Leading Groups in Time of Church Transitions

Leading Groups in Time of Church Transitions

Keith Steiner is the Pastor of Community Life Groups at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI

Keith Steiner has served churches in Chicago and suburban Milwaukee. He’s a veteran small group pastor who has faithfully weathered more than one church storm. From moral failures of senior leaders to changing strategies and methodology, he’s seen it all. With a true pastor’s heart, Keith offers wise counsel on how to honor God and serve faithfully in the turbulence.

Every church faces obstacles. However, when a church experiences leadership turnover, scandals, or large shifts in strategies, congregations are often left reeling. You’ve weathered some storms in ministry and faithfully served a congregation facing particular challenges. What is different about this kind of ministry context compared to the run-of-the, typical challenges?

I don’t think it takes too long in church leadership to encounter obstacles. I have led small group ministry in two different local churches. In each setting, we walked through a variety of storms, including lead pastor transitions, staff departures and terminations due to moral failures, ministry strategy upheaval, widespread divisive rumors, etc.

Not all obstacles are bad, or the result of something scandalous. However, many times obstacles have an unsettling effect on you or the people you lead. It is especially painful when the storms in ministry reveal sinful behavior and its effects. Sometimes these obstacles, or storms, came as a surprise, and sometimes there was an awareness building up for what was ahead.

The crises that reveal hidden sin are often full of heartache and anguish. This sort of revelation exposes hurt and anger, as well as the hurts that people in the church have experienced in their own life. Each of these crises needs the shepherding care of small groups. In turn, the small group leaders need to experience this care, so they can share this with their group. It is the practical application of II Corinthians 1:3-5 on display. We care and comfort others out of the care and comfort we have received from the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.

During times of crisis, what are some things you want to avoid that will only increase the tension?

I discovered a small group point person has a lot to offer in times of crisis. I have access to leaders who are in touch with a significant number of people in our church. The leadership above me is often depending on my support. In these situations, it is vital to stay with communicating one line of information. Here are four mistakes to avoid:

First, avoid communicating any sort of guessing. Many crises take a while for information to unfold. It is often longer than we feel comfortable. “I don’t know” is an honest answer. Let’s not forget that patience is a fruit of the Spirit.

Second, I have learned it is more awkward to learn new information from other sources. This kind of “intel” is often close to the gossip line. I then need to either follow this up with a conversation with a church leader or just hold onto it myself and not spread something that may not be helpful in the moment. Having one line of communication is also a protection for me. I have learned that another honest answer is, “I’ve only heard rumors, and it is not fair to spread anything that I don’t know to be true.”

Third, don’t increase the tension by offering despair. In the midst of communicating a crisis, or upheaval, be real but also sure to offer hope. God’s redemptive work has not stopped! Let’s communicate confidence that God is continuing to work.

Fourth, be sure to be available to people, especially your leaders. Be overly clear and invitational about your accessibility. Some people will need more support than others. There might not be a lot of answers, but at this point it is often your presence that is most helpful. Even when there is ambiguity, this is still the opportunity to share biblical truth of hope and pray together. Activity like this is itself a sign that God is working in the situation.

When churches go through a crisis, it’s not only the congregation that experiences uncertainty, disappointment, and pain. The staff also are experiencing this. How do you stay spiritually, emotionally, and relationally healthy in the turbulence?

A crisis can deplete us quickly. Sometimes the rapid pace of things makes this all the more exhausting. It might sound a bit cliche-ish, but some of the best work done for these times is not in the moment, but in the everyday rhythm of life. The pace of regular spiritual disciplines in life provides a greater richness that can naturally be shared with others.

As small group people, we certainly understand the need for ongoing relationships with people who point us to daily hope in Jesus. When these moments hit, it has been critical to have people who are more interested in my well-being than they are in the crisis at hand. For me, some of these relationships are within my church, but I found it also helpful to have relationships with wise, seasoned Christians who are in other churches. Sometimes the separation from the crisis provides more room to honestly share how I am doing.

When the crisis comes, I find it helpful to go back to what is familiar, such as a Psalm to pray through, using first-person words. Another way is to review your own past journal notes or quotes. Oftentimes, something in the note is just what is needed.

One of the complexities churches experiencing painful transitions must navigate is small groups that now include former attenders who move on to other churches. The group may be strong relationally, but they have lost an aspect of unity. Under what circumstances might you step in and encourage the group to end and re-form with members from within your church? How would you help the group navigate this challenge?

