Many churches today—maybe even most—have some kind of small group ministry operating. My ministry does!Some groups are highly effective; many of them could be doing better. This training tool has helped me over the years, The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry: A Troubleshooting Guide for Church Leaders, by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, the authors outline some of the key “sins” that hinder the development of an effective small group ministry.
Robinson and Donahue developed and directed the small group ministry at Willow Creek Community Church for many years and I was able to personally meet them one on one. Great insightful leaders! They bring a lot of good and practical wisdom to the table, and I found the content very helpful. Enjoy my synopsis taken right from the material.
We’ve identified “the seven deadly sins” of small group ministry breakdown. During our years of helping Willow Creek and other churches untangle their small group problems, we’ve navigated great frustrations, quick fixes, “worst decisions,” and “best practices” to discover basic solutions that work.
Sin One: Unclear Ministry Objectives
Too many churches plunge into small group ministry without an end in mind. There is a general sense that building community in the church is the right thing to do and that somehow small groups will help. But few understand or even agree on what must be done to get there. The leadership has failed to provide clarity about God’s call, the vision for their church, the purpose of groups, and the role each member plays in achieving the God-given vision. As your church decides on the purpose and underlying values of its small groups, remember you want to develop clear ministry objectives appropriate to your church’s unique design.
Sin Two: Lack of Point Leadership
When starting a small group initiative, some churches start with a point leader who is a person who can embody the vision of the initiative and help their church figure out where their small group ministry is going. Other churches first set clear ministry objectives before deciding which person should be given responsibility for championing the cause of community throughout the congregation. The point leader motivates the congregation to set a high priority on building loving relationships. They champion small group vision by creating urgency, coalescing opinion, building consensus, and celebrating successes.
Sin Three: Poor Coaching Structures
Sports teams lacking great coaches rarely experience championship seasons. Winning the small groups game requires that every leader receive consistent coaching. Regardless of the small group model you adopt, you will need a coaching structure once you have more than ten or twelve groups. Once it becomes clear that the point leader can’t care for all of the new small group leaders, the solution is to add a layer of coaches between small group leaders and the point leader. The point leaders can now focus their shepherding and development efforts on the coaches who, in turn, do the same for small group leaders.
Sin Four: Neglect of Ongoing Leadership Development
Churches committed to small groups have to take the leadership development challenge seriously and determine a systematic approach to growing their leadership corps. For a small group ministry to keep thriving, you must constantly ask, “What are we doing to reproduce our leadership?” A church will never develop a leadership culture unless it teaches about the gift and role of leadership. You must also develop a strategy. We suggest you concentrate more on leadership selection than on leadership development as you identify people to enter the leadership pipeline. Eighty percent of the leadership development game is about selecting the right person in the first place.
Sin Five: Closed Group Mind-Set
The dark side of Christian community is our inclination to form a holy huddle, intentionally or unintentionally. A closed group mind-set is a death sentence to true community. Closed group mind-set happens because churches are insensitive to seekers. Without a clear vision for the “open chair,” groups don’t grow spiritually, nor do they reach their highest potential for serving the congregation as a whole. As our mobile culture works to pull people from our groups, groups with a closed mind-set are guaranteed a short life span. The open chair is just one of three interrelated dynamics in small group ministry, along with birthing and apprenticing.
Sin Six: Narrow Definition of a Small Group
Providing our people at Willow Creek with a broad range of group options remains central to becoming a church of groups. Multiple entry points and leadership opportunities are becoming standard practice, assuring that everyone can find a place in community under the watchful care of a trained shepherd. We organize small groups around affinities. Affinities are not intended to represent the complete expression of community life in the body. They are simply a means of gathering people together so that little communities can begin to form. Most of our groups fall within four major affinities: age/stage-based, interest-based, task-based, or care-based.
Sin Seven: Neglect of the Assimilation Process
Unless there are clear and functional pathways for people to connect into group life in your church, people will remain out of reach. There are three major steps of assimilation. They are collecting vital data, following up, and handing off interested people to ministry leaders. The key to assimilation is meeting people at the point of their desire to belong. Assimilation is not merely about growing a small group ministry or designing systems to mobilize and connect with the masses; it means wanting to provide people a place to belong and give them a chance for community. At Willow Creek, we remind ourselves that God sent these people to us, so we can’t afford to overlook any step of assimilation, no matter how small. It is our responsibility to follow up on every lead, every person with whom there is a point of contact.
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