Why Bother with Small Groups?

By Allen White  why bother with groups people are like legos

“You should be in small groups” sounds like the modern version of “Everybody ought to go to Sunday school” to many church goers. The only problem is “ought” is not a strong motivator for most people any more. Give them a cause to champion or an environment to connect, but if “ought” is the only tool in your toolbox for connecting people into groups, then they’d probably “ought” to try another church.

If everyone else thought exactly the way small group pastors and directors did, they would all be small group pastors and directors. The problem, of course, is there would be no one left to direct. Face it. People in our churches don’t think like we do. How can we think like them?

When pastors and directors make invitations for folks to join groups, there’s usually a mixed response. Some will join up. Others can’t or won’t. If they were driven by “ought,” they would understand “if you really love Jesus, truly desire to grow spiritually, and want to go to Heaven, then you ought to join a group.” They’re not buying it, so we should quit selling it. Why are some folks resistant to our efforts to get them into groups?

1. I’m too busy.

Everybody is busy. Students are busy. Retired people are busy. Parents are busy. We’re all busy. Busy is not so much an excuse, but a sickness, but we’ll have to save that topic for another day.

“I’m too busy” really means “I have other priorities. I have better things to do.” People have time to do the things they want to do. If you’re getting “I’m too busy,” then they are choosing something else over small groups.

In order to put small group higher on their lists, they will need to demote or eliminate something else. Most people don’t make changes like this unless they are convinced there are compelling reasons a group will benefit them, or if they are in a considerable amount of pain and need support. People who are busy, but generally okay, won’t feel the need.

In order for people to say “yes” to a group, they will have to say “no” to something else. In order for people to make that “yes,” they need a clear and compelling reason to join. If you offer groups for a limited time period, a trial run, and offer groups at times that could fit in their schedules, they might give it a try. But, there are even better reasons to join. Read on.

2. I already have friends.

Years ago, Leith Anderson gave an illustration of people being like Lego bricks. Every Lego brick has a certain number of dots on the top of it. Some have one or two. Others have eight, ten or more. In a person’s life, each dot represents a relationship. So, think about your relationships: spouse, children, parents, other family, friends, co-workers, sports team, book club, parents of your kids’ sports teams or activities, and the list goes on. Most people have all of the dots on their Lego bricks filled. Where do you put a group?

But, think about it this way: how can you help people leverage their existing relationships to form small groups? They don’t need to divorce their friends to join a small group. Their friends are their small group There is great power in asking people,  “Who in your life would enjoy or benefit from a group study?” Very quickly, group formation will go well beyond the four walls of any church. Why reconnect people who are already connected?

3. We have kids.

The easier your groups make childcare, the easier it is for people to join a group. Whether the group pools their money to hire a babysitter or rotates responsibility for the kids among group members, this is a necessary part of groups for young families. Once the group is established, then everyone might be able to secure their own babysitter, but especially at the beginning, childcare should be made as easy as possible. For more on childcare solutions, go here.

4. I’m already involved in ministry.

Serving is a great way to engage with the church body and allow God to use them. A ministry responsibility is also a great way to get people connected to the church. Serving responsibility creates a real sense of ownership. But, activity doesn’t guarantee community. This can be addressed in a couple of ways.

Think about this: what are the goals for your groups? Most groups are built on the idea of community around a Bible study. The idea is to create a place where people are known and know each other. They care for each other, support each other, and share God’s Word together. If those are your goals for groups, can those goals be accomplished in a serving team?

This is more than ushers joining hands before they pick up their stack of bulletins, but that could be a start.  Serving teams can share personal needs and God’s Word together. This may involve a meeting apart from the serving opportunity. The last thing any church wants is for folks to feel the church only cares about what they do, but doesn’t care about them.

Serving is better than just talking, but a balanced approach is better still.

5. I had a bad experience with a group before.

Most people who’ve participated in groups over the years realize groups aren’t perfect. As Steve Gladen from Saddleback Church says

There are good small groups, and there are not so good small groups. Every group has a different style and personality. One size does not fit all. But, a bad experience in one group doesn’t guarantee a bad experience in every group.

A six-week commitment to one study is a great way to test drive a new small group. If the group works, then they can stick with the group. If the group doesn’t work, it was only six weeks and not the rest of their lives. They can leave the group in good conscience for having completed six weeks and now consider themselves off the hook.

6. I don’t trust other people with my life.

This statement comes from a lot of pain. Granted, there are some people who aren’t worthy of trust. But, when someone globalizes distrust to nearly 7 billion people on the face of the earth, there’s certainly a deeper issue.

Distrust comes from fear. “If I let others in my life, they will only hurt me.” Fear requires a very compelling reason to even think about opening yourself up. If the person recognizes this is a personal issue, then the first step . A regular small group won’t be the cure. In fact, this person’s presence in a life group or Bible study might create a bad experience for everyone else.

When this person has worked through the root issues, then they should be welcomed into a group with open arms. For the present, if the person literally trusts no one, then counseling would be the recommended route. If the person does have a couple of friends, then he or she should start the study with just those friends. Obviously, this person isn’t going to start in an uncomfortable place. Where is a comfortable place to start?

