Interview: Leadership Expert Deborah Ike on Leading Healthy Small Groups

I recently met Deborah Ike, who works with church leaders to help them grow their churches and create a life with healthy margins. She is the author of two books, Volunteer Management Toolkit-Church Edition and Protect the Vision: A Practical Guide to Church Risk Management, both available on her website: Velocity Ministry Management. After reading this interview, go check out her site and ministry for church leaders.

Here’s our interview:

Michael Mack: I became familiar with and interested in your ministry through a tweet in which you mentioned burnout, which is also a favorite topic of mine. How did you first get interested in that topic?

Deborah Ike: I became interested in the issue from my own experience burning out and in talking with others who’ve had similar experiences. It breaks my heart to see people with incredible vision and love for Christ who lose their passion for ministry because they’ve been trying to do too much, too fast. After all, we are still human and have physical limitations. We need rest, sleep, and even play. Our culture focuses on quick results and we can get sucked into that mindset. Instead, we need to focus on staying in ministry for the long haul. That won’t happen if we burn ourselves out. I’ve learned many lessons the hard way and now help church leaders focus on what matters most so they can grow their church and lead a healthy life with more margin.

Michael: You write a lot about recruiting volunteers. What three best practices would you provide to small group ministry leaders about finding and asking people to lead a group?

Deborah: #1 – Clarify expectations about the role.

If you invite someone to lead a small group but only provide vague information about what that role looks like and what you expect a small group leader to do, you’ll have a tough time getting anyone to say yes. A potential small group leader needs to know what he/she is signing up to do. They’ll want to know things like, How often should we meet? Do you provide a study guide or any outlines for what to discuss at our meetings? How would people join the group? Where do we meet? What resources are available if a member of the group has a question or issue we don’t know how to address?

#2 – Look for people already leading.

You have leaders in your church—you may need to look a bit more closely. Who holds a leadership role at work? Who has served at various church events and did a great job? Ask around and listen for what names come up most often. Those are the people you should start talking to about leading a group.

#3 – Provide support.

When you talk with someone about leading a small group, make sure he/she knows you’ll be available to answer questions and/or provide direction as needed.

Michael: A healthy small group is a team that works together to carry out the mission God gave them. You write and speak on the topic of teamwork. What are a couple teamwork principles that small groups could use to grow in this area?

Deborah: Communication is key in any group setting. This includes learning the personalities and communication preferences of each team member. When we focus on communicating with each individual in a way he/she is best able to receive, we avoid potential conflict from misunderstandings and have more productive conversations overall.

Also, don’t be serious all the time. Yes, it’s great to have deep discussions about faith. However, it’s also really helpful to just have fun together, too. Make ice cream sundaes, go bowling, play a board game, etc. Those moments break the ice, help you see another aspect of each other’s personality, and will help your group grow closer together. People are more willing to engage in challenging topics when they trust and know the rest of the group. Having fun together is a great way to start building that trust.

Michael: What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind (and avoid burnout)?

Deborah: I’ve found exercise to be a great way to reduce stress. In fact, I have my best workouts after a challenging day! A tough workout releases endorphins, loosens up tense muscles, and makes me feel better overall.

Michael: Thanks, Deborah, for your great insights from a fresh perspective on leading healthy, growing small groups. And thanks for using your passion for God’s church!

QUESTION: What is the biggest takeaway for you as a leader from Deborah Ike’s interview? Please click the Comments box, below, to join the conversation!

Should We Shake Up Small Groups?

I was recently asked this question via email from a church leader in Canada:

There has been some question in the past at our church about how long a group should be together. A thought had been to “shake” things up or break up groups on purpose and in doing so that it would help. My opinion is that it hurts. The leaders are wondering what is best. What are your thoughts?

My first thought is to take a 30,000-perspective on the question. If I were consulting face-to-face with this church, I’d ask,

  • What’s the mission of your church?
  • What would you say is the main purpose of groups at the church?
  • What would your senior leader say is the purpose of groups?
  • What would your group leaders and members say is the purpose?
  • How would you describe your definition of and philosophy for small groups in the church?
  • How did these groups form in the first place? Naturally, organically, and relationally? Or through a programmed approach such as sign-up sheets, assignment/placement in groups (i.e., by last name, ages, neighborhoods, etc.), or a campaign?

