We ask a lot from our group leaders whether we realize it or not. We ask them to organize, facilitate, shepherd, host, and more. Our group leaders are on the front line of our local church as they engage with people and the messiness of life. As the small-group point person, our job is to equip our leaders for the hard work of leading others. This is not the time to rush through launching several groups with untrained leaders; rather, it is time to invest in their leadership growth, which is a more diligent process.
Good quality training is essential to any leaders’ development, even if they’ve been in church all their life. Training provides tools leaders can apply to the variety of situations that occur in group life. When we do not invest in quality training for our leaders, we are asking them to do a job without providing the proper tools. For example: if someone has never changed a flat tire on a car, they should seek guidance from someone who has and who can show them how to use the tools. The same is true in our churches, we need to invest in people before, during, and after we move them into leadership. Creating a training program is an excellent way to begin.
A training programs can be informal or formal. Informal trainings occur more by immersion in a group where the members see and participate in how a group operates. Formal trainings occur with a specific goal or topic designed to develop a skill. A good training program incorporates both to offer a well rounded approach.
Informal Group Training
One of the best places for potential leaders to obtain informal group training is in an existing small group. This could be a group they are already in or one they are looking to join. Once in a group, the potential leader experiences how the group leader guides each session. From meeting someone at the door when they first arrive, to the basic format of the meeting, the potential leader is immersed in the environment.
Through prayer and building relationships with the people in their group, current leaders can identify potential leaders. Group leaders can scan their group to see who may be a future leader. When someone shows leadership potential, they are usually asked to take on a specific responsibility in the group. Initially the leader could ask the group member to lead the prayer or help in the discussion during the next session. This is best done one-on-one outside of the group meeting time. Engaging the group member in this way helps them step outside of their comfort zone in the safety of their current group. As the group member becomes more comfortable, the leader can have a conversation about potential leadership. When someone in a current group is ready we recommend they step out of their current group for one round to join the formal training.
Formal Group Training
Formal group training is an excellent format to help people develop specific skills that are more difficult to accomplish in an informal setting. However, we do try to incorporate aspects of the informal environment to help offer a well rounded experience. Our formal training group meets in our home for 2 hours a week for 8 weeks. The first hour of the group time is a standard group study while the second hour is a specific training module. The first four weeks of the training my wife and I take turns leading the group study time and the training group members are assigned the last four. After each week, including ours, we have a peer evaluation with a list of questions such as: “Did the leader allow enough silence?” or “Did the questions make members think?” The honest feedback is vital to the growth of any leader. This allows us to “be” a group while we learn how to lead a group. Incorporating the aspects of the informal group training helps build the relationships while we focus on developing specific skills.
The training module time of each week allows us to explore topics vital to leading a group. In this time we look at how to facilitate a conversation, what to do when conflict arises, methods to help draw out quieter group members, engaging the entire group in prayer, and more. Each training module topic directly applies to an area of group leadership. Since each group member is assigned to lead one of the group study times at the end of the training, the lessons learned are applied prior to completing the formal training group. By the time the training has wrapped up the group members have seen us lead the group and have a chance to lead on their own.
After finishing the training, we encourage the new leader to return to their regular group for the next round. During the next round the current leader and new leader rotate leadership. This is helpful for both leaders in different ways:
- Current leader: The current leader has an opportunity to further guide and encourage the new leader. They can offer feedback and continue the training in an informal manner. Also, when a newly trained leader returns to the group, it can bring new energy for the current leader as they reflect on their own journey.
- New Leader: The new leader has the opportunity to lead in a safe and familiar environment while trying out their new skills. This can ease the anxiety of some leaders and help refine their leadership as they grow. Also, the new leader returns to the group with a new perspective of how groups operate and they can examine how the current leader guides the group throughout the session.
Alternative Training Paths
The process that I have shared is the ideal pathway for new leaders to be trained, but as we all know it isn’t always this linear. Here are some different paths that we encountered along the way and how we have responded:
- Not currently in a group: We have had some people interested in the training who were not currently in a group. This was especially the case early in building the ministry because we didn’t have many groups. This creates a gap in the informal training that needs to be bridged by the small group point person or a coach. After the training is completed, the new leader creates a group and you or a coach will need to identify the informal attributes that need bolstered and discuss them along the way.
- Time conflict for existing groups: If you have groups that function differently and the leader wants to go through the training it can be difficult to figure out timing. We don’t want the current group to cancel their meetings nor do we want to overload a leader with participating in two different groups. We have found that most groups have breaks in different seasons. Identify the season that works for the leader and schedule a training to fit.
- Ready to launch: Some people have participated in the informal training, made it through the formal training, then instead of returning to their group they decide to launch a new one on their own. We have had leaders who were wired this way and my recommendation is to let them launch; however, be prepared to help them in this direction as they do not have an experienced co-leader in the group to lean on during challenging times. Ask their former group leader to reach out to them as well. The more support we can provide, the greater the opportunity for a healthy group launch.
- Decided not to be a leader: On occasion we have had people go through a training who didn’t end up leading. Sometimes this could be someone supporting a spouse who wants to lead, but they do not want to lead themselves. Other times someone has went through the training and decided it wasn’t the right time for them. Regardless of why someone chooses not to lead, I always encourage them to attend the training so that they have a greater understanding of group dynamics and become an even more vital role in the group they return to.
The apprentice model that we use does not come without its challenges. There is no “one size fits all” solution, so it is important to be aware of hurdles that may interfere with developing leaders this way.
- Training group size limitations: The ideal size of one of the training groups is 8 plus 2 leaders. The limitation is based on the last half of the training. Because we want everyone to lead at least once, we can create two subgroups for the last 4 weeks which will accommodate 8 people. If we have more than 8 people we retain the same 1 leader for every 4 persons ratio.
- Training module updates: As we continue to lead training groups we learn new lessons that we want to incorporate in the training. However, these new lessons would be helpful for leaders who have already completed the training. In order to keep our leaders up to date I will hold short meetings on a Sunday morning or incorporate it in our next group leader celebration evenings. It creates additional work, but it is important to keep everyone up to date.
- Secondary training group relationships: There are times when we have more than 12 people sign-up to go through the training. When this occurs, we create another training group and another couple leads the second training. This is very helpful to get more leaders trained in the same amount of time, but as the small group point person I miss out on the relational value that accompanies being in a group for 8 weeks together. In these situations, it is important to establish connections in other ways such as dinner, coffee, etc.
Training new leaders requires much time and investment. However, leaders who are equipped possess the tools for long-term sustainability. When I reflect on my own spiritual journey, it was those who invested in me over time that made the most impact in my life. Be sure to take the time to train your leaders, you will be glad you did.
—Brad Himes is the Involvement Director at Broadway Christian Church in Mattoon, Illinois.