Thanksgiving has always been a special time of year for me. As a child, my family would travel out to Hayes, Kansas, where we would spend Thanksgiving with my Aunt Sally and Cousin Vhonda. This was one of the best things that my family did.
I remember eating plenty of food, putting on musical performances with my sister and my cousin – we had a lot of fun. The evening would usually involve watching The Wizard of Oz and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I still have nightmares of those flying monkeys.
My twelfth birthday fell on Thanksgiving Day. My aunt made a special Happy Birthday pumpkin pie for me that year. That’s still a special memory for me.
Your Thanksgiving may be filled with other things this year. I’m sure there’s food and football. Maybe a little family tension. Maybe a long walk on a cool Autumn day to work off the dinner.
Thanksgiving in November is a uniquely American holiday. Thanksgiving in Canada was last month (they get an extra month of Christmas shopping). In the Bible, thanksgiving is a heart attitude that goes beyond a single holiday.
In Joshua 3-4, we read how the people of Israel miraculously crossed the Jordan River. This was the final boundary into the Promised Land. After the tribes had passed through the river, Joshua instructed one man from each tribe to gather a stone. These twelve stones were placed in the river as a reminder of God’s work on their behalf. The intent was that years later when their children and grandchildren asked about the stones, parents and grandparents would stop and reflect on God’s goodness to them and His power to overcome an overwhelming obstacle.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving, stop for five minutes and think about how God has helped you to overcome obstacles in your life in the past year, five years or even your whole life. If it’s appropriate, share this with the others who are gathered with you.
Thanksgiving brings to mind the faithfulness of God, which gives us the confidence to face the future. Our memories may point us to monumental accomplishments of faith. Our memories may look back on the broken road that led us to Christ. Either way, God’s faithfulness is solid ground to build our futures on.
Bill Donahue, Ph.D., is serves as President of the LeaderSync Group, Inc. where he provides strategic consulting and leadership development for key leaders and their teams. Previously, Bill served as the Director of Leader Development and Small Groups at the Willow Creek Association and Church.
Bill has authored over a dozen books and resources including the best-selling Leading Life-changing Small Groups and co-authored Coaching Life-Changing Leaders with Greg Bowman, and Building a Life-changing Small Group Ministry with Russ Robinson.
Q1: You’ve seen a lot come and go with group life. Tell us about your first experience living in community?
I worked in New York City upon graduation from Princeton, and one year later returned back to the greater Philadelphia area where I grew up, to work for a bank. During that time, I became a Christian and soon reconnected to others from my high school days who had become believers. A close friend of mine was in seminary I was leading a small group of people in their 20s, married and single, about 16 of us. This was my first glimpse into what a small group community could be like. We prayed, laughed, learn to share our faith together, held outreaches, studied the Bible, supported one another through life’s decisions, and tried to be Jesus to others as best we knew how. It really shaped the way I thought about church, ministry and the power of community.
Q2: How did your role at Willow come about?
I was small groups and adult education pastor a church in Dallas at the time, and I was invited to attend a Leadership Network forum for small group pastors of large churches. It was there that I met a team from Willow Creek. We attended the same forum for a couple of years together. At that point, it turns out they were looking to really expand the existing small group ministry at Willow. So they asked if I would consider joining the team. My family moved to the suburbs of Chicago in 1992 and that began my 18 year journey at Willow Creek.
Q3: What do you wish you knew sooner about small groups?
Make sure you get the heart and soul of the ministry right. Strategies and structures are absolutely necessary. But the structure must serve the spiritual formation of the people. If that doesn’t happen, it becomes all about a program and not a transformational community. Things were growing so quickly that we often got caught up in the strategic and structural aspects of ministry, sometimes neglecting the soul care of our leaders and ourselves. There’s no perfect way to do this, and everybody fights this battle. But I wish I had spent more time on the culture of a small group (values, spiritual disciplines, prayer, authenticity, learning to process life together, etc.) than the strategy to build more of them. Also, it really takes a spiritually maturing leader to have this kind of transformational community. You can never invest too much in your leaders.
Q4: What do you wish you could have avoided?
Because Willow Creek is such an event-driven culture, we sometimes thought we could get more done with our leaders at events than in personal small group mentoring and 1-on-1 mentoring. That takes time. Instead, we probably spent too much time preparing for and planning large events and gatherings for our leaders, which are great for inspiration and motivation, and broad vision clarity. But they do not develop leaders. Leadership development takes place one life, one leader, and one group at a time. There’s no getting around the right process implemented over a period of time. it truly is a long obedience in the same direction. It is neither glamorous nor glitzy. It’s just good raw disciple making and leader development.
