5  |  Rethink  What  Is Possible

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
                                                                                                                                                                                                  Deuteronomy 6:4-9


i attended worship last year at a congregation in the Washington, d.c., area. i located it via Google and was impressed with their inviting home page. Then i discovered that most of the links to other pages and articles were inoperable. upon arriving, i noticed a big welcome sign out front but i was hard-pressed to find appropriate signage directing me to the sanctuary. entering the sanctuary, i observed the colorful “Welcome to Worship” message on the screen and found the pianist to be playing some delightful background music. Then i was handed a worship bulletin by someone who seemed more interested in checking her e-mails than making me feel welcome. as worship
                                Surface to Soul
            progressed, i found the sermon engaging and the eclectic blend of music delightful but other portions of the service bland and disjointed. driving back to my hotel i couldn’t help but feel conflicted about what i now call my bipolar worship experience. four key learnings came out of this experience for me:
• People experience rather than only read or hear about a congregation’s mission and values.
• This experience of a congregation’s mission, vision, and values occurs before (website, signage), during (greeters, sermon, bulletin, music), and after (refreshments, take-home gift, greeters in the parking lot) the main event.
• All aspects of the experience have to be in alignment or the congregation’s main message will suffer.
• The overall experience has to be sufficiently life-changing that the visitor would be interested in coming back, and perhaps even bringing a friend.
alignment, the third step in the process of coaching cHaNGe in congregations, is that optimal state in which the experience of mission, vision, values, strategies, people, products, and processes all work in concert to fulfill the mission, providing a life-changing experience for everyone involved. aligned congregations — from the lead pastor to the new member— understand not only the strategy and goals of the organization but also how his or her work contributes to them. everyone can articulate what the congregation is about and has his or her own elevator speech about the congregation. it culminates in an experience that exemplifies the dNa of the congregation. for people to experience the essence, or dNa, of your congregation, the following areas must be aligned in a manner that supports the fulfillment of the congregation’s mission, vision, and values:
• Structure, strategies, and goals help fulfill the ends (mission, vision, and values) of the organization
• Language
• Processes
• Practices
• People
• commitments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
Alignment of Strategy
Leaders must ensure that the strategic direction of the congregation is clearly articu- lated and fully aligned with people’s experience of the congregation. These elements include the organization’s mission, vision, strategic plans, organizational goals, and strategies and the expectations of everyone involved. a congregation i work
with had invested a considerable amount of time, money, and effort developing a new strategic plan. When i asked to see the plan, not a single leader had a copy of it at their meeting and it quickly became apparent that the plan was not being used regularly
to frame their conversations, evaluate their progress, or inform their decisions. unfortunately, this is often the case for congregations that create a strategic plan. The plan- ning process helps leaders envision the future and become more proactive, but the end result—the plan— often ends up on a shelf in the church library where few people ever refer to it. The fault is often the document itself. many of the plans i see are lengthy, cumbersome documents that are not organized in a way that facilitates easy implementation. Specifically, the plans do not
• identify measurable goals, ones that you can easily
determine have been achieved or have not been achieved. include specific timelines for when the actions steps should be completed.
It’s hard to develop a strategic plan without first identifying the core values of your congregation.
• list the person or team members who will be held accountable for fulfilling the goal.
The plans i see often have a laundry list of strategies but lack focus as to which strategies are most important and which ones are to be addressed first. Sometimes the plans i see look more like notes from a brainstorming session than an action plan for living into God’s preferred future.
i’m a fan of clear, concisely written plans that limit each strategic initiative and their accompanying strategies to just a few pages. The action steps are in bullet form and arranged in chronological order by their anticipated completion date. The plans i create usually have a four-page executive report, which is made available to everyone in the congregation and provides all the necessary talking points for living into the vision. my hope for every congregation is that they would have a plan that would be used regularly

                                Surface to Soul
                to guide leadership conversations, set meeting agendas and inform decision making, dictate what people write and talk about, and serve as a measuring stick for ministry effectiveness.
it’s hard to develop a strategic plan without first identifying the core values of a congregation. There’s no shortage of ideas related to the values a congregation might wish to embrace. i’m particularly fond of the core values espoused by robert Schnase, bishop of the missouri conference of The united methodist church. in his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations he identifies the following core values:
radical hospitality
Passionate worship
intentional faith development risk-taking mission and service extravagant generosity
i believe that people are searching for congregations shaped and sustained by these qualities, which can serve as both core values and congregational practices. The values are clear, compelling, and contagious and easy-to-remember sound bites.
These core values also capture some of the core process by which God makes disciples:
• radical hospitality extends the gracious invitation, welcome, and hospitality of christ, allowing people to experience a sense of belonging.
• Passionate worship ushers people into God’s presence and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, shapes souls and changes minds.
• intentional faith development reminds people of the importance of growing deeper in faith and becoming intentional followers of christ.
• risk-taking mission and service moves people beyond the congregation’s walls and helps them discern God’s call and to be change agents for christ every day, everywhere.
• extravagant generosity inspires people to give generously and to be sources of hope, joy, and blessing to others.
The words describe a shift from abstract intentions to practical and personal directions for ministry, charting a path for growth in personal discipleship. Below is a list of core values from Lord of Life Lutheran church in fairfax/clifton, Virginia. The church is in the process of deeply embedding these values into everything it does:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
Sample Core Values
Christ-Centered Worship and Programs: We reflect the word of God in all our ministries that are lived out faithfully through the fellowship of our community of christian believers. Lifelong Faith Formation: We equip and nurture all ages in the principles, practices, and experiences in the christian faith that are inherent in leading a fulfilled and faithful life of discipleship.
Serving Our Neighbor: We embrace the stewardship of time, talents, and financial resources to serve local, national, and global opportunities.
Hospitality: We strive to be an inclusive community where all are welcome, cared for, and challenged to be witnesses for Jesus christ.
Courageous Risk Taking: We seek ways to make the gospel relevant to the culture in which we live. We are willing to explore new frontiers of ministry to capture God’s work among us.
for more assistance in identifying core values and assessing them, consider complet- ing “What are Your ministry rocks?” found in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit (Tool 19). To ensure that you deeply embed your core values into all aspects of your congregation, complete Tool 21, “integrating Your core Values.”
a trend Vibrant faith ministries team members are seeing in the congregations we work with has been the creation and use of congregational covenants. They are used to reinforce the congregation’s identity and are recited in multiple settings throughout the month, reminding people of how they are to treat one another as part of the body of christ. Here is an example of one congregation’s covenant:
as a ministry team, we will
• affirm, encourage, support, pray for, and bless one another and the ministries we represent.
• appreciate and affirm each other’s gifts, backgrounds, and viewpoints.
• arrive on time for meetings, fully present to address issues at hand.
• speak well of each other to build up the body of christ.
• communicate with each other in honest, open christlike ways.
• commit to ongoing personal, professional, and spiritual growth.
• honor each other’s individual pace and working style, and offer grace to one
• be open to new ways of seeing and doing things.
• strive to live in a culture of ongoing regard.

