Ben Reed on building a thriving small group ministry.
On today’s episode we talk with the Small Groups Pastor from Long Hollow Baptist Church, Ben Reed. The conversation covers a wide variety of topics around getting people connected to groups, training leaders and ensuring that groups stay healthy and strong. This episode is full of insights to help you think through how you can take your small group ministry to the next level.
Ben Reed // [Website] [twitter] [Starting Small: The Ultimate Small Group Blueprint]
00:53 // Ben explains his role at Long Hollow
02:00 // About Long Hollow’s split 17 years ago, and more recent growth
04:27 // Ben explains Long Hollow’s assimilation strategy
07:40 // Jesus took risks on leaders the church wouldn’t invite into leadership
08:40 // Long Hollow’s Leadership Development process
10:04 // 5-1 hour seminars called 101 through 501
11:50 // Rich explains that adult learning requires ‘walk out knowledge’
12:40 // Information Transfer versus Relational leadership development
14:40 // Churches need a unified vision of what a small group is
16:39 // Churches need to define what a healthy group looks like
17:29 // First step to get groups off the ground: start your own at your home
Lightning Round Highlights
Book Worth Reading // Brand Against the Machine by John Morgan
Inspiring Ministries // Northpoint Ministries
Inspiring Leader // Bill Willits
What does he do for fun? // CrossFit with his wife
Interview Transcript //
Rich – Well, happy Thursday everybody. Welcome to the unSeminary Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This is the podcast where we talk about stuff that you know what, just normally isn’t talked about in traditional ministry training environments. So today we have a real treat! A great guest on the line. I am super excited to have Ben Reed from Long Hollow Baptist Church, just outside of Nashville in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Thanks so much Ben for being on the show.
Ben – Thanks Rich. Thanks for having me out, man.
Rich – Now why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, your ministry, about Long Hollow.
Ben – I oversee all of our groups at 5 different campuses that we have at Long Hollow. I’ve been hear a little over a year. Before this we transitioned from a church plant where I had been on staff for about 5 years. So I have done the church plant world where we set up in a school every single week, and it felt very much like manual labor every single week, and…actually we were multi-campus, in two different schools, did that for 5 years and now I am in more of a traditional church, doing very similar things. Trying to get groups going, investing in group leaders, investing in the current health that we have and then trying to expand it. Been here a little over a year and loving the spot where we are at. We love middle Tennessee. We specifically love Nashville. It’s a great area to live, and to raise our family. Ya, we love it here at Long Hollow.
Rich – Nice. Now why don’t you give us a bit of the history of Long Hollow. Give us kind of a flavor of your church.
Ben – Let me get my dates right, so 15 years ago the church split and went through, actually, 17 years ago the church split, kind of a nasty thing for a while. Numbers dropped off obviously, drastically.Two years after that the pastor that is still the pastor at Long Hollow came in. His name is David Landrith, they were at a couple hundred at the time. If you have ever seen him communicate, he’s just a very conversational kind of guy. We have grow from a couple hundred, now we are 5 campuses and we run about 8000 on Sunday mornings. I know it’s been 15 years which sounds like a long time but really that’s rapid growth in a short amount of time. That has obviously growing pains that go with it. And even though it has been rapid growth we have been quick to hold onto the traditions we started with. So we are constantly trying to change and move and grow. The interesting thing is that in my position, 17 years ago the split was caused by on campus groups versus off campus groups.
Rich – Oh, wow.
Ben – So I was brought in to help transition 17 years later from on campus groups to off campus groups. So we are trying to tread so lightly. While we want to push the gas and push for change, we also know history is this caused the church to split and we desperately do not want that to happen again. So we are working through that transition. People aren’t falling through the cracks. That we are accommodating people as much as we can as far as timing and schedule. Getting leaders in place, getting the right leaders on board, training them, deploying them, getting them ready to do ministry.
Rich – Oh, wow. So you are right at the hub of a significant change at your church.
Ben – It’s frightening every single day, but I love it. I feel like I have to exercise more faith in my job than I ever have so it’s exhilarating.
Rich – Now what are you doing? Gives us a sense, you know 8000 people, that’s a lot of people on a weekend in 5 different locations, now what does assimilation look like for you at Long Hollow? How do you move people from that large crowd into smaller groups.