Q5: In your previous books, we’ve walked the small group tightrope with you, experienced the seven deadly sins, and lead life-changing groups. You’ve just released The Irresistible Community with Baker Books. Why a new book at this point?
I have written a lot of books for leaders, from small group leaders all the way to group pastors and leadership teams, but I have not written a broad book to anyone who wanted to live a life of community in the way of Jesus. For decades I have taught a simple process of experience in community in the presence of Jesus: Inviting one another to the Fellowship of the Table, Performing the ministry of the Towel, and engaging in the Practice of the Truth. These three simple elements…a table, towel and the truth…form the essence of transformational community living in the name of Jesus. That’s what the book is about. It takes a close look at the Upper Room, Jesus’ relationship to his followers, and how they did life together, so that we can model it, learn from it, and practice much of the same.
Q5.5: Cowboys or Bears?
By Allen White
If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, then congratulations are in order! You are among the top one half of one percent of all churches in America! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back! You deserve it!
Now that you’ve been congratulated, let’s get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of stuckness. Here the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck.
Stop Handpicking Leaders
If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: “Would you like to become a small group leader?” And, for seven years, many people turned me down.
Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, then I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100 year mark I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders faster. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.
Consider an Alignment Series
One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward and get out of your stuckness is an alignment series where the senior pastor’s weekend messages are aligned with the small group study. You can either purchase a curriculum like My Near Death Experiment or Transformed, or you can create your own curriculum. Either will work. The key is to tie what’s happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly tie the small group study to the senior pastor.
Only Your Senior Pastor Recruits New Small Group Leaders
The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. [You can read the whole story here.] After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When the senior pastor stands up and offers curriculum based on his teaching (or at least aligned with his teaching, if you’re going the purchased route), you are giving your people more of what they already like — your pastor’s teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to open their homes and host a group, they will follow his leadership. Believe me, I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years in ministry. If I made the same invitation in the service, I would get 30 percent the result of our senior pastor. Once my pastor starting recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader ever again.
Get Your Coaching Structure Started
Many churches have given up on small group coaches. Even very large churches who are well-known for their small group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all of the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn’t do it very well. But, I learned not to beat myself up.
When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then, it dawned on me, since we doubled that meant half of the small group leaders didn’t know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, and it worked. Then, I built the rest of the coaching structure on that. Read more about small group coaching here.
Leave Established Groups Alone
Now, here is what I didn’t do. I didn’t invite my established small group leaders to do the new series. I didn’t ask my established small group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn’t even tell them. Why?
I already had them. They didn’t need to change. They just needed to continue. If it ain’t broke… Now, many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!
If you are killing yourself and only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it is time to make a change. Now, you could change to another church who has no groups and become a big success by connecting 30 percent of their people into groups. Or, you could change up your strategies of how you recruit small group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.
Where are you stuck?
Groups get stuck when the great idea we started with just dries up. Or, maybe we’ve made a half-hearted effort because we were afraid the groups wouldn’t materialize. Then, we ended up with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In coaching churches over the last 11 years, I’ve seen nearly identical churches in very similar circumstances end up with very different results with their groups. For some churches, their groups take off like a rocket. For other churches, their groups get stuck. But, even how they get stuck varies.
Some churches get stuck right out the gate. The groups just don’t take off.
Other churches are very successful at first. They connect 30-50% of their congregations, then the growth just stops. They are doing exactly what they were doing before, but it’s like the well just dried up.
Which one are you? I can help you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
But, then there are those churches who start well, then blow past every milestone: 30%, 50%, 66%, 100%. Does God just like those churches better? I don’t think so. But, what are they doing that’s continuing to build momentum that others are not.
As I mentioned, I have coached churches over the last 11 years from all regions of North America, a wide range of denominations from Episcopal to Vineyard churches (they consented to be listed as the extremes), urban, rural and suburban churches as well as White churches, African American churches, Hispanic churches, and churches who have a broad spectrum of folks. Some have shown great success. Others just did okay, then got stuck. What made the difference?
In the Stuck! webinar, I will give you the principles for gaining or regaining momentum in your groups. I will show you how a church of 50 people in Dallas, PA connected 100 people into groups, and how a church of 2,500 in Renton, WA now has 500 groups!
