Clearing the Way for Small Groups

Clearing the Way for Small Groups

How small groups became the central ministry at Zion Church

Zion Church is a large African-American multi-site church located in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Over 3,000 attend their 3 locations, and thousands more watch their services online. Small groups have been part of Zion Church since Pastor Keith Battle started it in 2000. In the beginning, though, they competed with men’s, women’s, and other affinity-based ministries. In 2009, Battle shifted the church to focus primarily on small groups. Inspired by Willow Creek and Saddleback, he knew they needed to zero in on their mission to meet, grow, and serve through small groups.

As Terri Parker, Director of Small Groups, puts it, Pastor Keith “cleared a runway and made small groups a priority. At that point we got rid of the ministries and really pushed people to small groups. Once we did that, we saw momentum build for moving people into small-group community.”

Though there were some bumps in the transition, the church members got on board because Pastor Battle championed the change. Today their small-group ministry is thriving. I was honored to interview the three women who make up their small group team to learn more: Terri Parker, Nadine Morrison who serves as Administrative Assistant and the lead for their Fort Washington and Online campuses, and Claire Lee who works on leader training and development.

Will Johnston: What role do groups play in the overall vision of Zion?

Terri Parker: Small groups are part of our mission statement. We want people to meet God, grow closer to him, and serve him. Small groups are our key ministry designed to help people grow closer to God. They provide the greatest setting for spiritual formation in a person’s life: building community, building relationships, and growing spiritually through biblical studies. They’re a major part of the discipleship process.

In my experience, most African American churches either don’t have small-group ministry, or if they do it’s not a major focus. Why do you think small groups have been so successful at Zion?

Nadine Morrison: We actually asked Pastor Keith that yesterday. It started with him. He championed small groups, which is really what made it foundational at Zion. He shared that when he looked over his life, one of the places where he saw the most spiritual growth was when he was in community with other Christians who were a little further along, and he was able to ask them questions about life and faith. His examination of his life led to us clearing the runway, as Terri puts it, to give groups the best chance to grow and succeed at the church.

My observation from watching the other pastors that were around Pastor Keith was that the churches they wanted to emulate were the Saddlebacks and the Willow Creeks—churches that had large, significant group cultures. I think that really played a part in it. We took it and made it our own, but they were influential. If you ever listen to Pastor Battle’s sermons, he will joke that we used to be called “Saddleblack.”

Claire Lee: Pastor Keith has said that often in African American churches you have serving and community, but they're separate from spiritual formation. You might serve and have community on the usher ministry or another ministry, and then formation would happen in Sunday school or some type of Christian education setting.

His desire was to have something where both of those would occur. So I’m getting my questions answered. I’m learning. I’m growing, I’m in community, and I'm serving with those same people.

Whenever we talk about the African American church, or African American people for that matter, the idea of community is not foreign. But it’s about including this intentional spiritual component where we’re not sitting listening to someone teach us, but we’re teaching each other. We’re sharing life together.

It’s quite refreshing to be in a group where we’re focusing on curriculum or we’re focusing on a topic, but we’re also enjoying each other, and enjoying the fact that all of us come from different walks of life or different experiences and can share those with each other.

Can you tell me a little bit about your small-group ministry model?

Nadine: We were debating yesterday what kind of model we have. We have a hybrid.

Terri: Most people join groups based on their geography. A lot of our groups are age and stage: men’s, women’s, married, and single.

Nadine: And our leaders choose the topics they study.

Terri: We ask them to consider the needs of the individuals in the group they’re leading, and the group gets to have input on the study that they do. We recommend some authors, but they’re welcome to choose whatever they’d like as long as they run it by us.

For us, the non-negotiables are fellowship, prayer time and praise reports, and the teaching/discussion time. We’re just starting to incorporate a new component called CPR that we’re going to be asking our leaders to discuss at the end of their group meetings. We adapted this from How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp:

  • What central point do we need to understand and master?

  • How does the central point apply to your personal life?

  • How will the central point affect your relationships both personally and in ministry?

How do you find and train new leaders?

Claire: We have an apprentice model. Folks who are apprenticing attend a three-session orientation. After they’ve been an apprentice for a while, if they decide they want to lead a group, we have a leadership track that consists of three main parts. People apply. They are trained. And then they are placed.

Each of those components has a series of steps, but the goal is to learn as much as possible about the person on the front end. Then as we take them through the training and orientation process, we can get a sense of their skills.

All of our training is done in relational environments that are conducted almost like small groups, so that we can begin to see where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, what placement would be best for them, and what kind of coaching they may need once they are ready to be placed in a small group. We do require that those who are small-group leaders at our church be members, so if they are not members, that is incorporated into their training. This gives us a very solid sense of who they are, not just as an individual, but as a disciple-maker and a leader.

Terri: One of the things we’re most excited about right now is how we’re preparing people to lead. Last year we incorporated intensive discipleship training for all of our new leaders. We do a 12-session small group with every new leader using the Real Life Discipleship Training Manual. We have each new leader lead a session of the group so that we can see how they interact with people and how they lead a discussion. It gives us a glimpse of how they would lead a small group.

I usually lead that group myself. It gives me an opportunity to get to know the people I’m leading, and also to guide them if they’re struggling with leading their session or interacting with each other in that environment.

All of our current leaders are grandfathered in, which means we only require them to do the first seven sessions together. We want to make sure they’re focusing on what small groups should be about: making relentless followers of Christ and making disciples who go and make disciples. That has really worked for us.

We got a little pushback from our existing leaders. We gave them two years to get into a circle and take this training, and we actually told them if you don’t do this, you won’t be leading. This is a requirement for all leaders. Those who are new to leadership didn’t have any qualms—they just took it as the pathway to leadership.

Now people are really engaging, and we get people who are not in small-group ministry asking, “Can I be a part of that group?” That’s a huge win for us.

Has this training method impacted the number of new leaders you’re seeing?

Terri: As a matter of fact, we’ve seen an increase in both leaders and apprentices.

Claire: We talk about it in the apprentice orientation, and I let them know that we want to set them up for success. We want them to be empowered. We’re going to talk about pragmatics to death, but more important than that, we want them to focus on how to be a disciple and how to make disciples. What I’ve found is that people are really excited about that because they know they are leading from a position of empowerment, being informed, not just as a leader but on an individual level as well.

Claire: Some folks exclude themselves if they feel like it’s going to be too much, but the exclusion is on the front end instead of being in a group and deciding all of a sudden, “I don’t want to lead anymore.”

One of the people that went through the training told me, “I feel like I need more time just to understand how this works and the responsibility of leadership.” I would rather people say that at this juncture than start a group, have people who are committed and coming, and then all of a sudden decide this is just not for them.

How do you launch new groups?

Terri: We birth some new groups out of existing groups, but we primarily do it through events. We’ve found Grouplink works well for connecting women to small groups, and for men we put together men’s events and form groups there. Of course, we advertise our small groups online, so folks can get connected that way as well. And we periodically do small-group campaigns where we have six- to eight-week long groups led by hosts.

What’s the number one thing you’d tell other small-group ministry leaders?

Nadine: Coaching, coaching, coaching. We focus so much on getting leaders, and then we can’t keep up with them.

Terri: The coaching part is key because you as the director won’t have the capacity to check in with everyone, and some leaders are hard to connect with. It works well if you allow their coaches to reach out to them and communicate important information. Our leaders respond better to personal communication from their coach than they do to generic communication from our team.

—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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