In small groups

In small groups

John Truscott continues his series on working with volunteers – but with a special twist. Each article focuses on one area of church life where volunteers serve rather than looking at volunteering in general. The series is designed for all church leaders.

So far the series has covered worship services, church finance, church governance and project management. In this fifth article John considers those who lead or enable small groups within church life.

The word ‘volunteer’ brings two different ideas to mind. One is someone who offers to fulfil a role rather than being forced into it. The second is someone who receives no money to carry out a task as opposed to a person who is paid for the work. Churches of course depend on such people, in both meanings of the term.

Much is written on how to motivate and support volunteers and I train in this area myself. But in this series I want to experiment with a slightly different approach: starting with specific tasks within church life that require volunteers and seeing how that might affect our thinking. This time I examine the leadership of various types of small groups for discipleship or outreach.

The scope of this topic

The shape of a church’s small group structure will depend to a large extent on local decision-making and the size and style of ministry of the church in question. But for this article I have the following general roles in mind.

  • Small, adult discipleship groups for mutual support, prayer and study of the Scriptures. These have traditionally been known as ‘home groups’ but there are many other possible names. The balance between the three key roles I have identified will differ from church to church, but the idea of mutual support and encouragement should be a key factor. They normally meet on a week-night but some, usually for retired people, meet during the day.
  • Children’s and young teens’ groups for teaching and fun activity. These normally meet on a Sunday during main church services, but there may also be a week-night or Saturday activity. In larger churches they may be split into school years, but many smaller churches will have a wide age-range to manage in one group.
  • Groups for older teens with a more flexible programme involving discussion, activity, outings, study and prayer.
  • Outreach and beginners’ groups designed to teach and discuss the basics of the Christian faith and usually lasting for a fixed number of sessions. The purpose may be to run an Alpha, Christianity Explored or equivalent course, to offer instruction in baptism classes or, for Anglican churches, Confirmation classes, or to run a parenting course or a book club.
  • Groups set up to offer a discipleship element within a shared activity (such as for the church choir or music group, the leaders of a Messy Church activity, or similar). Meetings here may contain both what might happen in a normal home group but with the addition of time for planning or rehearsal for an activity.
  • Speaker meetings such as a monthly group for seniors where there is external input coupled with a meal or refreshments.

I am not including very small groups such as prayer triplets or one-to-ones.

Within these possibilities volunteers may have roles which can vary in terms of autonomy, authority, independence and frequency. For example, taking these four aspects in turn:

  • In some churches home groups devise their own programmes, but in others they are expected to follow a common syllabus chosen by the church’s leaders or Minister.
  • Some of the activities have clear leaders who decide on how the group will meet and lead the sessions, whereas others have people who are, in effect, co-ordinators and each member of the group will share responsibility for leading sessions and/or for hosting the meetings.
  • Some groups will operate on their own, but others are part of a structure where the leaders of each group form a team and meet regularly for support and communication.
  • Some children’s groups have the same volunteers involved week in, week out. Others operate on a rota system so that no leader, for example, has to commit to more than a monthly session. This means more people may offer to help, but creates problems of continuity and security for the children.

Applying four principles of volunteering

As in earlier articles I now take four principles of volunteering that are particularly relevant in this case. Teaching, or choice of visiting speakers, will be part of most of these roles. This raises issues of how much control the church will want to have over what is taught and who decides this. The following four principles reflect this in differing ways.

1: Selection criteria

There are some roles which require spiritual maturity, or which rely on specific aspects of character, or which require some theological understanding. In these cases ‘asking for volunteers’ can be asking for trouble if willing but unsuitable people put themselves forward.

Any role that involves Christian teaching or leadership should be included within this category, so any leadership position in a discipleship or evangelistic activity ought to be by selection rather than free offering.

A church that asks for volunteers to teach in its young people’s groups probably has more of an idea of keeping children occupied during a service than developing them into Christian disciples.

But what are the criteria for such selection? And how do you cope with a position you inherit where someone is well established in post but is clearly not suitable? This last point is not easy to handle in a volunteer culture where it is assumed that anyone who offers should be accepted and no one can ever be dismissed. Bringing in a more disciplined approach is a long-term process if a church is not to experience high-level conflict.

I cover criteria for leadership positions in my Training Notes TN87, What to look for in your leaders, but the requirements there are challenging. The notes may be found in the Resources section of my website.

There is also the issue of who makes the decision about whom to approach for roles of this kind. Depending on the denomination it might be elders, some form of small leadership body, Ministry Team, or Minister alone.

