Where a sphere of ministry is primarily focused on relationships, that ministry tends to have an organic emphasis. So, in regard to small groups, it’s not so much a matter whether the ministry will be organic, but how much structure will the leader of the ministry provide. It’s a matter of how intentional the landscaping is going to be.
Will it fall to one extreme, where the tops of the shrubs are clipped with the assistance of a level and every last weed is sniped with Round Up? Will it fall to the other extreme, where everything is allowed to grow “naturally,” even if that means grass is growing into the mulch and the roses aren’t being pruned? Or will you find a balance between the two, keeping trees trimmed, the grass mowed and fertilized, and the flowerbeds looking generally nice?
I use this metaphor, in regards to small groups ministry, to refer to training and developing leaders, keeping tabs on how many groups you have and who is attending them, having a voice in the curriculum small groups use, and aligning all your small groups around a common vision. I know that some people think the more natural and organic a ministry is, the better it is. But this, I think, is an over reaction to strictly programmed ministry, which is different than structured ministry.
Our church has over 100 leaders and over 60 groups. So, as the pastor responsible for this ministry, I simply don’t have the time to opt for the OCD method of leadership. But I have found that having some basic structures in place has been very beneficial, in five ways in particular.
1. A structure for shepherding – Each of our elders is assigned to shepherd some small group leaders and their groups (they also shepherd members who are not in a small group). If something comes up in a small group discussion beyond the leader’s pay grade – an extreme sin issue or a marriage in trouble – that leader has an elder to call right away, who can step into that situation. I know of at least one drowning marriage that was pulled into a life raft in the past few months. Without a shepherding structure in place, I’m not sure what would have happened.
2. Leadership development – Many of our small group leaders have the potential of being future elders, deacons, or other ministry leaders. Most groups have someone else who could lead a group of their own. But without structures that provide a development path, it would be much harder to recognize when people are ready for a role with more responsibility.
3. A place to plug new people in – This is obvious, perhaps, but important enough to be stated. How are you going to welcome new people into a rich community experience within your church if you don’t have a well-structured, yet simple path to join a small group? You might be surprised how much this can grow your small group ministry.
4. Developing a church planting culture – Our church has an aggressive church planting goal, but I don’t believe we will be able to develop a church planting culture until we develop a small group planting culture. I don’t mean small group splits. I mean where a group of 10-12 send off 2-4 to start a new group, so that the many people in our church who don’t have a group will have one available for them to join. If we can get that happening in our small groups ministry, people will be more willing to send and be sent for church plants – at least that’s my hope.
5. Healthier conflict resolution – This past fall, I had a handful of small groups dissolve, which sometimes resulted in relational tension. If your small groups ministry is disorganized, when the inevitable relational fallout happens, you will not be able to deal with it competently, or in a way that helps people feel shepherded. But with our structures in place, I was able to guide the people left over who wanted to be in a group – whether to join up with another group, start a new group, or keep going with a different leader.
You might be able to experience these benefits with a few small groups, but if your ministry grows, you will reach the point where you can’t keep track of all the details yourself anymore. That’s when you need simple structures to do a lot of the work for you.