I ask those questions to understand the context but also because the answers to those kinds of questions usually help the leader to respond to the more specific how-to questions.

In regard to definition and philosophy, I personally think of small groups as one of the most basic units of the body of Christ. The position the leaders in this church are espousing would be like taking organs out of one body and transplanting them into others. I can’t see how that helps.

If those organs (people) are unhealthy spiritually, that makes the whole situation even worse. Shuffling unhealthy people around in groups won’t help the situation. First deal with the unhealthiness within the groups. To do that you’ll need to assess your groups and your people. (My free group assessment is here:  I believe the best prescription for spiritual unhealthiness is discipleship. Spiritually immature people are often the most spiritually unhealthy.

My other favorite illustration of healthy small groups is a good football team that huddles to call the next play, instruct, encourage, and confess (“my bad; I dropped the ball”); and then breaks the huddle to run the play in order to carry out the team’s mission. No game was ever won in the huddle. Cohesive teams may make some offseason “trades,” but the best ones have been together for a while. They know one another, care about each other, and are a “team.”

If you’re purpose is to build disciples in healthy community, the big question is what’s best for doing that?

I don’t fully know this church’s situation, but in many cases like this one there’s something else going on behind these leaders’ desire to “shake things up.” It would take time for the small group director to meet together with people, invest into them, and do some evaluating to discover what that something is. Are people afraid of intimacy? Do they simply not like the people they are presently meeting with? Are they too inwardly focused (a holy huddle that’s not carrying out the mission)?

This is where the question about how they formed into their present groups comes in. If they were assigned or placed in groups by the church, or if they connected through a sign-up sheet or something like that, I can see why they might want to shake up that nonrelational program. However, I’d carefully, prayerfully put together a plan first for how the new groups will form. Because I believe in a more relational, rather than programmed approach to groups, I’d find a way for people to gather in groups through the relationships they already have—not as consumers, though, but as friends who desire to live in community to carry out God’s mission.

By the way, I suggest three books for anyone wrestling with this question:

My Small Group Vital Signs. It provides seven indicators of health that keep groups flourishing (so that members want to work together, grow together, bear fruit together, and then naturally multiply into new healthy groups).

Scott Boren’s MissioRelate (click for more info or to buy now), for small group directors, pastors, and other church leaders. Out of the hundreds of books I own on small group ministry, it’s the best and clearest on how to build a healthy small group ministry.

Scott Boren’s Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (click for more info or to buy now), for small group leaders, core team members, and the rest of the group. I’m reading this book now, and it’s fantastic! Scott shows groups how to move from good meetings to having great small group experiences that transform lives and make a kingdom impact.

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week for May 16-20, 2016

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

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Monday, 5/16: “Admonish one another” is a command of Scripture. To grow spiritually, ppl sometimes need it. #toughlove

Tuesday, 5/17: Call a group member or 2 today simply to encourage. Be specific. Be thankful for them. #love #ministry

Wednesday, 5/18: #Prepare to lead a mtg well enough that you don’t have to overly rely on the study guide. Focus on ppl.

Thursday, 5/19: Make leading a mtg a team event. Get as many ppl as possible involved ahead of time! #Share #leadership
Friday, 5/20: Take the quiet person out for coffee/lunch, call them between mtgs, talk b4 mtg starts. #invest

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS!


Finding FAST People

GUEST POST by Joel Comiskey, Ph.D., president of

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I really wanted John to replace me as the small group point person. He was knowledgeable, talented, friendly, and likable. He was a good friend and always positive.

But he was the wrong guy. Why? He just wasn’t FAT. Or better, he wasn’t FAST.

I’m referring here to acronyms, and I like FAST the best:


FAT works as well; it just leaves out the servant-orientation and might offend people in the process (although I do like to see people’s reactions when I tell them I’m looking for FAT people).

