By Reid Smith
One of the greatest mistakes made by church leaders who want to reintroduce or reinvigorate a small group ministry is to make their first step an announcement from the pulpit. This well-intentioned step can have catastrophic results if those who had a less-than-favorable experience feel disregarded, retired leadership feel dismissed, and residual leadership (if any) feel disrespected. There is a critical pre-game plan that must be executed in private before going public. The life-saving practice of CPR offers a helpful pattern to follow.
When an unconscious or unresponsive person is being revived using CPR, it is vital for the person helping to follow the A-B-C steps for resuscitating another person:
- AIRWAY – Open the airway
- BREATHING – Breathe air into the opened airway
- CIRCULATION – Perform cycles of breaths & chest compressions to restore the victim
There are equivalents for each of these steps when it comes to restoring life to your small group ministry. As with actual CPR, it is very important to follow them in order. Many church leaders unknowingly engage these steps in the reverse order (C-B-A). This can have devastating consequences for the ministry at large.
The first step in CPR is to make sure the victim’s AIRWAY is clear from any obstructions. The one responding to the emergency is to look, listen, and feel for breathing. The parallel for those who are trying to resuscitate community life through small groups is to look for, listen to, and feel out your past, present, and future small group leadership. Conversation opens the airway.
AIRWAY – Learning from your past, present, and future small group leadership
- PAST: Set-up conversations over coffee with those who were key leaders (e.g. coaches and long-term leaders) and significant voices of influence in the past and ask for their input. It is very important to do the following in each of your meetings:
- Be sincere in expressing appreciation for their past involvement and inviting honest feedback. Then be humble and listen intently to what they tell you.
- Be discerning about who is supportive of you and the attempt to restart the small group ministry. There will be some who express support but are not personally ready to take part in reintroducing a small group ministry…and that’s okay!
- Beware of those who do not seem to have anything positive to say and use their conversation with you to vent negativity. Thank them for their input and move on. It may do more harm to try to win these people over. Your goal is not to gain everyone’s acceptance and enthusiastic approval. Your goal is to get the RIGHT people on your team. Having the wrong people on your team obstructs the airway and renders the next two steps ineffective.
Have phone conversations with the other leaders and volunteers who were involved in the past for a shorter term. It is well worth your time to interface personally with every past leader and this effort on your part will mean a lot to them. Regardless of whether they are optimistic, ambivalent, or skeptical, you will learn a lot from these people even when they are not ready to jump on-board with the new effort. They will also likely appreciate the respect you have shown by initiating conversation and inviting feedback.
2. PRESENT: Acknowledge those who are still involved. Commend them for their commitment and include them in your future planning. Ask them for their input as well by using the same tips above. Invite them to join you for a vision-casting experience that will include emerging small group leadership. Note: Where present leaders remain involved, it is important that you do NOT convey that you are starting something completely new to replace the past small group ministry. Rather, you are continuing to build upon the foundation of the biblical community the Lord has already established. This honors what God has done and may still be doing through these present leaders, and it shows respect for their continued loving service.
3. FUTURE: Review your church’s master list of members with your senior pastor. Highlight the names of those who have been or are presently involved. Next highlight the names of those you and your senior pastor think are good prospective leaders. As before, arrange sit-down conversations with people you would like to invite into further responsibility.
- Whether you talk by phone or in person with prospective leaders, explain…
- What you are presenting (tell them what their role looks like as a facilitator)
- Why they specifically came to mind as a potential small group leader
- What their group might look like and how it fits into the overarching vision of your church
- Dream with them about possibilities and give them the freedom of choosing a focus they are excited about (we are all called to be community-builders!)
