Building a Small Group Story Brand – Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I wrote about how I discovered that our Small Group system was trying to solve the wrong problem based on the Storybrand framework developed by Donald Miller. In this post I want to show you how we went about identifying our current problem (which we were not solving) and to identify the problem we needed to solve going forward.

The 2 Problems that Small Groups wrestle with

As I finished up chapter 5 of Building a Story Brand I immediately began wrestling with the material that was presented. In this chapter, Miller talked about the key to the entire Storybrand framework which was ‘the problem’. As I began to think about ‘a problem’ and ‘the solution’ that we were offering. it dawned on me that most Small Groups are trying to solve one of two problems. The first problem is community. We know that people feel isolated and alone in and off themselves and if they can join with others, it will unlock their desire to be known and loved. The second problem is discipleship. We are all broken and sinful people by nature. It is only when we accept Jesus Christ as our savior and begin to follow him as a disciple can we begin to take steps to work on the shortcoming of our life. If these problems sound familiar, it’s because they are the same problems that many people who lead Small Groups have wrestled with. This was not unique to our situation. What was unique was that the people who attend our church and live in our area did not identify with the problem we were trying to solve.

Houston, we have a problem

Our church is located in the suburbs of Houston, TX. Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and is ranked as the most diverse city in America. The communities surrounding our church are filled with what are known as ‘master-planned communities’. These are housing communities surrounded by parks, shopping, recreation, and schools so that you never have to leave your neighborhood to get what you need. As a result you get to know your neighbors and the people who live around you pretty well. Also as a result of the diversity of our city, many people of the same ethnic group and culture will seek out and build relationship with each other. Here in lies our problem. We had been presenting the problem to our community as they were lonely and needed to make friends with other people. Our community was telling us through their lack of response that they did not have a community problem. Our community had a discipleship problem.

Settling on the right problem

There is was! The problem that we needed to solve going forward. Once we were able to flesh this out, some pretty amazing things started happening. People were coming up to us and telling us about their desire to ‘grow deeper’. Leaders where catching us in the halls and tells us they were feeling the pull of God to lead a ‘deeper kind of Small Group’. Our leadership team was expressing their vision for our ministry to include ‘preparing and equipping people to be disciples’. It’s no coincidence that all this was taking place because we had correctly identified the right problem our groups needed to solve.

Where do we go from here?

Were far from done! In fact, we haven’t even started taking our first steps as a ministry yet. So you might be reading this and you are asking yourself “how can I learn from what you did’? Great question! Here are my list of recommendations:

  • Buy a copy of Building a Story Brand and read it with your Small Group team. If you are flying solo, buy the book and start taking notes.
  • Engage in conversations with the people at your church. Ask them ‘why’ they are in a small group? Or the inverse ask them why they are not in small group?
  • Take time to really process through the idea of your message and are the people at your church listening. Have you been offering groups for some time now, but you are not seeing any growth in engagement? This might be a sign that your message is not connecting.
  • Engage with me others about what you are processing. If you are going through this with a team, schedule time to talk and debrief together. If you are flying solo, feel free to email me and I will be glad to engage in dialogue with you.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Donald Miller for his book and for helping our church think through our message. My prayer is that it will also be a source of encouragement and clarity for you as you look to engage your church in being in a Small Group.


Building a Small Group Story Brand – Part 1

A few weeks ago I purchased a copy of Donald Miller’s new book ‘Building a Story Brand‘ because I saw that others on social media where recommending it. Selfishly the reason for my purchase was to check off a goal for the year of reading a certain number of books, but once I got into it, I found it was so much more. I was recently asked to share what I discovered from reading this book and I will attempt to do so in this post. Stick with me because I will have to lay some ground work, but I hope to show you when I am finished that this book is a must read for Small Group pastor’s and point people.

Why aren’t people joining?

As I was looking through Amazon and social media to purchase a book that would get me to fulfilling my goal, I ran across this new book by Donald Miller. I had heard Donald speak at Catalyst Cincinnati in 2016 on this very subject and I was very interested in hearing more about it. The thing that sold me on the purchase and the thing that makes this book so important is the subtitle ‘Clarifying your message so Customers Will listen’. At the same time as I was preparing to purchase the book, our Small Groups team had been making plans for 2018. We also had been looking at numbers and outcomes from 2017 and began to ask the question ‘why aren’t more people joining a Small Group?’