                                Surface to Soul
              Alignment of Language
Just as any sport uses key words and phrases to describe what’s going on in the game, congregations need a common language that helps focus the efforts of their people. if a congregation chooses to work with Vibrant faith ministries, you can be pretty sure that some of the common language is going to be around the phrases related to our five Principles:
• faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships—often in our own homes.
• The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and the ministry of the home.
• Where christ is present in faith, the home is church, too.
• faith is caught more than it’s taught.
• if we want christian children and youth, then we need christian adults.
You can expect to hear the following words and short phrases woven into our sermons, news articles, small group settings, and planning meetings:
• caring conversations, devotions, service, rituals and traditions (the four Keys)
• do less, go deeper!
• Theology matters.
• You can’t expect households to practice faith at home unless they’ve first learned
how to practice faith in the congregation.
• Parents, grandparents, and godparents are the primary faith shapers of young
• aaa christians: people who are authentic, available, and affirming
a congregation’s common language must draw people’s attention to its mission, vision, and values. it should remind people of the primary principles and practices that lead to the fulfillment of the mission. one of the first steps in the alignment process is to develop a common language around faith formation, mission, vision, and values. Listed below are four steps to create a common vocabulary for your congregation:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
Creating a Common Congregational Vocabulary
The following are four ideas for generating a common vocabulary in your congregation.
1. Emphasize common language by creating a “Soul Script.” Begin by writing a one- page script that can be shared with every leader. it typically includes your mission statement, vision statement, core values, goals, key messages, and your congregational covenant (if you have one). People crave clarity, and good leaders provide clarity on a regular basis. if you can communicate those key items in a simple, clear, and consistent manner, people will start to remember them. find ways to integrate your talking points into worship services, meetings, and other congregational events. recite your mission statement during your weekly worship services. read your script at all leadership meetings. embed key talking points into your website and all publications. Pour your mission and vision into all your words and actions. When people start repeating your talking points to others you know that you’re making headway! a “Sample Soul Script,” Tool 22, can be found in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit.
2. Share the congregation’s Soul Script with new members and new leaders. use new member gatherings and new leader training events to communicate your congregation’s dNa. Share stories of how the congregation lives out its dNa within and beyond the congregation. Walk through each key message or talking point and share stories and examples of how it is lived out, and invite participants to consider how they might align their words and actions with the congregation’s dNa.
3. Provide annual refresher trainings for all leaders based on the talking points Soul Script. alignment of language will either increase or decrease based on how well people in your congregation consistently communicate the same messages. Provide council or session members, team members, teachers, and mentors with resources and tools for communicating the congregation’s dNa in their particular ministry settings. Provide multiple training opportunities and vehicles to ensure 100 percent participation in refresher trainings. in many congregations, the pastor is the only person who communi- cates these key points, and when the pastor accepts a new call, the mission, vision, values, and key message leave as well. This can be avoided when everyone is equipped to share the congregation’s key talking points.
4. Develop your way. executives from around the world pay big bucks to attend disney seminars on “the disney Way”— learning how they do business, how they treat employees and their guests, and how they maintain their unique culture. for a

                         Surface to Soul
                                           “If you
want to change your congregation, change what you talk about.”
time, Hewlett Packard was known for their egalitarian, decen- tralized culture, known as “the HP Way.” a congregation i
once served modeled their ministry after the Simple church movement where everything they did had to help people “connect with God, connect with each other, or connect
to the needs of the community.” if it didn’t honor one or more of these three intentions, then it wasn’t part of this congregation’s way. Write down what your way would
look like if it was infused into every individual and team. consider creating a congregational covenant that would
help capture the way for your congregation. Share the way by reading your covenant at all meetings and major events. a
“Sample Leadership covenant “ (Tool 23) is found in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit.
                                        Language alignment is reinforced by what business consultant Tom Peters calls “management by walking around.” a pastor i coach
practices walking-around management by regularly asking people questions, such as “mary, in what ways do you see us fulfilling our mission?” or “Susan, what
are your thoughts about our three main goals for this year?” or perhaps “Tom, which of our five core values are you most energized by?” The pastor states, “i get a weekly reality check about which messages are getting through to our people and what messages i need to pay more attention to in the future.”
Developing a CHANGE Script
in many coaching situations, Vibrant faith ministries also helps congregations create a cHaNGe script that provides a narrative for managing the transition that will occur as a result of implementing the needed changes. This narrative must address the following questions:
• What’s the purpose for making these changes?
• What’s the picture of what this will look like and feel like for people? • What’s the plan for getting there?
• What’s the part each person will play in the change process?
• What’s the process for dealing with the tension of change?
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
Alignment of Processes
congregations become much more nimble and adaptive when the congregation’s policies, procedures, and practices are clear. i once served a congregation where it took the leaders nine months to find out whether i had continuing education funds. i often work with program staff that haven’t had a performance review for years and are unsure what they’re responsible for. one congregation went through a particularly rough time when their administrator died of a heart attack. Staff members and leaders quickly realized that nobody knew where he kept access codes, keys, payroll records, background check information, and legal contracts. it cost the congregation huge amounts of time, energy, and resources to get back up to speed, and it derailed their efforts to address more pressing matters related to their mission. Listed below are some of the questions i ask congregations about their operational procedures:
• do you have a current policies manual?
• do you have a current employee handbook?
• do have current job descriptions for employees?
• do the job descriptions reflect the priorities of the congregation and its mission?
• do you provide employees with a compensation summary letter each year?
• do you have a formal evaluation process for pastors and paid staff? for key volunteers?
• do paid and volunteer staff set annual goals? are they held accountable for these
• do programs and teams set goals and share them with others?
Leaders are always surprised when i ask them about these details. i usually remark, “if you have these tools and procedures in place, we won’t have to spend any time in the future fighting unnecessary fires.”
The two most important process questions i focus on are these:
• do you have a plan or process for inviting and welcoming people into your congregation?
• do you have a plan or process for helping people form faith and become lifelong followers of christ?
i find that if a congregation does not have a clear process for inviting people into its faith community and a plan for helping them become mature in christ, the growth of the congregation will stagnate. Typically only one out of eight congregations has an adequate response to these two questions.

