How to Keep the Small Groups You Start

By Steve Gladen

Right now at Saddleback Church we are in the thick of it! We are finishing up our “Live Your Calling” Campaign; a Campaign that launched over 3,000 new small groups. Yup, you are reading the correct! Praise God and oh my Lord we need your help!!! This is been the most successful Campaign at Saddleback in the 15 years I have been their Small Groups Pastor. Right now at the height of the Campaign we have 7,018 adult small groups! If you don’t know what a Campaign is, click HERE.

So what has helped Saddleback Churches small groups sustain over these past 15 years to increase from 260 adult small groups to 4,587 adult small groups (this number is prior to the Campaign)? Some of it is learning in the moment and some is trail and error, but most of it is by God’s grace! As a small group pastor for over 25 years now, (hurts to even say that!) what I have learned is that it is easier to start groups than sustain them. Every year we face the same situation, how do we hold onto all that God creates? (this is a great problem to have!) Just like you, we use many opportunities to start small groups throughout the year, but none is more challenging than when we have a Campaign.

Regardless of how you start groups, retention is the key. 

The New Year is often a time when we all start groups. But like many new years resolutions that fall away in March, if you are not prepared and supported, all those small groups you started will fade away like so many New Years Resolutions. So how do you hold on, retain and sustain the groups you start?

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you think retention!

  1. What’s the end in mind? If you don’t know where you are going with your groups both in strategy and vision, you are dead before you start. You, your infrastructure and your small groups need to know where they are headed to want to even stay in the game. Take a look at this article to make sure your game plan is set. (Here are 10 things to think about before you start a small group ministry).
  2. Be clear on what’s next! A principle of leadership is that you always want to help people make their next step in the current step. There is no doubt that a major piece to help groups sustain is for them to know and agree to their next curriculum before they finish the current curriculum. Your job as the small group point person at your church is to give them next step curriculums, but not give them too many choices. Too many choices paralyzes the new leader. We make sure we give new groups two options and existing groups two options. If you don’t give them suggestions, your groups will go on the internet to find options—can you say, “Disaster waiting to happen?!?” The leadership principle here is that the Shepherd picks the next pasture, not the sheep, nor do they want to! They love your suggestions!
  3. Who’s your wingman? If you are going to start a business, you develop your “C” Team around you. In this example you would be the CEO. You would then, based on your business, develop “c” people like a COO, CFO, CIO, CTO, CSO, etc. I know too many small group point people who are running a business called a Small Group Ministry and they don’t have a team around them. It does not matter if the team is paid or volunteer, you need a team! So often “if” they have a team it is only a CIO (Chief Infrastructure Officer—your coaches or Community Leaders). Infrastructure is important, but for this point I am talking about a team that supports you and is sold out to your vision and mission. They will bring a different perspective to helping with your strategy.
  4. Move with the movers! I love this quote from Mother Teresa, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” The reason I love this quote is that it says two great leadership points. First, don’t get paralyzed by the number of groups. Sometimes the task can seem so big ahead that instead of starting in, we just sit not knowing where to begin. It’s like the question of how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Second, what I love in this quote is the part of just starting with the hungriest group. We call this “move with the movers.” They are the early adopters, those eager to learn and wanting to grow with your paradigm.
  5. It takes a village to raise a small group leader! This part has to do with infrastructure. Our latest learnings at Saddleback is to embrace all the voices that speak into our group leaders and make sure they are in alignment. In other words, make sure they are driving the same goal you have (see point one). Then begin to list all the voices and use those voices for the maximum impact into your leaders (new and existing). Too often we leave all the heavy lifting to the Community Leaders or Coaches. Here are some of the voices that speak into our leaders for retention—the small group point person, the Community Leader or coach, the Senior Pastor, emails, texts, eNewsletters, church bulletin, group training, and their groups members (their peers) to name a few. Each of these voices play a part in groups sustaining. Make sure they are all pulling groups in the same direction!
  6. Get your senior or lead pastor to help! ”If” statements from your Senior Pastor can make all the difference in the world to all those new groups that start. The Senior Pastor is probably the voice the new groups know the best. Get you senior guy to give statements to those new groups in his message to challenge them to continue. A simple thing Rick does is have all the HOSTs (our language for group leaders) stand during the service, honors them for the role they play, has the congregation applaud them and then says I could not do this without you! Simple but very effective! You can do something similar to this in many different ways.
  7. Location, location, location What makes the price of a home is largely based on it’s location. The same house in a nice part of town is higher than that same home in a bad part of town. So what is the major contributor that drives the value for groups to take the next step? Relationship, relationship, relationship! This is driven by the voices talked about in point 5. The bottom line, the higher the relationship with your group leader, the higher possibility they will continue!
  8. Party, party, party! Celebrate your leaders. At Saddleback Church, towards the end of a Campaign or at strategic times during the year, we honor our HOSTs. This year we are having a lunch and giving them the soundtrack to the new History channel series on the Bible. We will gather our HOSTs together for appreciation, vision of what’s ahead and a time for them to bring people who also help them (for us this is recruitment!). Gratitude is the fuel for motivation for your people to continue! Churches tend to be good at recruiting, but lousy at appreciating! Don’t miss this ingredient for retention!

My challenge is just like your challenge, how do we keep the groups we start? The size and scope may be different, but the issues are the same. I hope our learnings have helped you. Please share your learnings on the comments section below.

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.