By Allen White
Photo by Blended Images via 123rf.com
Over the last 26 years, I’ve served two senior pastors and one Brett Eastman. My titles started as Minister of Christian Education, then Associate Pastor, then Executive Director, then Discipleship Pastor, and at last, Vice President. A year ago I became President of my own organization. Finally, I’m the top dog. Of course, at this point, there are no other dogs, but that’s okay. Leading from the second chair or a shared second chair with half a dozen other pastors has taught me a different style of leadership. From this vantage point, and from working with over 1,500 churches in the last 11 years, I have learned what your senior pastor wishes you knew about their stance toward small groups.
[Please note: I know there are senior pastors who are both men and women. I struggle with gender-inclusive language, so if I refer to the senior pastor with male pronouns, please forgive me.]
1. Senior pastors don’t think a lot about groups, because they hired you.
As the small group pastor, you should be the most passionate person on your team about groups. If you’re not, you might be in the wrong role. Your senior pastor does not have small groups on the brain like you do. Senior pastors don’t have to, they have folks like you. If your pastor was not in favor of groups, you would not have a job. Whisper to yourself: “My pastor must like groups, then.”
I have met many small group folks over the years who have run themselves ragged over the notion that their senior pastor just won’t get on-board with groups. “If only my senior pastor supported groups more…If only he would talk about groups more…If only he was in a group…” I’m from Kansas, so I’m just going to say it —
Your senior pastor doesn’t need to get on-board with you.
It’s his boat!
If you’re not in his boat, then guess where you are?
2. When small group pastors ask for “airtime” in the weekend services, you put your senior pastor in a predicament.
Now, I’m not a believer that all ministries in a church deserve equal airtime. Read more here. But, senior pastors wrestle with fairness among ministries. They don’t want to play favorites. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to prefer one ministry over another. When you ask for airtime for groups, you are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a battle you should fight, but you need to learn to be strategic about this.
First of all, how do most of the people in your church keep informed about church events? If you don’t know this, find out ASAP. In the last church I served, we had a variety of ways to communication with the congregation. Through an online survey, I discovered that two communication methods stood out over and above every other one: the weekly bulletin and email. At the time, the darling of our church communication was promotional videos that ran before the service. It didn’t take a survey to understand that less than 10% of our 2,500 seat auditorium was filled when the videos played. When the communications department offered to make a video for my small group launch, I declined saying I would prefer something in the bulletin and an email blast. They thought I was just being humble. I knew what actually worked.
Secondly, nothing beats an invitation from the senior pastor from the stage before/during/after the sermon. How do you overcome your pastor’s overarching need for fairness? Put your pastor’s teaching on the curriculum. (There are a variety of ways to do this). When your pastor makes an investment in the curriculum, you are guaranteed to have airtime for groups.
3. If your senior pastor is not in a group, there is a reason.
The experience of a pastor is abnormal in the life of the church. Pastors and church staff don’t experience church the way the members of the church do. Imagine the characters that would show up if there was an open call to join the pastor’s small group. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be in that group (and I’m a pastor!). An open group for a senior pastor could be risky. If you pressure your senior pastor too far about getting into a group or leading a group, don’t sit around wondering why your pastor won’t get behind groups.
Every pastor is different. One pastor and his wife opened up their home and invited young couples to join their group. Another pastor met with two close friends and didn’t make an open invitation. In both cases, this was the pastor’s group. You have your own story.
Rather than pressure your senior pastor and other staff members to join a group if “they really support small groups,” help them identify the relationships in their lives that could be considered their group. Some may do a study together. Others may not. Either way, the pastor can talk about his group, regardless of the form.
4. Your senior pastor wishes you would relieve the burden instead of adding to it.
Every senior pastor is in favor of ministries that solve problems instead of those that create problems. Learn to solve your church’s problems with groups. What is your senior pastor concerned about? How could groups meet the need? I’m not saying this in the vein of “Let the youth group do it,” and now it’s “let the groups do it.” Rather, sit with your pastor to hear his passions and concerns, then design a way to connect those passions or concerns to groups.
If your church is growing steadily, the concern is for connection and assimilation. Groups can be the answer.
If your Sunday school and adult electives are declining, the concern is over discipleship. Groups can be the answer.
If your church needs more people to serve or give, well, people in groups tend to serve and give more than people not in groups. (For more information, see pages 45-46 in Transformational Groups by Eric Geiger and Ed Stetzer).
The first time we launched groups in a big way in our church in California, my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series. Advertising was set. When I asked if we could launch groups off of The Passion, he was fully on-board. (I jumped on his “ship.”) We even created our own homemade video curriculum. When my pastor invited our people to open their homes and do The Passion study, we doubled our groups in one day.
What is your pastor worried about?
What is your pastor passionate about?
How can groups help to relieve the burden or propel the vision?
By virtue of the senior pastor’s role, God speaks and directs the church through him. Get onboard with that vision. Your groups will thrive.
