Small Group Leader TIPS of the Week: August 8-12, 2016

Here are the Small Group Leader TIPS for the last week as Tweeted, posted on our Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

QUESTION: Which TIP encourages you most? Which one challenges you most? Please share your response by clicking the Comment box below.

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

The Fool’s Gold of Group Discipleship: 6 Small Group Elements Easily Mistaken for the Real Thing

All that glitters is not discipleship.

Christ-Centered, Holy-Spirit Empowered, Authentic, Missional Small Groups that Share Leadership are the environment where discipleship happens best, but I’ve witnessed far too often that many groups focus on the wrong wins. These are all fools gold:

  1. Good Meetings. If folks leave saying, “Great meeting!” they may have missed the point. A great meeting does not mean people have been discipled. In fact, discipleship happens as much outside of official meeting times as within.
  2. Good Bible Studies. I believe this is the biggest fool’s gold in many groups. More study and more knowledge do not equal being discipled (see 1 Cor. 8:1-3 and James 1:22-25). It is part of the process, yes, but just because you have studied God’s Word as a group does not necessarily mean people are growing up spiritually. By the way, if the only time group members are opening their Bibles is in group meeting, that’s not real discipleship!
  3. Group Longevity. I’ve heard group members suggest that because they have been in a group a long time, they have been discipled. Yet it sometimes appears they are some of the more spiritually immature people I’ve been around. Groups, like individuals, can get into a plateaued state and not even realize it. They can drift along in their lukewarm state for years and years, not growing or producing any real fruit that lasts. This is dangerous: it’s to such people that Jesus said, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:21-23; also see Revelation 3:16).
  4. Group Talk. The apostle Paul said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” It’s easy to talk a good Christian life in a small group gathering, but talk does not equal real discipleship, counting the cost, making the commitment, and following Christ with everything you’ve got. Discipleship requires taking off the masks, putting away falsehood, being real, transparent, and authentic with one another. That includes stuff like confession, accountability, acceptance, encouragement, admonishment, truth, and love. True discipleship leads to bearing fruit, fruit that will last. Groups that are really doing discipleship will by nature be missional.
  5. Ministry. This may seem antithetical to my last point, but a group that is doing ministry together does not necessarily equal a discipling group. Ministry flows out of a Christ-centered community that is growing in their relationship with Him.
  6. A Super Leader. I’ve said this often, but it is simply impossible for one person to disciple a whole group. Even Jesus didn’t try it. Instead, a Christ-like leader shares leadership with 2-3 others who share the shepherding and discipleship responsibilities. Unfortunately, too many of us are leading solo and not bearing fruit as we should. If this describes you, I encourage you to get a copy of my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership (Digital edition).  
By the way, one of the ways to identify Fool’s Gold is if you find it sitting right on top of the ground. The Real Gold of Discipleship usually takes a lot of digging, searching, and time. And it always includes a cost.
Are there other Fool’s Gold I missed? What do you think? 

Top 10 Small Group Ministry Launch Failures

In my ministry over the years I’ve seen many blunders as churches launch small groups. I’ve made my own share as well. Later, people in the congregation say stuff like, “See, small groups didn’t work here,” but that wasn’t really the case. Here are the ten mistakes I most often see. These can have a devastating effect on any future groups ministry.

