In recent weeks, we’ve looked at three critical questions for small group ministry planning:
1. Why are we doing small groups?
2. What will our small groups do?
3. Who will we involve in small groups?
4. Will we keep an open chair?
Next on our list is another important decision for leaders:
5. What will our groups not do?
A local church’s small groups have a tendency at times to become a “catch-all” for the local church’s ministry. We want them to provide relational connections and we hope they will also be an effective learning environment. But the expectations don’t stop there. For many churches, small groups also offer pastoral care, providing the personal touch that many congregations, especially larger ones, struggle to deliver. Small groups can also be outlets for dealing with the special needs many people bring to church. So someone in need of personal attention can see their small group as the place to get what they need.
While all of the above have had their turn at center stage in most small groups, such a large responsibility will scare off many potential leaders. In addition, some of these elements—particularly pastoral care and counseling type moments—quickly become unhealthy because someone’s need goes beyond what the leader or group can handle effectively.
One of the healthiest decisions you can make is to determine what your small groups won’t do. Maybe you want the groups to care for each other, especially in specific moments like during hospitalizations or providing meals when a family is facing extra stress. That’s a lot different than being expected to help meet group members’ financial needs or counsel them through a family crisis. Wherever you draw the line, make it clear to your leaders and to each person who attends.
Few groups can handle a real counseling situation either. By making it clear that we pray for one another but refer counseling needs to the church’s assigned ministry, you give your leaders an “out” when someone wants to unload their struggles onto the group. Nothing will hurt group attendance faster than a night when everyone felt uncomfortable.
Another good decision is to determine the maximum length of group meetings. Usually 90 minutes forms the high end of the spectrum. That’s ample time for relationships to build and your content to be studied. Groups that meet for two hours or more will end up seeing their attendance dwindle down to the few people who really want their meetings to last that long. Organized group activities should end within 90 minutes, allowing those without time for additional fellowship to leave. Remember, it’s always best to leave people wanting more rather than use up all their interest in a single night.
Make the ground rules for your small groups clear and enforce them. If you allow the rules to be violated, you will lose the leaders who are counting on your help. Using clear guidelines will help your groups stay focused in their real mission and multiply their likelihood for success.