                                Surface to Soul
              Alignment of Practices
at Vibrant faith ministries training events, we tell people, “if you want to change your congregation, change what you talk about.” our conversations must be aligned with our mission. Therefore, if you want your congregation to live into its mission, then make sure that your sermons, meeting agendas, programs, events, and publications all address how you’re fulfilling the mission. if you want to revitalize your congregation, spend time at council or session meetings talking about ideas and steps that lead to congregational vitality. i can usually tell how committed a congregation is to their mission or a particular project simply by looking at their meeting agendas. most agendas are filled with commit- tee reports and sections called “old business” and “new business.” The last two categories are usually filled with whatever items people want to talk about. They rarely have any connection to the congregation’s mission or strategic plan. Sometimes i challenge meeting conveners by saying, “Help me understand why you think this annual goal is important when nothing was said about it during your session meeting.” What gets measured gets done. What gets discussed gets traction. Be intentional about what you’re measuring and what you’re discussing. it will change your life and your congregation! To consider how you might plan future meetings differently, refer to the “meaningful meetings checklist ” (Tool 23) found in the cHaNGe agent’s Toolkit. meeting practices can make a huge difference in how transformation unfolds. Here are a few other practices that can easily be intro- duced to the congregation and reap profound results:
• recite your congregation’s mission, vision, and values during worship and at all meetings.
• Set aside five to ten minutes for caring conversations during meetings and events.
• Set aside three minutes at the end of all meetings and events to evaluate the time
spent together.
• Teach one new faith practice per month during worship or at a leadership meeting
• Have leaders share how lives are being changed as a result of the ministries they
• capture and share one video clip of “what God is up to” in the lives of people in
your congregation.
• Provide monthly updates in the newsletter regarding progress being made on
congregational goals.
• Gather feedback from people in the congregation once a month related to how
they’re growing in faith.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
Alignment of People
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote, widely attributed to marga- ret mead, reminds us of the influence a few, committed people can have on an organi- zation. i have yet to find a revitalized congregation that didn’t have a multitude of “thoughtful, committed” aaa christians aligned around a common vision and purpose. The process is similar to the flash mob videos on YouTube (check out the I Believe video). The alignment process starts with a key leader, like the lead pastor, and then it spreads to other staff, and then the governing council. Soon it is passed on to Sunday school teachers and mentors. Then a buzz about what’s happening starts. The “faith flash mob” continues to unfold: Some households start modeling the desired
behaviors and telling their stories. choirs start talking about it and begin
living the vision. Before you know it, the new vision has moved
beyond a few individuals to being mainstream, affecting the major-
ity of people in the congregation. The people who are initially
involved must believe they can make a difference and that
their efforts will have a ripple effect on their congregation.
There is certainly no shortage of books and Bible verses that describe the qualities of a good leader. i’ve discovered, however, that a few essential leadership qualities are often overlooked. When i’m looking for the individuals who can create the energy that arises out of a flash mob mentality, i’m specifically looking for leaders who are
• nimble and adaptive. They are willing to try new things in
new ways and are okay with failing if it leads to new insights about themselves or their organization. They are open to the Spirit working in their life, molding their ministry. They view life and faith as an adventure.
• comfortable with chaos and conflict. These individuals understand that
ministry is messy and that chaos is part of the transformation process.
They’re okay with not having to control everything and not having a ready answer. They understand that people can agree to disagree agreeably and, therefore,
are willing to speak their truth in grace-filled ways, realizing that others may have different and equally valid viewpoints.
• willing to be held accountable and to hold others accountable. They live out of their commitments rather than their excuses, refusing to play the role of a victim. They
What gets measured gets done. What gets discussed gets traction.