  1. Lack of Prayer. When prayer isn’t the central focus of your ministry launch and development you are revealing who is and isn’t in control of this endeavor. This is God’s enterprise and you, as an act of stewardship, get to partner with him in pulling it off. Prayer is vital at every step. I’ve shared lots of stories in my books and articles about how God has worked in incredible ways to help me and others launch fruitful ministries by our dependence on him. Read my personal story about this. Or see “How Your Small Group Can (Must) Partner with God.”
  2. Lack of Vision. What is God’s vision for this ministry? How does a groups ministry fit into the church’s vision, mission, and plans? Why small groups? These and many other questions must be discussed and answered before taking any steps toward starting groups. Be sure your vision for small groups is clear, reasonable, and easy to explain to others. You can’t cast a vision, of course, if you don’t really have one.
  3. Lack of Strategic Planning. I’ve seen many leaders start a new ministry with very little strategic thinking. Do some homework. Talk to some people who are in the know. Read some articles and books. Meet with a consultant in this area. Hire an expert to coach you and your team. Build a team with whom you’ll share leadership of this ministry (this very easily could have been on the top ten list itself!). Write out a strategic plan of action with your team. Read “Are You Making Plans and Setting Goals? Should You?”
  4. Overly Programmed Thinking. Small groups are an inherently relational ministry, but I find that many leaders try to lead it as if it were any other church program. It’s not. See more in my post, “It’s Not About Small Groups.”
  5. Under-Programmed Thinking. Yes, you do need to organize your ministry for growth. You’ll need to share leadership with a team. You’ll need an organizational chart and structure of some kind to lead, develop, and care for your leaders and groups. These are some of the tactics that come out of your strategies, which come from your vision and mission.
  6. Hitching Your Wagon to a Widely Known Church Ministry. It’s important to learn from other churches, but one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen churches make (and I see this often) is trying to copy someone else’s groups program. First, that’s the easy way out; you have to plan for your environment. Second, what works well in one place doesn’t work somewhere else. You’re not Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Nelson Searcy, or Jim Putman, and your church is probably nothing like theirs. Be you. Be creative. Ask God what he wants you to do.
  7. Starting Too Fast. I often hear church leaders say, “We’re going to launch x groups by y date.” You can train a bunch of leaders how to lead a group, but that does not guarantee success. You cannot develop the DNA of a healthy small groups ministry this way, however. My advice is to start one–count them, one–group that you want all the rest of your future groups to replicate. These are called “Turbo” groups. I start this one group with potential leaders (who God has led me to; Matthew 9:38), and they learn how to lead a group by doing community together. I’ve talked about Turbo Groups in several of my books, but especially The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership
  8. Starting Too Slow. Some leaders spend way too much time talking about starting groups, reading about it, thinking about it, and plain old procrastinating. Employ active faith; that is, pray and then, as you watch for how God is moving, start developing the ministry plans under his leadership. It’s hard for God to move through you if you’re just sitting there.
  9. Replacing an Existing Program with Small Groups. I’ve seen tons of churches try to replace people’s favorite programs with small groups with the consequence of those people blaming small groups as the culprit. It becomes a “my program” vs. small groups issue which usually does not end well. It could be the Sunday-evening service or Wednesday-evening programming or adult Sunday school or whatever. Instead of replacing these things with groups, I’d develop a strategy for transitioning these programs into small groups. But every circumstance is different, of course. I’m currently consulting with one church in which their Sunday-evening service is now on its last legs and there seems to be acceptance by those involved that it’s time to change. These people may be ready for something new.
  10. No Buy-In from some of the vital players in the church: the senior pastor (unless that’s you!), the leadership board, the staff, volunteer leaders, and thought leaders in the church. In each of these groupings, get the innovators and early adapters on board first, and then talk with the early majority in the church. How do you know who to talk to first? Go back to #1 on this list. Once you have God’s buy-in, everything else will flow naturally.
I’m passionate about helping churches avoid these blunders so they can launch healthy, growing, reproducing ministries. If I can help your church in any way, please let me know. You’ll find more information on my website HERE.

How Your Small Group Can (Must) Partner with God

“God’s work is accomplished by a combination of human and divine effort, said one of my seminary professors, Dr. Joe Ellis. “We cannot do it without Him; He has ordained not to do it without us. We depend on each other.”¹

I love this quote. I’m amazed by the reality that we actually get to partner with God in his mission to redeem the people he loves and desires to draw to himself. But we often err by either taking on the assignment ourselves as if it’s our mission, not his, or irresponsibly sitting on the sidelines believing God will carry out the mission without us. With either extreme, we miss out on being partners with God. It’s a human-divine collaboration.

More often than not, I think, we err on the side of leaving God out of it. “Sometimes the voice of Jesus saying, ‘I will build my church,’ can hardly be heard amid the babble of human voices affirming, ‘We will build the church. Our plans, our organizations, our resources will accomplish it, and we will have it the way we want it,'” Ellis wrote. “God is sometimes boxed out of His own enterprise by His self-centered and self-sufficient partners.”²

Does that happen in your small group? Do you ever move forward with a plan of your own volition? Chances are you have. I hope this is not your regular pattern, however. I believe there are two vital things your group–and you as a leader–must do in order to partner with God:

  1. Pray. The key factor is prayer. Prayer puts the power of ministry where it belongs: in God’s hands. Evangelism without prayer has been compared to explosives without a detonator. Prayer without evangelism is said to be like a detonator without explosives.
  2. Plan. I speak about the importance of planning in Chapter 4 of Small Group Vital Signs, so I won’t try to discuss it at length here. But I’ve found that many groups are more reactive than proactive. And when you live by default rather than design, I believe you tend to go with your gut rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit. Plan how you will partner with God and collaborate with him in his mission and specific calling for your group. 
As a group, never forget that you are Christ’s ambassadors; you are the body of Christ in action. You are more than just a “small group”! You are God’s chosen people–partners with the most high creator of the universe! 

