the shape of leadership

Keeping Small Group Leaders on Mission During the Pandemic

What your volunteers need to know

Kayla Marcantonio on July 27, 2020

Innovation and creativity teemed within churches and ministries at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though church buildings were empty, the Church mobilized online. From services and small groups to prayer opportunities and more, the gospel and the mission went forth through screens and devices.

Both Christians and the curious joined digital church services and events. Many of us assumed this was only for a short time. We figured we would all be back in the building and back to in-person meetings soon enough.

For our congregation and community at Crossing Place Church (Assemblies of God) in Bayou Vista, Louisiana, we initially saw steady — and even new — engagement in our small groups, with all the technological options availing.

We have a semester system of small groups, meaning they do not all run continuously throughout the year. Despite the stay-at-home orders, spring semester connections were encouraging, and we eagerly looked forward to summer.

For the summer semester, we expanded our online groups and launched small groups with various distancing options. Some groups would be totally online, others would start online and transition to in-person gatherings later on, and a few would meet in person from the beginning. We wanted to offer something for everyone, regardless of their preferences, comfort level, and convictions.

Our hopes were very simple and straightforward. We figured there was only one way to go, and that was up. With options for everyone, we thought everyone would engage. The reality was quite different, however. Even with state restrictions lifted and precautions in place, this summer began the lowest involvement of small groups we’ve had since their inception almost six year ago.

It seems at this point — given the option to meet in person or online — people are collectively choosing not to meet at all. I imagine many churches are experiencing similar issues. In the rhythms of life, people are now out of sync with the former song of their schedule. Like someone out of step while dancing, it’s just hard to get back on beat.

Despite all the creativity, some volunteers can’t function in their roles right now. Ushers can’t direct others without an in-person service. Nursery workers can’t provide care to babies without babies present. Nevertheless, as I wrote in April, I still believe small group leaders are essential and have an important role to play. This remains true even when absences feel personal and the enemy would tell them to give up.

Of the 30 groups we offered this summer, more than 20 had either no sign-ups or people signing up and then not responding. Some are also on pause because of an inability to meet as they planned. Even with only 33% of our groups consistently discipling and gathering, there are two things we will continue to share and live out until we see things take a positive turn.

If this pandemic has changed anything about our perspectives as church leaders, it’s what success looks like.

1. Stay on mission, but be willing to change the course. In Mark 5, Jesus had a plan and a vision to encounter a new town. He and all the disciples went by boat across the lake to spend some time ministering. Aside from one deliverance with a demon-possessed man, the town begged Him to leave.

Of course, Jesus didn’t quit ministry or quit leading. Instead, He just went a new direction. He headed back to the other side, where a receiving crowd met Him. Soon afterward, He healed the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Wherever He went, Jesus stayed on mission.

At the beginning of a semester, leaders have a vision of what their small groups will look like. And sometimes anything less feels like failure. Equip your leaders by giving them the opportunity and support to change plans if needed. If there were no sign-ups for the mom group, homeschooling group, or golf group, encourage them to look up and around. Help them ask the question, “Who is across the lake? Who might be willing to respond?”

Sometimes our group details accidentally exclude people. For example, those without children are not going to join a parenting group. Encourage your leaders to consider ways to include more people — yes, even mid-semester.

2. The mission field is everywhere. We know God’s gifts and callings are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29) There are no accidents with God. He gets it right from the start, which means our gifts and call are not based on location, culture, responses or sign-ups.

Upon graduating college, I desired a paid ministry position but could only find work in a mall food court, where I stayed for nearly two years. During that time, all I could think about was full-time ministry.

Though I eventually landed a ministry job, I now realize I did not walk out that season purposefully. I was waiting on an official title, when my calling was still to be a pastor and teacher. I had my congregation, my small group, in a mall food court — and I couldn’t see it. How differently I would handle things today.

The same is true for all small group leaders. Who knows when church will return to normal? But instead of hanging up our hats until then, we are asking our leaders to lead and love where they are.

We are encouraging leaders to take the time they would have used for small groups and instead schedule one-on-one time, whether in person or online, with someone who doesn’t know Christ. We are reminding them to think of their families, co-workers, and Facebook friends as small groups in need of ministry.

God’s gifts are irrevocable, which means our call is not limited to a small group semester or sign-up website. Therefore, let’s mobilize people to continue in what God has placed inside them, where they are right now.

If this pandemic has changed anything about our perspectives as church leaders, it’s what success looks like. In the absence of numbers and responses, success looks like obedience and staying the course. So let the preachers preach, let the teachers teach, and let the small group leaders lead — even during this challenging season.

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