I began looking at our message ‘Join a Small Group’ through the lens of Miller’s StoryBrand framework. In this framework (which he describes in the book) the goal is to take your company, organization, product, etc and look at it through the lens of a story. Every story, Miller writes, follows a predictable pattern and includes a hero and a guide. The hero (the customer) has a problem that they must solve and needs the assistance of a guide (that’s you!) to help them. I immediately resonated with the members of our church being the hero and our Small Groups being the guide in the story, but I became stuck on the problem. I was convinced that we were trying to solve the wrong problem.

Identifying the problem

In our marketing and the language that we had been using about Small Groups, we had gravitated to using phrases like ‘join a Small Group because it is the place that you are going to meet and make friends’ and this was falling on deaf ears. What I had identified through Miller’s Storyboard framework was that we had been trying to solve the wrong problem. Our ‘customers’ did not want to ‘buy’ the solution we were selling by joining a Small Group.

To often in our approach to encouraging people to join a Small Group we fail to answer the crucial question of ‘why’. Just like the consumer at the store choosing between buying product A & B, we need to give them a convincing reason to buy what we are selling. With so many forces and factors in play for the people in our churches time and attention, ‘we have to speak to the parts of their brain that make it easy for them to digest’.

Survive & Thrive

In pages 6-7 of Building a Story Brand, Miller relates a conversation that he had with Mike McHargue about how the human brain processes information. Reckoning back to our first class in Psychology 101, McHargue re-acquaints us with Abraham Maslow. If you need a refresher, Maslow said that there was a pyramid that built on each other and it all centered on fulfilling certain needs and our brains are ‘wired’ to do this without a second thought. The first of these needs being survival. Then it is safety. Then our brains turn to relationships and once our relationships are taken care of, then it turns it attention to ‘pursuing a greater sense of meaning’.

The problem we encounter is that our message to our customers does not meet the framework that our simple brains are trying to pursue–survive and thrive. As a result it is ignored. This was our reality. We had failed to understand what message need to be communicated to people so they would, at a subconscious level, want to buy our product.

So what did they want to buy? How could we reframe our message to better communicate the problem they need us to solve?

In part 2, I will diagram how we went about identifying our current problem (which we were not solving) to identifying the problem we needed to solve going forward.

An Essay on Community from a Chipotle Drink Cup

CultivatingThought2Cups_Kingsolver02I was eating lunch yesterday at Chipotle with my family and I happened to notice this short essay on my drink cup. It’s from an author named Barbara Kingsolver and it is apart of a series of writing called Cultivating Thought. Here is what she wrote,


The ancient human social construct that once was common in this land was called community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Mumbai. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess, there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs.

The happiest people are the ones with the most community.

In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.

Many people will read this essay and agree with the author’s general point. The world is not what it was. The simpler times that we once knew are no more and many of us long to return to them. While I agree that the picture that the author paints is of a time and place that I can remember in some aspects. What I take away from this essay is the last line.

“The happiest people are the ones with the most community.”

The people who I know who feel the most happiness in this life are the ones who choose to spend it with other people. To let other people into our lives and walk with us is one of
the smartest and at the same time one of the most humble things we can do. As a Small Group Pastor I have seen firsthand the power of this played out in the lives of the people who I pastor and also in my own life.

The world is desperately in need of community! Not the kind of fake, I know you online but have no clue what happens in your life from Monday-Friday kind of community! Invite others into your life. Make lunch and coffee appointments with someone and watch your level of happiness rise. We were never made to make this journey alone! Seek out the happiness you may be missing by connecting with other people around a table, sharing a meal, and enjoying the blessing of community.

