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Long-Term Versus Short-Term Success in Small Group Ministry

By Joel Comiskey

Spring 2004. Appeared in Small Group Networks.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells people to “live life with the end in view.” Covey counsels a person to imagine what others would say at his or her funeral and then to live a life that would fulfill those compliments.

Successful small group ministry is like running a marathon and not a 50-yard dash. It thrives when the end is kept in view.

In contrast, several programs/campaigns on the market today promote the 50-yard dash style of small group ministry. The fast, immediate proliferation of small groups—without much leadership training, coaching, or in-depth infrastructure planning--is promoted. I’ve heard reports of churches that have been “transformed” overnight by reading a book and getting people to open their homes to study the book.

I’m all for success in small group ministry, yet years of helping churches achieve that success stirs me to think long-term. I do want to rejoice in all small group victories, but I also want to continue rejoicing over the long haul.

I’ve personally failed in small group ministry by promoting rapid multiplication at the expense of a strong infrastructure. Many of my groups fizzled out as a result. Through my failures I’ve arrived at the conclusion that steady, long-term victories are far better than quick ones.

So what does starting with the end in view look like for small group ministry?

First, it means having a strong coaching structure in place.

I counsel leaders not to start more small groups than the church can adequately coach. I suggest a ratio of one coach for every three groups. Jim Egli , Ph.D., researched small group churches around the world and discovered that coaching was the key element for assuring long-term small group success. Egli did his research among 3,000 small group leaders in 20 different countries and discovered that great small group based churches prioritize prayer, practice pro-active coaching, and establish a culture of multiplication. Yet, when all three were analyzed together, coaching was the key factor. Small group leaders must have personal care and attention if they’re going to survive over the long haul. Some churches only provide general huddle meetings in the church. This can be helpful but only when combined with one-on-one coaching, or one-on-three coaching. My book How to be a Great Cell Group Coach goes into much more detail.

Second, those churches that make it over the long haul prepare future leaders through a well-planned training track.

Some churches start groups with untrained leaders by simply asking for a show of hands of those who want to start groups. While this might give immediate results, research shows that the training of future small group leaders is paramount to long-term success. It’s the idea of keeping the end in view—what the small group ministry will look like five years from now, rather than one week from now.

Third, churches should have a long term strategy for making small group ministry the foundation/base of the church.

To make small groups work over the long haul, small group leaders need to know their ministry fulfills the very essence of what the church is about—not just one of the many programs.

With these three foundational pieces in mind, short-term campaigns for opening small groups might occasionally provide a needed jump-start. Successful small group ministries, however, realize that campaign-driven small group programs have limited value. They understand that long-term success involves intimate coaching, well-trained leaders, and making small groups the priority in the church.

One of the pastors I’m coaching shared an illustration of planting tomatoes versus a coconut tree. The tomato plant grows quickly and provides immediate results, but it dies at the end of one year and needs to be replanted. The coconut tree, on the other hand, is planted only once, but it lasts for a lifetime. “I want to plant a coconut tree,” the pastor said to me. “I want to prepare myself and my church for long term success in small group ministry.”

I encourage leaders to opt for the coconut tree style of small group ministry. When they do, they discover long-term success and sustained growth over time.

Keep the end in view and your small group ministry will continue bearing fruit over the long haul.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book How to be a Great Cell Group Coach and Leadership Explosion (all about cell church training tracks). The book Cell Church Solutions covers all three aspects recommended above. Order HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.