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Home » Church Leadership, Featured, Volunteer Management

Leadership Development in Small Groups

Submitted by James Higginbotham on October 28, 2007 – 6:12 pmNo Comment

I was recently asked by a reader what leadership development within an affinity team, such as a college ministry, might look like. Let’s consider an approach that can be adopted by those managing a more social or discipleship-oriented ministry.

Bootstrap Your Small Groups

Often the most challenging aspect of small groups is getting them started. It may only be you that is able and/or qualified to lead, making it harder to get started. Bootstrapping your small groups takes a combination of strategic and tactical decisions. Here are some things I recommend based on my past experience with starting small groups:

  1. Use a discussion format rather than teaching – it will reduce the burden both on you and on your future leaders. Nothing will kill a small group approach than leaders without the gift of teaching in charge of a group. Adopt off-the-shelf materials or build on a message series from your pastor (current or past). Briefly (5 min or less) summarize the lesson and then ask the group to share their insights, challenges, and successes. Accept prayer requests and pray as a group over these needs, tracking them over time to see how they have been answered
  2. Use icebreakers, especially if the people in your group are unfamiliar with each other – keep it light and simple, but do something that gets everyone talking prior to the meeting. This will eliminate crickets being louder than your group discussion.
  3. Allow for fellowship time before or after the meeting – this provides time for everyone to know each other better over time, creating a tighter bond between them
  4. Select some of your first attendees from your leadership candidate list – most often, you have some people in mind already as future leaders. Get them involved in the group, as you will be able to discover their strengths and weaknesses and also find those future leaders you didn’t even consider.
  5. Build into your structure a simple model for allowing others to participate – from hosting, bring drinks/snacks, leading worship, selecting a psalm or poem to read, to facilitating based on your prior example. Allow others to see it isn’t as difficult as they thought to lead (as it shouldn’t be)
  6. Encourage new visitors and “invite a friend events” – Keep the group as open as possible, keep it simple, and keep it friendly to outsiders. This means talking to new attendees, rather than going back to your favorite friends before or after a meeting. Set the example, and introduce your visitors to others in the group as similar interests emerge from the conversation
  7. Multiply your group if you exceed 12 consistent attendees for a period of 4-8 weeks. If you aren’t adding new people to the group, consider adjusting something (hosting location, leadership, or topic) to encourage new attendees to join.

Your primary goal is to have an active group with members that are sharing openly and encouraging one another. Once this starts to fully develop, it is time to move on to the next stage…

Prepare the Foundation

Once you have a small group going, you will need to ensure that you can build new groups without your constant attention. This requires steps to be taken both during your first small group as well as on a continuing basis:

  1. Identify 2-3 apprentices that would be good candidates to lead a group. They must be able to get others talking, not talk about themselves (huge difference!)
  2. Document your approach – create a simple guidebook (no more than 3 pages) that outlines the group structure, expectations, and other techniques you use to manage your group
  3. Share this guidebook with anyone you ask to lead in your place, as well as those you have identified as leadership apprentices
  4. Meet with your apprentices individually on a monthly basis. If they are of the opposite sex, take appropriate steps to include a spouse or another person to prevent awkward or inappropriate situations
  5. Begin to give your apprentices some of the responsibilities of the group over time, allowing you to do less while still mentoring them
  6. Look for opportunities to allow a single apprentice to take over your current group while you start a new one. Often, this is the easiest method as the current group is comfortable with them and they have less work to do to start a new group. Alternatively, let a few of your current group members plant a new group along with the apprentice.

When things are at this stage, you are beginning to create multiple leaders that are able to create new and thriving groups. Now is when it is key to structure your groups for future leadership growth.

Grow Future Leaders

Finally, begin to structure your small groups so that leaders are not left on their own and you are not devoting all of your spare time to every group. This requires some very specific and deliberate steps, otherwise you will revert back to being a single group leader and never fully develop new leadership:

  1. As your apprentice leaders begin to lead a new group, you will need to continue to spend time with them – this will help them learn, grow, and deal with difficult situations
  2. This will require more of your time to spend with leaders, rather than leading a group yourself, so prepare to stop leading small groups yourself
  3. As you develop more mature leaders through increased mentoring, identify those that could perform the same kind of leadership mentoring. Start transitioning them out of their small group leadership and into this new role by having them use their apprentices to begin to lighten their group leadership burdens.
  4. Invite them to mentor a single individual, with you there to guide the meetings. Involve yourself in these mentoring meetings to start, until you are comfortable with the oversight they are providing. If needed, it may be them listening as you mentor the new leader, to learn the basics
  5. If they show an aptitude for mentoring other leaders, slowly given them oversight of 1 or 2 more small group leaders, never to exceed 4-6 leaders at one time. At this point, they should not be leading a small group themselves anymore.
  6. Should the leader not show an aptitude for this, try to get them leading with a single small group again, or limit their mentoring to a single leader and continue to oversee their meetings
  7. Continue to develop them as a leader of leaders, encouraging them to help develop new small groups through their small group leaders’ apprentices

Have you used this approach before? Do you have a method of small group leadership of your own? Let me hear from you in the comments.

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