Written By: Gena McCown, Women’s Ministry Council Co-Founder
Small Groups are a beautiful part of a successful Women’s Ministry program, however it can take some effort to get a program rolling. This week, we are going to look through some of the obstacles we face in trying to get small groups started, maintain them throughout the year, and encourage growth toward the future.
To start with, we need to establish clear goals for our small group.
- The purpose of the small group is to help women in our church and community deepen their knowledge of the Word, through group study and individual study time.
- As the women deepen their knowledge of the Word, we help demonstrate how to apply Biblical principals to our every day lives.
- Additionally, the small group should foster a sense of community and fellowship that leads us into a relationship of vulnerability, trust, and accountability.
We also need to establish boundaries for our small group.
- Small group is a place to share our vulnerable selves, not to spread gossip about others not in the group under the guise of prayer requests.
- Small group is a sacred space of communion and we agree to keep our small group conversations within the confines of the small group.
- Small group is exactly that, a small group. 50 women are not in a “small group”, that is a bible study or fellowship ministry. We need to have an expectation that growth will result in the formation of a new small group, splitting the members among them.
Once we have these basic parameters in place, we can then begin to look at what obstacles may come our way and how to address them as they arise. There are a few things I have noticed over the years that are pretty consistent obstacles that show up in the small groups. These obstacles show up from the preparation stages through the last day of your study, and I’m going to address them in that order.
We Lack Small Group Leaders
A huge struggle for many Women’s Ministry Leaders is getting enough women to lead small groups. I’d like to first address the first half of this obstacles which is defining what you are looking for in your small group leaders. Are you looking for a facilitator, which is a woman who is happy to host the study in her home or willing to use prewritten curriculum that requires no actual teaching or preparation on her part. Or, are you looking for a small group teacher, which is a woman who is a seasoned believer who is willing to dig deeper into the scriptures and serve as a discipler.
Once you know what type of leaders you are looking for, it becomes easier to find them. Why? Because, now when you start asking women in your church you have a clear expectation of what you want from small group leaders. I would suggest that both facilitators and teachers have their place in small groups. Facilitators will generally guide the group through written curriculum, and are learning alongside those in their group. There are less expectations on them to “have all the answers” and it is a great group for new believers. Teacher led small groups are perfect for the women in your church that are looking to challenge themselves by digging through the scriptures in an expository style or even seeking the wisdom of seasoned believers on tough topics from the scriptures.
Additionally, if you are developing small group leaders… facilitating is a GREAT first step. It allows the leader to familiarize herself with the general format of how a small group runs before putting her in charge of developing her own materials. Which leads me to the next obstacle for small groups, leadership development and support.
We Lack Small Group Support
It is really easy to find a small group leader if you tell her that her only responsibility is to hit the play button on the VCR. It is also much easier to tackle tough subjects that no one wants to teach if they know they don’t have to come up with their material on their own. I’m doing this now myself, leading a study as a facilitator because I know this is an area that I too need help in. It is harder to find leaders who are ready to teach a group, where the bulk of the preparation lies on their shoulders. I do not believe this is because God doesn’t have the women in the church already… I believe it is because they lack the confidence to do it.
How often have you approached a women in your church to teach a small group and she replies that she doesn’t know enough about the Bible to lead a group. How do you respond to it? If you are like most leaders, you will ask for her to pray about it or give her the option of letting you know should she change her mind. How many times have you followed her objection with the question:
Would you be interested in being trained to lead a small group?
If we never challenge our women to rise to the occasion, they may never do so. If we have a plan in place to help them learn how to facilitate a small group, and then eventually teach a small group… we have opened up the potential of endless teachers. Ask questions about why they don’t think they can lead. You may find they feel Biblically illiterate, not certain how a meeting runs, concerned they can’t command the attention of the group, or they may think there are costs associated with the role which are not in their means.
Solutions for this obstacle will begin with simply answering those objections. Biblically illiterate, would they be willing to meet with you for 1:1 discipling? Concerned about how to run a meeting or command attention, consider setting them up as a co-leader to an established leader you respect. Concerned about material costs, then explain to them who is responsible for paying for the materials (the church, split among the participants evenly, everyone buys their own, or using materials the church already has in stock).
Support doesn’t stop after we have trained small group leaders, we need to continually develop them and encourage those leaders to also find and develop leaders in their group. If you small groups take a break over the summer, use this time to put together a brief training for your leaders. Find a book or develop your own material, if need be. Check in with your leaders throughout the year to see if they are having any issues in their groups. Consider having one of your Women’s Ministry Leader team dedicated to overseeing the small groups.
