As the Small Groups Pastor at Saddleback Church, Steve Gladen has over 20 years of lessons to share with the next generation of leaders. Admittedly, much of his knowledge comes from pain-points he’ll gladly share with fellow church leaders who want to learn from his mistakes. These markings of ministry date back to the early 80’s when the concept of small group community was still relatively new.
Despite changes over the years, the one thing that’s remained the same is the small group focus to meet people where they’re at. As Steve explains, that all starts with relationships.
“So often we tell people where we want them to serve or we give them training, but we don’t find out who they are and what’s important to them,” he says. “That’s a beautiful thing that Jesus modeled, to first meet a person’s needs and then train them.”
In Small Group ministry, that translates into celebrating the milestones inside of their world — something Pastor Steve calls the “soft data.” Rather than focusing on hard data like phone numbers and email addresses, also remember the anniversaries and birthdays. Determine areas of need and breakthrough that will bring about relational equity and a level of trust within the church community. For Pastor Steve, this pathway to changing lives is the reason he entered ministry.
“We know what we need to do as leaders, but sometimes we try to fast-track the process — forgetting that it’s a slow cooker and not a microwave,” he says. “When you’re planting a seed, it has to be done relationally by getting to know their story.”
Healthy growth can come through recruiting the right leaders, he explains. The key is to target capability, availability, and people who respond to vision rather than need. Once that person is discovered, the next step is to recruit in a posture of opportunity for that person to make an eternal impact.
With so many personalities in leadership, it’s easy for ministry to get messy at times. Pastor Steve makes the comparison of the church to a hospital where people come broken and seek hope and healing for recovery.
“The church is not a hotel,” says Pastor Steve. “It’s a hospital, with issues we’ve got to deal with in the same way you deal with your family. When you look through Scripture, the highest qualification for a pastor is ‘can you run your family’?”
For Saddleback Church, running the “family” means balancing all five purposes of the Purpose Driven (PD) Church. In his 20 years at Saddleback, Pastor Steve says this PD framework crosses cultures and generations for one simple reason — the felt needs are all the same.
“It’s timeless,” he says. “We just took what Jesus wanted the church to do, as summarized in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. When you look at the five verbs that are in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, they are going to fulfill all the needs that people have.”