Many, if not most, churches have at least attempted small group ministries at one time or another, some finding them to be the catalyst for church growth, relational connections, and effective discipleship. Of course, others have struggled and some even failed in the effort, leaving numerous questions in the wake of their efforts.

As a pastor, I learned that effective small groups often have more to do with the pre-planning than with the implementation. Simply put, if I knew the questions to answer before we started, I probably could have avoided or more effectively addressed the issues that arose, and for many, brought a premature end.

What steps could have saved me from the greatest frustrations? I built a list and call them my 10 Questions for Small Group Planning .

1. Why are we doing small groups?

This question asks, “What is the primary purpose among the purposes for our small group ministries? Now there are a lot of possible purposes for small groups, but we must be honest about what we are really trying to accomplish. You see, our real purpose will be the way we end up evaluate our groups, so making that purpose clear and obvious is essential.

Do I want small groups to connect people to the church? If we are going to have extended opportunity to minister to people, at some point we need them to think of our church as their church too. So connection can be a viable purpose for small groups.

Discipleship is another goal. Maybe I want small groups because I want to be sure people are growing and I know that the intimacy of the small group can help facilitate that in amazing ways. That’s another great reason for small groups.

Which is the best reason? Likely the one that fits your situation most effectively. Now a small group can make great strides in both areas, but you need to know which is primary. Some pastors have started groups for connection only to be frustrated that discipleship goals weren’t being met. Of course, discipleship groups that don’t gel into deep relationships can be disappointing too. If you know which of these is your primary goal, you’ll be able to more effectively evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.

2. What will our groups do?

Okay, slow down. This question doesn’t dive into the types of groups or the activity schedules for group meetings. We’re not quite ready for those questions yet. Instead, a deeper question must be asked first. What do we want our groups to accomplish?

Perhaps another way to ask is, “What will be accomplished through our small group ministries if we are successful?”

You see, many pastors and church leaders launch into small group efforts without a clear sense of how they will judge success. We want small groups…well, we know we’re supposed to have them…but what are they really supposed to do?

Once you know what you want your small groups to do, you can identify the “wins” you’ll want to celebrate. Celebrating is very important. It keeps people encouraged and continually propels them toward the goals of the group. Without a clear sense of “wins” group leaders can become frustrated and not realize that they may be succeeding in significant ways.

3. Who will we involve in small groups?

Now at first, we might think this is an easy answer. After all, don’t we want everyone to connect to a small group? Isn’t that our purpose–that everyone will find friendship or be engaged in life-changing study of God’s Word. Isn’t the best answer “everyone?”

If your church is trying to launch a new effort of small group ministry, you may want to consider an approach of stages in development. Many churches have found that a church-wide approach is extremely difficult to get working well. Some people don’t want to be in groups, and some groups succeed while others fail leaving those in the failed groups a little less excited when the next opportunity comes around.

For most, it may prove best to get a few groups started and learn how your church responds to such opportunities. A few successful groups can be excellent catalysts for adding more groups, and you can learn needed lessons and “work out the bugs” more easily with a few groups than multiplying your early mistakes in a large number of groups.

4. Will we keep an open chair?

In small groups “lingo” the open chair symbolizes the openness of the group toward new people. Will our groups maintain an openness to new attenders or will they be closed groups, where people must sign up at the group’s beginning in order to experience the content to be studied?

In most cases, relational groups have the best chance of remaining open to new people. After all, these groups have fellowship as their goal so adding someone new to the group seems like a “no-brainer” doesn’t it? Discipleship groups that tackle a specific curriculum often are more closed because if you miss out on the first weeks of study, it can be difficult to join in the later weeks.

But relationship groups aren’t easy to keep open either. Most have found that after a group has met together for six months, they tend to functionally close. We have formed a group and the desired friendships have formed. Now it gets harder to welcome in new people.

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.

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.

6. Who must we find?

Small groups will only be as effective as those who lead them, and every small group ministry director knows that finding the right leaders will be the key to success. But what does that leader look like?

Remember that the larger your leader expectations, the more training you will need to provide. Relational and discussion groups may only require one training session where you can discuss facilitation strategies and engaging social skills. But teaching groups need leaders who can manage such expectations. There aren’t as many of those folks and they’ll need extensive training.

7. Commitment – Do we anticipate low requirement?

What does low requirement mean? The question relates to how frequently we expect people to attend the group meetings. Will they be involved in a study that demands consistent attendance, like a finance training or some type of course completion? These type of groups are considered high requirement.

Content can determine requirement level but it’s not the only factor. Remember the purpose of your small groups. If you’re goal is connecting and relationship building, keep the requirement low and let the quality of those relationships begin to drive more regular attendance. If the demand is high and the friendship-building gets off to a slow start, the group won’t likely succeed.

8. Content – What will the group do?

When planning your small groups, determining the specifics of each group ahead of time can prove very important. First, we have already determined if this is a content group or one that prioritizes relationships. But if content is even a secondary consideration, then how will that content be chosen?

Will the church prescribe the curriculum? Will the leader be a teacher or facilitator? What about childcare? Will there be food? Who will plan for that? How will the materials be purchased and who will cover the cost? As you can see, there is a number of issues to think through when planning a small group and, the more questions you answer in the planning phase, the more quickly group members can understanding and adapt.

9. Term – How often will we meet?

The frequency of group meetings can be one of the most critical decisions for a small group’s success. Meet too often and attendance will be inconsistent. Meet too rarely and the desired relationships never seem to develop. A leader must be careful to think through every aspect of this decision and be flexible enough to adjust when difficulties seem evident.

No matter the plan, weekly and bi-weekly groups will need breaks. Many churches use a semester format where groups meet for 12-15 weeks and then take a break. Usually the calendar will allow three semesters a year (fall, winter, spring) with a summer break.

10. Leadership – Who will make this work?

This final question addresses the key leaders who will drive your small group effort forward. Notice that we’ve already worked through most of the planning issues before assigning this project to a staff member or other key leader. Why? Because now we know what we are trying to do and what kind of leader we will need.

As the saying goes, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The best plan will only prove to be as good as the leader who implements it. Good organization, people skills, recruiting ability, and problem-solving are all essential traits of your small group director.

What are your thoughts on this? Did these questions help you rethink your small group strategy? Let us know in the comment section below.

This blog was originally posted on Mike Clarensau’s Healthy Church Network. It was reposted here with permission from its author.

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