Lots of small group ministries struggle because everyone in the ministry views it like this standard organizational chart:
Some senior pastors view the small group ministry like a dictator. It exists to serve them and their plans for the church's growth. Other senior pastors view the small group ministry like a hierarchy. They don't see the existence of the group as serving them, but they do view the groups as an extension of themselves, doing what they are unable to do alone from the pulpit. After all, God has given the senior pastor a vision for the local church and it must be accomplished through every ministry or all the ministries working together and working hard!
On the other side, the members are challenged to do something for and with God that they didn't discover themselves or from within themselves. The leader over their group knows what they should be doing because he or she has been told repeatedly the group should be productive and not passive. The coaches over the groups are more like supervisors, checking in from time to time on the leader, making sure they know what their group is supposed to be doing and to make sure they're not doing anything wrong.
No wonder the house church movement is the hot topic right now. People are tired of being told what to do as a tiny cog in some mega church pastor's clockworks.
While the hierarchal model is far better than the dictatorship when comparing the two alone, it still isn't the way a pastor should view his small group ministry nor should it be the paradigm out of which the small group members and leaders are operating (whether it's an accurate read of the pastor or not!)
Hierarchal small group ministries always struggle. No one likes to be told what to do and why they should be doing it, even if it's the right thing to do and everyone involved knows it. The better way to diagram a healthy church's small group ministry is this way:
In the second organizational chart, the missional thrust of the church is coming from the activity within the small groups. In response to their activities, they are coached by seasoned group leaders so they achieve their goals and more. The coaches are encouraged and supported by a small groups pastor, and the lead pastor maintains the mindset that he is in place to serve the groups as they do the work of ministry.
His sermons are designed to better equip the groups, not just the individual members. The weekend services are considered a gathering of small groups for celebration, not hundreds of individuals who gather for worship and may or may not be a member of a small group.
If a hierarchy exists in a healthly small group ministry, the power belongs to the small groups, not the pastor. He gently leads them to do the right thing by example, but they often surprise him with creative ways to fulfill the mission God has given the whole church, not just the pastor.
Years ago, my boss and I took 30 pastors and their spouses to Hong Kong for a missions gathering. Over half the group had never been out of the USA before. We gave everyone instructions to gather their belongings at baggage claim and wait for everyone else so we could exit the area together and get on our bus to the hotel.
Four couples grabbed their bags and shot out a set of automatic doors. Five or six others followed them, thinking they would miss the bus. Because the baggage claim area was huge and quite noisy, no amount of running or yelling could stop our bunch from going through those doors when they saw others from our group on the move.
My boss said, "Randall, those are our people. We are their leaders. We must follow them!"
Everyone in our group knew that on the other side of those doors was an amazing world-class city with lots of things to see and people to meet. They knew the bus would eventually show up too. And they were all headed in the right direction, but the leaders weren't at the head dragging them out the doors.
When a small group ministry is healthy and growing from the activity of the group members, it's not a game of follow the leader. The leaders follow the members and run interference when necessary.
Now I know what you're thinking. "I WISH my groups were so motivated that I could spend all my time chasing after them and help them make minor course corrections instead of motivating them to do ANYTHING besides eating snacks on Thursday nights!"
You know, it all boils down to discipleship. If you reach people for Christ and teach them that a mature Christian tithes, shows up regularly, and volunteers for ministry when asked, they'll view the small groups as a hierarchy. However, if you relationally disciple new Christians to see themselves as a missionary with a big mission to accomplish with God and other believers, you'll find yourself saying...
"Those are my people. I am their leader! I must follow them!"