The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry: A Troubleshooting Guide for Church Leaders

(Paperback - Oct 2005)
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Assessment and solution for seven common obstacles to building small groups. It's one thing to start a small group ministry. It's another to keep the groups in your church healthy and headed in the same direction. Whatever your church's approach may be--whether it is a church with groups or of groups-- sooner or later, as a leader, you'll need to do some troubleshooting. That's when the expert, to-the-point guidance in this book will prove its worth. The beauty of this book lies in its unique diagnostic process. It allows you to assess, diagnose, and correct seven common "deadly sins" that can drain the life from your church's small group ministry. In The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry, what would take you years to learn through trial and error is distilled into some of the most useful information you can find. Drawing on the knowledge they've gleaned from working inside Willow Creek Community Church, from consulting with hundreds of churches, and from conducting conferences and seminars worldwide, small group experts Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson furnish you with proven, real-life solutions to the toughest problems in your small group ministry. This is not theory--it is hands-on material you can read and apply today.


  • SKU: 9780310267119
  • UPC: 025986267117
  • SKU10: 0310267110
  • Title: The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry: A Troubleshooting Guide for Church Leaders
  • Qty Remaining Online: 1
  • Publisher: Zondervan Publishing Company
  • Date Published: Oct 2005
  • Pages: 241
  • Illustrated: Yes
  • Weight lbs: 0.78
  • Dimensions: 8.96" L x 6.00" W x 0.68" H
  • Features: Table of Contents, Price on Product, Illustrated, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Evangelical;
  • Category: CHURCH LIFE
  • Subject: Christian Church - Church Administration

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Sin One: Unclear Ministry Objectives

Symptoms of Unclear Ministry Objectives Leaders don't agree on the purpose for small groups The church's road to ministry progress is blocked Relationships are breaking down among those most committed to community Church members expect too much attention from the staff Small groups have a myopic vision and don't know their role in the overall church strategy

It was the meeting to end all meetings. I (Bill) still get a shudder when I think of it. My son was in the Cub Scouts, and a meeting had been called for boys and their parents to attend. We arrived on time and took our place among the eleven boys and fifteen parents who were able to attend.

"Okay, so let's get started," began Kevin, the forty-five-year-old scoutmaster. "It is that time again when we should be thinking about the annual Cub Scout campout. Does anyone have any thoughts?"

"We will need some trucks to carry the garbage out after the boys leave," said one father.

"Why don't we have a different menu than last year?" asked Maria. "I think the boys are getting tired of peanut butter!"

About thirty seconds of silence reigned among us as we gathered in the cluttered church basement where these dreadful meetings were endured. Then seven-year-old Bobby broke the silence.

"What if it rains again? I hate it when it rains."

"You're a wimp!" said Mark, an eight-year-old veteran of camping life, whose speech was often laced with such encouraging words for his fellow Scouts. Others chimed in with their cracks and jokes.

"Okay, calm down. Let's just stay with the program we did last year," the scoutmaster suggested. "It seems like that worked fine."

Unless, that is, like our family, you were not involved last year. We had no idea what to expect this year or what had taken place last year as hundreds of young boys invaded the forests of Illinois.

"Last year was great ." started young Mike, pausing long enough for Kevin and the parents to think this whole camping experience might actually have some impact, ". if you like mosquitoes and mud!" The room erupted in laughter. Little Mike pleaded, "Please don't make us go to the same campground! That place was a swamp!" By now the boys were roaring hysterically and parents were needed to help restore order.

"That's enough boys-settle down. Parents, we need your help with this event. Who would like to volunteer to help this year?" asked Kevin. "We'll need about ten people. Our troop is responsible for organizing the sports equipment and games."

The response was unanimous: fifteen parents sat motionless as they pondered why they had chosen scouting instead of swimming lessons.I could be lounging by the pool, getting a tan, watching my kids frolic in the warm summer sun. Instead I will probably be trudging through a sweltering forest, fending off insect attacks, and struggling to get three hours of sleep in a tent with a group of second graders whose life ambition is to do exactly the opposite of everything I say.

"What about skills? Will the boys learn any skills?" asked Harold. At a Scout camp in 1967 Harold had learned to tie an assortment of knots. "I want my boy to learn something while he's there. Won't they learn to set up a tent, or carve something, or maybe build a fire?"

Harold's plea caught Kevin off guard. He was thinking logistics, not skills. He had parents to recruit, not kids to train.

Harold's comment forced me to think. Isn't that what scouting is for? Isn't scouting supposed to train young men in the fine art of frontier survival-to impart skills for fending off wild animals without a weapon, catching fish with their bare hands, and building a log home without an axe? Scout camps should be raising up the next generation of Daniel Boones and Davy Crockets!