7. I’m wise to small group pastors. They just wants to form groups just to break us apart.

I’m all in favor of multiplying groups, but I’m also aware of some very effective group models from other parts of the world that don’t work so well in North America. People are aware of these strategies. Some have survived them. Others have strongly resisted. Small Group Pastors: It’s time to turn over a new leaf.

What we callously refer to as multiplying, dividing,  and birthing groups is translated as encouraging people to develop close relationships only to later rip out their hearts and make them change groups. The positive spin of the term “multiplying” really feels like a divorce.

While we would never want a group to become ingrown or stagnant, unless a group feels the pain of an overcrowded house or a declining group, they are not willing to change simply to fulfill our agenda. To address this issue, simply vow to your groups that you will no longer ask them to multiply, divide, split or birth. Over time, the need will arise on its own.

Look at it this way: the world is fully populated all by natural means. No family needed their pastor’s coaching to fill their quiver. By encouraging the positives of inviting and including others, groups will eventually see the need to subgroup and then form new groups.

8. My relationship with God is personal.

A believer’s relationship with God is personal, but it’s not private. While every believer should experience quiet times alone with God, God didn’t intend for us to live our lives alone. Jesus, Himself, lived a life in community with His disciples. God lives in community as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Before I was in a group and before I was even married, I was a great Christian in my own mind. According to the feedback I was receiving, I was an awesome Christian. I kept away from the things I shouldn’t do and did many things I should. But, back then, most of the feedback was coming from me. I was very understanding of myself. I knew why I excelled at some things and failed at others. Sure, I could have worked harder, but I was tired. I needed to give myself a break.

Letting other believers in helps us to discover things we might have been denying. We also get folks to encourage us and allay our fears. The Bible has much to say about encouraging one another, building each other up, spurring one another on and so much more. Faith is lived out in relationship, not in isolation.

People resistant to group life need help crossing the bridge. Some need a challenge. Some need encouragement. Some need an easy entry point. Everyone in our churches comes from a different place – spiritually, emotionally and geographically. By offering multiple entry points into groups, we can serve their needs for community rather than expecting them to fulfill our need for effectiveness or success.

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How High is Your XQ?

By Allen White Missing coach

Have you ever worked with a flaky youth pastor, or an uncaring care pastor? Has your church, business, or organization left precise tasks to someone who settles for “good enough?” They aren’t necessarily bad people as they are in the wrong roles or are attempting to live up to an unrealistic set of expectations.

Your flaky youth pastor may just be the next visionary leader in the church. Visionaries are rarely organized or schedule. Do you fire him and get a boring youth pastor, or do you staff around his weaknesses?

Your uncaring care pastor is quick to size things up, yet impatient with the process of counseling others. Since those in need probably won’t quickly shape up, the uncaring care pastor needs to be reassigned to a project where he can charge the hill rather than stroll through the meadow.
What if you knew what you were going to get before you made a hire? What if you looked at the best staff you had and determined what personality traits they had, so you could determine who to add to your team? What if your small group had better insights into each other and became more understanding of each other?

How high is your XQ?

Time Magazine asked this question in their June 22, 2015 issue. The answer actually goes back for years. Yet, people analytics is not as commonly used as it should be, especially in the church world. The new trend toward studying Behavioral DNA is significant for hiring the right people, leading them, and helping them to understand each other.

Human-resources professionals in major companies are now looking for the X quotient in hiring, promoting and even terminating employees, according to Time. The article coined the term “XQ” or “X quotient” simply because there is no other way to quantify it. Maybe that’s the point.

In order to fight employee turnover, increase productivity, and raise customer satisfaction, companies and organizations are turning to expensive, time consuming solutions like Cattell’s 16 personality factors, the Hogan Personality Inventory’s seven scales, StrengthsFinder, or the Caliper Profile’s 22 traits. Online resources such as Infor claim to analyze over a million job candidates a month. Why does this matter? Can’t you just go with your gut?

People analytics will help you in an important range of team dynamics.

1. Adding new staff or team members.

Whether finding qualified candidates is feast or famine, more than a strong resume is required to find the right fit. People with the right schools, degrees, and experience may or may not fit the bill. The metrics from People Skills, who I’m certified with, point to the core of who the person is, how they go about things, and how they will fit with the current members of your team. While anyone with determination can work hard to fulfill any role, eventually that person will burnout and will probably take the team down with them. If you put a highly relational person in a cubical with a computer for data entry, they will last for a while, but they will either wander away from the cube to find people or they will find another job, even lower paying, where they can interact with others. Behavioral DNA has much to do with job satisfaction and performance. Having this info at the beginning of the interview process will help you to select the right candidates and can confirm some things you are probably already sensing.

2. Improving staff and team interactions.

John Maxwell says, “People don’t see things are they are. We see things as we are.” If I am a very driven, performance oriented person, then I see people who are highly relational as being slackers. I think: “Why can’t they just cut to the chase? Why can’t they make a decision? Why do we have to have another meeting about the same thing, again?” But, they aren’t like me, nor I them.