A response to ‘2 unintended consequences of the idea that “anyone can lead a group”

Last week Eric Geiger wrote a post on his blog in which he talked about two of the ‘unintended consequences’ that have come out of the method that some churches use like Saddleback of recruiting people to be hosts for their small groups. There are many churches, because of their size, that need to recruit a lot of leaders and they have adopted a pragmatic philosophy that in order to lead a small group you do not have to be super spiritual, or posses a Bible College degree. You simply have to be open to leading and have a growing relationship with God. Geiger says that this creates an identity crisis because you are asking them to fill a role of leadership when they are not fit or ready to lead because you have not asked them to be a leader but a host. I would disagree with Geiger that ‘not just “anyone” can lead them. If “anyone” can lead them, then the groups cannot possibly be expected to provide nurture and community that is rooted in the Word’. Have we not moved beyond the battles of clergy and laity? Must these people be in full-time ministry to lead a small group? or pray? Or provide accountability? I think we would all agree that anyone can do these things and can be trained to do them. Maybe it is merrily and argument of semantics but in my view a leader and a host are not that much different but it ultimately comes down to what is the church asking these people to do in the role they are recruiting them to? If we are asking them to just host some people and not provide any leadership then it incorrect to call them leaders. But say we call them ‘hosts’ and we train them to do all the things a leader does, should it matter that they are called a ‘host’? I think the bottom line is we have to be clear in explaining the role we are recruiting people to volunteer for and if it is a leadership role then we need to have a process of leadership development in place to train people to lead others. Geiger’s second point is in my opinion akin to stereotyping and name calling. If the goal is that people are getting into community (which he admits is good) is it fair to criticize their method for doing so? While I agree with his premise that just because you can place play on DVD player does not mean you are disciplining people. I would not label any church that is using this method as “consumerist’.  This sort of pontificating and broad-stroke stereotyping is exactly what we are not called to do as believers. I would suggest that instead of criticizing their method that we challenge them to consider how they will use their method to ‘make disciples’ and if they cannot give a good answer to sit down with them and help create a plan for making it happen. FInally, blogs of this kind make for good copy but in the end all they end of doing is create more disunity. This post contains no suggestions or action items for church who are using this system to be challenged to examine whether they are being effective. Is it just one person taking a shot at an entire system and that to me is sad. My prayer is that we can just agree that people need community! People need to be discipled and we rally around how to see that happen and not criticize the methods that we employ to do it.

The Remaining Key Traits for a Small Groups Pastor – Part 7 of the Changing Nature of the Small Group Pastor’s Role

change-ahead-hrYesterday I described what I believe to be two of the four ‘core competencies’ that are needed to be a successful Small Groups Pastor. Today I will give you the remaining two.

3) Strategic Orientation

Intellectual curiosity supplied the trait to ask the ‘why’ question and strategic orientation takes the knowledge gained into how to fix the problem. When this is applied to Small Groups, it enables the point leader for groups to align vision with a strategy for accomplishing that vision. Of all the competencies that have been discussed, this one area is the most crucial to being successful as a Small Groups Pastor. Donahue and Robinson speak to this fact when they write[1] ‘Due to the decentralized nature of a groups ministry, creating a “together outcome” from independent leaders who are being empowered to shepherd their little flocks requires a point leader with a strategic orientation competency.’

From my experience, this one area is where group’s ministry is seeing the biggest change. When churches are small and their group system is only reaching 10% – 40% of their average attendance, the groups pastor or point person can afford to not be strategic because the system that is being used is not exceeding the parameters of what it was intended. When a church starts to reach and average attendance of between 500 – 1000 people a week and their groups ministry begins to average 50% – 75% involvement in groups, then that pastor will be forced to take a look at whatever system is in place and begin to evaluate the whole lot. This is because the existing small groups ‘system’ will have or will shortly be exceeding it’s intended parameters. This is where having a strategic orientation is crucial because it allows the groups pastor to look at the entire system and ask the crucial question of ‘how are we going to get from here to there’?

4) ‘Others Focus’

In the business world this would be known as a ‘customer service orientation’ but in world of ministry it is being able to look at every program, decision, initiative, or announcement through the eyes of the people who it affects; the church congregation. Because small group ministry is very decentralized, it is easy to lose touch with people when making a policy change or decision. This competency keeps the groups pastor from making a decision without first considering how it will affect the ‘average Joe” attending a particular group.


Question: If you were making a list of the key traits that are needed to be a Small Group Pastor, what would you include?