                                Surface to Soul
              expect others to hold them accountable for the promises they make, and they will hold others accountable for the commitments they agree to.
Alignment of Commitments
a common challenge congregations face is the need for reducing ministry silos and learning how to collaborate more intentionally with other leaders to achieve common goals. This assumes that congregational leaders set collective goals, take time to explore how each person can contribute to the fulfillment of each goal, and then hold each other accountable for fulfilling their portion of the goals. achieving common goals depends on individual commitments. i suggest that leadership teams limit their collective goals to no more than three to avoid diffusing their efforts. after collective goals have been set, they need to be reviewed at every meeting, with team members listing what their next step will be toward achieving each collective goal. People’s next steps can be listed on an assignment log or incorporated into the next meeting agenda to make sure that they’re reviewed every time team members gather. Leadership team members play a very important role in driving accountability throughout the entire organization by ensuring that progress on collective goals is regularly reviewed, and that action is taken when team members fail to fulfill their next steps. ideally, a team member’s contribu- tions toward collective goals are woven into the annual performance review process to ensure accountability.
Deep Change
alignment is sustained when congregations “go deep” in their change efforts. a congrega- tion i worked with had as one of its goals to become known for extravagant hospitality. its plan for enhancing hospitality only focused on training ushers and greeters and providing better signage around the building. These were good places to start but only scratched the surface in creating a memorable experience of hospitality for visitors. Their members needed to go deep by evaluating how well their website provided a visitor-friendly experi- ence. They needed to go deep by rethinking the color schemes of their building; the type of coffee and refreshments they served; and how one might be treated if visiting other portions of the building. They needed go deep by rethinking how hospitality would be experienced in small group settings and how accessible staff were on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. They needed to consider how to make worship an engaging and
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Align: Step 3 in Coaching Change
transformative experience and how to make the worship bulletins more user-friendly. They needed to go deep by considering what they hoped a visitor would experience after the worship service and after the person returned home. Whatever your congregation’s core values are, go deep by considering how that value might permeate every program and point of contact for people. (if you haven’t already completed Tool 21, “integrating core Values,” please do so now for each of your stated core values.)
You can also encourage households to go deep in areas such as practicing faith at home. When my own family made a commitment to be more intentional about practic- ing faith every day, everywhere, we created a one-page summary of what that would look like for our family based on our responses to the following questions:
• What prayers and caring conversations might we have at the dinner table?
• What books, topics, or questions might we discuss in the car?
• What might our bedtime routine look like?
• in what ways could we serve each other better?
• What community service projects should we participate in this year?
• When can we have the grandparents share their life and faith stories with our kids?
• How can we more fully involve godparents in the faith lives of our children?
• What are our favorite family Scripture passages? Why?
• When is the best time to have family devotions? What might we do during these
• Who should we keep in our prayers? How will we remember to pray for them?
• How can we make birthday celebrations sacred moments?
• What are some ways we can have fun together as a family?
The most successful leaders are those who are congruent and fully aligned within themselves and with their congregation. There is simply no substitute for total alignment and congruency within a leader. When this is multiplied throughout an organization, the power is undeniable. What’s your plan for helping individuals and teams become more fully aligned with the congregation’s mission? as this alignment takes shape, the results will be tangible and transformative!



  • In what ways are the actions of the pastors and lay leaders not aligned with the congregation’s mission, vision, values, and goals?
  • What steps might your congregation take to be more fully aligned, strategically (for example, in mission, vision, values, goals, structure, personnel)?
  •  What are some of the words and phrases that should be part of your common language?
  •  What procedures, practices, and processes do you need to tighten up or address?
  •  What qualities do you look for in congregational leaders?
  • How does the congregation nurture these qualities in our current leaders?
  •  What’s the next step for integrating your core values into your congregation?
  • What kind of alignment would you like to see in your life?  Your household?


How large are small groups?
Generally, small groups are 4-12 people in size. If the group becomes larger than 10-12, small group leaders usually create smaller sub-groupings for deeper conversation. Small groups often include time and space for building deeper friendships, praying for each other, learning or serving together, and celebrating turning points and transitions in life.

What kinds of small groups are there?
There are a wide variety of small group approaches, and the form they take is determined by the function they are performing. Examples include:

1 | Accountability Groups: Churches often call these discipleship groups or Wesleyan groups. They focus less on a training component in the form of a teaching time and more on equipping and encouraging accomplished through a mutually agreed upon covenant which may include spiritual practices, worship, service, giving and discerning calls. They are usually longer-term relationships that allow adequate time to build trusting relationships.

2 | Affinity Groups: These are groups that meet based upon some area of common interest.
 Common affinity group include:
  •  Adventure Groups (bouldering, hiking, birding).
  • Bible Study Groups (book of the Bible, spiritual practices, watch and discuss a Bible-oriented video).
  • Dinner Groups ("Dinner for Eight" groups, dinners focused on a particular theme).
  • Discussion Groups (book clubs, enneagram assessments, environmental issues, social issues).
  • Fitness Groups: (walking,  jazzercise, swimming, yoga, aerobics).
  • Group Spiritual Discernment (led by a spiritual director).
  • Hobby Groups (cooking, gardening, wine tasting, knitting).
  • Out and About Groups (ethnic restaurants, plays, movies, museums, concerts).
  • Parenting/Grand parenting/God parenting Groups.
  • Service Group (soup kitchen, food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, river clean up days).
  • Sports Groups (cycling, bowling, golfing, pickle ball, kayaking skiing, hiking, frisbee golf).
  • Theology on Tap Groups (Beer and Bible Study).
  • Travel Groups (daylong excursions, road trips, bus tours, extended travel).

What's unique about small groups?
All of the groups listed above are by definition 'small groups' since they are typically comprised of a smaller number of participants.
In addition to staying within a certain size range, small-groups often include:
  • Discussions about the purpose and outcomes for the group.
  • A group covenanting process that ensures safe space, confidentially, and appropriate behaviors.
  • The setting of a specific start and end dates along with specific dates and times about when they'll meet.
  • A designated  convener/facilitator and/or a designated contact person (who also keeps everyones contact info).
  • A check-in and prayer time (i.e. activities that deepen relationships and draw people closer to God).
  • A discussion about whether or not to be an open or closed group.
  • Opportunities to encourage people to hold them accountable to live into their intentions

Why are small groups important?
There is a lot of conversation with churches and especially within discipleship systems advocates about the value of having small groups or even "being a church of small groups." Note the emphasis of the latter. Most denominational structures are advocates for small group ministries and even focus support on the development of resources for small groups.

One of the key factors in keeping people in a local congregation "engaged" (to use the term the Gallup Organization employs) is the development of strong personal relationships with others from the congregation. The implementation of a small group ministry is not the only way to get people connected relationally, but it is one of the easiest and most effective approaches. For many congregations, the small group is THE place where the most significant development as disciples of Jesus takes place. It is not the only place this happens, but it is usually within the context of the small group that people are trained in the areas of discipleship (spiritual practices, worship, hospitality, partnering, service, and generosity). It is also the small group that provides the most common forms of intentionality and accountability.