The person I’m looking at is probably looking back at me saying, “Why doesn’t he take time to really get to know people? Why does he only care about the work and not the team? Why doesn’t he take time to make sure everyone is on the same page before charging forward?” It’s two sides of a coin. Well, actually, it’s 16 sides.
By taking your team through people analytics, they will gain a better understanding of themselves as well as why other people on the team bug them. In fact, Behavioral DNA gives teams a language to filter and interpret other people’s behavior. They begin to view personality differences in a more amiable way. While there are certainly people with personality disorders, personality differences are a far cry from disorders.

3. Setting people up for success.

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Putting right people in the wrong roles is a recipe for disaster. But, the right people in the right roles is magical.

If someone has the personality of Attila the Hun and is given a role to precisely detail the steps of a process they invented, it won’t work. You need a detail person to document the process, and you need to allow Attila to charge the next hill. If you take someone who doesn’t want to rock the boat and put them in charge of innovating something, it will never move forward. The innovation will rock the boat, which is exactly what they are trying to avoid. There are many more examples. Think about the folks who are thriving in their role, then think about the folks who are withering in theirs. What’s the difference? It could be misapplied people analytics.

Whether you lead a staff, a team, or a small group, the X quotient is significant to the effectiveness and harmony of the group you lead. An understanding of their X quotient will help determine the appropriate role for each person and the way they go about it. As the Time article says, “A meticulous thinker is no better or worse than a big-picture mind, but it’s pretty clear which one you would like to have doing your taxes.”

4. Use People Skills.

A friend of mine, Vicki Barnes, developed the People Skills inventory about 25 years ago. By validating the findings with other well-known people analysis tools, she developed an easy, affordable solution for human resources professionals, non-profit organizations, churches, and even small groups. The one hour staff, team, group, or volunteer training offers a great alternative to lengthy online profiles and assessments which essentially provide the same information.

The only way to get a better sense of the tool is to try it yourself. Click Here to sign up for a one hour webinar on Wednesday, June 24 at 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT. You will need to take the online assessment before the webinar.

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4 Ways to Keep Your Groups Alive This Summer

By Allen White

When I was a kid, summer started when school was out just before Memorial Day and ended just after Labor Day. We had enough time to actually wonder what we would do with ourselves. Sure, there was a week of church camp and a family vacation in there, but there were weeks and weeks of playing outside and watching old reruns, if we were fortunate enough to have a mom who wasn’t hooked on soaps.

Today, summer starts the second week in June and ends about the middle of August. It’s about six to eight weeks, if you’re lucky.

Many groups automatically decide to break for the summer. It’s just what they do. They assume that it’s too hard to get together or that they’re group members are too busy, so why bother gathering as a group? But, when was the last time you rethought your assumptions?

1. Who’s gone for the entire summer anyway?

We go into summer making a few assumptions like “Everybody’s busy traveling, so we might as well not even try to get together as a group.” In a normal year, most families do one big vacation and maybe a few day trips. While everyone in your group probably won’t take vacation on the same week, they also won’t be gone for the entire summer. Before school ends, ask your group about their summer schedules, who knows they might be available after all?

2. Your group may be the spiritual resource for the summer.

In this age of staycations and day trips, people tend to be busier on the weekends than during the week. Few of us could be categorized as the idle rich. Yes, it’s summer, but we’ve got to keep our day jobs. While your group might be headed to the mountains or the beach on the weekends, they’re in town Monday through Friday. They might not be around for church services on Sunday, so your group gathering might be the consistent touch they get during the summer.

3. Your group doesn’t need to meet every week to be spiritual.

If your group meets every week, then meet every other week or meet once a month during the summer. The key is to keep the relational connections up. Ask your group to bring their calendars and see when most of the group will be in town. Even if you can only get together once or twice during the summer, do it. I’ve even seen groups spend vacations together, go on camping trips, and even take a cruise together.

4. Your group doesn’t need to have a Bible study every week to be spiritual.
Have a party and invite prospective members. If you live in the South, grill out. If you live in the rest of the world, have a barbecue. Ask everyone to bring something. Invite the neighbors, but be sure to only invite people that you actually like.

Serve together with a local organization. Is there a neighborhood school with projects, but their funds were cut this year? Is there a yard in your neighborhood that needs work? Is there a single mom or an elderly person who could use a hand? Is a member of your group moving?

Change it up with your group. While some groups will meet 52 weeks of the year, the frequency of the meetings is not nearly as important as keeping in touch over the summer. You never want to give your group the impression that you only care about them September through May, and not as much during Christmas break.
Oh, and on the being spiritual part, we are spiritual beings, so everything we do is spiritual. Our spirituality involves every part of us, not just worship services and Bible studies.

As your group heads into summer, take time to ask what the group would like to do together. Don’t assume that everyone is busy and that no one wants to get together. If you as a leader need a break, then ask other group members to host a party or head up a service project. You’re not alone.

