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Great Small Group Ministry Coaches
Brett Eastman: lifetogether.com
Mark Howell: markhowelllive.com
Chris Surratt: chrissurratt.com
Allen White: allenwhite.org
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By Allen White
An Easter launch has some definite advantages. While I’ve written in the past about the reasons why Easter may be not an optimal time to launch groups, Easter is the biggest Sunday of the year. There are new visitors. Everyone who calls your church home is there. Talk about a captive audience! But, what’s the best way to go about launching at Easter?
1. Start the Series BEFORE Easter.
Starting before Easter has a couple of key advantages. First, you can get more people to your Easter services. As your church members (and attenders) invite their friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and others to do a study with them, it’s very natural for your members to invite their group to an Easter service. (Notice the invitation is for new leaders to start new groups without using the word “leader” or “group.”) They’ve already committed to a study that involves Easter, so Easter services are a natural part of it. Studies like 30 Days to Easter by Brett Eastman and Lifetogether fit the bill.
The second advantage to starting the series before Easter is to keep people engaged in the weeks following Easter Sunday. The biggest Sunday of the year is often followed by one of the weakest Sundays of the year. The average person in the U.S. attends church 1.6 times per month. If they were there at Easter, you probably won’t see them for a week or two after.
By starting a series before Easter that continues after Easter, you not only get them to Easter services, but you keep them coming back the weekend after Easter. It’s part of the group study. They can’t miss. A study like All In: a small group experience based on the King’s Witness symbols covers five key events in the life of Jesus: He Came. He Died. He Arose. He Ascended He’s Coming Back.
The series starts two weeks prior to Easter, then ends two weeks after Easter. People will follow along with the series regardless of their normal pattern of skipping the Sunday after Easter because the series creates an open loop. Most people feel the need to complete what they’ve started. The pull through will benefit them as they study “He Ascended” about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of the Church and will get them to come back the Sunday after Easter to continue the series. For more information: allinsmallgroups.com. To preview and purchase the study guide, click here. (For full disclosure, I had something to do with this one.)
2. Start the Series ON Easter.
As stated earlier, everyone who calls your church their home church attends Easter services. A few years ago we created a study with Gene Appel, Senior Pastor of Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA. Gene’s message on Easter was Hope Rising. We created a full video-based curriculum for Eastside in just 14 days (never again!).
Gene preached the Hope Rising message in their Easter services. On the way out the door, every person who attended Easter services received a copy of the study guide for the series. After distributing some 7,000 books that Easter, Eastside managed to launch 460 groups.
By capitalizing on the Easter attendance, the church formed more groups than they ever had. Attendance held for the weeks to come. After the Easter baskets and bunnies were stored away, the message of Hope Rising continued.
3. Start the Series AFTER Easter.
Now, you’ll notice a theme here…since Easter is the biggest attendance of the year…it’s a great time to advertise groups to your entire congregation in person on the one Sunday, weekend, or week when your Easter services happen. You really only have this one shot in the entire calendar year when everyone is there.
By promoting groups on Easter (and the Sundays leading up to Easter), you can give your people something to come back to the next week. While this does not have the same pull through of the other two strategies, it is an opportunity that is too good to pass up.
Consider a series that will appeal to your infrequent attendars and their unchurched friends. The great thing about CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only) is they have more relationships outside of the church than inside the church. While they could have invited their friends to Easter, for some that may have been too big of a step. But, inviting their friends into their home for a Bible study that meets a felt need is not only a much easier ask, but it’s also a much bigger impact on people seeking spiritual answers.
Don’t Waste the Easter Opportunity
Whether you decide to launch groups before, during, or after Easter, LAUNCH THEM! Some pastors would rather invest in a Fall or New Year launch, but Easter is unique. Everybody is there! You can’t pass that up.
How are you going to assimilate your Easter crowd this year? If you have other ideas to share, please leave your comments below.
Making Every Group a Healthy Group
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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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By Allen White
Easter is only 12 weeks away. Did I scare you?