John had a lot going for him. But he lacked the FA (faithfulness and availability). I would frequently get the dreaded text before the Life group, “Hey, Joel, sorry, I forgot that my son has a birthday tonight.” Okay, I could understand that. We all have our forgetful moments. But then a few weeks later, I’d get another text before Life group, “Hey, Joel, I just got the parts to my broken air-conditioner, and I need to install them. I can’t make it tonight.”

But I was still convinced that John was the one. I just need to meet with him more frequently, I thought. Or maybe he just doesn’t understand the importance of being in a small group. So I talked to him more, showed up at his work for a visit, and gave him more attention. And during those times, he was all in. John was positive, confident, and agreeable.

But then a few weeks later, I’d get that fateful, common text, “Hey, Joel, I’m just not feeling well. My back really hurts. I’m going to have to cancel tonight.”

John’s problem was not his ability to lead the group; it was an internal problem of priorities. He lacked the deep-down commitment of making the Life group his priority. It was a value problem. He just wasn’t FAST. Now he might get there, but I realized that I simply had to redirect my attention to someone who was already FAST.

Tom was FAST. Yes, he was a newer Christian and had certain personality quirks. He lacked the knowledge of John, but oh was he FAST. He never missed and was even on time. I could count on Tom. Granted, Tom needed more training, and I would have to work with him, but he was FAST. I wouldn’t get the dreaded text message on Life group night.

I’ve been reminded by this experience to look for those who are FAST. There are a lot of talented people in the world, but if they don’t value small group life enough to make it a priority, they will never be the type you can count on.

The writer of Proverbs summed up my feelings precisely, “Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in times of trouble” (Proverbs 25:19). Faithfulness and availability always trump talent, personality, and expertise. Someone rightfully said that most of what we call success is simply showing up. Just showing up time after time wins the battles and places people in a position to learn, grow, and achieve great things.

As you look to develop leaders in your group, just remember that your leadership choice needs to start with those who are FAST.


The “Right Person” to Lead a Small Group
10 Can’t-Miss Principles for Finding the WRONG Leaders
Stop Recruiting!
Seven Steps to Share the Leadership of Your Group

Commitment and Small Groups: You Can’t Have One without the Other

I’m starting a new blog series today about commitment and small groups, which is kind of ironic, in a way, because this is my first post of 2014. I’ll try to do better … I promise.

What does it mean for a small group to be committed? I’ll address different levels and kinds of commitment in this series. Here are a couple questions to consider as you begin to think about commitment in your group(s). I’ll try to answer these questions:

  • WHY is commitment even important in a group?
  • WHAT is your group committed to? Christ? Growing in Christlikeness? One another? The group itself? A mission? Mutual discipleship and accountability? Something else?
  • WHAT are the most vital commitments in a small group?
  • Can you be committed to Christ without being committed to a group of God’s people?
  • Do all small groups have the same level of commitment?
  • HOW can you increase the level of commitment in your group? (this is a key question many group leaders ask.)
What additional questions would you ask about this topic? I’ll try to add your question to the list.
Here is a picture of a small group that I know are committed to one another. This is a group at Northeast Christian Church led by Blake and Angie Spencer (center). As a group they all went out and got tattoos together.
Dave and Susan Canary, Blake and Angie Spencer, Casey and Jennie Snow


That’s commitment! How’s your small group doing?

Wanted: Authentic Small Group Leaders (Arm-Chair Theologians and Lone Rangers Need Not Apply)

Are you an authentic small group leader? 

If we as small group leaders say we should all be witnesses yet do not do so ourselves, this hypocrisy teaches people to be disobedient. It gives the message, “I say you should share your faith, but I do not really mean it because, as you can see by my actions, I don’t really do it.”

People in churches have become very accustomed to “Do what I say, not as I do” thinking. When leaders model that kind of hypocrisy in the group, it turns the group inward and brings about a sickness that is difficult to overcome.

We do not need any more armchair theologians as small group leaders (or as church leaders, for that matter)! We do not need people who talk good ministry but never do it. We need doers of the Word, men and women of action – action spurred on by God’s call on their lives. We desperately need leaders who model reconciliation and a witnessing lifestyle.

