This week we’re answering the following question raised at last year’s Connect Conference:
When your Sunday School class/young adult ministry is large and only has a couple of leaders, what are some tips to help organize and manage the class effectively so that the leaders can connect with each person individually?
A large Sunday School class or ministry offers some interesting rewards while simultaneously posing a few unique challenges. On the one hand, there is great energy in most large crowds, so getting people to talk, have a good time, feel they are not alone … this is easy for you. On the other hand, though, you have some real, significant relational challenges. Every leader has a relationship capacity—that number of people who they can know well and by whom they feel known well.
However, leadership is all about the ability to influence, and when a leader’s flock gets too large to be influenced easily or effectively, it is time to figure out how to multiply oneself within the group, particularly if the success of the group has been built on strong personal connections. Many ministry leaders tend to feel the stress of relationships when the group reaches around 30-40 people. If your class is larger than this, no wonder you feel tense!
- Share responsibilities. Primarily, begin to identify others who have some of the skills and talents for the tasks you would like to pass along. Playing to the strengths of your volunteers and group members will free up some time for you to be with each person in your class or ministry. Undoubtedly, there are people in the group eager for a place to serve who are simply waiting to be asked. Maybe you find administrative tasks to be a drain on their time and energy. This would be a great place to start plugging in others to help. Examples of such tasks include finding others who will keep up with group communications, scheduling, sending birthday notes, planning and executing social events, making phone calls, and so on. Many leaders find that when they have trusted ministry partners who not only serve in an area they enjoy but who also free up the leaders to do more of the person-to-person part of ministry, everything just runs smoother.
- Encourage your core group members to connect with new people. As a ministry grows, leaders find in increasingly more difficult to maintain the level of contact they had with people in the ministry when it was smaller. Unfortunately, sometimes the group members who have been around for awhile don’t understand the pull of leadership to spend time with those who are newer to the group and those who need more attention from the leaders than, perhaps, they do. This will always be a tension, and there is no way to avoid it. Leaders should listen well to the people who have been around through growth times, but also understand that once people get connected, they share the role of reaching out and connecting with new people. They must lead these faithful ones to understand this.
- Pay attention to your group members’ needs. It may be beneficial for leaders to spend some time categorizing their group members into three distinct groups—those who need a lot of direct contact (like those who are struggling personally or who are newer to their faith and need more coaching and guidance), those who need occasional personal contact (people who have been around for a while, are relatively well-connected to others in the class, or are simply more self-sustaining), and those who are new or just visiting. The last group is one that certainly requires pointed, personal attention, but in different ways than the group who needs a lot of direct contact. Let new or fringe people set the tone on how much direct contact they want, but don’t lose sight of them for long. In these relationships, a little tends to go a long way, and usually people don’t feel so new or “peripheral” for long.
- Incorporate smaller group activities into your class time. If your ministry or Sunday School class is ordinarily conducted by lecture in one large group, you may want to consider transitioning these sessions into what is known as a “master teacher” format. In this structure the main teaching point is still presented in a lecture, or front of the class/teacher to group format, for about one-third of the total teaching time, then the group breaks into a number of smaller groups, each facilitated by a small group leader. In essence, as the class grows bigger, you must “grow” smaller in order for relationships to form. There is no way to do this in a large group format. To ensure you are also forming relationships, consider moving from group to group either within sessions or from week to week, allowing more direct contact between small groups of participants and the leadership of the ministry or class. This model also allows people to encounter more directly the content being presented. Small groups, in this model of teaching, would meet for the majority of the remaining session time, with a brief large group wrap-up to end the teaching time.
Knowing your relationship limitations, identifying and calling out ministry partners, balancing levels and frequency of contact with the various subsets of your group, and altering the way you connect with your people, even in a teaching setting, will allow you more access to your ministry participants. These things will also allow you the room to make the types of personal connections you know are necessary to sustain intimacy with an expanding ministry. It’s all about relationships, so every effort you can make to keep relationship building at the forefront of your leadership responsibilities will bring about rich spiritual fruit in your life and in the lives of those you lead.