If you would like to receive a recording of my recent STUCK! webinar, please contact: email@example.com
By Allen White
The New Year is one of the best seasons to launch a new groups or relaunch an existing group system. Turning to a fresh page on the calendar motivates people to embrace change. Whether they will attempt to break bad habits or start good ones, this is a key time of the year to launch groups. People are very receptive.
But, even in an ideal season to launch groups, you can still encounter some less than ideal factors which can throw off your launch. Here are a few things to think about as you are planning a New Year’s launch.
1. A Narrow Topic Can Limit Your Impact.
Over the years, I have coached quite a few churches who had very different ideas of starting the new year. Some churches begin the new year with a fast. Others will start with a “State of the Church” message. Then, others will dive into evangelism, tithing or some other more mature topic.
A while back I asked the senior pastor what his new year series would be. He said, “I’m doing a series on dying.”
I replied, “You’re killing me, Frank.”
If the goal of your series is to connect as many people as possible, the topic will have a lot to do with who steps up to start a group. One church launched groups with a relationship series and had a huge response. Then, they followed up with a very insider, evangelism series and cut their groups in half.
This does not mean we should avoid “mature” topics. We just need to time them right. Capital Area Christian Church, Mechanicsburg, PA, pastored by Don Hamilton, started this year with a series called “Manifesto” to connect his members into groups and get the group DNA started. He followed the series with a broader topic called “Monsters Under the Bed” where his members invited people in their lives to join the study. It worked.
Whether you choose an “insider” series or a topic with broad appeal, keep your target audience in mind. While the snacks will be very easy for a series on fasting, it’s really not where most people start group life. And, if you start the year with a giving series or a capital campaign, then forget it. Stop reading this post. Give up on your group launch right now.
2. Don’t start the series too early.
In discussing a possible coaching partnership with one church a few years back, I discovered their preaching calendar called for the start of their new series on New Year’s Day. I mean actually January 1st. I considered turning down the partnership.
Pastors like to kick off the New Year with a new series. The problem is you can’t really recruit leaders and form groups between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Believe me, I’ve tried. My pastor would make the call in December for folks to lead groups. I waited in the briefing room after the service…listening to the crickets and questioning the call of God on my life. It just doesn’t work.
Most people don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year (just like most people don’t think about the Fall until after Labor Day). So, how do you follow the pastor’s lead with a new year’s series and launch groups? You don’t. Now, before you go and get yourself fired, read on.
Remember the church who wanted to launch new groups with the series on New Year’s Day, well, they launched the series, but not the groups. In fact, they moved their February series to January 1, and their series with the broader topic to the first Sunday in February. Now, we had the whole month of January to recruit, and then successfully launched groups with a Super Bowl Party.
The best time to launch groups in the new year is between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. For some churches that may mean a Lenten series. If your church follows the liturgical calendar, you might consider something like Christian Life Trilogy. Otherwise, come up with a great topic that your buddies at the Super Bowl party will want to study.
Now, please understand, before I attempt to direct Senior Pastors on what series they should do when, I do my best to accommodate what they already have in mind. If your pastor has a January launch in mind, then work with that. You might only have a couple of weeks to recruit, but it’s better than nothing. If the second series of the year is more amenable to a group launch, then recruit during the first series, and start groups in the second series.
3. Think About More Than a Single Launch.
The beauty of early church-wide campaigns like the 40 Days of Purpose was the ability to launch a huge number of new groups with broad appeal. I remember an Episcopal church of 260 people who launched 70 groups. (The pastor is also the author of the Christian Life Trilogy). But, the beauty of the launch potential was paired with the agony of Day 41 and the sudden disappearance of the new groups. This doesn’t have to happen.
The success of a New Year’s launch is not the number of groups you start during that series. Your success lies in how many of those groups take a next step with a series after Easter. If you can get groups to do two back to back series (12 weeks total), then they are very likely to continue on as a group, even over the Summer.
Whether your church chooses to produce its own curriculum, purchase curriculum, or do a combination of things, a New Year’s launch plus an Easter follow up series will give you more groups than you can imagine. And, they will last.
What will it take for your church to pull this off?
As a new group leader, there are a few things to think about as you go into your first meeting. In fact, there may be too many things to think about. Focus on the basics and you will have a great first meeting.
As the leader of this group, you don’t have to be the expert. If you’re using video-based curriculum, there’s your expert, so let the video teaching lead the way. Otherwise, just follow along with the instructions in your study guide. But, before the meeting it’s a good idea to review the video and the discussion questions yourself. The videos are only 7-8 minutes long, then just read through the questions.