¹ Joe Ellis, The Church on Target (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1986), 34.
² ibid., 30.

Seven Steps to Share the Leadership of Your Group

I’ve written in other posts about the Vital Sign of Sharing Leadership with a Core Team of two or three others. Today let’s talk about HOW you can move from leading solo to team-leading the group. Here are seven steps you can take.

1. Share the load. Ask God to show you whom you should ask to be part of the core team and begin to share leadership with them. Here are a few things that will help you discover the right people for the team:

  • Don’t recruit, at least not in the usual way we usually think of “recruiting.” Instead, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send these “workers.” Trust him to help you know whom to ask.
  • Know what you’re looking for. Look for potential, not perfection. Look for servants, not saints. Look for humble hearts, not superior skills or incredible intelligence.
  • Look around you. Perhaps God has already put your core team members right around you. They may be the people in the group with whom you already have close relationships or those whose gifts complement yours.
  • Don’t do it all. People hesitate to be on a team when the leader does too much. As the group’s leader you must grow in your ability to allow others to use their gifts.
  • Don’t over-program this! You don’t need to have a big meeting to announce new leadership positions in the group, with official titles and name badges. (You don’t need no stinkin’ badges!) Just ask a few people in the group to share some of the leadership roles with you.
  • Share ownership with everyone in the group. Share leadership with a selected few. See “Share Ownership, Share Leadership” for more on the difference between the two.

2. Don’t go back! I’ve known leaders who have a core team but then continue leading alone. Don’t do it. In fact, ask your core team to hold you accountable. The next step will help with this.

3. Create a clear plan of action. Who on the core team will do what and when? How will you communicate with one another? How often do you want to meet separately from the group to play, pray, and plan?

4. Share shepherding/discipleship. Look at your group’s roster when you meet with your core team. With whom do your core team members have natural relationships? Utilize those friendships as a point of origination to shepherd them through the core team members. In one group at our church, a core couple with young children strategically shepherded the other couples with kids. It was a natural alignment. Later, as the group grew, the couples with kids launched a new group. It could not have happened more organically and easily!

5. Actively develop core team members. Leadership development is easier with the core team approach, but it requires intentionality on your part. Strategically give your core team members opportunities to lead meetings. Then visit with the core team to encourage and provide feedback. If you do this with other core team members, everyone will benefit and become an encourager. I like doing brief recap sessions right after a meeting, when possible.

6. Attend training sessions together. When your church has leadership training, recognition, or other small group events, the whole core team should attend. If your church only invites the main leaders to these trainings, extend an invitation to your core team. (Of course, make sure you’ve received approval from your church ministry leader first.)

7. Extend the Kingdom. Core teams make for healthier small groups, and healthy small groups grow. As you move to a core team approach, your group will surely grow and multiply. It is just the natural result of doing small group leadership as a team. In my church, we do not put any time limits or size limits on groups. We simply help them become healthy and the groups branch off or multiply naturally.


10 Tough Discipleship Questions Facing Every Small Group Minister

Yesterday, Rick Howerton posted what he believes are the “10 Discipleship Confusions Invading the Small Group World.” Rick and I think a lot alike, and I believe he “nailed it” with his characterization of many of the current trends in small groups ministry.

Here’s my own summary of Rick’s post, and I’m talking particularly to church leaders and small group ministers:

Our mission is to make disciples,
not to make bigger small group ministries.

 If we can do both–make and continually develop disciples and get more people into small groups where that is happening–that’s great! But too often, I think, we must trade off one for another. And if I had to choose, I’d take discipling less people over not really discipling more people in groups.

I’ve written about this in a couple of my books, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership and Small Group Vital Signs. Within a small group, I believe one leader can, at best, disciple and shepherd 2-3 others … not 10 or 12. That’s why sharing leadership with a Core Team is so vital. At the macro-level, as a small groups ministry, we need to get back to focusing on our calling–to make disciples who are making disciples.

In both of the books mentioned above, I sensed the need to define–or perhaps redefine–the word discipleship. Rick gets at that in several of his “confusions.” I think many people are confused about what discipleship really is and what it entails in small groups. My simple way of looking at this is to ask, “How would Jesus’ disciples define what it means to be a disciple?” I address that question in Chapter 7 of Small Group Vital Signs.