Now, you may be one of those pastors who plans everything in advance. Good for you. But, you might be like the pastors at one church I served where Easter always seemed to take us by surprise. How many services? How do we promote? What is our theme? Who is leading worship? How can we get them back after Easter? If those are your questions, you are in good company.
Every pastor wants to see new faces on Easter Sunday, and maybe even a few faces that haven’t been seen for a while. But, once you get them to the service, how do you keep them? How can they be connected? How can new believers be effectively discipled? These are important questions. Let me offer three tips to connecting your Easter crowd.
1. Everyone attends Easter Services.
Easter is the day when everyone who calls your church their home church shows up. Whether they are members, regular attenders or CEOs (Christmas and Easter only), Easter is the day they all come. This presents a unique opportunity for launching groups.
More than any other season, Easter is the time when everyone can hear the invitation for groups at the same time. While Christmas offers a similar opportunity, the end of December is not a great time to talk about the New Year. Your people just aren’t there yet. But, Easter gets everybody in the room and offers a window to start groups and get people to come back on the Sunday after Easter.
A few years ago, we created a video-based curriculum called Hope Rising for Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA with Pastor Gene Appel. They handed out a copy of the study guide to everyone of the 7,000 people who attended Easter series. When it was all said and done, Eastside launched 460 groups for that series. Now you may not have 7,000 people, but you could have 65 percent of your people in groups like Gene did.
While some may have some misgivings about launching groups toward the end of the school year, the reality is when you have everybody present for Easter, you really can’t pass up that opportunity. If you offer these groups a next step, even if it’s in the Fall, as many as 80 percent will take you up on the offer.
2. Bless your CEO’s.
I served one pastor who used to end the Easter services by saying, “And, if I don’t see you in the near future, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas.” We can have a bad attitude toward our “Christmas and Easter Only” crowd, but let’s not rule them out just yet.
When you think about the people who occasionally or rarely attend your services, wouldn’t you like to get them more engaged? Now think about this, who are their friends? Most likely they have far more friends outside of the church than inside the church. That’s great news for starting small groups. If you invite them to do a study with their friends, you can begin reaching people who’ve barely darkened the door of your church. Rather than inviting your CEO’s to join groups with church people, offer them a way to connect with their unchurched friends and do something intentionally to grow spiritually. The group experience will lead them to the worship experience.
At Harvest Church in Byron, GA, Pastors Jim and Jennifer Cowart used a strategy they called “Grab, Gather, and Grow.” The idea was to grab an easy-to-use curriculum, gather with a group of friends, and grow spiritually. Their congregation of 2,500 took them up on it. Some 5,000 or so friends were gathered for these groups. Many of those friends started attending the weekend services as well.
So often we think of groups as an assimilation strategy or discipleship training, but groups are very effective in reaching out to others in the community who may not have a connection to the church, but do have a connection to someone in your church.
By giving your members, and even your CEO’s, permission and opportunity to form a group with their friends, more people could end up in groups than in your services. Groups can become an entry point to your church.
3. Your Senior Pastor is the Key.
The key to launching groups at both Eastside and Harvest was the senior pastors. At both churches, the senior pastor was the spokesperson for groups. Not only that, the senior pastor was the teacher on the curriculum. While there is a lot to unpack in those two concepts think about this: if your people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They enjoy the pastor’s style, teaching, and even the jokes. (One word of caution: don’t mention this to your worship pastor, it will break his heart.)
If your church creates curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, you’re just giving your people more of what they already want. There are a variety of ways to do this. You could pay someone tens of thousands of dollars to do this for you. If you’re interested in that, I could recommend someone. But, you could also map out your own series, shoot the video, edit the video, write the study guide, design the study guide, and then duplicate everything yourself. That may sound daunting, but some churches are producing curriculum with an iPhone. A third way is to add your pastors teaching to a series that has already been created like All In.