If you find your group doesn’t have time to complete the entire discussion guide, that’s ok. Prioritize the questions for the time you have available. As you get to know the group, choose questions that are appropriate for the group. If your group has been together for a while, or if your group members are well beyond the basics of parenting, then maybe skip the first question, and go for the second question which is maybe more of an accountability question regarding what they committed to do in the previous meeting.
Pray for Your Group.
If you feel anxious about leading the group or even inadequate, that is perfectly normally, especially if you are leading for the first time. The Bible says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV). So how often should you pray? Pray every time you feel anxious. God will give you peace.
The video and discussion guide are pretty easy to use. It’s practically a no brainer. But, just because the curriculum is easy to use, doesn’t mean you should go into the meeting “cold” spiritually. Commit the meeting to God. Invite His presence into your meeting, then watch Him work.
Guiding the Discussion – Not a teacher, more of a referee.
While everyone should have a chance to share their thoughts and experiences, as the leader your job is to facilitate a discussion, not to teach a class. You want to make sure everyone gets their word in. You also want to make sure no one dominates the discussion. If someone tends to jump in on every question, politely say, “Now, on this next question let’s hear from a few of you who haven’t had a chance to share.” If the person dominating the meeting continues to do this, then you might need to talk to them outside of the group meeting.
Since you as the leader prepared ahead of time for the lesson, don’t count on all of the group members preparing ahead for this meeting. Remember, they are assigned two extensive lessons in the workbook each week. When you ask the discussion questions, it may take the group members a couple of seconds to put their thoughts together. That’s ok. Don’t feel you that as the leader you need to fill the silence. Let them think a minute.
Praying Together as a Group.
Habits are hard to break and sometimes hard to start. Changing attitudes and behaviors requires more than just will power. It requires God’s power. At the end of every meeting subgroup into groups of 3-4 people, so everyone can talk about their needs, and then pray together. In a large group, some people won’t share, and it will take a much longer time, so subgrouping is necessary.
Also, limit the prayer requests to what is personally affecting the group member. Now, they may be concerned about Aunt Gertrude’s big toe or something they read about on the internet, but this really isn’t the place to discuss that. As much as you can keep the focus of the prayer time on the changes group members need to make related to their parenting style.
Ask for Volunteers.
Don’t lead the group alone. Just because you are the designated leader, you do not need to do everything for the group. In fact, delegate as much as you possibly can: the refreshments, the home you meet in, and even leading the discussion. If you do this right, you might only need to lead for the first session, then others will lead for the rest.
As group members become more involved in the leadership, they will feel a stronger sense of ownership in the group. Pretty soon the group will go from being “your group” to being “our group.”
By Allen White
The video in this post is from a recent webinar. It is long (50 minutes), but it is loaded with content, content, content on how to Run an Epic Group Launch. You can run one. I know it.
If you would like to have the PowerPoint slides for How to Run an Epic Group Launch: CLICK HERE.
If you want any of the goodies mentioned in How to Run an Epic Group Launch: CLICK HERE.
It took me seven years to connect 30 percent of our church members into groups. This wasn’t our first attempt either. We attended conferences, read books, interviewed pastors, and studied model after model. We had more groups than most, but our groups were stuck.
Then, my pastor and I made a decision to join a coaching group and learn some proven ways to do small groups. Within six months, not only had we connected everybody into groups, we also had another 25 percent over and above our weekly adult attendance. Coaching made a huge difference for us.
Over the last 12 years, I have had the privilege of coaching hundreds of churches across North American including some of the largest ones. In the last nine months, churches in our coaching program have started upwards of 5,000 small groups total…and that’s only around 18 churches. A church of 2,500 in Renton, WA now has 500 groups. A church of 300 in Barrington, IL connected nearly 600 people into groups this last year. Some truly amazing things have come out of coaching.
With Allen White Consulting, we want to make these proven strategies available to a church of any size. We want to help you connect your members into groups and keep those groups for the long term by offering high quality coaching. Some churches we work with have paid $30,000-$50,000 per year for coaching. We want to make these effective principles available to every church at a price you can afford. We are doing this through:
Online Courses starting at $97. Our newest course is available for $57 (a 60% discount).
Coaching Groups of 5 churches learning together starting at $197 per month.
Personal Coaching for individual churches (fees are based on the size of church).
I want to help you the same way someone once helped me. Now, I could have continued the cycle of attending conferences, reading books, trying new ideas, starting 10 more groups, but once I embraced the focus and momentum of coaching, we doubled our groups in a day. I can help you step by step toward your goals.