If you lead the small group ministry in your church, here are 10 questions to consider:

  1. Are the small groups under my care making disciples? 
  2. How do I know the answer to #1? (Have you assessed this, or are you just going with your gut?)
  3. How do we define disciple and discipleship in our church and in our small groups ministry?
  4. What is our strategy for making disciples? Is there a process?
  5. If the answer to the previous question is yes, do our small group leaders know and understand this strategy and process? 
  6. What is the small group leader’s role in making disciples in his or her group? 
  7. In what specific ways are we equipping, developing, and then coaching leaders and groups to make disciples? 
  8. What strategies (such as sharing leadership with a Core Team) are in place to help group leaders make disciples? 
  9. What resources are we providing to help groups make disciples? 
  10. How do we define a “win” when it comes to making disciples? 
Perhaps there are more questions than this. Feel free to respond with your own.

So … how would you respond? 

Small Group Lessons from Chick-fil-A: Focus on Better Before Bigger … and 4 Big Payoffs

“If we get better, our customers will demand we get bigger.”  
-S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A

Back in the 1980s, when Boston Chicken, which later changed its name to Boston Market, was raising capital to expand, Chick-fil-A management discussed how they could compete and also grow bigger. Finally, it’s reported, Cathy pounded the table and said, “I am sick and tired of listening to you talk about how we can get bigger. If we get better, our customers will demand we get bigger.”

Every church I’ve ever served at or consulted with wanted more groups. I read lots of small group blogs, am part of numerous online small group communities, and interact with a number of small group ministry groups and forums. And there is one common theme: More groups. More people involved. More leaders. More hosts. Bigger connection events to get a bigger percentage of a bigger church into groups. More and bigger. Bigger and more. 
Maybe it’s time to go all Truett Cathy and pound my fist on the table.
Several years ago, our church strategically decided to focus on better rather than bigger. We believed that if our groups and our ministry got better–that is, healthier–we’d get bigger. And that’s exactly what happened. We prayed and worked hard to determine what a healthy group, and a healthy small groups ministry, looked like. We developed “Seven Vital Signs of a Healthy Small Group.” We assessed all our groups, and then followed up with training, coaching, and continued equipping. As our groups and our ministry grew healthier and stronger–that is, better–we began to focus more on growing bigger through connection events, small group campaigns, and other means. 
Growing better had huge dividends:
  1. Healthy groups were more prepared, in a variety of ways, to invite and accept more people. (You really don’t want to send new people into unhealthy groups!) 
  2. Healthy groups were prepared to disciple new people. That’s really our purpose, not just adding a bunch of people to groups.
  3. Healthy groups developed new leaders. This is the BIGGIE! Later on, when we needed to find leaders to launch new groups for our connection campaigns, they were easy to find. They were already prepared in our healthy groups. “Recruiting” new leaders (if you’d even call it that) was simple and easy. When I let our groups know about our upcoming campaign, new leaders came to me!
  4. Healthy groups produced more groups. This is a law of nature and a biblical principle that starts in Genesis 1. Healthy things grow and reproduce. They are fruitful and multiply. It doesn’t have to be forced, manipulated, or contrived. 

Better produces bigger!

Small Group Vital Signs – My book about the seven indicators of health that make groups flourish. The appendices describe our church’s process.
Healthy Small Groups page on the Small Group Leadership web site. There you’ll find other resources for groups and churches, including some free downloads your group or ministry can use to develop better, healthier group life. I consult with churches to help them implement strategies to develop healthier groups. For more about this and other ways I can serve your church, check out the web site. 
More blogs on Healthy Groups:

Are You Making Plans and Setting Goals? Should You?

Today: Proverbs 16

Right now, many small groups are making plans for the fall season. So are families as their kids are going back to school. One of the vital signs of a healthy small group is that it proactively sets goals and makes plans.

But is it right to make your own plans and set your own goals? 

There are some in Christian leadership circles who say that believers have no right to make our own plans or set our own goals. We should simply wait and go where God tells us to go and do what he tells us to do.
While there is some truth in this, the Bible, especially in Proverbs, provides a different way of looking at this.

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed (Proverbs 16:3).

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9).  

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).  

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23).

