Six Frustrations of Small Group Leaders
Improve volunteer retention by helping them resolve these issues
Growing a healthy small group system in a church isn’t just about finding and training new leaders. Retention — keeping leaders serving in their area of purpose without burning out — is arguably more important than bringing in fresh faces. Without preserving leaders, the system becomes a revolving door of people walking in and out. In such an environment, groups will have a hard time attracting attendees. Why would anyone want to join a group when even the leaders don’t seem committed?
We’re now in our fourth year of small groups at our church. We initially struggled with retaining leaders. Some difficulties just go with the territory of building and implementing something new. But part of the issue was also a lack of awareness of the obstacles small group leaders face.
As we talked to leaders and former leaders about their experiences, several recurring frustrations emerged. Hearing their perspectives made it easier for us to support leaders, help them avoid burnout, and talk them off the ledge when they considered throwing in the towel.
Jesus had a multitude of followers, but He also intentionally focused on a few disciples at a time.
Here are six frustrations that make small group leaders want to resign — and practical ways to address their concerns.
1. “No one comes to my group.” Chances are, few people are coming rather than literally no one. Perhaps it just isn’t the number the leader anticipated. Encourage him or her to trust God’s sovereignty in guiding each person to that group. God may have that leader there just for one or two people, but those individuals are valuable and have the potential to reach others. Jesus had a multitude of followers, but He also intentionally focused on a few disciples at a time.
Rather than worrying about the size of the group, consider whether people are returning. If no one is consistently attending for more than one week, analyze what may be keeping people away. It could be a logistical issue, such as the location, day of the week or meeting time.
For example, if your leader is hosting a group for moms but isn’t offering childcare or the option for children to tag along, that creates an obstacle for potential attendees. If the group follows a recovery-based curriculum but is meeting in a coffee shop or other public setting where others can overhear conversations, the location is likely a barrier.
Make suggestions for what the leader could tweak to make the group more accessible. Highlight the need for reminders and connection outside of group meetings. And encourage the leader to extend personal invitations to those he or she already knows, including co-workers, neighbors and family members.
Assure the leader the group is salvageable, and help him or her to make some adjustments to make it easier for people to attend.
2. “This group is costing me more money than I expected.” Ask some questions to discover the source of the financial concern. Did the group leader pick a costly activity? Did he or she buy everyone’s books or curriculum? Is the cost of childcare getting out of hand?
If the group leader is providing all the food, start asking group members to bring food items. If the leader is buying curriculum, ask attendees for contributions to cover the cost of the materials. If the issue is an expensive activity, such as dining at a restaurant at each meeting, perhaps the group could meet less often.
Don’t allow money to become a barrier to ministry. Through wisdom, discernment and stewardship, we can help our group leaders find affordable ways to make it work. In fact, members are more likely to commit when they are contributing something to the group.
3. “My group is too big!” It seems like a good problem to have, but a large crowd can also feel overwhelming. Help the leader identify a co-leader, preferably someone with leadership potential in their group. If your church requires leader training, have the co-leader go through it the next time you offer it. Having a second person to share the load takes the pressure off the leader trying to disciple too many people alone. If the group is too large for the meeting space, you may need to split it into two separate groups.
4. “My life is too crazy to continue leading this semester.” A leader may say this in a moment of uncertainty or life transition. The group may seem like a logical thing to cut when a leader feels overloaded. Sometimes, stepping away for a while is necessary, but you don’t want this important decision to be a knee-jerk reaction.
Talk with the leader about taking a week or two off. Identify someone who could fill in during this break. Stay in contact with the leader. Make a plan to revisit the decision after the leader spends time away in prayerful consideration. After that, other solutions may include asking the fill-in leader take over for the rest of the semester, meeting less often, or merging the group with a similar one.
Caring for the leader must be a priority. Find practical ways to serve him or her while caring for the group. Identify specific things you could do to bring immediate relief and long-term support.
5. “I have one member who dominates conversation, and everyone else wants to leave.” This is probably the toughest dynamic to navigate in group conversation. Leaders often wonder where the balance is between giving someone space to engage while also allowing others equal time to share.
The tension of one person talking too much can become evident quickly. When leaders encounters this, have them work on a short-term solution first, followed by a long-term solution, if needed.
In the short term, have the leader look for an opportunity to direct the conversation to another person in the group or back to the curriculum. For instance, the leader could say to another member, “What are your thoughts on this topic?”
If the redirection tactic doesn’t help, it is appropriate and acceptable in the long-term for the group leader to suggest to the person dominating conversation that another time might be more appropriate for the lengthy discussion. For instance, the leader could say, “I want to hear more about this. I also want us to have time to finish up what the group is talking about. Let’s schedule a time to get together and spend some one-on-one time walking through this.”
In the meantime, the leader can privately assure other members who express concern that he or she is aware of the dynamic and is prayerfully working toward a solution. The leader can also provide assurance that there will be margin for everyone to share.
6. “I don’t know what to say,” or “I don’t know how to lead.” This, too, calls for a perspective shift. I frequently share these words of John Maxwell: “You can love people without leading them, but you can’t lead people without loving them.”
It’s impossible to lead any group of people without first cultivating a love for them. While your leader may worry about having on-time answers and overflowing wisdom, encourage him or her that those answers and leadership qualities will flow more naturally when the primary focus is on developing friendships with those in the group.
Galatians 6:10 calls the local church a family of believers. Leaders should help those under their care feel like brothers and sisters rather than cogs in a wheel or lost faces in a crowd. The best groups I’ve ever been a part of brought people together in such a way that we didn’t just talk about theology; we experienced and lived out the truths of God’s Word together.
Direct your leader to learn more about the individuals in the group, specifically about their life outside of church. These deeper conversations normally start by asking questions. Here are five questions to get the conversations going and the friendships emerging:
- Family life: “How did you and your spouse meet?”
- Work: “How did you end up in your current career?”
- Dreams/goals: “What would you like to be doing 10 years from now?”
- Hobbies: “What do you enjoy doing on your days off?”
- Testimony: “When and how did you come to know Jesus?”
Everyone can learn to lead when they make the effort to love first.