People will respond when they see their leaders committed in action to disciple making. Leaders like this will redefine the norm. Small groups need leaders like this because small groups themselves must become centers of outreach rather than inward cliques. For the most part, the days of lone-ranger evangelism are over. Individuals are not usually charged to fulfill the Great Commission themselves. Evangelism belongs to small groups who team up to use their collective gifts to impact the world around them. The small group shepherd-leader who has God’s heart of reconciliation will develop a lifestyle that puts compassion for lost sheep primary over the distractions in life.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to focus on what it will take to make our groups more focused on the harvest. I’ll tell you this: it’s going to take some paradigm changes! 

This post is adapted from my book, Leading from the Heart: A Group Leader’s Guide to a Passionate Ministry (TOUCH Publications).

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.


How to Help Your Group Members Keep Growing and Growing

How do you help maturing disciples to keep growing? Both the Bible and developmental psychology show that a natural next step for many of them is to step out and lead others.

1. The Bible, especially in Hebrews 5:11—6:1, assumes that a maturing follower of Jesus will eventually step out to lead others.

How do you help group members to embrace this?

When people say, “We love our group; we don’t ever want to leave,” challenge them with Jesus’ mission to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Study that and other passages and discuss its application for group members.(For more help on how to do this, see my newly revised book, Leaving Home: A Small Group Parable for Making Disciples into Disciple Makers. It’s available now as a PDF download.)

If group members say they don’t know enough or have the ability to lead, look together at the lives of the early church leaders, Peter and John, who were known as “unschooled, ordinary men.”

Focus more on developing a few emerging leaders, sharing leadership roles with them, and increasingly less on discipling the entire group yourself. Team-lead the group with a core team of 2-3 others.

2. The best way for individuals to continue growing is to step out of their comfort zones.

Abraham Maslow said,

“You will either step forward into growth or step back into safety.”

“You will either step forward into growth or step back into safety.” -Abraham Maslow Click To Tweet

How can you help the group step forward?

A new Christian usually grows rapidly. After awhile, however, that growth slows and eventually becomes incremental at best. Individuals can remain in this plateaued state for years – attending church and small group faithfully every week and still not growing. To help them begin growing spiritually again, think of creative ways to encourage them with challenges that spur on their growth and force them to rely more on God’s power.

Those who teach others claim they learn far more than those they are teaching. The best thing you can do for plateaued group members may be to allow them to team-lead and teach others.

Communicate in terms of spiritual steps. What is the next logical step for each member of the group? Discuss this openly and challenge them personally. Shepherd them towards where they need to go to grow. For some, the next step is team-leading.

Small groups have accurately been descried as “leader breeders.” As you disciple people, sharing ownership and leadership, new leaders will emerge. 

Question: What specific change can you make this week in your group leadership in order to help people get out of their comfort zones so they can grow? Please share by clicking the Comment button below.

Small groups are “leader breeders.” @JoelComiskey Click To Tweet

The best thing you can do for plateaued group members is to allow them to lead. Click To Tweet

5 Great Gift-Giving Ideas to Celebrate Your Small Group Leaders This Christmas

As a small groups minister, each year at this time, I’d begin thinking about what gift I might give to my coaches and leaders to say thank you and to let them know how much I appreciate them. Here are a couple things I’ve learned over the years and a few ideas for you.