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Farewell, DVD Curriculum

By Allen White taking the guesswork out of groups no dvd

The advent of DVD-based curriculum, and its predecessor VHS-based curriculum, sparked the church-wide campaign movement. All of a sudden, the person leading/hosting/facilitating/in-denial-of-leading no longer needed to feel the pressure to teach or lead. The DVD/VHS did it for them. Remember Pastor Rick Warren’s line, “Be a star with your VCR”? Those were great days.

But, now VCRs are long gone. Our family has one built into a TV, but it no longer works. The future is not bright for DVDs either. Just ask Blockbuster Video, except you can’t because they are out of business. Today, we stream video on Hulu, Netflix, On Demand, and Crackle. DVD players are being replaced by Apple TV, Roku, Fire Sticks, and Chromecast. Members of the churches we work with these days are asking if teaching videos are available online because they don’t have a DVD player any more. What do you do?

1. Create Your Own Video Content

Other than Jesus Christ, the reason people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. Now, don’t tell your worship pastor. It will break his heart.

When a senior pastor stands up and invites the congregation to do a series based on his/her curriculum, you are just giving your church more of what they already want. When the pastor invites them to gather a few friends and grow, permission has been given to get very creative with group life. There are many great reasons to create your own curriculum.

By creating your own curriculum, you own the content. You aren’t bootlegging a Christian author and publisher’s project, it belongs to you. You can do whatever you want with it. There are many low cost ways to create curriculum, you don’t need a big budget or even a professional crew. Get creative.

2. Stream Your Content Online.

By streaming curriculum online, you avoid the cost of creating a DVD menu as well as burning and packaging DVDs. Online content enables your groups to access curriculum anywhere in the world on any device. If you had told me five years ago that one day I would be streaming content primarily on my Android phone, I wouldn’t have believed you. Today, I view media on my phone more often than not.

Now your groups would need to choose a medium that best suits the size of your group. After all, 20 people can’t really gather around a phone or tablet. But, they can stream content on their televisions. Maybe you should help them with this.

Back when we were making the transition from VHS to DVD, our new series at New Life in Turlock, CA was exclusively on DVD. A few people would wonder up to the small group table and ask if they could get the video on VHS because they didn’t have a DVD player yet. I told them unfortunately that was not an option, but, then I’d smile and say, “This is your lucky day.” I reached under the table and pulled out a brand new DVD player for them. I’d bought 10 of these for $30 at Walmart just in case. Their eyes lit up. It was their lucky day! You can do the same thing with Amazon Fire Sticks, Chromecast, AppleTV or Roku boxes. If a Fire Stick costs $39 and burning and packaging a DVD is about $2.00 per unit (not to mention the cost of creating the DVD), well, you do the math.

3. Offering Higher Resolution.

As technology continues to advance, the DVD lags further and further behind. Even on our project for The Daniel Plan small group curriculum, the end result was a Standard Definition DVD. Most publisher only produce SD DVDs. Otherwise, like Disney, they would have to offer the Blue Ray combo pack which also contains an SD DVD. Most people with a flat screen TV are consuming content in HD. Some have moved on to Ultra High Definition. Now, imagine watching a Standard Definition DVD on an Ultra High Definition monitor. It’s not looking too good. Now, this is definitely a first world problem, but it is a growing problem. The church cannot afford to offer only second or third rate media to a culture who is consuming the best of the best. Poor video quality takes away from the message. Streaming video can help to resolve this issue.

4. The Advantage of Weekly Content.

When we create DVDs for churches and publishers, we have to capture all of the content for the entire project well in advance of a group launch. By streaming video, you can shoot, edit and post what you need as you need it, even if you are just one week ahead of the groups. Some churches are even shooting 6-8 minute teaching sessions between or after services on Sunday morning while the message is still fresh in the speaker’s mind. Services like MediaFusion offer great solutions for both streaming and on-demand video as well as high quality, low cost video production options.

5. Leave No Late Adopter Behind, aka Old People.

Some folks haven’t made the leap to streaming video. Some folks never will. It’s a good idea to have a few DVDs on hand for those without the ability to stream video. Make this the exception, but not the rule. One church we’re working with actually burns a small group DVD every week for this exact reason. There is no menu. They just pop it in and it plays. There is no need to exclude late adopters who are willing to participate. You should really only have to do this for another 5-6 years, then DVDs should be gone for good.

6. Embrace a Literal World of Possibilities

Streaming video has the power to reach the entire world in an instant. Once a video is posted, there are no boundaries. If you offer a downloadable discussion guide, you could be providing a great service. A few years back we experimented with an online group study sharing site similar to Sermoncentral. An unexpected outcome was receiving thank you emails from people in other parts of the world who no longer had to wait weeks to months for physical products to be delivered. They could go online and download what they needed for their group that night. Now, you can easily add world missions to your church’s discipleship ministry.

When I started into Bible college and then seminary over 30 years ago, I never imagined the role technology would play in ministry. The only available technology back then was really just radio preachers and televangelists. At one point, I was a pretty strong advocate for the separation of church and television. But now, with so many people constantly unavailable for onsite meetings, yet continually available online, it would be irresponsible to not use technology to disciple not only our church members, but also anyone else in the English-speaking world. But, why stop there?

