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How to be a Small Group Leader in 2021

Tom Shefchunas
Tom Shefchunas Friday February 26, 2021
<? echo $type; ?> How to be a Small Group Leader in 2021

Our whole world looks different than it did a year ago, and that means ministry looks different too. Due to Covid-19, all of our ministry programs shifted from in-person to online or socially distanced in the span of about seven days. Chances are your small group leaders had many questions like . . . 

  1. Is this really going to work?
  2. Is my group going to be okay?
  3. But mostly, as a leader, am I doing this right?

Here’s what’s true: Everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Teenagers may be showing up in-person a lot less, but the reality is, they were doing that even before the pandemic. And the role of a small group leader or a mentor in a kid’s life is still so incredibly important. A few years ago, we put together a book about what it means to be a great small group leader. It’s called Lead Small, and in it we unpack the five things great small group leaders do. How we apply these principles can be adapted, but what a kid needs from an adult stays the same. Here’s how we’re re-applying these timeless truths for a new reality.

BE PRESENT

No matter where you meet when you’re leading teenagers, the most important thing you can do for them each week is to choose to be present. Sure, we all prefer to be present in the same room, at the same time. When that’s not happening, digital options are actually a great option. When groups meet in physical spaces, it’s usually for a certain amount of time on a certain night of the week and in a certain room. But when your group meets digitally, it may be easier to meet more frequently or at different times.

No matter how you meet, choosing to be present consistently with your group helps you to build trust. We show up consistently so they know we’ll show up when they really need us. 

Of course, when we say “be present,” we mean that in a few different ways:

  • Be present mentally in the conversation by appointing a student or another volunteer as your technology coordinator. While they manage the links and chats and controls, you can be all there in the conversation. 
  • Be present randomly by popping up in ways they didn’t expect—like group texts or DMs. Maybe that means sending a postcard, texting a digital encouragement in the middle of their big test, or challenging them to an impromptu video game. 
  • Finally, and this may sound a little weird, but even if you’re leading a digital group, it’s important to be present physically—to show up in real and tangible ways. Maybe that means sending a postcard or dropping off a gift bag. For one youth worker I know, it means creating a sunset club where students get together at a safe distance and watch the sunset once a week. For another leader, showing up physically has meant stopping by a student’s house, turning the radio all the way up, and texting the student that it’s time for a dance party on the porch. 

However you choose to show up for your few, know that being present is one of the best things you can do to build a relationship with them, and relationships are important because eventually someone in your group is going to need to have a really hard conversation with an adult they trust. 

CREATE A SAFE PLACE

Our second role for a small group leader is to create a safe place. Creating a safe place has three main ideas.

First, you simply need to lead the group. At the center of a safe place is a safe person. A digital venue may be intimidating, but your students still need a clear point person . . . a clear leader. You can do this.

Secondly, you need to respect the process. Students are going to have tough questions and go through tough situations. Leading digitally doesn’t change that. In fact, during these times, that reality may be magnified. So, lean in, be available, and don’t panic. Your job has never been to have all the answers. Your job has been to walk beside them as they sort that out and that’s still true today . . . though it may be from six-feet apart or over a Zoom call.

Finally, you need to guard the heart. This point has always been about paying attention—protecting your students from outside abuse or neglect as well as self-abuse. And that’s still true today. As always, we need to be wise about our own digital communication with individuals. And, as always, we need to watch for signs, pay attention to comments, questions, and data points, and remind students that we’re a safe place if they need to talk.

PARTNER WITH PARENTS

When it comes to leading teenagers, no one has as much influence as their parents. That’s why the best leaders choose to partner with every parent. So, what does partnership look like in times of digital ministry?

Well, it’s actually a little easier because digital spaces provide some of the best ways to connect with parents. 

  • It can be really helpful to start a private Facebook group for parents to connect with each other and with you. 
  • For one-on-one communication, texting or Instagram direct messages are just as effective as email and less likely to end up in a spam folder. 
  • No matter how you connect with the parents of your students, keep this in mind: partnership is not a one-way email with the subject line: “What we did at church this week.” Partnership is about conversation. It’s about connecting with parents in such a way that when they need help or information, they have the real phone number of a real person who really knows their kid. 

One of the best things you can do instead of sending email blasts full of information, is to begin the semester by sending a single text message to every parent. It could read like this: “This message is the beginning of our private conversation about your child this year. Because you know them better than I do, there may be times I need to ask you questions. And, because sometimes every teenager needs extra support, I’m here to help if there’s ever something you’d like to share with me.” That way, each parent knows how to contact you and they know it isn’t weird to do so because they’ve already been invited. 

MAKE IT PERSONAL

The best small group leaders I’ve ever met have had one thing in common: They didn’t treat this as a job . . . they treated this role as part of their identity. They made it personal.  

At the core of this idea are these key truths.

The quality of your spiritual leadership will be directly linked to the quality of your faith life.

The depth of your relationships with your students will be directly linked to depths of your own adult relationships.

And . . . your ability to respond to emotional teenagers well will be directly linked to your own emotional health.  

I think we’ll look back on these times and realize that those of us who handled life’s curveballs the best will be those of us who took care of ourselves in the midst of it.

So . . . volunteering with teenagers is no excuse to ignore taking care of your own heart and mind.  Volunteering with teenagers is a reason for it. And . . . there has never been more free content out there. Lean into it. And finally, it has never been easier to see a licensed counselor. Please don’t wait until there is something to fix. Preventative maintenance is always the best way to get started.

Your personal ministry is best when it’s the result of an overflow of your own faith.  

MOVE THEM OUT

One of the things the very best small group leaders do is move their students out. Now, this doesn’t mean kicking them out of group. It means moving them to experience their faith outside of the group through serving—which may look different if your group is meeting digitally.

Last summer, when physical mission trips were impossible, so many groups partnered with organizations abroad to raise money digitally. One youth pastor used a digital summer as an opportunity to connect his students to organizations in their own city and hear from leaders who are caring for their community.

Students don’t have to go far to serve. In fact, sometimes the most impactful thing they can do is to begin to intentionally take care of one another. You know this—the teenage years are a time of high anxiety and loneliness. In this season, what if you challenge your few to serve each other by calling and checking in on each other—not just a text here or there to their best friends, but putting time on the calendar to intentionally show care to groupmates and classmates who aren’t even in their closest circle. 

The point is, faith isn’t authentic if it only exists during church time. Eventually, for faith to grow, we have to move students out to serve so they can experience how God works through them. And speaking of moving them out, one last thing.

As a leader, at some point, it will be time for your group to move on to what’s next in their lives. Whether you lead eighth graders going into high school, seniors going to college, or a group in the middle that is transitioning to another leader, I want to challenge you to move with them for a season. Here’s why . . .

Even when groups meet in a physical location each week, we lose teenagers at every transition. There’s just something about a new room, a new building, or a new leader that makes it easier to not show up. That tension is magnified when we’re meeting digitally. That’s why, as leaders, one of the best things we can do for this group is whatever it takes to get them settled in their next group. 

To grab a copy of Lead Small for your small group leaders, you can get it here at OrangeStore.com. 

Tom Shefchunas—better known as Shef—is the Executive Director of Student Strategy at Orange. In this role, he leads the development and strategy for XP3 Middle School and High School curriculum. Previously, Tom was North Point Ministries’ Multi-Campus Director of Transit, their middle school ministry, for 12 years. And before that, he spent 10 years as a high school teacher, coach, and principal. Additionally, he is the co-author of Lead Small with Reggie Joiner. Tom and his wife, Julie, live in Cumming, Georgia, with their three children, Mac, Joey, and Cooper.