I’ve been in and around group ministry for the better part of two decades, led publishing teams and training, been involved at the local church level, and currently co-host a weekly podcast on group leadership. The sum of this is that I’ve been exposed to many leaders and plenty of ideas that work. So I thought it would be helpful to draw from some of these relationships and ask them about the symptoms of a healthy small-group ministry and comment on each.
Below are the pithy responses of five outstanding leaders in the universe of small-group ministry.
Chris Surratt, in addition to being the co-host of the weekly Group Answers podcast, serves as the executive pastor for groups at Harvest Fellowship in Southern California. He has led in contexts ranging from South Carolina to Tennessee and now in California.
Jared Musgrove is the Leadership Pastor at The Village Church in the Dallas area while co-laborer Justin Elafros serves at The Village as Groups Pastor. The Village offers a robust small-group ministry that meets off-site as well as classes more foundational and theological in nature that are offered on-site. Jared and Justin believe that this format meets the two-fold need of community and effective teaching.
Reid Smith serves as the Director of Communities of Purpose for the Small Group Network and has been a pastor at Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach FL since 2008. I’ve known Reid for several years. He is a great small-group multiplier and one of the best team builders I know. In addition, Reid has a gift for developing leaders.
Ken Braddy is one of the Bible study publishing leaders at Lifeway. He has decades of church education and church staff experience. Ken is on the road about a fourth of the year interacting with churches, pastors, and group leaders. He has written books on groups leadership and church training and posts regularly at KenBraddy.com.
Chris: A symptom of a healthy group ministry is that it effectively partners with the other ministries of the church to help people become more like Jesus. Instead of siloing itself, a healthy ministry will be aligned with the overall mission and vision of the church and leadership. We are better together—not only within our small groups—but with all of the ministries of our church!
BD: Chris makes a great point here and I would surmise that this isn’t one that’s extremely top-of-mind for many of us as we think through ministry leadership, operations, logistics, and curriculum decisions. It’s crucial to keep in mind the larger context. While no one is likely to disagree with this, I do wonder how often we stop and think through how we’re partnering with other ministries within the church. Because of the nature of small-groups there is a tendency for them to become a “thing unto themselves.” I would say that this phenomenon is unfortunately very natural and is something that should be monitored and assessed fairly regularly. Cross-communication with stakeholders and group leaders is vital.
Jared and Justin: Four things: A healthy group actively pursues healthy relationships with God and one another; the symptoms of relational health are found in the over-50 “one another” commands of the New Testament. The healthy group also practices what is preached from the sermon each week; group is a place where the sermon becomes action. Healthy groups grow in their awareness of and use of their spiritual gifts; they constantly ask God to use them to encourage, edify, and console. Finally, a healthy group is home base for people in the church; amongst various activities within the church or outside the church, group members find refuge, regularity, and replenishment in their group’s ongoing life together.
BD: Jared and Justin, I asked for one thing! All kidding aside, this is what you get when you ask passionate, intelligent, experienced, and gifted leaders for input—and these guys are all of that. I would call attention to the use of “grow” in Jared and Justin’s third point here. A symptom of a healthy group ministry isn’t just awareness of spiritual gifts. Let’s face it, too often we lack effective and long-standing follow-up to spiritual gifts surveys. Rather, the emphasis here is on growing in awareness and use of our spiritual gifts. This could be easily translated as effective shepherding. I also like the reference to “home base” in this response. Years ago I read George Hunter’s book The Celtic Way of Evangelism and loved his idea of monastic communities. The idea of “home base” is a wonderful depiction of what group life can be, particularly in the world we live in today. I think Jared and Justin would agree that a healthy group ministry is an evolving process, equal parts messy and beautiful.
Reid: A group ministry will be healthy when its leadership is strong and mutually-supportive. This demonstrates itself through consistent communication, care, and connections designed to equip and encourage leaders. Furthermore, there’s a functional leadership pipeline where each one is being poured into and he or she, in turn, is investing into up-and-coming leaders. Ultimately, a healthy group ministry will manifest itself in ways that resemble the biblical community we see in Acts 2:42-47 when leaders share this experience with one another.
BD: I remember a mentor telling me years ago about leadership. He said, “You can’t expect to lead people on a journey you’re not on yourself.” In sports, a lot of the time, a great player only makes a so-so coach. That is, he or she could do the thing required better than he or she could teach it or explain it. Group leadership doesn’t work that way. As a leader you need to be sure that you are living out your testimony within the context of group life and community and then giving back to it. Yes, there is a hierarchy of responsibility for you as a leader, but that’s not the same as being cloistered or insulated. Reid uses the term “mutually-supportive” here and that is key. There’s also quite a bit wrapped up in the word “communication” in this sense. “Communication” in this instance isn’t limited to information dissemination, but includes how you invite people into your life, how you ask for and provide accountability, who you give permission to ask hard questions, how you demonstrate the care Reid references, and how well you listen. I love the reference to the Acts 2 community.
Ken: Of course there are multiple symptoms of a healthy groups ministry, but two come immediately to mind. First, a healthy groups ministry trains its leaders. Trained leaders are confident leaders, and trained leaders reduce turnover. Healthy groups ministries commit to train the workers. Second, a healthy groups ministry understands that there’s more to the ministry than just the group time. The mission isn’t “nine to noon” on Sunday; if group leaders believe that, they don’t see the job. A healthy group ministry has a 24-7 mindset in which people serve and care for one another.
BD: Ken had points 3,4, and 5 but we had to draw the line somewhere. I’m sure the entire response will become a complete post on its own sometime in the near future and you’ll want to read that. One of Ken’s chief pursuits and core convictions falls under the major heading of leader training. He has devoted a significant portion of his life to training group leaders. It’s always wonderful to meet someone who is a true believer of what he espouses. Training is a little tricky in my opinion. It seems there’s a line when it comes to the time commitment of our volunteers and how to manage those expectations. Podcasts, blogs, and books are great complements to live training because they can be completed within the volunteer’s personal time management. But this doesn’t make what Ken is saying any less true. Training needs to be a constant. And, definitely, a symptom of a healthy group ministry can be equated with a 24-7 mindset. For this to move from aspiration to reality requires a core team that models the kind of mindset Ken champions.
I appreciate this input from Chris, Reid, Jared, Justin, and Ken. Like all of us, they are really busy with a lot on their proverbial plates. I could say something here about the aggregate years of experience they have in groups leadership, but instead I would draw attention to their aggregate “heart” to see people know Jesus and know Him more fully and intimately. They come, like Paul, not with wise and persuasive words but rather knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.