Ben – We kind of have a two-fold strategy. One is, we want to launch groups around strategic times throughout the year. So we launch groups in, actually our timeframe has gotten bumped this time to February because of some other changes. But, 9 times out of 10 we launch groups in January, because that’s when people are naturally thinking restart, refresh, I want to try something new. I want to start new goals. I know God wants me to do something this year. So we are doing to try to tap into that natural momentum that our culture creates and start new groups then. The biggest other time that we use to launch is August, but that is another time where our culture is thinking restart, refresh. Even when you get out of the rhythm of school starting new every year, that’s deeply imbedded in your DNA, that in August something has got to change. Something new is coming. I’ve got to grill up a little bit. So those are two of our most strategic times. We also try to do smaller launches, whether those are alignment kind of campaign things where we are asking people to invite their friends and their family and their neighbors into their home and we are going to give them small group curriculum. That’s kind of an onramp for people. So that would be April and October timeframes. Kind of in between our major group launches. We also look at onramps through our men’s ministry, through our women’s ministry. We do a couple big conferences a year and so we try to use those as onramps for community as well. So it just makes an explicit focus that we are not just gathering to have good teaching, not just gathering to be encouraged, but we what this event to last longer than this event so we try to partner with small groups to have a small group presence, and that there’s an easy onramp from this event where we are inviting people from the community and into the life of our church which is small groups.
Rich – Very cool. Now I would imagine that with people kind of all over the place, not just in one place….you’ve got on campus groups, off campus groups, leadership development is obviously a critical piece of that. Can you give me a sense, if I was a leader in a small group at Long Hollow, what kind of leadership development are you providing for those leaders?
Ben – Leadership Development is crucial because we are all spread out. But in addition to that my philosophy is that I want to take risks on people, who haven’t proven themselves in leadership, who maybe haven’t lead a small group before or who church leaders wouldn’t naturally say ‘oh of course, that person should lead a small group.’ Maybe they’re a deacon or in significant church leadership already, so we need to pluck them out and get them to be leaders. If we didn’t have a robust leadership development process in place, I wouldn’t really feel I could take a risk on people who haven’t proven themselves. And for me, that desire for risk it comes partly from the fact that people have taken risks on me in leadership, and given me roles that I haven’t earned. But they’ve helped me to take a step of faith. But on top of that, I look at the Scriptures and I see the people Jesus took into His inner circle and the disciples were people that the church had turned their back on. They weren’t people that the church would have chosen to be the leaders who were going to take the church into the next generation, and the next generation. Jesus entrusted these people with the Gospel. The church had said, we’re not going to place you as a leaders in the temple, they were fishermen and tax collectors. They were people that would have been on the outside, that other church leaders would have looked at and said ‘we don’t want you in leadership.’ Those are the kinds of people that I like to go after. So, again, if we didn’t have a leadership development program in place, I would feel really, really reluctant grabbing these people who haven’t really been trained up to be leaders.
So we have a multitude of processes that we work new leaders through. The first is really systematic. We call it 101Through 501. They are 5, 1 hour classes. Although we look a lot of what we do in groups ministry as relational and not so much information transfer, we do look at our leadership development as information transfer. We want to do it through coaching and in a relational manner, but at the end of the day it’s really transferring information from what we have learned and what we have experienced and downloading that to group leaders so they can take a step forward even though they may not have lead a group before. The broad sweeping philosophy is we want to start them off from ‘I’ve never lead a group before. I have no idea what it takes to invest in people and help them grow and help them understand what faith is all about’ to in 501 we want them to actually be able to counsel other people and help coach other group leaders. They make it from 101-501 we want them to be able to step into a role of helping new leaders start their group.
Rich – Now are those just 5, 1 hour seminars? What does that look like? Or are they 5 different session? What does that look like?
Ben – Ya, those are 5 one hour seminars. Those are spread out. We don’t just do them all in one day. The reason for that is that we want you to go through 101 and 201 before you ever start your group. Then at 201 you are linked up with a coach who will walk with you the next 6 months, 8 months, 10 months and a group will last about 2 years. And the idea would be over the course of 2 years you would do 301, 401, 501. And so linked up with a coach, who is helping to enforce these, and you are not just learning them in a vacuum. You are learning them in the context of ministry. Side note: I love the idea behind your podcast because for me Seminary was learning in a vacuum and it wasn’t really learning things that I was instantly applying. I was learning things that I would tuck away in hopes that I would have a seminary style argument. That’s informed kind of the way I do training as well. I don’t want to do all the training on the front end and have people have this head knowledge in hopes that they would remember it when the time comes. I want to give people enough knowledge to get their group going, 101, 201. And the next ones to be done kind of in the vein of ‘Gosh, I don’t know how to handle this in my group.’ It would be more of a needs based learning, where they are seeing peoples lives fall apart, or they are seeing people turn to them for spiritual guidance, they don’t know how to help them. That’s where we come along and say ‘Perfect, why don’t you start 301 and that will give you the tools you need to continue to lead your group.’
