There’s a special magic to pastoring a small church. Yes, it's hard. Yes, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Yes, you feel like you’re doing without the staff support you need. The magic is sharing your passion for God’s kingdom, your church’s cultural DNA, and beliefs in the discipleship process into each member of your church. You know them. They know you. Many pastors of growing churches mourn the loss of those early days, lamenting how they now lead churches full of people they barely know. Small groups have historically provided a way for growing churches to "stay small." And small groups are great for relationship-building and support! The difficulty is discipleship and mentoring are harder to make happen within a small group, because it's dependent on the leader of each small group.

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The last church I worked for found a creative solution to this problem: pastor-led mentoring groups. It worked like this: every pastor at the church recruited 8-12 people every August to be in a group called a “huddle.” The group would meet three times a month for nine months, and members were called to a high-level of commitment. The phrase often used was “if you’re in town, you’re at the huddle.” In exchange, the pastor would pour everything they had into this group. There was a loose curriculum each pastor used that consisted of three sections: Discipleship 101 (How do you read the Bible? How do you pray? Why do we worship, etc.), Church DNA (What are the values of our church and how do we express those? What do we expect of our leaders), and both big picture and practical leadership training (What are your Strengthsfinder results? How do you lead a small group?) Each pastor had room to tweak the order and content, and there were weeks designated for pastors to create their own topics.

The point is less about the specific content and more about the intentionality. As this church grew larger, our pastors were continually making it smaller through these well-organized, highly-relational groups. Truthfully, the “how” of this is easy. The biggest obstacle is time: it requires a once-a-week commitment in a pastor’s schedule that is already packed. However, I would argue these sort of pastor-led mentoring groups are THE most strategic and personally energizing investment a pastor can make in the life of their church. Here are three reasons why:

1. Pastor-led Mentoring Groups Combat Mission Drift

One of the biggest challenges growing churches face is mission drift. More people create more needs, which creates more ministries, which creates more staff, and on it goes. The more complex an organization is, the easier it is to lose focus. Most churches start with a laser-focus on who they are and what they do, but when 100 things compete for the church’s attention, these core values get lost.

Pastor-led mentoring groups fight mission drift by allowing you (or your fellow pastors) to instill the core DNA of your church in each attendee. What are the 3-5 core values of your church? You can spend as many weeks as needed on each of them! You can structure the entire 9 months around those values! The key is you are discipling and training your people around your church’s mission. There’s no better cure to mission drift.

2. Pastor-led Mentoring Groups Recruit and Build Buy-in With Volunteers

I have yet to hear a pastor say “you know what, we’re actually pretty good on volunteers at the moment.” If they did, their children’s pastor might strangle them.

Churches are always looking not just for warm bodies, but committed reliable volunteers, a pastor-led mentoring group is a great way to find and form these volunteers. You’ve probably noticed that when you do a church-wide call for volunteers, there’s a huge gap between those who sign-up and those who follow-through. And even then, many of those who go through training are pretty flaky with their commitments.

I’m convinced there’s a direct correlation between a good volunteer and their relational connection to a pastor. Volunteers who are more than cogs in a machine, who feel known, loved, and invested in by a pastor, are the ones who show up on time, give their best, and stick for the long haul.

In pastor-led mentoring groups a pastor has nine months to invest in a small group of people. On the other side of that they know each person’s name, have spoken in to their lives, have pastorally counseled them, and in some cases have formed a friendship with them. There’s simply no replacing the value of this in creating all-star volunteers.

3. Pastor-led mentoring groups keep pastors in the ministry trenches

As churches grow, a pastor’s job seemingly becomes less about pastoring and more about visioning, delegating, staff-leading, budget-allocating, preaching, email-answering, and reporting to the elders. What’s lost in this is the very thing that drew pastors to ministry in the first place: discipling people and watching them fall in love with Jesus.

It is absolutely vital that pastors never stop pastoring. I’m convinced some of the biggest ministry failures we see happen come from pastors so immersed in the pressure of leading, they no longer have time for those magical, holy moments where God moves, and you watch someone understand Christ’s love for the first time, or see someone find freedom from their past. These are the moments that remind pastors why they’re doing what they’re doing. These are the moments that refuel our pastoral tanks and keep us going another day.

Pastor-led mentoring groups create these moments regularly. They provide an excuse for pastors to disciple, train, and empower individuals, and then watch them enter into the life of the church.

Launching Well

One of the biggest reasons pastors give for not leading these mentoring groups is they are too busy. Not only is this not true strategically, what these pastors don’t understand is they’re passing up on what could easily become their favorite weekly meeting.

Time and Content

Pastor-led mentoring groups start with setting a time and forming a curriculum. As I discussed in the previous article, a good curriculum centers around three areas: basic discipleship, church DNA, and leadership principles. Basic discipleship could cover everything from basic info about God, to prayer, to Bible reading, to tithing, to worship. Core DNA has to do with the key factors that make your church unique. Leadership principles could include everything from personality tests (spiritual gifts, StrengthsFinder, Enneagram, Myers-Briggs) to boots on the ground lessons about how to lead a small group, how to navigate conflict, when to contact a pastor, or any other leadership principles.

How long the group goes is up to you, but I would recommend going for longer than you’d probably think. Groups I have led met for three weeks a month (with one week off), taking all of December off for the holidays, and 15-18 weeks of content. My groups would start in August and end sometime in May.

The goal of meeting this long is to build a genuine, relational connection between the pastor and the group attendees. The hope is for the group to get comfortable being vulnerable around each other, and for a shared life to occur. Each group is different, but I had one group bond so strongly they started a group text and stayed friends well-after we were done. Nearly all of them, unsurprisingly, became core leaders in my ministry.

Who to recruit

First, pray that God would show you who to recruit. Look for people who stand out on the weekend, even if you don’t know why. Think through brief conversations you’ve had, or people you know have leadership potential but aren’t leading. Don’t limit this to spiritual mature people—this group could be a place to disciple a new believer.

Second, set the commitment bar high. Tell people up front “I’m committing to give the next ___ months of my life to you, in exchange I’m asking you to make this group one of your highest commitments.” I also would tell people up front that there was an expectation of increased leadership in the church once the group finished.

The end goal

If you are leading a church staff, there’s no reason each pastor on your staff can’t lead a group as well. After you’ve established your curriculum, take all your pastors through it. When I was taught this my pastor did three days spread out over a few months. Each day we did a crash course through the curriculum, and by the end we could take everything we had learned and make it our own.

Say you have three pastors inviting 10 people into their huddle once a year. That’s 30 volunteers a year who know a pastor, have been trained and discipled, and who feel a deep, relational sense of buy-in to the church’s mission.

That is simply irreplaceable, and why I believe pastor-led mentoring groups are the single-most effective leadership tool a pastor can develop.

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