the shape of leadership

When Good Systems Fail

If your best efforts are coming up short, evaluate these three areas

Kayla Marcantonio on February 5, 2019

One of the main focuses within my pastoral care role is small groups. When we arrived at our church, there were just three small groups. My pastor at the time asked me to build a small group system that would accommodate 1,000 people.

I studied. I prayed. I found systems at other churches. My podcasts were on repeat. I attended classes and conferences. After months of prep, my notebook was full, and so were my thoughts. It was time to move to practical application. Following what we felt was best for the church and community, my team meticulously pursued steps we had heard about from experts for more than a year.

We embraced the values other leaders taught, implementing every suggestion. We did everything we had learned to do, and our small groups still weren’t consistently growing — either in number of leaders or involvement.

If you’ve been there, you know how frustrating it can be. You paid the $80 registration fee and attended the conference. You adopted the system. You saturated the ideas and steps in prayer. Yet it doesn’t seem to work.

Despite our initial instinct, we didn’t throw out the playbook. We didn’t change the system or start from scratch. After all, there was, and is, value in what we learned. Instead, we retraced our steps, trying to figure out where we went wrong or what we should do differently in the future. Here are three areas in which we gained fresh insight that helped us move forward:


Many church conferences take place in major cities, featuring speakers from large urban congregations. It’s no surprise, then, that the ideas are often most applicable to big-city churches.

But what if your church isn’t located in a city? Ours is a rural church in south Louisiana — immediately to the left of a Walmart, a couple of miles from a bayou, and across the highway from a big field. No matter how much our attendance grows, we have a unique setting and culture that aren’t likely to change. We’re rural, and we love it.

So, while the conference speakers recommend having people sign up for small groups online, we will continue to have a paper-and-pen option. Digital platforms might be ideal in many settings, but not in an area where some people still don’t have internet.

Similarly, I can’t ask my small group leaders to meet every week when several of them work offshore. I may even meet with a potential leader for training outside of the scheduled teaching simply because he or she couldn’t take time away from work.

Conference speakers may never have considered these issues. They’ve discovered what works in their churches, but their churches aren’t ours. So we do what’s best for our culture. Imitating the megachurches in every detail can’t be our standard of success.

It’s easier to blame the system than to blame ourselves for being impatient.


We also discovered that how we talk about the system matters. The problem wasn’t with the steps we had in place. The problem was in how we communicated those next steps. Even when we have the best methods, our messaging can create hurdles.

“Join a small group, and you’ll have life-giving relationships. Join a small group, and you’ll grow in your faith. Join a small group, and your marriage will become stronger.”

All of those things were true We’ve seen them happen, and we continue to see God changing lives through small groups. Yet our focus was wrong. Our language highlighted the benefits, while overlooking the core purpose of forming relationships with other believers.

We went back to the basics. We revisited why we did small groups and why God wants us in relationships. We researched the basic needs of human existence — and found relationships in the top tiers.

Now when we communicate why someone should join a small group, we confidently declare that God created us for relationships and that He does not want us to walk through life alone. It’s a biblical message that resonates deeply with people.


Adapting the system to our culture and tweaking our communication weren’t enough to bring about the success we finally experienced. So, what made the ultimate difference? The passing of time.

I had great leaders then, but I have better leaders now because personal development takes time. We had influence then, but we have greater influence now because influence takes time. People tolerated small groups then, but they recognize them as significant now because trust takes time.

That is why you probably won’t see sessions about patience at conferences. It’s a slight buzzkill to hear, “Plant all these systems, and then wait eight years for them to mature while you develop your culture and love on your people.”

If we’re completely honest, we can admit it’s easier to blame the system than to blame ourselves for being impatient.

At our church, we’ve grown from three small groups to 40. The secret sauce? There is none. Just time — and a commitment to the culture and people during the process.

My parents planted an oak tree in their front yard when I was a child. I listened in amazement as they explained that I would be their age before the tree reached maturity. They would need to water it, care for it, and protect it for decades to give it the best chance at success. But they couldn’t rush the process. It would take time.

If the great leadership advice you’ve tried doesn’t seem to be working, don’t lose heart. Seek the Spirit’s guidance every step of the way. Prayerfully consider your communication and context. And trust God to grow your ministry in His time.

Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

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