[1] Donahue, Bill & Robinson, Russ. Building a Life-Changing Small Group Ministry. (2012).

The Key Traits for a Small Group Pastor – Part 6 of the Changing Nature of the Small Group Pastor’s Role

Core competencies have their roots in the business world and where first introduced in 1990 change-ahead-hrby the Harvard Business Review. They have since been developed and applied to the hiring practices of both for-profit and non-profit companies as they began to learn about the ‘type’ of person that was needed to be successful in a particular role. When it comes to the small group champion or pastor of a church, there are at least four that Donahue & Robinson believe must be present in order for that individual to be successful in their role. (I am going to list 2 today and 2 tomorrow)

1) Conceptual thinking

This is the ability to pinpoint the problem in what is otherwise a chain of seemingly unrelated and amorphous experiences. It allows the groups pastor the ability to focus, with laser precision, on the one issue or problem that is preventing their ministry from growing. This person will always say that they know what to do, even when no one else on the team does!

This skill is crucial as a ministry becomes larger and more complex. Without the ability to quickly analyze what is happening and quickly paint a picture of what is needed to ‘fix the problem’ a small group ministry could be crippled without this skill set. Ministry often does not lend itself to acquiring this type of competency which is why many churches are hiring staff from out of the business world where they had a much greater exposure and awareness of how this skill set is used a leadership position.

2) Intellectual Curiosity

The intellectually curious always begin with the question of ‘why’ and in the case of a Small Group Pastor they are also on a quest to understand how things are going now so that they can be made better in the future. This trait is most evident in the person who is never satisfied with the ‘first answer’ but will continue to ask the question until they are satisfied with the outcome or response. While understanding the outcomes has its place, in this trait the ability to ‘keep mining’ for answers is what is most important.

If the trait of intellectual curiosity is absent, as is the case in many leaders and ministries, it will fall into ‘predictable patterns’ and plateau. Conversely, By never standing pat and always pushing to answer the ‘why’ question, the small group pastor is constantly digging for answers that will lead him or her into making changes to the structure or philosophy which will propel the ministry to break whatever barrier is in front of them.


Question: What experience do you have with seeing these two competencies in action as part of your Small Group ministry?

The Gifting of a Small Group Pastor – Part 5 of the Changing Nature of the Small Group Pastor’s Role

change-ahead-hrBill Donahue & Russ Robinson wrote in their book “Building a Life-Changing Small Group Ministry” that they believe there are two essential Spiritual Gifts that must be present in the Small Group point person: Leadership & Administration[1]. A point person for small groups with the gift of leadership is able to motivate and paint a picture of the church of the urgency of small group ministry. The gift of leadership is crucial to the church in fulfilling it’s potential to be a church of small groups and not just a church with small group because of the vision component of this gift and its ability to ‘rally’ others to a cause. The administration gift, which at first seems out-of-place in a ministry such as small groups, is crucial for the small group point person. Whereas the leadership gift will get a church excited and motivated to get into small groups at the onset, it will be the gift of administration that will allow the ministry to continue over the long haul. Donahue & Robinson rightly observe[2] about the importance of the gift of administration,

The gift of administration is essential for the small group champion because of the nature of the ministry. The requirements of structuring small group ministry, making tactical decisions, and organizing the support systems demand something more than just a leadership gift. When a gifted leader can exercise great management capabilities, small group ministry will flourish, season after season, as an expanding network of communities that meets needs, develops disciples, and strengthen the fabric of relationships with the church. Everybody gets the benefit of a strong infrastructure, so their efforts become easier due to how it all fits together.

 Filling this role on a church staff with a candidate who possess these characteristics can be a challenge. Many churches have opted instead to build a ‘team’ of people who each posses each of the individual gifts (leadership, administration, shepherding) so that collectively they can accomplish the mission of their respective ministry. Still others have ignored gifting completely and just tried to find to fill the role with a person who was maybe passionate about small groups but really did not have the right make-up for the role.

Question: what gifting is ideal or essential for someone to be a good Small Group Pastor?


[1]  Donahue, Bill & Robinson, Russ. Building a Life-Changing Small Group Ministry. (2012). 50.