However, you create your video-based curriculum, that teaching along with your pastors invitation on Easter Sunday will create more groups than you can imagine. While you’re in the process of calculating how many lilies and eggs your church will need, don’t miss out on the opportunity to launch groups off of Easter. Not only will unchurched people participate, but the Sunday after Easter won’t see the dip in attendance it usually does.
Join Allen White and Jeremy Gant from One Ten Pictures for a FREE On Demand Webinar on Effective Easter Launch Strategies: allinsmallgroups.com
By Allen White
Pretty curriculum boxes appear to be the new hot thing in small group ministry. Don’t get me wrong. They are nice. It looks like Christmas! This tool is a great draw for potential group leaders.
Our church did something similar back in 2004. We had overbought curriculum for the Fall series. I bought gift bags and tissue paper at the dollar store and added the curriculum. No coffee. No bookmarks. No snacks. To be honest, the tissue paper was debatable. I think we made 31 bags. Why 31? Because that’s the number of flavors at Baskin Robbins. No, we had 31 sets of curriculum left after the HOST homes were recruited.
People were invited to grab a bag, gather their friends, and start a group. Those bags went fast. In fact, we had to stop offering them after our second service. They were gone.
The dynamic of group formation had changed in our church forever. No longer were people excited about joining groups. They wanted to start their own group. (You can read more of this story in Chapter 1 of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential. Download the chapter here).
Launching dozens to hundreds to thousands of new groups is pretty easy in the first six weeks. But, once you have the low hanging fruit, things are a little more uphill from there. Now, you could continue to offer a new box or bag of curriculum every quarter. It can also seem like you’re making progress, since your numbers are up and to the right. In many cases, however, you aren’t adding groups. You’re churning them. (Read more about Disposable Groups). If only a colorful box could make a small group ministry strong.
1. Perpetual Newbie Syndrome
One of the great benefits to the group in a box is that anyone can do it. This method will create a ton of new groups in a very short period of time. I am a big fan of momentum. Get people out of their pews and into their neighborhoods. Launch an army of new small group leaders (or whatever you want to call them.) I am with you.
Groups, however, cannot live by pretty boxes alone. In a recent conversation with a pastor I first met six years ago, I was disheartened to learn that their group launches were keeping their leaders at the level of perpetual newbies. Many of the leaders had started six years ago and took a “box” every time it was offered. But, their leadership had never grown beyond the box. Now their group involvement was declining.
There is a time to delay leadership requirements and extensive training. This helps to get people who never imagined being a leader actually leading. But, there is also a time when leaders need to grow up. Requirements need to reappear. Extensive training should be offered.
If groups are only assimilating year after year after year, they become truly handicapped. What helped the groups to start will not help the groups to grow. Where are the disciples? Where are the leaders? Perpetual newbie syndrome doesn’t get the groups there.
Diapers are great when your kids are small. They’re not so great when they’re six years old.
2. Coach in a Box.
I’ve seen many small group ministries get into trouble because there is no structure to support their growth. If you launch groups well, you will very quickly overwhelm any kind of coaching structure you have (or don’t have). This was the case when we doubled our groups in one day. Our inadequate coaching structure couldn’t handle the new growth. Quite a few groups ended up unnecessarily as casualties. We simply weren’t ready for that kind of growth.
It’s easy to assume that one small group pastor or director or a small coaching team can accommodate the wave of growth that’s ahead. This does not work. If the new leaders are not supported from when first commit to leading, many of the groups will never start. The new leaders will become discouraged or overwhelmed. With no one to turn to or only a “phone a friend,” many groups will end before they’ve begun.
We all know that leading a group is as easy as inviting a few friends and providing some refreshment. We also know that it’s not that easy. Soon we discover that a few of our friends have problems. Some have needs beyond the ability of the leader. They could call the pastor, but if the leaders of your 300 new groups (or 30 or 3,000) all call the pastor, what’s your life going to be like?
Before you distribute a single box for a new group, have a coach in place for that group. It may be all hands on deck with your established leaders. A caring person who is available to coach a new leader will determine the group’s success or failure.