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What If Robin Williams was in My Group?

By Allen White Robin Williams red background
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.

As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.

So, what if Robin Williams was in your group?

1. We would have a lot of fun.

If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.

The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.

If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time.

2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.

Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself.

3. We would learn to be more generous.

Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.

I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further.

4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.

The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.

But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.

If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.

Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.

If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability.

5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.

Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.

There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.

If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.

We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.

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Why Off Campus Groups are Just Better

By Allen White

A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as groupchildren’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”

This is why off-campus groups are just better:

1. Better for the Group.

A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.

A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.

This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone?

2. Better for the Church.

Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?

Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there.

3. Better for the Neighborhood.

Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house.

4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out

There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?

As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…

I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.

Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”

Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.

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Must Haves for New Small Group Leaders

By Allen White

In a meeting with the pastors and small group leaders at Element Church, a great new church plant in Woodruff, South Carolina. Their church and small group ministry is just months old. Josh Bradley and his team are doing a great job bringing a contemporary church into a small community. Here are some essential building blocks for a successful small group ministry that I shared with them last week:

1. Balance Produces Growth

Everyone who joins a group has different needs. Others have an actual agenda. Some members want to create an exact duplicate of a group they were in years ago. Still others want a group to meet their needs. Still others will want a group that is more social or more spiritual or more evangelistic or more, more. The good news is that each group can accomplish a great deal, if they agree on the direction together. Well, except, for resurrecting the great group from the past. You would need a time machine for that one.

The first groups of believers in Acts 2:42-47 met together for Discipleship, Fellowship, Ministry, Worship and Evangelism. Some have tried to say that Acts 2 represents the epitome of what an accomplished church or group should be. The truth is that this passage reveals what the church was doing on its first day! These weren’t things built over time. These were things that needed to happen all at once.

That doesn’t mean that each of these five things should happen in every meeting. But, your group needs to decide together when these things will happen. A group agreement is a great place to start. Read more about forming group agreements here.

2. Shared Leadership

Ownership is huge in developing and sustaining groups. Every member needs to have some skin in the game. As the leader, you should do everything you can to give away every task in the group to a willing volunteer. The only thing a leader shouldn’t give away is responsibility for the group. But, everything else from leading the discussion and hosting the group to bringing refreshments and following up on prayer requests should be delegated.

In the group I lead, I will announce to the group after the first lesson in a new study, “Today is the only day I will be leading the discussion. I’m passing around the calendar, and everyone needs to sign up for a week to lead.” It works every time. Now, a group member can pass, but they all can’t pass.

Another way to share leadership is to listen to what your group members care about. “I think our group should have more socials” or “It would be great if we could all come out on Saturday and help my neighbor build his fence.” Rather than the leader taking on one more responsibility, ask the person who suggested it to put something together. This strategy is known as “you spot it, you got it.” It works well.

3. Group Life Cycle

Every group goes through distinct stages in group life. Just like understanding the path from infancy to adulthood, every group needs to understand their awkward teenage stage and that their mid-life crisis is coming.

Steve Barker from InterVarsity maps out the group life cycle this way: Exploration, Transition, Action and Termination. In Exploration, the big issue is inclusion. Group members want to know that they fit in. They need to feel wanted and accepted.

Next is Transition, which is characterized by conflict. Hopefully, the end result of conflict is shared goals and objectives. This is the review and implimentation of your group agreement.

The third stage is Action. Once the group has agreed on the steps forward, now they have the freedom to act and move ahead together in ministry. The final stage is termination. This is the time to celebrate the time the group has enjoyed together.

The Group Life Cycle usually lasts about two years. Unless the group has made a concerted effort to invite and include new people in the group, most groups will stagnate and eventually fold at the two year mark. Rather than keeping a group limping along, it might be a good idea to plan when the group will end, then regroup and start over again.

While most of us are aware of groups that have lasted for decades, these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The same leader might still be leading a group, but odds are that the group membership is quite different from where they began. There is nothing wrong with lifelong groups as long as they are bearing fruit.

4. Group Mission

The mission of the group is no different than the mission of the church: “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). The goal of group life isn’t the comfort of the group members. The goal is to reach others for Christ and grow them up in the faith. And, that makes group members uncomfortable.

The issue groups face is that they develop close relationships over time and want to continue with the group members they are close to. The reality is that given the Group Life Cycle, most groups will stagnate or end after two years. If the group continues to invite and include new people, they can avoid this two year deadline. But, if the group continues to invite and include others, then the group will outgrow its meeting space, overload the leader, and bloat the discussion. These are good problems.

As soon as your group reaches eight people, sub-group. This will allow everyone to get their word in. This is also a great opportunity for an up and coming leader to get their feet wet by leading all or part of the discussion. Who? Since you have rotated leadership in your group, you have an idea of which members are on their way to leadership. Some will do a great job. Maybe they’re 75-80% there. Others will show some potential and might be 40-50% there. A few might need a lot of help.

