We are blessed to own an older single-family home in a lovely suburb in Ottawa, Ontario. On the surface, it truly is a beautiful place to raise our family. On the outside, everything looks perfect.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It isn’t. This home was built in 1970, and over time the previous owners completed several major and minor renovations. Their work presents an interesting challenge because while everything might look great, you never know what you will find underneath the surface.
Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, we experienced issues along an exterior wall where ice would build up on the floor during winter.
Ice. Inside. On the floor.
I’m not kidding.
When the ice thawed, it created moisture which, in turn, caused mould to grow. So we decided to fix it. The plan was to pull the drywall off, identify the issue, add insulation and build some shelves.
Simple right? Nope.
Once the drywall came down, I encountered several significant issues (electrical, framing, insulation etc.) that extended the project into weeks instead of days.
It was a learning experience for me. Here’s the thing. The more projects I complete, the more I learn, and those lessons have been invaluable as I navigate new projects.
The Challenges of Small Group Ministry
Does building, changing or expanding a small group ministry feel like that to you? Whether you are walking into an existing system with the task of renovating or charged with building one from scratch, you can often face significant challenges that, on the surface, weren’t apparent. Still, once you get into it, surprises await.
Perhaps you’ve said, “I wish I had known.”
I know, over the past three years, I have said those words as I worked towards rebuilding my church’s small group ministry.
During that time, I learned several important lessons.
My Top Five
1 – It Will Always Take Longer Than You Think
This one caught me off guard. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
When I started building our group ministry, I thought I could finish everything (vision, pathways, systems, training, resources etc.) in a few months. And so, I launched a public campaign that had people sign up to express their interest in being part of what we were building. It was exciting!
After a few months, I realized that the original targets were impossible and unrealistic. An anticipated few months became over a year and the constant delays were difficult to manage.
I am proud of where we have arrived at in our ministry but because of my earlier miscalculations, I had to do “damage control” with those left waiting in the cue for far longer than they expected.
Always plan for more time than you think.
2 – You Cannot Do It Alone
I mean, you CAN, but you shouldn’t.
We can become so focused on connecting with others that we forget or sacrifice our created need for connection. The most valuable thing for me over the past three years has been getting in a room with others passionate about small groups and engaged in the same work as me.
The most life-giving moments have been hearing others express emotions, challenges and frustrations, that I thought were unique to me.
Satan has such a knack for convincing us that we are alone in what we are experiencing, doesn’t he?
3 – Expect Pushback
When you finally launch your small group ministry or project expect comments, emails or feedback that will be difficult to read or hear.
Not everyone is going to like, agree with or appreciate the direction you are heading. It won’t matter how much you’ve prayed, or planned, or prepared. It won’t matter how excited you are.
They will make sure you know they disagree. If you are not ready, their words can feel like a gut punch from a rhino.
So, how can you prepare?
- Save encouraging messages you receive and read them when you feel discouraged or defeated.
- Connect with others walking the same path (see #2) and remind yourself you are not alone.
- Use the pushback as an opportunity for growth rather than a vehicle for discouragement.
- Remain confident in your calling; you were led to where you are on purpose for a purpose, don’t forget that.
4 – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Others
Did you know that you are not the first one to do what you are doing? Yup. It’s true. There are others who have gone down the road you are now on before.
Including their voices in your journey is imperative to your small group ministry’s growth. Leveraging the learning and experience that these individuals bring to the table is an invaluable tool.
But most of us never access this tool because we don’t ask. I know I didn’t; until I did.
One day, in a particularly discouraging moment, I decided to reach out. I contacted several people running ministries at churches that I looked up to, leaders that I admired and respected. Whose books shaped my thinking.
Honestly, I didn’t expect a response, but guess what? Most of the leaders responded with a willingness to share what they had learned. They also made space to listen to me share my hopes, challenges and dreams. They allowed me to ask the many questions that had become roadblocks to what I was building. And one leader even offered to read over all of my draft material.
It was like drinking from a firehose. And it was simply because I had asked.
5 – Trust God to Do What Only He Can Do
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul addresses an argument causing division among followers in the church in Corinth. They were fighting over who was the best: Paul or Apollos. They drew lines in the sand and declared their allegiances.
In this environment, Paul walks in and says, “So who is Apollos really? Or Paul for that matter? We are only servants…”. Later, he drives this point home, saying, “…so the ones who water and plant have nothing to brag about. God, who causes the growth, is the only One who matters.”
Remember this: It is God who causes the growth to happen.
In the same way, you would plant a seed in the soil and then patiently wait for it to sprout. Be patient and trust God to do what he has promised to do when building your small group ministry. This was not easy for me but has been, perhaps, the most important of lessons.
Work hard to create the conditions for the growth that you desire to see. And when the inevitable waiting period comes – that gap between the planting and the growth – don’t be discouraged.
In that liminal space, surrender your feelings of failure, your burdens and self-judgement. Believe in the God of growth and celebrate that he has called us to participate in this Kingdom-building exercise. Trust that even though it may not be evident at first glance, God is working.