3. Where’s the Next Box?
If you don’t have a next step for the new groups, then don’t take a first step. When people are invited to gather their friends and do a six week study, guess what happens at the end of the six weeks? The groups end.
But, the groups don’t have to end. The key is a new pretty box that appears in the middle of the current study. If they’re new groups, don’t give them choices of what to study next. Just tell them what to study next. If they’re experienced groups, then let them go back to normal.
If you offer a next step as described above, then get the group to decide about going forward before the current study ends. Unless they decide before the end of the study, chances are the groups won’t continue.
Tying a Bow on It
I have no argument with innovative ways to get groups started. I think a group in a box is a great incentive and attraction for people starting new groups. The issue comes when there’s not a plan behind that initial start. Some churches have been perpetuating a low bar of leadership and a quick start to groups for so long that their ministries are actually dying out. What once made them great is now handicapping them. What comes after the pretty box?
Fall is a prime season to launch groups in churches across the country. In my consulting work, I am working with churches from Florida to Washington and Southern California to New York City. Among churches of various sizes and denominations, we are seeing some tremendous results. But, not every church hits a home run with their group launch. Here are some reasons why.
- You picked the wrong topic.
Small groups are a great vehicle for people to grow spiritually. But, in order for people to grow in a group, they need to actually be in a group. If a church’s goal is to connect their congregation into groups, then a felt needs topic is very attractive. If you give people something they want to study, they will jump right in. If you offer something they “should” study, it may not go so well.
Let me go on the record: Healthy, balanced small groups cannot live by felt needs topics alone. But, kicking off groups usually doesn’t go well with series on evangelism, stewardship, fasting, or other self-sacrificial studies. You need to establish your goal. If you want to increase the number of groups, then go felt needs. If you want to grow your people deeper, then offer these topics to your established groups.
- You set the bar too high.
The more requirements for group leadership, the fewer leaders you will recruit. If you required all of your new leaders to be church members, complete a lengthy leadership training process, or graduate with their Master of Divinity, you certainly limited the number of groups you could launch this Fall.
Your level of acceptable risk will greatly determine the reward. If you invite people to do a study with their friends, then you are only limited to people with friends. If you increase the requirements, you lessen the impact.
If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups. If the groups don’t appear on your church’s website, group listing, or bulletin, you are not implying any kind of official endorsement of the groups. If friends invite friends, you will form good, lasting groups, and if someone gets in a bad group, well, it was their friend’s group after all.
- You focused on recruiting group members.
As a pastor, if the invitation is for potential group members, you may or may not actually start groups. You will certainly give yourself a lot of busy work trying to find enough leaders to accommodate the prospects or trying to place people in the right group. But, you’ve missed the mark and the point.
If you have a bunch of prospective group members, you might have a group. If you have a leader, you WILL have a group. In fact, the best way to get into a group is to start a group — you’re automatically in! When the focus is on recruiting leaders, you will greatly increase your number of groups. If your focus is on members, you will probably just end up with a mess.
- You put too much distance between the invitation and the response.
When you or your senior pastor made the invitation for people to start a group, how and when did they respond?
If they were sent to the church website to register, they didn’t go.
If they were sent to the church lobby, they walked right by.
If they were invited to a meeting in the near future, they forgot.
If they had a sign up card in their hand during the service, bingo, they’re in!
If they were sent an email to remind them to sign up at church on Sunday, they forgot again.
If they were sent an email with a registration link, then they signed up.
The less distance between the invitation and the response, the greater the result.
- You gave too many steps from “Yes” to starting the group.
If the pathway from the response to the group starting took too many steps, then you lost leaders at every phase.
If you recruited months in advance of your group launch, there were too many days before they started. Cold feet and good intentions didn’t get them there.
If you required a training class, a membership class, a pastoral interview, a group orientation, a group connection, and a final debrief meeting, you lost, lost, lost, lost and lost new group leaders.