2: Control mechanisms

Following selection the church then needs to be clear on the level of control that the centre has (be that Minister, staff, Trustees or an eldership group of some kind) over the small group leader. Some volunteers are capable of wise decisions and are frustrated if placed in a structure resembling a strait-jacket. Others value some hand-holding and are quite content to follow orders.

There are churches where home or children’s groups can follow any programme they choose, and other churches where the syllabus is tightly controlled and leaders instructed in even how to lead each session within that syllabus.
Here are typical issues to consider.

  • Who decides on the teaching syllabus of the group (or the course material being followed, or the speakers to invite) and how much freedom does the group leader have to vary this?
  • Who decides on the purpose of the structure and the format and content of meetings – is there scope for creativity within an agreed set of values?
  • If a central programme is offered so that all the groups follow this, what action takes place if one leader decides to take their group onto a different course?
  • What if a leader shifts in their own beliefs and no longer agrees with the core doctrines of the church? What kind of initial agreement was set up to take situations like this into account?

Volunteers will not be under contract as a paid employee would be, but they can bring great value or serious harm to any enterprise by their actions. Micro-management may prevent people volunteering, but lack of any discipline can be more dangerous.

3: Recognition offered

This, it has to be said, is a common issue to consider for all volunteers but a tricky one to handle well in a Christian setting.

If we take the human element first, it is important to provide those who have paid a cost in terms of time and certain sacrifices with some form of recognition as a means of expressing gratitude. In an earlier article we looked at the value of a spoken expression of thanks but there are other means used in volunteering too such as being:

  • named with, perhaps, photograph on website or display boards;
  • presented with a certificate or badge in recognition of a number of sessions of service;
  • given a Christmas present of some kind;
  • offered an occasional party or outing;
  • noticed and thanked by whoever is in charge of the organisation;

and for a church, being:

  • included in lists for Sunday intercessions or any prayer diary;

If people serve but no one appears to take any notice of their service, they naturally become frustrated and feel they are providing little of value.

In a church context, this raises two areas of danger. First, Christians serve and, it can be argued, should not do this for human recognition but only to please the Lord Jesus Christ as part of their discipleship. Most Christians would be appalled at a church providing a list of those who had given to the church financially, and the giving of time and skill is not far removed from the giving of money.

Against this, in our example, would be the need to promote church groups or to offer them identity by listing them on a website or display board with the leader’s photograph included.

The second danger, common to every enterprise, is to show appreciation and hence value to some volunteers but not to others. So the young people’s group leaders have their names in lights whereas the cleaners or washer-uppers do not. It is easy to highlight leadership roles at the expense of behind-the-scenes service.

What is needed is some form of policy statement for how volunteer recognition is worked out throughout the church. The issue should, at least, be on the table.

4: Personal review

The concept of appraisal is common in employed staff management, but much rarer in volunteering. But if we see this not as a means of control but as a genuine attempt at enabling development in workers, it should be there, at least for leadership/teaching roles. Here I use the less emotive term ‘review’.

What you do not want is suddenly to thrust this idea on a volunteer: it needs to be a clear expectation as part of the challenge of the role. If applied well it should demonstrate that the church:

  • takes this leadership or teaching role seriously;
  • is committed to investing time and energy in each worker to help them develop;
  • aims to do it well for everyone’s benefit.

An annual review should take time to go through the past year with care, identifying lessons learned and noting what has gone well and what might have been done differently another time.

It should then move on to the future to discover what would help and support the volunteer by way of challenge, change in role, training, alterations to the way the church treats them, and so on.

The review should not just cover the role itself but the experience and gifting of the volunteer, their membership of any team and their relationship with whoever in church leadership is responsible for the groups they are part of. This is the time to reassess the vision for the groups in question.

A Christian leadership or teaching role within a church, even if held by a volunteer, comes close in feel to the kind of management that would be more normal for a paid position. There is also a need for the church to offer biblical teaching and prayer to support the worker, but I shall cover these vital points in a later article which will focus on the roles church volunteers play as Christian witnesses outside their own church’s boundaries.

John Truscott photoJOHN Truscott is an independent church consultant and trainer who champions the ministry of creative organisation. Visit his website and check out the Resources section for a growing range of over 150 items which you can print out and/or download. Note in particular the Management section page which includes working with volunteers. You can follow John on Twitter @johnnvtruscott. Church Administrators should join the UK Church Administrator Network (UCAN) at