We Lack Interest in our Small Groups
It’s the week of small group sign ups and your group is filling up nicely. Your first meeting goes off without a hitch, however by mid-study the number of women attending as decreased. By the end of the study you are down to a few dedicated women. Or, perhaps this scenario sounds more like your experience: After weeks of promoting small groups, only a small percentage of the women in your church have signed up. How can you have small groups if there are no women signing up? Why continue them if the women are not committing to see it through until the end?
The first question we need to ask ourselves is a tough one, which is are the small groups important in this church at all? I’ve noticed that there is a certain culture to churches where small groups are really successful. The church is made up primarily of people who grew up in church and know how to “do church” without prompting. The church is made up primarily of people who have a strong sense of community, and their church family is their biggest area of community. In churches where I see small groups struggling, I notice these are churches with a larger percentage (not necessarily majority) of new believers. I’ve also noticed that members of these churches are having their community needs met outside of the church. They are involved in outside organizations, live in areas that are extremely busy offering a lot of options for socializing and fellowshipping, and may have a community of friends who either do not go to church at all -0r at least not all go to the same church.
Another aspect affecting small groups, that I have begun to notice, is the attempt at churches to utilize technology to streamline sign ups. I’ve had far more success getting women to sign up for ANYTHING when they can do it on the spot vs. online at home. For no other reason than they forget, out of sight… out of mind. Certain areas of the country are also populated with either older generations who are not computer savy or live in an area that is economically disadvantaged and those congregants lack access to computers to sign up digitally. If you live in a major city, with lots of professionals and technology is common knowledge… online or app sign ups are perfect. In other areas, if this is your goal, you are going to have to slowly transition to it. Be sure to provide both options until you begin to see the change of habit. This can including offering digital signs ups and old fashioned paper sign up forms. Or, you can choose to set up some tablets in the church lobby for quick sign ups before they leave. Have a volunteer there to help your older members with the process.
If you have made the sign up process simple, meaning everyone can see the details of the study (what it is about, when it meets, how much materials cost) and you have an easy way for them to sign up… and you still lack interest? Then you may need to face the reality that Small Groups are simply not the method in which you are going to best disciple your women. Perhaps they are more interested in workshops, retreats, conferences, and other events of this nature than long term group studies. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink.
The second question you will need to ask, when you see declining numbers, is whether or not the materials you are providing are of interest to the women in the church. A church that is made up of 80% young families will definitely have success offering Parenting and Marriage related topics in their small groups. However if the majority of your studies are taught by your older women, on the topic of Empty Nesters… you just won’t see the numbers you want. We must be intentional about how many, and what types of groups we are offering. If every study you offer is a video series from a major publisher, and your numbers are in decline, perhaps it is time to add in some expository groups or topical groups. If every study group is held on weekday mornings, you are neglecting your working women. Variety and diversity in the topics & scheduling will help increase the number of women attending.
We Lack Returning Participants
If you have noticed that your small groups are a revolving door in regards to attendance there are few immediate considerations. First, women may be looking for their right fit. Don’t take it personally if they leave and join up another group. Be glad they are still in a group, and praise God that He will be sending someone else to fill that spot. Second, women in our current generations are busier than ever before. Perhaps your group was the perfect fit in the fall, but their spring season runs on an entirely different schedule. Another group may be more convenient for spring, and you may see the women return to their original groups the following fall. Third, women may be hopping groups based on the topics. If you jumped from a Galatians study to one on parenting, don’t be surprised if the single ladies without kids jump ship to another study. To combat this include your group members in choosing the next subject/topic for the group instead of selecting material that you are interested in and hoping they are too.
Something else to consider is this… these women may be seeking. They know that they want to dig deeper into the word, but they are not sure what or how. They may not even be able to articulate that they are searching or even what they are searching for. However this study is just not “doing it” for them, and they drop out mid way. In some respects we do need to allow our women the freedom to keep seeking, however our leaders need some sort of consistency for their group (especially if people are sharing personal details). It is perfectly acceptable to either have the small group leader inquire as to why a member left, or if you have a Women’s Ministry Team member who oversees small groups to check into it. Do so without judgement, but with the hopes of helping to guide them into a group that might meet their needs better. This also may be a perfect candidate for 1:1 mentoring vs. joining a small group.
Ultimately the greatest solution to our Small Group Obstacles is COMMUNICATION.
- Ask why someone is not willing to lead, facilitate, or teach a small group. Offer a solution, by having a training plan in place.
- Ask why a group member has left, and offer guidance into finding a small group or mentor relationship that is a better fit.
- Ask your small group members for suggestions on what they would like to study as a group.
- Ask yourselves honestly if Small Groups are the right fit for the church you are serving, or develop a plan to cultivate Small Group culture over time.
- Ask yourselves about the quality, variety, and diversity of the materials, groups, and availabilities you are offering. Seek to create a menu of Small Groups that fit the climate of your church.
***** In our fourth installment, we will cover obstacles that occur IN or DURING the course of small groups that are more individually based. *****