Rich – I love that. Adult learning as you know, people only learn when they can see the direct, applicable, how they are going to use it. And if there is not that ‘walk out knowledge’, how am I going to walk out and use this today, it’s very hard to get people to learn. The other thing I like about that is it also gives something tangible for the coaches to be interacting with the various leaders on. I know in our church we have really struggled with, what’s that conversation going to look like outside of kind of help you problem solve a couple individuals within your group. What can you actually be talking to them about? I like that idea of here’s a curriculum that you are going to bounced back into that class, and talk about that. And that will give us months of stuff to talk about as we interact for sure.
Ben – And really with our coaching too, I keep coming back to information transfer versus relationships, but for us that is a big deal. Classes, 101-501 are information transfer, but our coaching is highly relational. I tell our coaches, your number one goal is to make sure that the group leader is growing in their faith, because if they are growing in their faith, the group is going to be taking steps of faith as well. If they are not, then the group is not. So we use these conversations about, who’s the difficult person in your group, and what are the dynamics in your group, and who’s not engaged and what are you doing to serve..those are all important questions, but those are all just a backdrop to the real questions which are how are you doing in your marriage? How are you doing in your own faith? How are you doing sharing your faith? Because if they’re not leading the way in their spiritual growth, their group’s not going to know what to do. So we really push coaches to be the shepherd leader of group leaders.
Rich – Very good. Now I would imagine, I would love to hear about how you are casting vision to a church that is trying to move from on campus groups, or maybe classes as some people might refer to them, to off campus groups. How are you casting that vision? Both you specifically and the other leaders in your church?
Ben – That’s good. For us, I know churches have done it differently when they are doing kind of a hybrid, off campus / on campus model. What we’ve landed on is that we want a unified statement for what is a small group. So we don’t want something for Sunday school or on campus classes, that’s different from off campus groups. Because at the end of the day I don’t care where a group meets. I don’t care if they meet at a Starbucks, on a school campus or at home. What I care about is small group health. So if they are pursuing health, I am thrilled. I don’t care how long they meet, where they meet as long as they are pursuing health. So we define a small group as a group of people who are taking steps of faith together. It doesn’t matter where you meet. It doesn’t matter how long you meet. And so we have chosen a unified vision. Some churches have chosen kind of different paths for small group and Sunday School classes, but we have choses a unified path that allows us to have a streamlined training process, a streamlined development process. We can share coaches, and we don’t have to have two different coaching structures for on campus / off campus. And really the language that we have used, we’ve moved away from on campus versus off campus and we’ve just tried to help groups decide, ok, when are you going to meet? So the groups that meet on Sunday evening, about 95% of those meet on campus because we offer on campus childcare because that tends to be a stumbling block for some people. I’ve got kids and I don’t want to meet in somebody else’s home, and have to get a babysitter for my house. I would rather have a safe place to take my kids, where there’s security and it’s a place I know and trust. I would rather drop them off there and go up to a classroom upstairs. Or, the other groups that we have meeting on Sunday nights will drop their kids off on campus and then drive to an off campus grope and drive back to pick those kids up. So we’ve not so much looked at are you an on campus group or are you an off campus group. It’s just when do you meet? So this group meets 6 o’clock, Sunday night in Hendersonville. Hey if that time frame works for you then join that group. So on campus versus off campus can be pretty polarizing so we try to get away from those terms as much as we can.
Rich – Nice, very good. Now is there anything else you would like to share with church leaders that might be listening in today that might be wrestling through, and thinking through their small group strategy?
Ben – Ya, I would say figure out in your context what health looks like, and work towards that. Help every single group leader know what the win in, and what they are aiming for, because there are a lot of things that we can say inside our head that this is so important, and I need to go after this. Maybe you think it’s so important to go through the curriculum. Or maybe you think it’s so important to make sure that every person is there and you are increasing in numbers every week. If you’re the pastor, or the small group point person in your church, make sure you have landed on what it looks like for a small group to win and then help every single group know that, help every single coach to know that and drive that home in all the conversations that you have.
One more thing that I would say is if you are kind of wrestling through how do we get groups going? What does it take to get groups off the ground? We don’t even know…we are exploring small groups we may do those, we may not….I would say this: grab 2, 3, 4 maybe even 8 people you know that you say these are leaders. Whether they are spiritual leaders or just natural leaders, grab those people and spend 8 weeks with them and invite them into your home. Just do life with them for the next 8 weeks and see if you like that. See if they enjoy it. I can almost guarantee that they will grow. And then you can kind of choose from there to launch out potentially 8 new groups out of that, but to start small groups, the easiest way to do that is for you to start your own small group. Gather the people that you know and start investing in them.