It seems that the leading cause of flagging small group ministries is the consistent lack of available small group leaders. Depending on the size of the church, we always recommend starting a new small group (or Sunday school class) between semi-annually and monthly. These new groups are necessary to accommodate new people who would find it difficult, if not impossible, to integrate into an existing group. However, when we make this recommendation, many church leaders’ eyes glaze over. They don’t have any idea how to raise up a new leader every six months, let alone every month.

In our new book, Staffing the Missional Church (hopefully out in fall or early winter of 2011), we make the case that the church cannot afford to have a leader without an identified apprentice. I stand behind that practice, but have found there’s an additional practice that exponentially increases the number of available small group leaders. This process is neither difficult nor complex, and every small group leader should be coached in this fool-proof multiplication method. It’s practical, simple, and biblical, and it can be summarized in two words: Apprentice Everybody.

The problem with the way we tend to do leadership development in the church is that we somehow think we’re smarter than God when it comes to identifying leaders. Of course that’s a multiple millennia-old practice. Samuel tried to recruit Jesse’s oldest sons to lead Israel, but God had David in mind. The apostles tossed the dice and chose Matthias to replace Judas, but it seems God had Paul in mind. Let’s face it: when it comes to choosing the leader God has in mind, many, if not most of us do a pretty lousy job.

In any event, the typical process for raising up church leaders depends on either staff or another leader identifying someone who looks promising and then some recruiting process is engaged. If we get lucky, the recruit steps up and then we get them the training they need, but far too often the recruit either has limited interest in what we offer, limited skills in what we need, or limited spiritual capacity. The solution is to reverse the process. Train first; train everybody; then recruit (or better yet, let the Holy Spirit do the recruiting). The good news is that recruiting is exponentially more effective when you engage this practice.

How to Apprentice Everyone

The key to apprenticing everyone is for the “leader” to put on a “different hat.” In our experience, most small group leaders spend their time leading rather than facilitating others to become leaders. To apprentice everyone the leader must adopt the attitude that their job is to work themselves out of their job as quickly as possible. Once they have the hang of it, most small group leaders can get everyone trained in every aspect of small group leadership in less than twelve weeks. That doesn’t mean everyone will be ready or willing to take on a new small group, but since they have been trained, they’ll be more apt to heed God’s call if it should come.

Step One: Make Sure Your Group Tasks Are Replicable

One of the reasons churches find it difficult to get new small group leaders or Sunday school teachers is that it simply takes too much time and commitment. For instance, if a leader has to develop a study lesson for Genesis 12 and is expected to be the resident theologian, then replication will be limited to scholars or workaholics. If you want to see leadership multiplication, then you’ll have to keep things easy – without dumbing them down. That’s why many churches are producing Serendipity House-style questions for their sermon each week. Others use the six Discovery Questions for Bible study*. Adopt Lyman Coleman’s mantra “If you can read, you can lead” and you’ll improve your leader multiplication quotient. Similarly, consider such tasks as leading prayer. If the leader is expected to do the majority of the praying (or any praying at all, for that matter), it will be difficult to get new leaders.

Step Two: Don’t Tell Anyone They’re Being Apprenticed

This may not seem like an important step, but it’s critical. If you begin by asking folks whether they want to be trained for leadership (or by simply telling them) you will experience pushback from many, if not all. There’s some sort of mystique about leadership that scares people (or else they just don’t want to take the responsibility). Plus there’s the humility factor. Some don’t believe they have the qualities of a leader, but that’s nonsense. Everyone is called and has the capacity to be a leader at some level.

Step Three: Create a Leadership Matrix

Creating a leadership matrix sounds a lot more complicated than it is; however, without one you’ll find it difficult to remember who’s trained in what. Begin by making a list of all the things you do as a leader. That becomes your skills list and your X axis. Then list your small group participants and add them to the Y axis. For a recent small group that I led, leadership tasks included being the designated host, leading the Bible study, leading prayer, following up and offering encouragement to the other members during the week, leading communion, and handling the details of the offerings. Your task list might be significantly different, but you’ll probably have less than five or six tasks.