I notice a few things in these verses:

  1. I notice the words “you” or “a man’s.” God gives us the responsibility and freedom to make our own choices. We have free will.
  2. I notice the word “whatever.” I believe that on rare occasions God does tell us one specific thing we need to do. But much more often, he allows us to make the choice, but to do whatever it is for him.
  3. It seems to me that God is not against us making plans and setting goals. The real question is whose plans and goals? God does not limit our freedom, but he desires for us to make decisions that ultimately put his kingdom first and honor him.

What do you think about making plans and setting goals for yourself, your small group, your family, or your organization?

How can you do so in a way that puts God first and honors him?

What goals and plans are you making for this year?

What to Do When Ministry Feels Like It’s Failing – Part 3: Redefine Success

This is the third and last planned post in this three-day series. I introduced the series in Part 1 and talked about the first reason we face failure and what to do about it in Part 2. Today, let’s tackle a second reason we sometimes don’t feel like we’re bearing fruit and what we can do about that.

At times, we may not see the fruit, the results, of how God is working through our lives. We may, in fact, see just the opposite, at least for a time and perhaps for our whole lives. We consistently share the gospel or teach or preach the Word or lead a small group or rear our children or stay committed to our spouse, and it seems like nothing is happening. We see no movement, or worse, things are digressing. Why does this happen and what should we do?

Is your ladder of success leaning on the right building? If you are defining success by worldly standards, you may end up terribly disappointed when you don’t see the results you are expecting. But God’s working does not operate as the world’s systems do. As Isaiah learned, the teaching of God’s Word may harden people’s hearts at first. In Isaiah 6:9-10, a passage quoted six times in the New Testament, God tells Isaiah to expect people to not understand his Word. Even though Isaiah would pour his life into preaching God’s truth,  the people’s eyes and ears would seem totally closed to God. Like Isaiah, we must believe that God is at work anyway, that his Word will not return empty, but he will accomplish what he desires through us (Isa 55:11).

We are to be witnesses of God’s truth and love. Period. How they respond is in God’s hands. This takes surrender.

What really matters is not outward successes, but our faithfulness to him. God makes the seeds we have planted and watered grow in his own timing, not ours. We may see the fruit in eternity if not here on earth. I believe we will be greatly surprised by what God did though what we thought were futile efforts. And those may be our greatest rewards in heaven.

How do you define “success” in your ministry?

If you were to redefine success based on God’s calling and direction rather than on worldly wisdom, how would it be different?

What to Do When Your Ministry Feels Like a Failure – Part 1

What do you do when you don’t see any fruit in your ministry? We all face this from time to time. You could be leading a small group, ministry, church, family, or whatever, or perhaps you’re simply trying to lead that family member or friend to Christ, and you’re not seeing any movement. No successes. No wins. In fact, you may be experiencing just the opposite. Your ministry or group or family or friend are moving in the wrong direction, and it just doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. This can, of course, be extremely discouraging and disappointing, can’t it? Some have left the ministry because of it. And that is very sad.

The prophet Isaiah would know just what you are feeling. In fact many of God’s servants experienced this. Think about Moses in the wilderness, Nehemiah at certain stages in building the Jerusalem wall, pretty much all the prophets, Jesus with his disciples, Paul in some of the churches he planted. But today I just want to focus on Isaiah. Just after God called him and sent him, the Lord said,

“Yes, go. But tell my people this: `You will hear my words, but you will not understand. You will see what I do, but you will not perceive its meaning.’ Harden the hearts of these people. Close their ears, and shut their eyes. That way, they will not see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn to me for healing” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

How would you feel if this was God’s instructions right after he called you? I think I would have responded exactly like Isaiah, “Lord, how long do I have to do this?” In fact, I’m giving myself way too much credit. More probably I would say, “Really? You want me to do what? Why in the world would you want me to drive people away from you?”

Most commentators say that neither God nor Isaiah deliberately made people blind or deaf to him or hardened their hearts, but that this would be the natural result of preaching the gospel to them. Interestingly, these two verses are quoted six times in the New Testament, referring to the ministries of Jesus and the apostles. This sense of defeat is nothing new! But what do we do about it?

First, let’s diagnose the issue. I believe there are at least two main reasons we get to this place where we feel like our ministry is failing. My next two blogs will discuss each separately. Here’s what we can learn from Isaiah about how to deal with failure:

  1. Isaiah responded to God’s call.
  2. Isaiah redefined success.
By the way, many of God’s other servants did these two simple things as well. We can learn much from them.
Would you like to share a story about failure in your ministry?
What have you learned about God and ministry and yourself through failure?