- Clearly communicate expectations
- Essential responsibilities
- Project the time commitment involved
- Suggest beginning with a shorter duration
- Request participation in a vision-casting event and initial training
- Clarify that you (or a coach) will be with them every step of the way
- Set a specific time to follow-up
- Whether you talk by phone or in person with prospective leaders, explain…
BREATHING – Including all the leaders in a vision-casting experience
After you have opened the airway by carrying out your pre-game plan with the emerging leadership, the next step in resuscitating the small group ministry is to bring all those who have expressed openness to restarting the small group ministry together to cast fresh vision by communicating your church’s…
- Mission and core values
- Vision of how small groups will further your church’s mission by fueling the growth of biblical community
- History with small groups and what you have learned from earlier attempts (based on feedback you have received from a number of leaders)
- Belief in the importance of small groups and the benefits that come from them
- Current and projected need for small groups to ensure healthy church growth
- Renewed definition of a small group and support structure for the ministry
- Dream of what the new small group ministry looks like in action
- Ongoing plan for training, resourcing, and supporting your new community of leaders
The third step in CPR involves restoring breathing and sometimes even circulation to the unresponsive victim. Like people, small group ministries can have faint breath or no breath, irregular circulation or no pulse. Take heart! The Lord wants you and the community of your church to experience His resurrection life. Furthermore, He wants the community life of your church to explode out and impact your surrounding community. Jesus will build biblical community in your local church as He builds His Church!
CIRCULATION – Reintroducing small groups through public communication
One mistake leaders make when relaunching small group ministry is going public prematurely. Do not circumvent the process of securing and uniting your new community of leaders with the fresh vision that will undergird your new attempt. Your small group leadership community provides the necessary backbone to this church-wide initiative, especially when there is a history of unsatisfactory results. In other words, you need to have your team together before game time. This provides confidence for the whole congregation that the necessary groundwork of preparing a new small group leadership group has already been done.
When it comes to reintroducing small groups as a church-wide ministry, it is vital the senior pastor joins with the small group ministry staff (paid or not) in communicating the new vision. Earlier attempts at small group ministry that never really took root can oftentimes leave a bad aftertaste. Hearing the philosophical “why’s” directly from the senior pastor and the fresh, practical “how’s” from those leading the new effort can help to neutralize this distaste.
There are a couple of things the senior pastor should recognize: 1) The past attempt(s) and the leadership’s appreciation for all of those who were involved and 2) The new attempt and how it is different. As a continuation of explaining the why behind small groups it is also important for the senior pastor to communicate why the church values small groups, why they are so important to the church’s mission, and why it is vital for everyone to be involved. The communication of opportunities for people to connect into a small group may be done by the small group/discipleship pastor once the why foundation has been laid by the senior pastor.
Another strategy that dissipates the bad aftertaste of earlier small group ministry short-comings is to talk about group life in the context of seasons or semesters. In other words, say “The first season of our small group ministry will look like such-and-such.” This lets the church know you are asking for a shorter-term commitment to begin with. It also affords you the flexibility to change tact from season-to-season in order to remain relevant for the ever-changing make-up and needs of your church community.
The other advantage to doing this is it gives you a “new excuse” to talk about small groups in a big way two to three times per year. Regardless, a key principle to ensuring the success of restarting your church’s small group ministry is to keep groups in front of your people. Give your newly-fashioned small group ministry plenty of “face time.” Advertise new groups, highlight existing ones, encourage people to connect. Talk about groups regularly in front of the whole church. Doing so shows the value you place on them.
Restarting an unresponsive person’s circulation usually requires some cyclical repetition of breathing and chest compressions. Likewise, there can be some repetition to the application of this third step of CPR to restoring life to your small group ministry by feeding your emerging small group ministry fresh communication and different opportunities for people to connect. Stay creative in helping people to connect and grow together in Christ! Networking with other like-minded churches and sharing creative ideas and resources helps this process.
A person who is revived through CPR does not immediately spring back to their feet and take off running. Similarly, a small group ministry that has life restored to it needs to be nurtured and nursed back to full health over time. It requires careful and clear communication. It requires consistency in prayer and the promotion of small groups in your church’s weekend life. And it requires a united leadership front and an openness to new seasons of community life that connect with your church’s mission. If you follow the A-B-C steps for restoring life to your small group ministry, the odds are strongly in favor of revival and real impact on your surrounding community.
Reid Smith has been equipping leaders in churches of all sizes and stages of growth for effective disciple-making since 1996. He lives in Wellington, Florida where he serves as a Groups Pastor at Christ Fellowship. You can find more of his helpful resources at www.reidsmith.org.