Where are you stuck? I will give you 20 minutes of my time to work through your issue. Call me at 949-235-7428 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Allen White Consulting, Inc.
Taking the Guesswork Out of Groups
Chris Surratt is a ministry consultant and coach with over twenty-two years of experience serving the local church. Most recently, Chris served on the Executive Team at Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. Before coming to Cross Point in 2009, Chris was on staff at Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Chris’s first book, Small Groups For The Rest Of Us: How to Design Your Small Groups System to Reach the Fringes, will be released by Thomas Nelson on September 29, 2015. You can find Chris blogging regularly at www.chrissurratt.com on the subjects of community, discipleship and leadership.
Q1. When we first met, you were the Greenville Campus Pastor for Seacoast Church. Seacoast the first multi-site church, and now there are over 8,000. What has changed with multi-site?
I would say that a lot has changed since we started experimenting with multisite in 2002. Very few churches were doing it, so no one had written books or started conferences about it yet. We felt like we were building the plane while we were flying it. While we made a ton of mistakes along the way, I don’t know that we would have tried it if we knew what we were doing.
Churches are now opening up the definition of what a multiiste church can look like. Before, the only churches starting sites were mega-churches. Now, churches of all sizes are planting campuses. We saw it as primarily a band aid to growth capacity issues, but churches are now using it as an extension or a new expression of their ministry. People used to consider multisite a fad that would pass eventually. I don’t know that it will any time soon.
Q2. What NEEDS to change with multi-site?
There are still churches who look to multisite as a method for instant growth. With over 8000 multisite churches, it’s easy to want to jump onto the bandwagon and be a part of the movement, but not every church is ready or equipped to handle the issues that come with multiple locations. If your church is not currently growing in one location, and you still have capacity for growth, another location will not magically get it kick started. Cracks become gaps when you go multisite. Those same issues that are holding back potential now will travel with you to the next location. Put everything into making what you have now as healthy as possible, then consider multiplying it.
Q3. You just left the staff at Cross Point Church in Nashville to enter into the consulting world. I don’t understand why anyone would want to do that at all (wink). How can consultants help churches?
My family recently moved into a brand new house in downtown Nashville. During the process of moving in, someone (could have been me – no one really knows) took a chunk out of the wall carrying furniture up the stairs. Our first reaction was, we have to get that fixed as soon as possible, because it is going to drive us crazy to look at everyday. Two years later and it’s not fixed, and we never notice it anymore. The only time we think about it is when our small group comes to the house and lovingly points it out for us.
No matter how amazing your church staff is, there is nothing like bringing in fresh eyes to see the cracks you have been staring at for months – or even years. A good consultant (like Allen or myself) can come in and walk alongside the staff to help maximize the good and fix the bad. My job is not to prescribe my way of ministry, but work with the leaders to make sure it fits their mission and culture.
Q4. I recently met your dad in Orlando with your brother, Greg. It seems a lot of pastor’s kids end up needing psychotherapy, yet the Surratt family now has generations of church leaders. What did your parents give you?
We have been referred to as the “Surratt Mafia” of the church world. I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but we should probably get nicer suits to wear. I think part of it is: we didn’t know anything else. My life has been spent in the church and I cannot imagine a better place to be. Growing up we had Sunday morning service, Sunday night service, Wednesday night Bible study, and revivals that would last for weeks. My mom would always say, “You don’t have to go to church, you get to go to church.”
But, I never felt pressure to have to be in full-time ministry. My parents just instilled a love for the local church and the passion to help her reach the world with the Gospel. The methods have definitely changed with the generations of Surratts, but the mission has not.
And, a follow up question, which doesn’t count toward the 5.5 questions, is the multiplication of the Surratt family the secret behind a multi-site church?
Definitely with my brother, Greg. His kids have taken the “be fruitful and multiply” commandment personally.
Q5. Your new book is called Small Groups for the Rest of Us. Who is “us?” Is there a “them?”
As an introvert by nature, I have always felt left out by most small group systems. Between the connection hoops and the demand to share my secret sins in a room full of strangers, small groups felt like an intimidating concept. While thinking through how we could better design a system to reach people like me, I started running into other groups of people we were missing through our processes. If we were going to say we believed in community for everyone, what does that look like? The typical small group system is designed for the typical church attender. We have to begin thinking differently if we want to reach the people on the fringes.
You’ll have to buy the book to find out how.
AW: I’m looking forward to it!
Q5.5 Titans or Broncos?
Marcus Mariota (Titans) FTW!