If you kept the steps to a minimum, based on your own acceptable level of risk, you kept far more than any of the above scenarios.
- Your recruitment period was too short.
A few years ago, I was working with two churches of similar size who were launching groups on the same week. One church recruited 20 new leaders. The other recruited 60. The first church recruited leaders for one week. The second church recruited for three weeks in a row. Triple the recruiting equaled triple the result. You do the math.
- Your senior pastor was not on board.
If your senior pastor was hesitant about your next series in any way, it hurt you. Half-hearted appeals and hit or miss invitations lead to lackluster results.
If your senior pastor didn’t make the invitation for leaders, that was a huge miss. The senior pastor will get three times the result of any other staff member. I’ve served as an associate pastor for 20 of my 24 years of ministry. As soon as I learned this, I never made the invitation again.
How do you get your senior pastor on board with the series you recommend? You don’t. If you want your group launch to succeed, you have to get on board with where your senior pastor wants to go. If you respect your senior pastor’s direction, you will see respectable results. If you try to pressure your senior pastor into a series that is not his idea, you are on your own (literally).
Last Sunday, I worshipped with a church who had never had small groups. Their senior pastor decided it was time. He cast vision for groups. He kept the response close to the invitation. He focused on recruiting leaders. He did it all right. Then, on Sunday afternoon, 360 new group leaders showed up for training (and they have two more weeks to recruit!)
Learn the lessons from your failed attempt. There is no shame in failure, but there is shame in not learning.
Free Fall Group Launch Debrief – Based on YOUR Questions and Issues
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By Allen White
The timing of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma couldn’t be worse considering when many churches in the Houston area, Florida, and other places are getting ready for their Fall Small Group Launches. If your congregation and community have been drastically effected by these storms, here are some things to consider:
Is Your Topic Sensitive to Hurricane Victims?
I’ve talked to more than one pastor in the past week, who were questioning their Fall series based on the devastation of hurricanes. Both were planning a financial or generosity series this Fall. The timing couldn’t be worse for these topics. The reality is that many people have lost a lot and some have lost everything. The harder truth will come when folks apply for government assistance only to find 1 out of 5 will be declined. People will be dealing with grief, anger, and depression. A financial or generosity series will only rub salt in the wound.
One Houston area church has already called an audible. They postponed their financial series and are quickly putting together a series on hope. They realize their people will need an uplifting message at this point. How are they pulling this off? They are having a study written for them through LifeWay’s smallgroup.com, then they are shooting weekly videos by their pastors which their congregation can access from Youtube. For the folks who haven’t connected their computers with the internet, they might still need a DVD. Just duplicate single session DVDs each week. You don’t need a menu, just insert the disk and let it play. Some churches have even created series like this with a smartphone.
Are You Focusing on the Right Thing?
These storms have left a lot of people with a real mess. Now, while everyone was stuck at home because their workplaces were closed or gasoline was unavailable to get them to work, there were plenty of neighbors available to help each other deal with storm damage. Once people can go back to work, the damage won’t go away by itself. Maybe instead of small groups focusing on group meetings for the next 4-6 weeks, they should focus on group life and serving.
God speaks to us and works through us when we serve those in need. With so much need around us, maybe it’s time to put down our Bibles and pick up our tools. This doesn’t mean the group should never meet. But, for a season maybe the group should follow a different pattern. The community as well as the group will be blessed for it.
From my viewpoint in the upstate of South Carolina, we are getting the remainder of Tropical Storm Irma today. Rain is steady and winds are strong, but we’re not in crisis, even though bottled water is sold out at every store. We are safe and dry inside our homes and workplaces here. If I were sitting in Miami or Houston today, maybe my admonition would be stronger (or weaker).
Please don’t take these thoughts as gospel. You must take your senior pastor’s lead on the best way to proceed this Fall. You can share this post with them and say you found this from some know-it-all on the internet. God speaks to your pastor. He will give you the right direction. This is just food for thought.