"I don't want my son playing with fire," said Linda, who thinks the Cub Scouts are a babysitting service with uniforms. "The last thing I need is to spend all day in the emergency room! Oh, and my son Jimmy has a question. He wants to know if the kids will be allowed to bring video games along."

Sure. And why not a portable refrigerator, a mobile phone, and a laptop computer so he and the boys can keep up with the latest trends in the stock market? So much for developing the next King of the Wild Frontier.

"There will be plenty of safe things for the boys to do," assured a frustrated scoutmaster. "But no video games are allowed. Now, as I was saying, we will need people to plan the activities and supervise the boys at each of the sporting events. Does anyone have a bow and arrow and know how to shoot it?"

At this point in the meeting I wished I had brought one along. This misery had to end, one way or another. Others seemed to share this sentiment. (A few parents in the back of the room were contemplating a game of Russian roulette, several mothers were angry that their husbands were home watching baseball, and the boys-who had crossed the boredom threshold long ago-were beginning to plot the abduction of the scoutmaster one evening at camp.)

Mrs. Peters and her son Jeffrey, late arrivals to the meeting, suggested that all the parents attend the camp and share a tent so they could all "experience scouting firsthand." She was never seen again. Authorities are still looking for her. Well, actually that's not true, but it got pretty close.

"Why don't we just skip this year? Nobody has time to take three days off work in the middle of the week to help." A few others nodded.

"But then there would be no archery, BB guns, rope swings, or late-night campfire stories" lamented the boys.

And no mosquitoes, no portable toilets, and no muscle cramps, thought the parents.

By this point even our beloved scoutmaster had had about all he could take, so he raised his voice to get everyone's attention. "Look, we have to do this camp-all the other troops will be there, and it will be just fine! Now, who can help?"

Reluctantly parents began to volunteer, the boys agreed to quiet down long enough for some order to be maintained, and another summer scouting camp was on the calendar.

As I reflect on the experience, I realize it had all the makings of disaster from the start. In some general sense everyone knows that scouting is good for these boys and that camp is fun for them. But there was no clear vision for the event, no understanding of how it fit into the overall plan for developing these young kids, and no structure or process for getting to the desired outcomes. Every parent has a different definition of success for scouting and for the camp, so no consensus can be reached. People were frustrated and angry with the leader and with one another. Other than that, everything was just fine!

Small group ministries often suffer the same fate. 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. Other than that, every thing is just fine!

Why does this happen?

Because too many churches plunge into small group ministry without an end in mind. They're like the college kid who happily studies art and German poetry, works as a lifeguard each summer, then decides at graduation that he really wants to be a rocket scientist when he grows up. In church after church (Willow Creek included!), otherwise savvy adults begin building small groups without deciding what they want small group ministry to be "when it grows up."

In the excitement of starting groups, these churches might have great discussions about ministry models, group types, and spiritual formation objectives. But they never actually decide on the purpose of small groups or define how small groups will fit into church life. Inevitably these small group efforts reach an impasse. Church leaders who influence the congregation's strategic direction say the road to ministry progress seems blocked. Small group members, leaders, and coaches feel confused, angry, or indifferent about their groups' role in the church.

Lost in the Soup?

If the following case study sounds familiar, then your church probably suffers from unclear ministry objectives. We've changed the names, but here's what happened in a real meeting at a real church-a church that hasn't yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up. This church never really chose a small group ministry structure or analyzed the underlying values of different small group models.

Ten years ago this church started some groups, eventually assimilating about 30 percent of its adults into the groups. The board wants to grow the small groups ministry, so three months ago it unanimously approved a new small group model presented by Jennifer, the small groups pastor.

Jennifer now gives the board an enthusiastic update: "Things are going well. We have thirty-five groups, and I'm training coaches to oversee small group leaders. This will free me to develop and train more new leaders."

Suddenly Doug, a seasoned elder and board chairman, asks, "Bob, how's your class going? I see more people each Sunday. Does it use groups?" Jennifer pauses for Bob's response. Bob says the class doesn't use groups, but he loves teaching, and more members join each week. Doug says, "Classes are a great way to connect people that groups can't reach. We've had groups here for ten years, but many people haven't joined. We should beef up the classes."

Before Jennifer can jump in, Hank speaks. "What if we really promoted the classes? We have gifted teachers. Our service attendance is skyrocketing and we're bursting at the seams. If we don't get these people into a class or something soon, we'll lose them."

"Let's put that on the next agenda," Doug says. "Thanks, Jennifer, for spending a few minutes with us. You're doing fine work with small groups. Keep it up." Jennifer doesn't bow out yet, because she wants clarity. She says, "It was my understanding that our limited classroom facilities made small groups an imperative. We said that if we promote classes too much, we'll frustrate people." A few board members agree.

