will change. Models and systems will shift. The best team members will figure out how to get things done in any circumstances.

Don't Settle

As you look for potential team members, I have a word of caution: Don't settle. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as you build your team is settling for someone you know isn't a good fit for the team.

Bad team members result in lower morale and lessened productivity. At first it may seem like just having someone there to do the work is worth it even if they're not the best person for the job, but you and others will end up frustrated eventually.

The ideal candidate isn't always available, though. When that happens, you need to consider four things:

  • The ability of the rest of the team to cover until you find the right person
  • The likelihood of finding the ideal candidate
  • The decreased productivity resulting from not having the position filled
  • The consequences of hiring a less-than-ideal candidate

If your whole team is running at the absolute limit of their capacity, the position that needs to be filled is mission critical, and there's a low likelihood that you'll find an ideal candidate in a reasonable amount of time, you're probably going to have to bring a less-than-ideal candidate on board.

On the other hand, if there are some folks on your team with a little bit of margin or you can slide by without the position being filled for a little while, then your best bet is to wait for the best candidate.

Developing a team is as easy—and difficult—as that. Define the roles for your team members and recruit the players. Just like that, you have a team.

This article is excerpted from our training tool Organize Your Ministry.

—Will Johnston is an editorial advisor for and the former Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C.

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