John Maxwell said, “If someone can do the job 30% as well as you, give them the job.” The reality is the person can probably do it 60% as well, but we haven’t given them credit for it. As your group grows, sub-grouping is essential for discussion, group care, and leadership development. If your meeting place is big enough, keep growing the group. When the meeting situation becomes a problem for the whole group, then it’s time to figure out something else. Caution here: this will be a problem for the leader before it’s a problem for the group. Hang in there. When the group feels the need to change, change will come.

There are many other questions on the minds of new leaders, but this is a good summary of where to start. When you feel overwhelmed, pray and ask God for help. When you need training, seek out your coach. If you need a little information, check out the other posts on this blog.

Great Resources for Getting Groups Started:

Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen (Read my review here).

Connecting in Communities by Eddie Mosley (Read my review here).

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If It Ain’t Broke, Break It?

By Allen White

There is a reason you have the groups you currently do. They are working for somebody. Whether they are connected in Adult Bible Fellowships, Inductive Bible Studies, Sunday School break hammer(gasp…more on this later), or women addicted to Beth Moore groups, it’s working for them. As long as the groups aren’t worshiping the devil or talking bad about the pastor, leave them alone.

At Brookwood Church, we had a very large women’s group, about 200+, who met every Wednesday morning and called themselves WOW. They would meet in a large group setting to view teaching by Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Kay Arthur and others, then they broke into 17 different groups that met in the adjacent rooms. When it came time for a church-wide “campaign” with the group curriculum aligned with the weekend messages, I didn’t even ask the WOW women to participate. Why?

First, I didn’t need to enter into a fight that I wasn’t going to win. You can call me a wimp. I call it wise. Why volunteer for unnecessary trouble? Next, I knew if the WOW women did the church-wide study on Wednesday morning, I was giving their husbands an out. If the ladies were already doing the study, then more than likely, the men weren’t going to join a men’s group, and she wasn’t going to do the same study on the same week in a couples group.

By encouraging WOW to continue on their path of study, the ladies and their husbands also participated together in a couples group for the church-wide study. Not only were the men involved in groups, I got to count the women twice! Ok, not really, but you understand what I’m saying.

A day will come when group membership to a failing initiative will decrease. That is the time to consider a hard conversation about ending the group, class or ministry. But, as long as it’s helping someone, it’s worth keeping around. If you attempt to transition a ministry to quickly, you will upset its constituency, which could come back in many ways from reduced giving to personal “political” fall out. Don’t fight battles you can’t win or will greatly injure you. Be patient.

Why Do Pastors Long for a Magic Bullet?

If one strategy could connect every member in our church, if one model could work for everyone, it would be a pastor’s dream come true. Why? Because it’s efficient or dare I say, convenient. For busy pastors, it’s easier to manage one system, not three, four or five.

Your members are looking for variety, not uniformity. Look at how many car models were made last year. Look at how many new books appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Look at how many ways you can drink coffee at Starbucks. The Blue Plate Special died 50 years ago.

What is a Small Group Anyway?

Why do you have small groups? Coolness is not the right answer. Merely forming small groups could contribute to more problems. Rather than individuals leaving the church, now they might leave linking arms. (Keep reading. It’s okay.) If groups offer care, encouragement, fellowship, Bible study and leadership development, can that only happen in a small group? What if a Sunday School class was accomplishing those things? What if your existing groups were already doing that? Isn’t this meeting your goal? Isn’t this building people up?

Do New Things with New People

Rather than forcing them into the existing model, discover what will work for them. Men don’t join groups for the same reasons as women. Younger generations are motivated differently than older generations. Some folks will join because they ought to. Others will see what’s in it for them. Still others will see a chance to make a difference together. And, some will think the whole thing is lame. That’s okay.

When new freshmen enter college, they are given a college catalog. The catalog delineates all of the requirements to graduate with a chosen degree. If the college chooses to change any of the requirements along the way, they do so with the incoming freshmen. They can’t make the changes with the upperclassmen. Their contract, if you will, was established during their freshman year.
Your existing groups are like the upperclassmen. They came in while you were doing groups, classes or Bible studies a certain way. While you can always invite them to try something new, you should refrain from making the change mandatory. Again, if you lose what you have for the sake of something new, you’re just being stupid. (Some take offense when I say this, “Are you calling me stupid?” I tell them, “No, because you’re not going to do that.”)

When we launched our groups for The Passion of the Christ at New Life years ago, we didn’t even tell our existing groups what we were doing. Partly because we were in a bit of a rush having decided to launch the groups only three weeks before the series started, but also because we already had the existing groups. We just needed to build on that.
My leaders came to me and asked, “Can our group do the Passion study or is it only for new groups?”

Being the kind, compassionate pastor I am, I said, “What’s it worth to you?” Nearly all of our existing groups participated in the study. They didn’t have to, but they wanted to. You attract more flies with honey…

One Size Does Not Fit All

When I arrived at Brookwood Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, about 30 percent of the adults were in groups. It was a solid foundation. We had on-campus groups, off-campus groups, Beth Moore Bible study groups, and the Holy Smokers, who focused on Bible and barbecue. Remember them? We launched lots of new groups through church-wide campaigns. We connected hundreds of new folks to groups. We gained another 30 percent in groups. Sixty percent ain’t bad.