[2] ibid.

How did we get here? – Part 2 of the Changing Nature of the Small Group Pastor’s Role

change-ahead-hrIn the early days of small groups ministry, much of its structure and organization was borrowed from the ‘Sunday-school’ model.’ The Sunday-school teacher became the small group leader and the Sunday-school Superintendent became the de-facto small group pastor. If the church was fortunate to have a Minister or Pastor of Education on their staff then they may step into this new role of the Small Group Pastor, otherwise the Sunday-School Superintendent, who was usually a volunteer, would left to assume the leadership of this new system. This approach was functional for a small group system of 1 – 125 people, as it does not fall outside of the person at the top’s ‘span of care’ which, at it’s limit, would be 10 leaders with 12 people in them. Using these parameters still factors in a highly organized person who can ‘coach’ ten leaders at one time but the more realistic number is one pastor coaching 3 -5 leaders.

Under this system, small group ministry largely flourished, as the organizational ability of the Small Group Pastor was never pushed to a point where they were forced to address the problem of ‘span of care’ on a large-scale. This all changed in 1991 when Carl George published his first book ‘Prepare Your Church for the Future’ which introduced the concept of the ‘Meta-Model’. Using this model, churches like Willow Creek, Saddleback, and The Cincinnati Vineyard have been able to establish an effective group’s system that can accommodate more than 16,000 in weekly attendance[1]. This was a game changer for the small group ministry system because for the first time, the Small Group Pastor had to grapple with ‘span of care’ challenges that where beyond his individual ability to handle. For the relational gifted Small Group Pastor, this would provide a major challenge and would cause most of them to shrink away from wanting to grow beyond their ability to provide coaching to the leaders under their care. But for the systems thinking Small Groups Pastor, the prospect of a large ministry that exceeded their own abilities was obviously viewed as a challenge but was not a prospect that they would not throw themselves into taming. This was due to the fact that they would approach this challenge by relying on their ability to think and organize in systems whereas the relational small group pastor would feel utterly lost and unable to design such a system. Thus we see the shift in role of the Small Group Pastor as more churches are eclipsing the 1,000-member mark and becoming classified as a ‘mega-church.’

At what point do you think a Small Group system requires someone with an organizational and systems mindset needs to be hired to be a part of the leadership?


[1] George, Carl. The Coming Church Revolution. (1994). 9-10

The Changing Nature of the Small Group Pastor’s Role – Part 1

I can rememberchange-ahead-hrer it very clearly now; the plan!    I was going to graduate from Bible College       and become a youth pastor, but something   happened along the way. I discovered that   students are messy and do not fit into my type ‘A’ personality. I was then left to figure out what ‘career path’ I was left to follow. I considered preaching & teaching but soon     discovered that I was not particularly gifted at   it so I was left to consider children’s   ministry, which like student ministry, I knew that I was not cut out for. Music ministry was out because I am in no way a musician! So what was left? About this same time, I became exposed to something new for me, which was the area of small group ministry, and I was immediately captivated by it! As I gained more and more exposure to small groups ministry, I soon discovered that my personality, gifting, and overall approach to ministry was a perfect fit for this type of ministry.

Fast forward a few years and I was now firmly settled into my role as a small group pastor at a large church, and I began to notice an interesting dynamic. Most of the guys that I knew personally where wired almost exactly the same way that I was and they were having tremendous success in their ministry. When I compare this to what many people view the role of the typical small group pastor to be, I began to see a bit of a disconnect. This is due in large part to both a misunderstanding on the part of people in churches with small groups and also on the part of many students in our seminaries who are training to become a small group pastor.

I contend that the role of small group pastor is changing! The days when the typical small group pastor could spend his days at his favorite coffee shop and fill his calendar with ‘face-to-face’ meeting with his leaders will have to be replaced with strategy sessions over organizational charts and refining small group systems. In short, the days of the relational small group pastor are coming to an end and the rise of systems thinking, operations based pastor is already taking place and the churches that are realizing this and hiring this skill set are winning at small groups and the remainder are being left behind.

What is your experience with the personality makeup of a successful small groups pastor? Are we seeing the end of the relational focused small groups pastor?