Step Four: Train Everyone in Everything

I use the medical model for training and believe it accurately reflects how Jesus apprenticed his apostles: See One, Do One, Teach One. For each of the tasks on the list, make sure you’ve modeled it as you’d like to see it done. At the end of the session, ask individuals to do one of the tasks. For instance, “Jeff, next week will you take care of the offerings?” and “Carla, will you check in on all of us once during this week – and don’t forget to call Tim and Becky who were out of town this week to see how they’re doing.” When someone took on a task the first time, I’d add a slash mark to in the matrix. This let me know that they had performed the task at least once. Over the space of eight to twelve weeks, everyone in the group had a chance to do every task a couple times. As a participant “mastered” a task, that is, they appeared to be comfortable leading it, I’d add the second slash to make an X. When everyone had an X for every task, I knew my job was nearly done. In my list there were two tasks that always got pushback the first time I’d ask someone to do them: Prayer and Bible study. Here is how to handle either objection.

  • Prayer: The reality is the church has done a fairly poor job of teaching people how to pray. I realized this early on, but it became rather crystal clear to me when I realized our “prayer request” time went on for upwards of ten minutes so everyone could verbalize all of their prayer needs, but our actual prayer time was only about three minutes. We put an end to that by putting an end to prayer requests. Instead, we simply taught the group to pray: “If you have a prayer need, then while we’re praying simply say whatever it is that we need to pray about. For instance, you can just say ‘Bob’ and we’ll all pray for Bob. Or you could say, ‘Bob’s surgery on Friday’ and we’ll all pray for that. Your prayer doesn’t need to be more than one word, or you can pray more if you’d like.” Then each week, the prayer leader would simply say, “Let’s pray” and the group would bow their heads and get at it. After some period of silence or when the prayer leader felt it was time to stop they’d say, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” Since anyone could say those two phrases, there was no intimidation about being the prayer leader.
  • Bible Study: We either used the Discovery Questions (listed at the bottome of the post) or else we’d use the Serendipity Bible. The nice thing about the Serendipity Bible was that it has enough questions to keep the conversation lively, and yet it’s simple. Just read a passage and ask the question. If the leader is a trained theologian, they must not answer any Bible or background questions put to them. If they do, it immediately communicates to the group “If you don’t have a theological education, you can’t be a small group (or Sunday school) leader.” Of course, for most of us this is difficult to do and I agree that there are lots of “good reasons” to answer any questions. But the fact is, you’re better off helping the group find a couple of good study Bibles or pointing them to reliable websites. By doing so, you’ll facilitate multiplication.

Step Five: Multiplication

Once everyone is trained, you’re ready to recruit new leaders. Personally, I like letting the Holy Spirit do the work, but I’ll share two different ways of helping people into leadership.

  • Let the Holy Spirit Work: Once everyone is trained, it’s time to take seriously Jesus’ admonition in Luke 10:2b – “Pray that God will raise up workers for the harvest.” Thus, at the end of a small group session, just before everyone goes home, ask the group to spend some time during the week in prayer. “I believe that one of the gifts we have been given is the opportunity to share in a small group like this one. There are a number of folks in our church and community who aren’t in small groups because there aren’t enough leaders. I’d like you to join me in praying that God will raise up a new leader from among us to start another small group.” To date, I’ve never had to wait more than a week before someone in the group contacts me and shares that God has moved them to start a new small group. At that point, introduce them to your small group director or Sunday school superintendent.
  • Recruit Directly: Sometimes, as time goes by, you may realize that someone in the group is truly called to be a leader, but for one reason or another isn’t heeding the call. In these cases, you may want to offer a bit of a nudge. The last time I did this, a member of my small group was clearly called to lead, but was too humble to step up. So I took him aside and said, “I believe that you’re called to lead a new small group and wanted to check with you to see what you’re hearing from God.” His response was that he wasn’t trained to be a leader. But when I pointed out that he had indeed been trained and that he could do everything I could do in a group setting, his eyes got wide and he said, “You trained me, didn’t you!?!?” We laughed for a moment and he said he’d get serious about praying. Two weeks later he agreed and went on to start a very successful small group.

Raising up new small group leaders is actually pretty easy. The hardest part is getting your existing leaders re-trained to not be the Simon-Says kind of leaders, but to be the kind who leaves a lasting legacy. Don’t wait for just the “right” leader… train everyone and the let God do the choosing. You’ll find that, in the long run, God makes better choices.

Question: What have you done with small groups that has made them more successful? What have you tried that has failed? Share your experiences and questions in the Comments section below.

* The Six Discovery Questions Bible Study: Read a passage of scripture and then ask the following questions:
1. What did you like about the passage?
2. What did you not like about the passage?
3. What did you not understand about the passage?
4. What new thing did you learn about God from this passage?
5. What are you taking away with you from reading this passage?
6. What are you going to do about it?