How do small groups support the ministries of the church?
There is a rule of thumb that comes out of faith-based research: When a church has 50% or more of
the congregation involved in some type of small group, it is almost a guarantee that the church will experience growth in worship and membership. In addition, small groups:
  • Help grow a culture of discipleship, where people are equipped to live like Jesus, often happens in the ministry of small groups.
  • Maturing disciples attract those who not yet disciples because of the lives that they live. Small groups are a form of invitation to those outside the church to experience the love of Jesus demonstrated by the followers of Jesus.
  • Pastoral care needs are best met by the people closest to the person in need. These people are often members of the same small group.
  • The visibility of the church serving the needs of the community is greatly enhanced by an effective small group ministry, since small groups ideally serve together to meet needs in the community.
  • The level of prayer experienced in the local congregation is greatly enhanced as small group gatherings pray for one another and the needs of the congregation and community.
  • Member follow-up is best accomplished when members of a small group miss one of their own in worship and call to check on them.
  • Worship participation levels are usually stronger as small groups encourage one another and check up on one another.

  •  What is the experience of your congregation in offering small group ministry opportunities?
  • What is your personal experience as a participant in small groups? How did these experiences impact your life as a disciple? How did these experiences impact the relational connections you made in the congregation?
  • Which of the small group formats does your congregation currently offer?
  • What caught your attention as you considered the impact of small groups on the life and ministry of a congregation?


Leadership matters.  This is especially true in selecting leaders for small groups. Effective small group leaders usually exhibit the following characteristics:
  • They are relational.  What is the relational capacity of the person? Do they engage others warmly? Do they connect easily with new persons? Is there evidence of deep relational connections with friends?
  • They are spiritually mature:  What evidence is presented that this person is a growing, maturing disciple? Are they regular in worship? Do they have a strong personal devotional life? Are they generous in supporting the ministries of the congregation? Do they engage in serving those beyond the congregation? Are they inviting friends/acquaintances to church or church events?
  • They are self-aware:  A good small group leader/facilitator has a high level of self-awareness. They know their strengths, baggage, and behavioral preferences.
  • They are group-aware. They can read the room. They observe people's body language and tone of voice. They note who's talking and who is not. They note who is engaged and who is not. They adapt their style and approach based on what's in the best interest of the group.
  • They advocates for others. Does this person find joy in helping others be successful?
  • They are good listeners. They have the patience to allow other people to talk and to listen to what those people are actually saying.
  • They are good communicators. They have the ability to keep the group focused by homing in on the essential points of the conversation and keep the discussing from veering off into the weeds.
  • They ask good questions. They are genuinely interested in others. The ask open-ended questions that provoke new perspectives and possibilities as they draw upon each person's wisdom.
  • They are humble. They are focused on the welfare and growth of the group's participants. They are supportive of the greater vision of the congregation of which they are a part.
  • They are organized. They can keep the group on task because they can keep themselves on task. They are disciplined in communicating to group members and running the meeting in an appropriate fashion.
  • They are grace-filled yet direct. They are willing and able to confront inappropriate behavior and deal with the dynamics and tensions within their groups.
  • They exude playfulness and positivity.  Their positive demeanor engages and energizes the group.

Use these characteristics as a screen for discerning who are the best candidates for leading your small groups. Create a job description (see sample in the appendix) for your small group leaders and customize it to reflect the uniqueness of each group. Give or send a job description to potential small group leaders. List or verbalize the primary purpose of the group, why it matters (how it leads to people's transformation, and why you felt that they were best candidate for the role you're asking them to play.


  •  What would be disqualifies for someone serving as a small group leader?
  •  What expectations do you have for when, how, and how often small groups leaders connect with members beyond the meeting time?
  • Have you considered having 2 small group leaders for each group?  If you have, how would they differentiate their roles?


Small group leaders play the role of a facilitator more than a teacher. Effective facilitation literally makes it easier to build trusting relationships within a group, draw our people's wisdom, tap into one's hopes, dreams or challenges, and navigate difficult conversations. In essence, they do whatever it takes to make conversations and the personal connections easier.

1 | Establish personal connections among members.
One of the most critical factors influencing whether people will be engaged in the conversation is whether they trust the other people in the group. Even discussion around a familiar biblical topic may be intimidating if you are not sure people will respond well to your observations. To help build trust, keep meeting over a long period of time, so that trust develops as people grow in relationship with each other. Have the group engage, at least for a few weeks, in relationship building activities. Here are just a few examples of what small group leaders do:
  • Have a display of common items (pen, comb, newspaper, light bulb, etc.), and ask each participant to select one of the items. Then have each participant share their own personal story using the item selected as a prop.
  • Invite participants to share with a couple of others in the group "two truths and a lie" about themselves (two truths that people wouldn't know). Invite the groups to try and detect the lie statement.
  • Pilot using "30 Second Mysteries" cards to spur people's imagination and deepen engagement.
  • Show your scars! Have each participant tell a story about a scar they have and how they got it.
  • Give the group a couple of questions and invite them to find a partner and share responses to a few questions.
  • Establish a "Parking Lot" where ideas are parked until more appropriate for discussion.
  • Engage people in physical activity when possible. Pair up people for a "walk and talk" activity.
  • Give people newsprint sheets and have them draw a picture or identify bullet points for a given activity.
  • Let people share with someone in the group the results of some form of personal assessment (e.g. 16 Personalities,  Enneagram, etc.).

2 | Form a cohesive, trusting group
It's not uncommon for newly-formed groups to create a behavioral covenant with one another. This covenant describes ways that the group will interact with one another:
Groups may decide that only positive responses to others are acceptable behaviors - no judgment or put downs, etc. Group usually agree that what is shared in the group setting is confidential and not to be shared beyond the group setting.

