10 Things to Think About Before Starting a Small Groups Ministry

By Steve Gladen

6. When will you start?

To answer this question, look at both the calendar and your church culture. There are usually three times to start small groups: fall, January, and post Easter. For Saddleback, fall is culturally the best time for us. We start our campaign a few weeks after school starts so families can get into their new routines. We use the summer to get ready, September to recruit, and October to launch. Your church will have a different schedule, and that’s okay. Do what culturally fits for your church.

7. What’s your Pathway?

When you start groups, your small-group leaders need to know what you want them to do. Not only do you need to know the “end in mind” for your ministry, you need the same for your group leaders. Just like Jesus took His disciples from “come and see” through a three-year relational process to “come and die,” so we at Saddleback have a relational process for our “hosts” to become “leaders.” Now, we pray that none of them need to die, but we do want to take them from where they are to a deeper commitment in Christ. Whatever system you design, know where you want to take your leaders. Peek at our pathway here.

8. What’s your infrastructure?

It’s easy to start small groups; it’s hard to sustain them. Since 1998, our small-group team has seen our small groups grow from 280 groups to over 3,500 groups. That doesn’t happen without infrastructure. Just like a city needs roadways to develop as a town turns into a city, so your small-group ministry needs its roadways.

One critical part of your infrastructure is what we call Community Leaders (CLs), who are the leaders of small-group leaders. They are the relational arm of your ministry. They provide the care and direction to your small groups. They help with focus so groups don’t drift.

Another part of our infrastructure is what we call “Gatherings.” Gatherings are the vision arm of your ministry. A gathering is bringing your leaders together periodically for alignment and vision. It can be done over dinner or coffee. At Saddleback, we do two Gatherings a year—one in the beginning of the year (to get us out of the holiday funk) and one in August (to gear us up for the fall).

9. Don’t stand alone!

The enemy loves to lead in isolation and fear. Fear stops us from taking risks for the Kingdom. Isolation cuts off our supply lines so we can’t fight the good fight. In 2006, God led me to start the Purpose Driven Small Group Network so that no one would stand alone. I know what it’s like to do the day in and day out work of running a small-groups ministry. I know what it’s like to be the only one in your church thinking community is the greatest thing since Easter. I am blessed with an incredible staff. My prayer is that this Network will be your staff, standing with you to help you fight the good fight. If you don’t think you need others around you—think again!

10. Prepare your heart.

One of the greatest things I learned in seminary is called the Messiah Complex. It’s where you take on the roll of the Messiah and bear everyone’s burdens on your cross. There’s only one problem: you can’t do it. You will burn out.

Symptoms of the Messiah Complex are a lack of quiet time and/or Sabbath forgetfulness. Just as God can take your financial tithe and make 90 percent go farther than your best 100 percent, He can do the same with a Sabbath. He can make 6 days go farther than your best 7 days. The principle God is working on has nothing to do with finances or time, it’s all about obedience. If you don’t prepare your heart now, the work for God will destroy the work of God in your life.

Steve Gladen

Steve Gladen is Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Church, which sees over 30,000 people gathering weekly in 5,000 small groups. He's the founder of SmallGroups.net and travels widely to speak on the topic of small groups and healthy, biblical community. He is the author of several books including Small Groups With Purpose and Leading Small Groups With Purpose.