But, as I became better acquainted with the congregation, I discovered that some in the Bible belt really were intimidated by the Bible. They resisted small groups because they were afraid they would have nothing to contribute to the discussion. Whoa. In California, we just asked folks to do a study with their friends. They did it. But, this was a whole other deal.
We created large groups for men, women, young couples, business people, law enforcement, and senior adults. These are what Carl George calls “fishing ponds.” In these large groups people could move from the crowd of a 2,500 seat auditorium to a living room of a few friends, old or new.

We offered a solid recreation ministry for adults and children. We created a system of classes called BrookwoodU where people could get to know each other while they learned cooking, digital photography, leadership, Microsoft Word, sign language and even Hermeneutics. (Many friendships were forged in their hermeneutical fox holes.)

I didn’t join the staff of a megachurch to start classes or to send seniors to Branson, Missouri. But, those not connected into groups didn’t necessarily care about what I wanted. What did they need?

After four years, we reached 78 percent of our, then, 5,000 adults connected in small groups, large groups, and BrookwoodU. We didn’t get to 100 percent, but maybe someone else can take them there in the future.

You wouldn’t transition small groups to a Sunday School model, would you? Build on what’s working. Then, figure out what you can add to that. And, for the pastor on that webcast, I wish you well.

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The Role of a Coach

By Allen White

By now most small group pastors and directors understand coaches are essential to sustain and support small group leaders. While everyone will agree to the necessity of coaches, most don’t know what to do with coaches, and unfortunately, most coaches don’t know what to do period. Beautiful org charts in a lot of churches actually net zero results. Here are some tips to moving your coaches in the right direction:

1.       Coaches Aren’t Accountants.

The problem with most accountability in Christian circles is that it becomes too much like accounting. Unlike Santa Claus, coaches do not relish keeping a naughty or nice list. What’s more, group leaders don’t appreciate being supervised by a supervisor. This doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind, but we also don’t put a cruel task master over small group leaders. After all, “love keeps no record of wrongs,” right? (1 Corinthians 13:5). Read more on accountability that works here.

2.       Coaches Aren’t Middle Managers, Bureaucrats or Spies.

Years ago, Carol, one of my coaches, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” At that point, I was still recruiting and training all of the group leaders myself. Carol and the other coaches were sent out to visit the groups and report back what they saw. No wonder she felt that way.

In recruiting coaches, we work hard to select mature, capable people to serve with us. Then, often because we don’t have the coaching role figured out ourselves, we tend to micromanage them as if they are neither mature nor capable. I didn’t keep many coaches that way.

The key is to elevate the role of coaching. When I chose coaches the next time around, I invited capable, mature people to join me in a journey. We met every week for dinner and to talk about the direction of our small groups. I committed to never make a decision about our small groups outside of that meeting. We led together.

These folks aren’t underachievers who need our constant motivation. These aren’t people who are prone to wander and need a steady reminder of direction. If they are, then they shouldn’t be coaching groups. If they’re not, then they deserve more respect than a place in our little bureaucracy.

3.       The Role of the Coach is to Refocus the Player.

My friend and mentor, Carl George has drilled this phrase into my psyche. When you think about a coach in sports, he stands at the sidelines and guides his players. If the last play went terribly wrong, his job is to refocus the players on the next play. They can’t replay the last play on the field. But, if a bad play keeps replaying in the players’ minds, then the next play will also suffer.

Small group leaders have busy lives and are pulled in many different directions. On a particularly hectic day or difficult season, it’s easy for leaders to become discouraged and wonder why they ever got into this business in the first place. The relationship with the coach is key to maintaining momentum in groups. The coach is not making sure the job gets done. The coach is making sure the player is okay.

4.       Give Your Leaders the Space to See What God is Doing

The most valuable function of a coach is giving a small group leader an opportunity  to reflect on what God is doing in his or her group. Most would admit to the difficulty of working “in” something and “on” something at the same time. It’s nearly impossible. Often group leaders are working so hard in the group, they don’t see the big picture of what God is doing.

By setting aside an hour or so once every quarter, a coach can give group leaders the space they need to see what God is doing and to identify what is next. This is as simple as the coach asking the leaders to list the names of their group members, then asking them to talk about what God is doing in each person’s life. As the leaders discuss their members, the logical next steps will begin to surface for the leader.

Bob – Hasn’t been around for a while. I need to give him a call.

Joe – Struggling at his job. I need to pray for him and give him some encouragement outside of the group.

Steve – Lost his job. I need to check-in with him and see if there’s any way the group can help.

Tony – Making poor choices. I need to pray for him and for the right timing to have a tough conversation.

Brett – Shows strong leadership potential. I need to give him more responsibilities in the group and eventually invite him to co-lead with me.

You get the idea. The coach must approach this conversation as a learner, not as an instructor. It would be easy to quickly diagnose each member and offer next steps, but the next steps determined by the group leader will be the next steps that are actually executed.