Stages of group formation
  • Stage 1 - Forming. People are polite and are unsure what to expect. They wonder what they will get out of the experience and if it will be worth their time. During this stage, facilitators provide structure and direction. They set a positive, safe tone. They discuss the importance confidentiality and create relationship-building opportunities.
  • Stage 2 - Storming. This stage is usually the messiest. Individuals are seeking to finding their role and identity in the group. They may still be deciding if they remain in the group or leave.  Without clear norms and structure, participants may engage in side conversations or talk over each other. They may exhibit anger, frustration and  passive, aggressive behaviors. In this environment, some people may withdraw if they become uncomfortable. Facilitators keep the conversation flowing, use active listening skills, and may need to address "problem" individuals outside of group setting.
  • Stage 3 - Norming. This stage is when the group seems to gel and when you'll see the greatest amount of group cohesion. People are comfortable sharing more often and at deeper levels. Facilitators provide activities to build group, and ask questions related to "What? So What? and Now What?":
  • Stage 4 - Performing. This stage exhibits the greatest amount of interdependence among members. People are more open to being accountable and holding others accountable. Facilitators provide activities to interact, reflect, and debrief shared experiences and help members apply learnings to their daily life

3 | Design settings that promote caring, consequential conversations.
What kind of setting is most likely to create an atmosphere conducive for the type of group you are facilitating?
Is the group primarily a classroom experience? Is the purpose to have people listen to you and engage you, or is it more of a discussion focus where you want people to be engaging with one another? If it is the latter, you probably don't want to have the room arranged with chairs in rows where people will have their backs to one another.
Is the space one that conjures up images of sitting in class, even if the chairs are arranged in a circle? That might be counter-productive if you are trying to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust. Might a space designated for more casual fellowship and interaction be a better location than the traditional classroom? Or might the group find that the more informal feel of a participant's home to be advantageous as a meeting place? Will the group be meeting for an extended period of time (e.g. longer than 45 minutes to an hour)? If so, find something more comfortable than traditional folding metal chairs. Is there an adjustable thermostat where the room can be kept at a comfortable temperature?

Have you designed the meeting time to allow for participants to build relationships? Do your meetings that have a balance between structured time when the work or desired outcomes get addressed and looser time in which people become acquainted?  Will food or beverages be provided? Will there be breaks for eating or stretching? Consider adding group builders. Consider enlisting volunteers to host refreshments. It gives the facilitator a break and allows participants the opportunity to serve one another.  Is there a general "catch up on life" time where people have an opportunity to share and engage others? How will you provide a time for the sharing of prayer concerns and the opportunity to pray for one another as needed?

4 | Create a small group facilitators toolkit that's easy to transport (if your group moves around).
What tools might you need as a facilitator? Which high tech and low tech tools will enable your facilitators. Common equipment, tools, and supplies include:
- Tech gear: laptop, projector, screen, monitor, speakers and access on internet
- Office supplies: pens, markets, post-it notes, newsprint pads, index cards, etc.
- Team building tools: Visual Faith cards, legos, tiny props, deck of cards, talking stick, TalkSheets, etc.

5 | Plan in advance how to deal with challenging members.
Since small groups in real churches are composed of real people, it is inevitable that you will face challenges in managing the group dynamics. For those of us who facilitate small groups, it is a question of when - not if- you will deal with the problem of someone who complicates the group interactions and creates situations that make other group members feel uncomfortable. Listed below are unhelpful behaviors that of show up in small group settings
  • Monopolizers. Over talks. Wants to be in create 'time limit.'  has all the answers. Facilitators need to interrupt and point out what is going on.
  • Personalities that create team conflict. This includes subversives, manipulators, passive aggressives, explosives. hyper-avoiders.
  • Derailers. Attempts to derail team efforts behind the scene or underground. They may use negative emotions such as fear and anger to get their own way. They seem agreeable but are not- will answer 'yes' when meaning 'no' - then not follow through. They will not confront any issue - smiles that everything is okay.
  • "Me" focused rather than "we" focused. Steers conversations toward their personal agenda; not interested in team as a whole.  Wants to control outcomes using manipulative tactics.  May control members using anger, fear or playing the role of a victim. 
  • Non-contributors. They don't want to get Involved, take a risk, act with courage to get things done. Does not want to be part of the team or be in sync with the team objectives. Call it as soon as discovered; confront the individual. Point out what is happening-call it tor what it is: manipulative behavior. Confront the lack of follow-through and the inconsistencies between word and deed.  

6 | Design and be willing to adapt your meeting format.
While every small group has its own personality, and you can make adjustments which account for the context of the group you are facilitating, there are some basic principles which will greatly enhance the effectiveness of any group if they are practiced consistently.
  • Make sure the group members have the needed resources for the meeting: Books/workbooks Additional resources (articles, video clips, etc.).
  • Encourage group members to be prepared for the conversation: Outside assignments, Reading/reflection on materials, Devotional readings.
  • Provide regular communication to group members: Meeting reminders with emphasis on preparations, Summary of prayer requests from the group, Any logistical considerations (planning activities).
  • Have a plan for following up when a group member is missing in action
  • Have a defined time frame for how long the group will meet. The optimum for effective small group discussion is 60-90 minutes. Respect the obligations of the group members by starting and ending gatherings on schedule.

A typical small group meeting experience usually includes:
  • Gathering time.  A few minutes of informal conversation between group members, usually with some light refreshments provided.
  • Connect time.  A few minutes at the beginning of the meeting devoted to "catching up" on life, following up on commitments made in previous sessions, and building of relationships.
  • Discussion/Reflection. This constitutes the majority of the meeting time and may involve watching a video, having a discussion around prepared questions, conversations beyond prepared questions, etc. 
  • Next Steps. Invite participants to consider what they will do with what they are discovering in the teaching/discussion. What actions will they take and be accountable for?
  • Prayer. Take time for pray for one another's prayer concerns. Make a list of prayers and email to participates so they can pray for each other between small group meetings.

