Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review - Small Groups with Purpose

Last month a tremendous new resource came out for those interested in launching or strengthening a small group ministry - "Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities" by Steve Gladen. It's an extremely practical and well grounded look at small group ministry. To say Gladen is experienced would be a huge understatement - he's the Small Groups Pastor at Saddleback Church, which has 120% of its weekend attendance engaged in more than 3500 small groups (!) He's not describing a specific model (although the approach is one that fits particularly well with purpose driven churches), but shares a number of tips on design and implementation of a small group ministry. I know personally that Gladen has a tremendous heart to help churches develop healthy small groups - whether the churches are large or small. He leads a national small group network (which is free) that is a great way to connect together in a huddle with other small group ministry leaders.

The first part of the books gives a bit of back-story on the small group movement, the ten foundational principles of small group ministry at Saddleback, and the origin of small group community found in the book of Acts. The second part asks "What does this look like?" It covers the need for clarity about the win, a biblical understanding of community and spiritual formation, mobilizing your groups for service and outreach, and the role of worship in groups. Part three looks at some of the nuts and bolts of developing healthy small groups: a spiritual health assessment tool, barriers to the discipleship pathway, a process for leadership development, and a supporting infrastructure for the ministry. The final section considers some church strategy questions related to Sunday School, connection events/processes, and campaigns.

What is new here?
- If you haven't followed any kind of purpose-driven training on small groups before, you will find a wealth of principles and practices that have been tested and refined. Saddleback's approach to connecting people in groups, the use of campaigns, a lower initial bar for leaders as H.O.S.T.'s, and of course the five purposes behind a healthy and balanced group
- If you're already familiar with the purpose driven framework and perhaps launched a 40 Days campaign, there is still a lot of unique and very helpful information here: details on their unique approach to supporting small group leaders with community leaders, how to manage a strong connection event, and some great insights on how they allow people to get involved in small group leadership without a ton of training - but don't leave them there.
- A few other distinctives: they favor balanced as opposed to special-purpose groups; focus on leadership potential instead of proven leaders, growth by campaigns rather than dividing existing groups, and the use of master teacher curriculum rather than expecting leaders to be experts.
- Read through the book carefully! Gladen's advice is so densely packed with practical suggestions and insights learned from many years of experience that it's easy to think "Ah yes, I know that" and skip ahead to the next section. Read with a highlighter in hand. This book will be of highest interest to the point person for small groups in a church, but is also valuable for small group leaders and coaches.

Who may not like it as much?
- If you think anything remotely connected to 'purpose driven' is antithetical to the Bible, you can safely skip this book.
- Fans of cell churches, house churches, missional communities may find the approach here too structured for their tastes. Mind you, Gladen's approach to small groups is in fact highly relational, externally focused, and consistent with missional living, but there are other books where the language and practices are simply more explicitly organic. (For example check out books by Ralph Neighbour, Neil Cole, Scott Boren, or Joseph Myer).

My favorite section - their coaching structure

One of the most common experiences of churches with small group ministries is how challenging it is to effectively support, train and care for small group leaders. Leaving it all to the small group pastor is typically a horrible idea (violates span of care principle). Yet in many churches a small group coaching system that looks good on paper simply flops in practice. Why is that? In a nutshell, they tend to treat all groups and leaders as equivalent, and they are not. Here's the approach Gladen recommends.
  • Priority care is needed by new groups
  • Personal care is needed for seasoned groups
  • Phone care is needed for veteran groups
  • Persistent care is appropriate for stubborn groups :)
I love how he recognizes the existence of the latter group, but these are the guys that burn out coaches like wild fire in many traditional approaches to coaching. They're not going to change, so let 'em be. Put your effort and heart into those leaders who are both most receptive and who need the most guidance. (If you are familiar with Ken Blanchard's Situational Leadership concepts, you should see some strong similarities here.) Likewise each group will be at a different stage, probably doing better or worse in the different purposes. Rather than being frustrated over immature groups, help them to take a first baby step by crawling, then later walk, and be patient waiting for them to learn how to run. Clarity of the role, for both coach and leader, is essential.

Whether you are new to small groups ministry or have been at it a while, a small group leader or a point person, I can recommend you check out Small Groups with Purpose.

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