This is always a challenge and can be full of landmines! There is certainly a need for prayer, spiritual discernment, and the right dose of grace and truth. I have often found two spiritual shepherding tensions for small groups in the situation where people have left the church.

The first tension is that every follower of Christ, no matter the church, should seek out discipleship from their church. By staying in an old group, they may be choosing the familiar over what is best for them in this particular season. In many of these situations, a sour or dismissive attitude toward the former church is on the surface or actually undercutting where the group should be going. It can be toxic for the group.

A second tension is that, especially in times of spiritual upheaval, their small group may very well be their best spiritual community. Let’s validate the good of this community. Many times, I have heard a comment like, “Without my small group, my faith would have been shipwrecked! I’m so thankful for these people in my life.”

There are times that I have met with a small group leader and encouraged them to consider that the season for their group may have come to a close. After I initiate this, I want to get their input. If we conclude it is time to close, it is important to validate many of the good things that happened in the group, including the richness of spiritual transformation and encouraging relationships. Encourage them to have one more meeting for closure and to share gratitude for their time together as a group.

Perhaps most reading this won’t experience a big crisis, but most will probably be forced to work through shifting ministry mission or strategy. It’s not unusual for a church to shift how they do what they do with small groups. How do you maintain a firm foundation while remaining flexible to the shifting directions of senior leadership?

Shifting ministry mission or strategy is not uncommon. I once served under a lead pastor who tongue-in-cheek said, “Change is my love language!” Now for some people that is life-giving, and for others that is fearful, heart palpating language. I have been through name changes of small group ministry, multiple definitions of a disciple, movement of ministry from mid-size groups to small groups, and also small groups to mid-size groups.

Going forward with change, I find it helpful to understand what is given to me as a directive, and what would be helpful as feedback or even a proposal. I have mistakenly sat back waiting when I eventually realized my leadership simply needs a thoughtful solution or proposal. On the other hand, there is also a time to discern that the change has been determined and it is now time to move forward.

In terms of remaining flexible, I sometimes have to live in ambiguity for longer than I like. It is certainly helpful to identify personal ministry preferences and determine how foundational they are to me. Over the years, I have found that my flexibility has expanded, and a particular ministry model is much more preferential than what I once thought.

When it comes time to take a firm stand, it is important to be able to articulate the “why” before defending it. This takes prayer, discernment, and a thoughtful approach to begin the conversation. When this happens, my approach has been to be an advocate, not accusing, complaining, or threatening.

Why stay? What are the determining factors that have enabled you to stand firm even when others leave?

I think these factors come down to each person’s non-negotiables, which splits so many different ways. When feeling unsettled, there should be an honest assessment of the changes, and if there was a convictional, non-negotiable line that was crossed. This may also provide a fresh opportunity for personal assessment if this was actually a convictional line in the first place. Many times, a conversation with another wise, discerning Christian friend has proved very helpful in this process.

Another factor may be understanding what positive, significant contribution you can make within your ministry area. In times of feeling shifting ground, I found that my ministry efforts still met a foundational need to the ministry. In time, it may be recognizing that the uncomfortable changes are now a fresh way to serve.

I also have found that I can set a false expectation that I should be serving somewhere that is the “perfect fit.” If so, I can end up making it about me. When things grow difficult, it may not necessarily be a sign that God is calling you to go where it seems like the “grass is greener.” This may be an opportunity to grow in prayer and depending on God.

Perhaps the most significant factor may be clarity that God is calling you someplace else. When God is clearly calling you to another place, it may be time to step out in faith.

What advice would you give the 30-year-old you to prepare you for the seasons you’ve weathered?

Although I could have used a lot of counsel, here are three pieces of advice I would give to myself:

First, do the regular, inner soul work of being formed by the Spirit. In addition to the regular disciplines, seek out people who will be an encouragement and support. Be sure to share your gratitude to them. They may not be your next mentor, but they may be God’s provision to you for that time.

Secondly, be diligent to find your identity in Jesus. He is enough. In church work, I think we can be quickly prone to unconsciously find our identity in our work, rather than who we are in Jesus. I’ve been there. When the stormy weather or crisis approaches, it can expose a misplaced identity.

Third, recognize where I have “convictional lines” around small group ministry, and really understand why I have those lines. If a conviction comes from the latest book I read, perhaps the author’s conviction does not need to be my conviction. Developing these areas of conviction will serve me through future obstacles that are ahead.

Keith, thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us! Thanks for being so open on this important and delicate topic!

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