Today I visited at length with a lay pastor in a church with 15 small groups. After the full time small groups pastor left a few months ago to become the lead pastor of a different church, he took over the role as a team leader. Along with five other lay leaders, they work with the 15 groups as coaches. The ratio is good... 2:5: Two coaches for every five groups.
The major issue this church is dealing with is group leader burnout. As I visited with him, some glaring roots of the problem came to light:
1. The leaders did not learn how to lead by watching and participating in a group before they were given a group of their own. They were quickly trained with cognitive classroom time and released to start a group or take group of people formed for them by the church. The blind leading the blind produces a lot of stress.
2. The members of the first groups were not brought through any sort of "boot camp" experience to understand the responsibilities associated with living in true biblical community. The leaders knew more though, which make them very stressed out when their group members don't live in community and help to carry the relational load of the group.
3. The church did not produce any sort of discipleship pathway toward spiritual maturity for small group members, so the bar was very low for group involvement. "Got a pulse and a free night during the week? That's all we'll ever ask from you! Join a group today." Leaders will always burn out when they feel personally responsible to help all the members of their group grow in Christ.
4. The leaders must choose and execute the use of their own curriculum. Sounds like a freedom, but it's better to have something from which to deviate than have nothing at all given to you. Coming up with a guide for each group meeting requires gifting and some developed skills. I personally possess the skills and ability to write powerful guides and it stresses me out when I have to come up with group guides week after week!
5. Congregational assimilation was the primary goal for the groups. (Read previous blog entries to view my rants about how bad of a primary objective this is and why). The members moved into groups, each with their own expectations, fears, and assumptions about what the group would do for them (notice I didn't write "what they could do for God and the group!) When everyone comes into a group with a personal agenda, the leader's at a distinct disadvantage and feels it in his or her gut right away.
6. Relational evangelism and personal transformation were hopeful goals, but not engineered into the first groups launched, nor was success measured by these things... so they are now absent from the groups. This turns leaders into babysitters vs. team leaders whose groups are doing something big for God. The first is not what they signed up for and not exciting enough to battle any stresses they may encounter along the way.
7. This church does not help their members get set free from satanic bondage. Without this value in place, the leaders must tolerate all sorts of negative behavior in members. (See my earlier blog entries for more about this if you like.)
Far too often, church leaders and staff members blame the individual leader for becoming burned out and think the root cause is a lack of delegation, prayer, planning, and raising up an apprentice. However, what I described above will quickly burn out a church's small group leaders even if they delegate like crazy and pray even more. You can slam your body into a wave, but you aren't going to stop it, can you?