7 | Continuously find ways to enhance the group experience.
If a group is to grow to its fullest relational potential, it is important that group members have opportunities to bond in common cause and fellowship beyond the boundaries of their regular meetings together. There is something about moving beyond the strictures of your regularly scheduled get-together that frees people to get to know and appreciate one another in new ways. In an informal social setting, some people who are shy during small group discussions really shine; or if you are on a service outing, someone who is handy or a natural extrovert can really open up and be themselves.
  • Sharing meals together: Groups often find that sharing a meal together (regularly or periodically) is a great way to build relationships and trust within the group. Camaraderie and trust are, of course, the foundational elements in creating space for deep, transparent, and vulnerable conversations that transform lives. The group may go to a local restaurant or may choose to do a 'pot luck.'
  • Serving Together: Every group is encouraged to find a way to serve together periodically (every month to six weeks is recommended). This provides a safe place for participants to explore how they are gifted to serve, as well as providing another great opportunity to build relationships within the group. It also expands dramatically the witness of the church in the local community.

  •  What do you see as the essential elements of a small group meeting? What would you add or modify from the suggested meeting flow found in this chapter?
  • What would be some questions you'd ask a small group leader to help them reflect on and improved their facilitation skills?


Most of the time when we talk about equipping small group leaders, what we mean is that we are going to focus on preparing them to teach the materials. Research shows that the retention/application rate for an instructional model of leading a group is somewhere between 20-40%. Contrast that with a facilitation/coaching approach where, in partnership with the participants, we help individuals discover connections with what they already know, benefit from new knowledge and perspectives they acquire as part of our work together, and challenge them to match their lifestyle to what they've learned. Using this model, the retention/application range is 60-80%.

This kind of partnership reflects a coaching approach to transformation. While this small group training guide is obviously not an in-depth resource to equip you for a professional coaching certification, there are some basic coaching skills that can be adapted to your small group leadership. If you can adjust your basic approach to a coaching mindset, the results can be dramatic.  Consider the following definition, using the word COACH as an acronym: 
  • C - Comes alongside.
  • O - Observes carefully.
  • A - Asks questions wisely.
  • C - Communicates options and resources.
  • H - Holds accountable (and cares for the heart).

A good coach will fulfill all the conditions spelled out in that acronym, but this ability to COACH doesn't happen by accident. While some people are naturally gifted with the qualities that enable this skill set, everyone can learn more about the tools and habits that underlie fundamental coaching techniques. And everyone who is going to facilitate a small group should do so.  Here is a breakdown of the basic coaching skill set and a further dissection of each of those skills as they might be applied within the small group leader context.

Active listening is the ability to focus completely on what is being said, as well as the sensitivity to understand what is not being said. It is the ability to understand the meaning of what is being said as a reflection of the speaker's needs and desires, while reinforcing the speaker's confidence and self-expression.  The characteristics and attitude that define an active listener are beneficial both in the context of one-to-one mentoring, as well as in a group discussion (or for that, matter in any conversation in any relationship or context).

What is active listening?
Being curious. Being fully present. Creating a safe space. Conveying value. Exploring possibilities. "Getting" someone. Active Listening is the function of specific intentional practices on the part of the listener (in this case the small group leader who is facilitating/guiding the conversation):
Reflecting: Making observations which build on the speaker's comments by highlighting specific points and expanding on them.
Paraphrasing: Repeating back what the speaker has said in slightly different words to clarify meaning.
Truth telling: Pointing out obvious gaps in the speaker's reasoning, as well as statements that are clearly incorrect or in some way non-productive.
A small group facilitator can also have a dramatic impact on the group discussion by displaying clear non-listening behaviors (the polar opposite of active listening):
Pretending to listen: This is more obvious than you might expect. You might think you're getting away with faking interest, but people can tell when you are not engaged.
Sending messages (whether wrong or right). You can listen a little too attentively by communicating with expressions or gestures that disagree vehemently with what the speaker is saying. Try to retain a neutral listening posture. If something needs to be challenged (via truth telling), do it with your words, not your body language.
Hijacking the speaker's message. This is a gone-rogue version of reflecting in which we intentionally flip the speaker's words to make a point they didn't intend, tweak them to make a point that's near and dear to our own perspective, or use them as a jumping off point to launch another topic or stir up the other group members. We should respect a speaker's words and sentiment for what they are, not what we wish them to be.
Looking at your phone. That's an obvious one, but we all are subject to the fantasy that we are the sole person on the planet who can successfully multi-task in a way that's not obnoxious or obtrusive.

Encouragement is one of the most powerful coaching skills in the toolkit. Most people do not get enough encouragement in any aspect of their lives.
People blossom and thrive when they are encouraged. Nancy Kline, in her book, Time to Think, asserts that encouragement (also termed appreciation or acknowledgment) is important not because it feels good or is nice, but because it helps people to think for themselves on the cutting edge of an issue. It is suggested that coaches/facilitators aim for a 5:1 ratio of encouragement to criticism.
Encouragement is offered in these ways:
Speaking hope.
Approving the excellent.
Seeing potential.
Using "and" more than "but."
Genuine encouragement should reflect these qualities:
It should be authentic.
It should be unequivocal—no "maybes."
It should be enthusiastic.
It should be specific.
It should be substantive—reflecting not just "what" but "who" the recipient is.

Powerful questioning is the ability to pose insightful queries that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to move a conversation forward or help an individual probe an issue.  Dorothy Leeds, in The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and at Work, suggests that such queries will always do one or more of these things:7
  • Powerful questions demand answers.
  • Powerful questions stimulate thinking.
  • Powerful questions give powerful information.
  • Powerful questions lead to powerful listening.
  • Powerful questions get people to open up.
  • Powerful questions get people to persuade themselves.

Avoid questions that cause people to get caught up in the weeds, focusing on small details at the expense of the greater discussion. Avoid rehashing the past or blaming others. Avoid conversations that lead to an "us vs. them" mindset. Engage people in purposeful questions that help people stay connected to what's most important. Engage people in conversations that look towards the future and imagine the possibilities that change and new ideas can bring.  Keep your focus on the people in the room. Seek to draw out their experiences and challenges.

