At The Simple Church, we have struggled knowing what to call our small-group volunteers so people understand what we’re asking of them. This semester we saw a slight decline in individuals volunteering to serve with small groups. I didn’t view this as a failure, but as an opportunity to reevaluate what we’re communicating to individuals about serving with small groups. As we evaluated the ministry, we found ourselves asking if we were clear on what we are asking people to do. Are we asking them to host or to lead? Often small-group ministries have made the terms hosting and leading synonymous. We at The Simple Church are no exception.
There is an important distinction, however, between these two verbs. As Webster’s dictionary clarifies, to host is to “give, provide, arrange, present, entertain, [and] welcome,” the responsibilities of which lie in providing a location and environment for a small group to meet. To lead, on the other hand, is defined as to “guide, conduct, influence, promote, [and] shepherd.” While not negating the necessity of the quality of hosting, leading entails much more responsibility. We often attempt to simplify the duties of our small-group volunteers, however, under the guise of hosting.
Leadership is a difficult word for people to digest. Due to the fallen world in which we live, people often believe the lie that they cannot be leaders. This may be because of their past, the fact that they aren’t Bible scholars, or feeling like they don’t understand their God-given worth. Whatever the case, it’s simply not true.
At The Simple Church, we come across this quite often. It’s difficult for many of our church members to envision themselves in any type of leadership role because they aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re all too aware of that as they battle life issues such as divorce, addiction, and health concerns. Even with these struggles, though, many believe they are equipped to create a relaxed and fun atmosphere, build relationships, and pop in a DVD or pull up a video on YouTube. In other words, they can see themselves as hosts, even if they can’t see themselves as leaders.
Hosting is no small task, and it’s incredibly important for small-group ministry. In order to build relationships and help people mature and grow in Christ, a safe, relaxed, and welcoming atmosphere must be provided. If this is what you ask of your volunteers, then calling them hosts is fitting, and you’re bound to get a lot more volunteers than if you ask for leaders.
At the Simple Church, we ask our volunteers to do more than host, so we have to consider a better title to communicate the added responsibilities while encouraging people to believe they can actually fulfill the role. Too many people believe leaders have to be perfect and have life all figured out. By changing the title of our small-group volunteers, we may make the position seem less threatening, but we also aren’t clear about what we expect. It isn’t our job to manipulate others into a leadership role, but to promote and teach leadership in a way that lets them know their lives and experiences can be used and are needed to reach others.
In her book, Less Clutter. Less Noise., Kem Meyer observes, “To communicate effectively with someone, you have to get at the psychographics—the attitudes, interests, lifestyles—to connect with the emotion in his or her world.” If you’d like to use the word “leader” for your volunteers, but are having trouble getting people to see they can be leaders, this is the place to begin. We can use Meyer’s four methods of effective communication so that potential volunteers’ attitudes, interests, and lifestyles are addressed:
1. The message is simple.
The more complex the message, the more people tend to shy away. When the message is short and to the point, however, it’s easy to remember, and people are more receptive. As we recruit small-group volunteers, then, we must communicate simply and clearly what we expect them to do.
2. The message is believable and accurate.
While the message can be short and simple, it must be believable. For example, if we expect our leaders to shepherd their group members, it’s not totally believable for us to say that leading a small group is as easy as having a heart for people and opening your door to others. There are many facets to leading a small group, and it isn’t always easy; therefore, it’s important to accurately share the reality of what we expect volunteers to do. If we expect them to simply host, we should say that. If we expect them to shepherd, we should communicate that. And we need to be mindful of asking them to do too much on their own.
3. The message is multi-dimensional.
We want to hold true to the reality of what we expect of our volunteers, so we need to make our message multi-dimensional and communicate each action in relation to felt needs. Leadership becomes less intimidating as we explain why we need their help and why we’re asking them to do specific things.
4. Volunteers have to own it.
As people believe the truth in the message and take a step of action, they are owning, or buying into, the message of leadership we are providing. They believe that they can make a difference and that their story and hope can reach others. We have to communicate how our volunteers can uniquely impact others, empowering them for the role.
Set Them Up for Success
Often the biggest battle is simply communicating what we’re asking of our volunteers and convincing them they can do it. Once people buy in, we must set them up for success by effectively training them. Whatever you’re asking your volunteers to do, they’ll need some level of training to help them excel.
Toward that end, we should create developmental training that allows us to share our ups and downs as leaders as well as helpful techniques for hosting or leading. During this training, we must continue to communicate what we expect: not perfection, but helping people grow in their relationship with Christ. Rick Warren offers four steps to leadership training for small-group volunteers that we use at The Simple Church:
1. Train volunteers on small-group basics.
On a Saturday before the start of the small-group semester, we conduct a two-hour training session informing leaders of our mission and goals for small groups, discussing common situations leaders face (e.g., fear of prayer, the person who dominates conversation, etc.), offering various solutions to these questions, role-playing scenarios, and practicing these techniques. (For ready-to-use training curriculum, try the Small-Group Leader Training Program.)
2. Connect volunteers with mentors or coaches.
We have established eight coaches that reach out to leaders, encourage them, and answer any questions they have as they lead their group throughout the semester. Even if your volunteers are just hosts, they can benefit from having someone they can contact with questions.
3. Ongoing training with small-group mentors or coaches.
We have another meeting once the groups begin to discuss how things are going and address any concerns or needs leaders have. Outside of this meeting, our mentors or coaches will continue to reach out and engage leaders to meet any other needs they may have.
4. Celebrate accomplishments.
We end each semester with a celebration where leaders share what God has been doing in their small groups. This reinforces that God can use even the broken to lead his flock. We also intentionally invite potential group leaders to this celebration so they can see firsthand what’s happening in our small-group ministry. Seeing what God is up to often encourages them to pursue leadership.
At The Simple Church, “leader” sums up what we ask our volunteers to do. For us, so much of small groups is leading people to mature and grow in Christ, so our leaders need to do more than set a great atmosphere. Your church may decide you’re looking for something else. Whether we call them leaders, hosts, or something else entirely, it’s crucial that we are clear about what we expect from our volunteers, find a title that matches the responsibility, and provide training so they can effectively serve.
—Peri Gilbert is Small Group Coordinator at The Simple Church in Bossier City, Louisiana.