To make this work, start with a few assumptions. Assumption #1: Group leaders have made themselves available to God, and God is using them in their group. If a group leader is going through a hard time, he may be wondering if God is doing anything at all. He needs encouragement. But, some group leaders so naturally use their gifts, they might not even realize how gifted they are. They also need a coach’s insight.

Assumption #2: Who you are as a coach is more significant than what you could every say to a group leader. Your relationship with your group leaders is the greatest gift you can offer them. When relationship comes first, tasks get accomplished. Without relationship, leaders easily burn out.

5.       Small Group Pastors: Get Out of Your Coach’s Way

How many Team Owners or General Managers have made their coaches’ lives miserable? Small Group Pastors and Directors, like their coaches, should approach their roles as learners, not drill sergeants. God wants to use your coaches. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to effective coaching is often a well-meaning Small Groups Pastor.

While you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry, empowered coaches are effective coaches. Disempowered coaches become burned out middle managers. Your expectation of your coaches should be clear, reasonable and accountable. But, again, don’t approach accountability as an accountant. Give your coaches the benefit of the doubt: “How are your groups doing?” not “Have you followed up on your groups lately?” If your coaching system is in disarray, then you’re probably in the way.

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What If You Have a Pleaser in Your Group?

By Allen White abraham

Do you have a group member who tends to get along with everyone else? They don’t rock the boat, and certainly don’t tip the boat over. They are loyal and steady. You can always count on them. Yet, you don’t always know what’s going on inside of them, because they wouldn’t want to trouble you with that. The group member we call the Peacekeeper.

In this series of posts, we are looking at the different personality types of group members and how they affect the dynamics of groups. Based on Vicki Barnes book, The Real You, we have identified four core types: the Producer, the Planner, the Promoter, and today will will consider the Peacekeeper.

We see Peacekeeper behavior in several people in Scripture. The Apostle John would certainly fit in this category. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved. John had a warm that resonated with others. He also took the longest to write his Gospel. While Matthew, Mark (writing for Peter), and Luke put our there Gospels in the first half of the first century (give or take), John’s Gospel didn’t appear until nearly the end of the first century. (Scholars can debate away, but this is what they taught me in Bible college).

Another example of Peacekeeper behavior is Abraham, formerly known as Abram. When Abraham had to go down to Egypt as recorded in Genesis 12, he was worried the Egyptians couldn’t resist Sarah for her beauty and would kill him to get her. Abraham instructed Sarah, “Hey, let’s not make any waves in Egypt. Instead of telling them you are my wife, just say that you are my sister instead.” Sarah went along. Now, this caused quite a bit of trouble later in the story when the Egyptians found out the truth. But, Abraham saved his neck.

When Abraham and Lot were living together with all of their families and herds, it became clear they needed more space. Rather than telling Lot where to move his family and herds, Abraham gave Lot a choice. Of course, Lot chose the best land. Abraham, being more passive, really didn’t care which land he had as long as Lot was happy.

Now, none of us are limited to our core personalities. Abraham’s faith grew. God declared Abraham to be the father of many nations. When God called Abraham to take Isaac to the mountain and sacrifice him, there was no hemming and hawing. The next morning, they got up and went.

The Peacekeeper shows mercy and compassion. They are more likely to see all sides of an argument. Now, by seeing all sides, they sometimes have trouble taking sides or making a decision. I have a dear friend who asked me what color she should change her carpet to. I later found out she had been asking this question for more than a decade. The last time I visited her and her husband, they had moved to a different house. I said, “Well, you didn’t need to change the carpet after all.” Being a Peacekeeper, her response was, “Oh, Allen.” If she’d been a Producer, the carpet would have been changed immediately, and she would have knocked my block off for saying something like that. If she had been a Planner, she would have studied carpet types carefully, and the science behind mood and its relation to color. If she had been a Promoter, she would have chosen whatever bright color she felt like.

Peacekeepers are natural mediators. They are slow to form a prejudicial decision. When Producers like me want to fire up their bulldozer and “git ‘r done,” the Peacekeepers are a good people to check in with before the Producers start running over everybody.

Quite a few years back, another dear friend of mine and I were choosing a restaurant to take a group of seniors to up in the Mother Lode near Sonora, California. There was an Italian restaurant there I had been wanting to try, but my dear Peacekeeper friend suggested something else. It was more of a coffee shop with an extensive menu. We went her way. At one point in the meal with about 40 of us gathered around a huge table, I heard her say quietly, “Isn’t this nice. Everyone found something they really liked.” She was a Peacekeeper extraordinaire.

While Peacekeepers are great listeners and mediators, they can be easily overwhelmed, yet they won’t let you on to that. They may appear calm on the outside, but you may be rocking their boat like crazy on the inside.

When it’s all said and done, we should all strive to be more like the Peacekeeper. In fact, as we mature and grow as a person, all four of these personality types should even out in our lives. But, only if we grow.

 

Read more from this series:

Planner: What if Dr. Luke Was in My Group?

Producer: What if the Apostle Paul Was in My Group?

Promoter: What if the Apostle Peter Was in My Group?

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Free ebook Exponential Groups

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EXPONENTIAL GROUPS

by Allen White

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