  1. Whatever you do, be sure your gift communicates that you care enough about them that you thought about each one of them. 
  2. I had a large number of group leaders, so I couldn’t be extravagant, but I always sent a nice Christmas card (not the $3 boxed set of 100 cards!) to each leader with a personal note in each one, thanking them for their ministry, letting them know I was praying for them (mentioning specific things where I could), and wishing them a great Christmas season. This will take some time and effort, but it is well worth it!
  3. I gave my leadership team, coaches, and some of my special leaders a gift card to a store I knew they’d really like. At times I’d also add a small trinket (like a candy bar or some other inexpensive item) that I knew for sure they liked. Of course, in order to know what kinds of personalize items they like, you must spend time with these leaders throughout the year! I also personally delivered these gifts the week before Christmas. I called them up beforehand and arranged a time when I could stop by their office or home to drop off the gift and personally thank them for their service and give them their gift.
  4. If you have less than about 20 small group leaders (which I’ve had at each church where I’ve served–before each ministry grew), then do #3 for these leaders. Perhaps some of them will someday be part of your leadership team or team of coaches! 
  5. Take this opportunity to invest into them, not only as individuals but as servant leaders. Buy each leader a book that will help him or her be more effective in leading his or her group. On the title page of the book, write a short, personal note thanking them for their ministry and letting them know you bought this book to invest into them and their leadership.  
I believe three of my books would make great gifts for your leaders:
  • The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership This book is a perfect gift for leaders because of its compact size, small price tag, and content geared toward helping leaders be effective in their ministry without burning out. This book is only $5.99 each and you can get quantity discounts of between 10-35% off that price! CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO OR TO ORDER FROM THE PUBLISHER’S WEB SITE.
  • I’m a Leader … Now What? This book was written particularly for new group leaders. It’s written in an easy-to-read “Small Group Help Guides” format. New leaders can learn from the best small group leader ever (that’s Jesus, not me!) how to lead an effective, fruit-bearing small group. CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM THE PUBLISHER’S WEB SITE.
  • Small Group Vital Signs This is one of my newest books, and I think it’s a great gift for anyone involved in your small groups ministry, because it will help them make changes in their groups in order to become more healthy. Healthy groups grow and multiply  which is what every leader wants! This book also has great quantity discounts available. Check out the web site for more information. CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM THE PUBLISHER’S WEB SITE. 
Have other ideas for celebrating your leaders this Christmas? Comment below! 

16 Small Group Roles: How to Share Ownership and Grow

One of the best ways to make your small group more healthy and exciting is to share ownership with everyone. 

Sharing ownership impacts your group in the following ways: (1) more consistency of attendance and participation, (2) more involvement in the discipleship process, (3) opportunities to recognize and utilize our own spiritual gifts and talents, (4) more opportunity to be involved in what we’re passionate about, (5) development of a true team as a group as everyone uses his or her own gifts, (6) less stress on the leader to do everything, which leads to (7) less leader burnout and (8) more opportunity to develop future leaders. 

Below are some small group roles. I’m sure there are plenty more than the roles I list below, so I’m looking forward to what you suggest!

  • Study Champion: Facilitates study time; helps group decide on what to study
  • Serve Champion: Helps plan serving opportunities with group
  • Outreach Champion: Helps group reach out to and pray for friends who do not have a relationship with Christ
  • Inreach Champion: Keeps group focused on themselves rather than anyone else outside the group. Has strong belief that the group revolves around him and his needs
  • Worship Champion: May lead worship in group, whether it involves singing, or other forms of worship
  • Social Champion: Helps plan group social activities
  • Prayer Champion: Leads prayer times, may keep prayer journal
  • Doomsday Champion: Makes plans for the whole group for all end-of-the-world scenarios. Spiritual gift: prophesy (she says). Knows the book of Revelation forward and backward. Has seen the movie 2012 twelve times.
  • Host(ess)/Hospitality Champion: Hosts group or helps plan who hosts
  • Food Champion: Helps plan anything dealing with food
  • Timekeeper: Helps group stay on track with time
  • Topper: Role is to top anyone else’s story or prayer request (reference: Dilbert)
  • Information Champion: Keeps group information up-to-date. Communicates with the Small Groups Ministry Office about the group. (This person is probably administrative and enjoys using the web; i.e. Facebook)
  • American Idol Champion: Keeps the group up-to-date weekly on what is happening on his or her favorite reality TV shows, sometimes interrupting worship or Bible study to do so. Does not get along well with Worship or Study Champions or Timekeeper.
  • Group Communication Champion: Communicates with the group about meetings, etc. (This person may enjoy using email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Coffee Champion: Makes sure coffee is brewed at each meeting. Is usually a “coffee snob.” Helps keep group awake during Study Champion’s less-exciting lessons.
OK, maybe these are not all real group roles. And maybe you have a few of you own. Please share them by commenting below! 
A PDF of my official list I’ve used in my church ministry can be downloaded from HERE. (Scroll down to the FREE Downloads section and click on “Share_Ownership.pdf.”) Feel free to make copies of that list to utilize in your small group.