QUESTION STRATEGIES that move the conversation forward:
  • Ask open-ended questions:  Avoid "yes or no" questions. Use as a guideline the old journalistic formulation of "who, what, when, where and how," if it's helpful, but try to ask questions that require detailed, thoughtful responses.
  • Avoid solution-oriented questions. These are questions that are formulated in such a way that you are really just forcing the speaker to provide answers you were already looking for. Your questions should instead be genuinely curious and allow for honest expression.
  • Try zooming in /zooming out.  Harvard's Rosabeth Moss Kanter's metaphor about the need to take a wider perspective, while sometimes zooming in on the details. It's an important skill to know when each view - wide angle or microscopic - is valuable (particularly at knowing which details are the critical factors in a discussion or a decision).

Direct communication (responding) is the ability to communicate effectively during coaching sessions and to use language that has the greatest positive impact on the conversation and its participants. Responding includes:
  • Truth-telling. Sharing what you are seeing from the facilitator's perspective.
  • Feedback. Giving honest assessments and opinions (this is non-directive, e.g. consulting).
  • Insights. Sharing intuitive thoughts.
  • Interrupting. Masterful interrupting is truly an art and holds great benefit to the coachee, bringing them back on track or helping them get to the point.
  • Advising, While the focus of a coaching conversation is to tap into the expertise of the coachee, there are also times when the coach has expertise and experience that can have a positive impact on the progress of the coachee. The key is that the advice must be appropriate and asked for.
  • Directing. This is a technique for steering the conversation back toward the stated goals for the session or relationship.
  • Messaging. This is the speaking of a 'truth' that will help the coachee to act more quickly.

Negotiation describes the process by which the coach helps the coachee move from thinking about an issue to taking active steps to do something about that issue. Sometimes, this will occur in the context of the accountability portion of your small group sessions. Sometimes it will happen one-to-one. Occasionally, you will find this skill helpful for leading the small group itself toward corporate decisions. Here are some negotiation techniques:
  • Determine action steps. What's next?  What specific thing are you/we trying to accomplish? What resources do you/we need?  What will you/we have to have in place in order to make this happen?
  • Remove obstacles. What could stop you/we from doing this?  What are the obstacles that could stop you/us from moving ahead? What could go wrong? If you/we move ahead, what is the worst case scenario for how things could derail?
  • Gain commitment. What could you/we do? What are the possibilities? What will you/we do? Let's pick a specific course of action and commit to it. When will this be done? Let's don't leave it hanging out there amorphously. Let's pick a date and commit to it.
Practical tools for negotiating:
  • Small steps.  Having identified a goal, what are the small steps that will be necessary to get
us going on the journey?
  • Backward planning. Let's "begin with the end in mind," and chart out the steps that will be required to get us to the destination.
  • Creating structure. Let's come up with a framework for how the steps will be managed and accomplished.
  • Anchoring. How do we reinforce our core values as we move forward? How do we stay anchored to the core idea that empowers our goal?
  • Daily actions. What daily to-do items will move us forward toward the goal. As we're breaking things down into "small steps," what recurring actions will keep us accountable to making those steps happen.

The GROW model provides a useful structure for coaches to help their coachees move forward in tangible ways (in whatever area of their life - work, relationships, personal growth - in which they wish to move forward. In the small group context (and if you find yourself at some point in a Mentor or Spiritual Guide context), the GROW model can be very effective with guiding accountability discussions. The elements of the GROW model can help focus the group discussion for defining accountability among group members, and it can be an incisive tool for helping individual group members who are interested in growth identify goals and ways to meet those goals.  The GROW model was developed by John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership and identifies four areas of focus for moving forward in a positive direction.  Here is a textual breakdown of these principles, as used in a standard coaching conversation (the kind you might have with someone for whom you are acting as a spiritual mentor):

GOAL: Where are we headed?
  • How can I be most helpful to you today? What do you need to get the most out of this conversation? What role do you need a listener or advisor to play?
  • What topic should we concentrate on during this session? What is the one topic on which we could focus today that will have the most impact on moving you forward in a meaningful direction?
  • What are the issues that you face today? What are the most important items that are holding you back, giving you grief, or sapping your energy?

REALITY: Where are we starting from?
  • Tell me about your current situation. Describe it as honestly as you can, yet as objectively as possible.
  • What are the difficulties that you face? Name the obstacles and how each is impacting your attitude.
  • How are you resourcing yourself around this issue? In what ways have you sought to gain advice or consult expertise to work through this issue?
  • What is your biggest area of discomfort about this issue? What is the one thing that is causing you the most stress and anxiety?

OPTIONS: How can we get there?
  • Tell me what you think are some options for a solution. List them, without preemptively dismissing possibilities.
  • What else? Probe more deeply around all angles of the issue. What are you missing? 
  • What other options might present themselves as you take on other perspectives?
  • If there were no obstacles (like money or people) what else would you consider?
  • If all options were possible, what would be the best path forward?

WHAT WILL YOU DO? What will it take to get there?
  • What do you need to do this? Having decided to move forward with a defined strategy, what are the specific things you will need to make it happen?
  • How will you prioritize your options? How will you decide what needs to be done first and what can wait till further in the process?
  • What one thing can you accomplish this week that will move you in the right direction? Commit to taking that action fearlessly.   How can I pray for you this week?

  •  How will thinking like a coach (rather than just a teacher) change your small group dynamic?
  • Which of the coaching skills (listening, encouraging, asking powerful questions, responding, negotiating) do you find most natural and which do you find most difficult?
  • What do you find most challenging about being a good listener when you are facilitating a group discussion? What frustrates you the most?
  • How can inspire/lead other participants in your group to also emulate these coaching skills?
  • What insights did you gain from learning about the GROW model that you can use in facilitating group growth?