But then Mike says, "That's why we have to move even faster on the facilities options. Sarah, did you get that report on prospective sites?" (Not privy to these discussions, Jennifer is surprised to learn that two weeks ago the board stepped up its land search.) Sarah, the building committee chairperson, says, "We've got some viable options. If people respond well, we could be in a new building in eighteen months!"

"Then we can really take a run at our space problem," Hank says. "Let's be sure to include six to ten new adult classrooms. That should accommodate the jump in attendance and help everyone find a place in the church. Let's take a look at possible locations right now."

Doug gracefully dismisses Jennifer. "Sorry, Jennifer, but we'll have to continue this discussion at another meeting. Now we need to jump on those potential properties, and it's confidential financial business. Thanks, again, for your input."

Jennifer leaves dejected. Why build a group model, she wonders, that won't be supported or promoted? Why was the board so excited about groups three months ago but now appears ambivalent? Don't they see how groups and classes can work together to build community?

When churches fail to choose a small group ministry model and define its underlying values, staff members become disillusioned, people remain unconnected, and the cause of Christ limps along instead of running at full throttle.

Small Group Models

Visionary leaders such as Ralph Neighbour, Carl George, Lyman Coleman, Roberta Hestenes, and Gareth Icenogle have provided great ideas for building transformational community through small groups. Together, their ideas comprise a continuum of small group models. Though each small group model is different, most fall into one of three categories along the continuum. We admit these categories risk oversimplification but believe they'll help you determine a direction and purpose for small groups in your church.

At one end of the continuum is the "church with small groups" category. In this model, small groups form a department, one of many in the church. At the continuum's other end is the "church is small groups" category. This model views each cell group as a little church. The "churchof small groups" category views each group as a little community within the larger church. This church's staff and ministries are all built on a small groups skeleton, so that every member is connected through community to the church.

As we say repeatedly in public settings, Willow Creek Community Church has elected to be a church of small groups. But that model might not be best for your church. The deadly sin here isn't choosing a different model than we did. The sin is failing to wrestle this issue to the ground and make a clear statement of intent so that everyone in your church understands where small groups fit in your overall vision and strategy.

The telltale symptom of unclear ministry objectives is relationship breakdown among those people most committed to community. In the beginning everything is rosy. People discover a powerful vision for community-rooted in God's very nature. They see God using small groups to change lives. Leaders hone their leadership skills, shepherd people with intention, and develop the next generation of rising leaders. More people ask to get connected to groups.

But soon tough questions mount. "How do small groups work in the church? What happens to Sunday school? What are the implications for staff, volunteers, and current ministry initiatives?" As the church struggles to manage the tension, conflict rises. People ask why the senior pastor and board won't "get on board." Staff members wonder about their roles and job security and have trouble sustaining leaders and support systems. Meanwhile, senior leaders wonder why small groups won't get with the existing program. Some fear that renegade groups, flush with success, may spin off to form a new church.

It's ironic how much trouble could be avoided if churches first analyzed, then chose, from among the small group ministry models described in the following chart. We suggest you immerse yourself in the current literature about small groups. Remember, it's fine to pick and choose the values and strategies that best fit your ministry philosophy. You can use the chart to avoid mixing and matching incompatible components.

Church with Small Groups

In the church with small groups model, everyone sees the purpose of small groups as one way for an interested person to connect with others. Other ministries are seen as equally valid ways to connect. Typical comments in such a church would be: "Hey, it's great you're in a group. Oh, you're in a class and not in a group? That's great too. Oh, you're on a committee, but you're not in a group or a class? That's great too." In other words, it's a choice, a way to connect. As long as you are connected somewhere, you're "in."

Turf wars are an inherent risk in churches with small groups, because the small group ministry competes with all other departments for leaders, financial support, meeting space, and visibility. Turf wars can get nasty every year at budget time: "How can you drop my guest speaker funding before you cut the brochure budget?" "Who needs a new church sign anyway?" "Let the youth bring their own furniture and food!"

Church of Small Groups

As you examine the chart of small group models, you could draw a heavy vertical line between the church with and church of models. Everything to the right of church with assumes that the whole church will be involved in groups. Crossing that line requires a total shift in church philosophy, the gravity of which must be weighed seriously.

The purpose of small groups in the church of model is to build the church as community. This model sees the larger community as a network of smaller communities that develop people in Christ. Therefore, the small groups concept penetrates every area of the church. Ministry leaders and congregation members become accustomed to designing and building ministry around a small group infrastructure. Small groups are not limited to any one department or subministry. But neither do they become the full expression of local church community life. In this philosophy you will hear neither "we have a small groups department" nor "the group is our church."



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