Small groups are one of the best ways for students to belong to your youth ministry. They make a large ministry feel smaller and a smaller ministry feel more personal.
Among so many other things, small groups provide teenagers a space to be known, grow in their social skills, apply Scripture to their lives, open up about their life and practice vulnerability, and improve their listening skills. Of course a 6th grade guys’ small group (which I secretly would love to lead someday because those dudes are my fav!) and a senior girls’ group are radically different from one another, but that’s also part of the fun of it all! Small groups are the laboratory for holistic exploration, growth, and adolescent development.
For the better part of 20 years, I’ve been a student pastor so I’ve organized groups for the ministries I’ve lead, recruited and trained small group leaders, wrote and/or curated curriculum, and personally lead small groups myself. I’ve taught on the importance of small groups and oriented my ministries around creating places of connection for teenagers to grow in faith and life.
But for the last year, I’ve simply been a volunteer at my local church. No one has paid me to lead my 8th grade girls small group. I’ve sat on the other side of youth ministry as a volunteer and it’s provided an amazing opportunity to sit on the other side of small groups and figure out how do we cultivate better small groups for our students. Here are a few learnings that have impacted me in this role reversal…
Customize your leaders’ contribution.
As a pastor I didn’t always do a great job customizing leaders’ roles and responsibilities. All too often, I asked them all to do “x, y, and z”. I created position descriptions that were more cookie cutter and asked people to fill those roles. While it’s vital to ensure you’re covering your bases and being clear on what volunteers are doing, it’s also valuing to craft roles and responsibilities around people’s gifts, capacity, time availability, and experience. When I offered to volunteer at my church, John, our student pastor, did an amazing job keeping in mind all those things for my contribution. If he would’ve expected me to be there every week and fulfill a detailed list of responsibilities, I wouldn’t have been interested or even able to fulfill those expectations.
Train your leaders.
Even as a veteran leader, I need to be reminded of both basic facilitation skills and adolescent development. In our ministry’s monthly group leader meetings, we always have a portion of training mixed into the hour. Sometimes it’s a video from another youth ministry veteran and sometimes it’s guided conversation around our table. But it’s always intentional and thoughtful. When you don’t train your leaders, you are not raising the leadership level of your team. But when group leaders get better, students are discipled better and the entire ministry will benefit.
Send them the message overview and small group lesson at least 2-3 days before their group time and make it user friendly enough for the leader to prepare in 15-20 minutes. I also find it valuable when there’s a guide for me as a leader to “prepare my heart” for the passage or topic at hand. That allows me to personally engage in the content and lead from a spiritually engaged place.
Also, if you say you’re going to give small groups 30 minutes, give them 30 minutes for their group time! Don’t rob the group time because you’re unprepared and go 15 minutes over in the message. The message (or games or anything else) isn’t more important than group time. Be sure to honor that time or small group leaders will grow frustrated that their contribution isn’t as valued as another portion of the gathering.
Partner them up.
One of my favorite things about volunteering in my church is that I’m paired with another leader in our group. Together, Brittani and I share responsibility for our 8th grade girls. If one of us can’t be there, we know the other will cover the gap. While I know many ministries are struggling to even find one leader for every 7-10 students, I believe more leaders will commit to leadership when they know the weight of shepherding a group doesn’t fully fall on their shoulders.
This past Christmas, the student pastor at our church hosted a leader dinner after our middle school gathering and gave each of the 100+ small group leaders a devotional book that’s personally impacted him this past year. I love gifts but the most impressive part to me was his words. He took time in that meeting to publically affirm and bless us as leaders. Not only that, but he personally gave every leader a hand-written note of thanks that was included in our gift bags. I felt seen, honored, and recharged for the next semester ahead.
Volunteering is truly a privilege. When Jesus said his food was to do the work of the Father (John 4:34), I feel that nourishment every time I walk out of our middle school gathering. And it’s my prayer that all of us as volunteer leaders will shepherd our students with “skillful hands and integrity of heart” that King David prayed, as well (Psalm 78:72). Lead on, friends.