5. The simpler you can make the senior pastor’s involvement, the more they will be open to what you need.
If your pastor is willing to talk about groups in the weekend services, then script out exactly what you want them to say or create bullet points in advance. Then, wait until they need the direction. Some pastors want it ahead of time. Others want it just before the service. Do what works for your pastor rather than wishing your pastor would do what works for you.
At my last church, on the weeks my pastor offered to promote groups, I trotted up the staircase to his study, gave him the list of bullet points, walked through the points, then left him to execute the announcement. He was always spot on. Then, the next Sunday, I did the same thing. He didn’t need to come up with the invitation. I provided what he needed when he needed it, and it worked.
When I’ve created video curriculum with senior pastors, sometimes they taught on 6 out of 6 sessions. Sometimes, they’ve taught 1 of 6 with other teaching pastors filling in. Sometimes they taught from a script. Others taught with bullets. Still others just stood up and talked. We always scheduled the video shoot around the senior pastor’s schedule. If others had to wait, then they waited. Senior pastors gladly participated if they knew everything was set from them. Some would even prefer someone else to create their scripts from past sermons. As long as they knew they didn’t have to attend 10 meetings about the shoot and sit around for two hours until the crew was ready, they were in.
Your pastor has the ability to write his own scripts and create his own invitation to groups, but your pastor often does not have the time to do these things. Give your pastor something to start with. Make his job easier, and you will have wholehearted participation.
Remember, your senior pastors don’t work for you. You work for them.
You might wish that your senior pastor was more like someone else’s senior pastor. If only my senior pastor led a group, made curriculum, announced groups, and so forth. Be careful what you wish for. If you go about this the wrong way, you will be working for another senior pastor before you know it.
Work with what you have. It’s okay if your senior pastor doesn’t have small groups on the brain as long as you do. Any place where groups can intersect with the needs and passions of your senior pastor, you’ll have success.
By Allen White
Greg Atkinson is the founder of Worship Impressions and author of Church Leadership Essentials, Strange Leadership, and Secrets of a Secret Shopper. Over his 20—plus years of ministry experience, Greg has served as the director of WorshipHouse Media and editor of Christian Media Magazine, as well as serving as a worship pastor, technical director, and campus pastor. Greg has worked with churches of all stages and sizes, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, as well as with businesses, non-profits, and organizations such as Josh McDowell Ministries.
Q1: You’ve done a lot of ministry in a lot of places over the last 22 years. How did you land on Guest Services?
I was coaching church planters through ARC (Association of Related Churches), and the President of ARC was Billy Hornsby. Billy and I were talking in a hotel lobby one day and he said, “Greg you ought to be a secret shopper.” At the time, I only new of one other secret shopper. Billy said, “You’ve been around the church for a while, you’ve served in various roles, and you know what to look for – you know what excellence looks like.” “And,” he said, “I’ll give you your first endorsement.” So Billy sent out a mass email to all the ARC churches telling them they ought to bring me in. Churches started contacting me and the rest is history.
Q2: What does your “Secret Shopper” process look like?
I evaluate everything as it relates to the weekend services. I start with an online presence evaluation before I ever arrive at the church in person. I evaluated the church’s use of social media, and I thoroughly go through their church website and offer feedback. Once I arrive on campus, I start with the parking lot and from there to everything you can imagine – from greeters and ushers, information center, children’s ministry, security, and a big eye towards the worship service itself (evaluating and giving feedback on music, sound, video, lights and the sermon – as well as service structure and flow). I even look at the restrooms and write about the smell of the facility. One church of 12,000 that I did a secret shopper for said, “He doesn’t miss a thing.” Another church of 17,000 said, “It was probably the best money we spent all year.” I take my job very seriously and it is my mission to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.
Q3: What are some common issues you find churches make with their First Impressions?
Of course, every church is different, but there are common issues that I see at a majority of churches. Things like: The wrong people serving in hospitality, assuming people know things (guest services, signage, communication), not taking security seriously, and not thinking through their website strategically. These are just a few of the things I notice frequently. I’m going to write a full feature article for Christianity Today on this subject and will go into much greater detail.
Q4: You’ve really learned a lot about what makes guests feel welcome. You should write a book.
Yes! I did actually. My next book entitled Secrets of a Secret Shopper is set to come out this September. I wrote this book for small to medium-sized churches that can’t afford to bring in myself or another consultant. I go into great detail of everything I look for when I do a secret shopper. There are things in the book that are beneficial and practical for large churches as well. This book is very practical and is something every pastor, church leader and guest services director and first impressions volunteers need to read. It’s a book that has been 9 years in the making. You can check my website: GregAtkinson.com for details on the book release. You can also check my secret shopper website (WorshipImpressions.com), to read more articles on first impressions and find out about when the book releases.
Q5: What is the strangest experience you’ve had secret shopping a church?
Almost getting arrested would be one. Almost getting tazed would be two. And getting a background check ran on me would be three. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell what led to the following “fun times.” All I can say is that I will test your church’s security and find its weaknesses. I just did a church secret shopper consultation for a medium-sized church two weeks ago and their “security team” saw me walking around and going places I shouldn’t. They just watched me, but didn’t engage me. At the end of the service, with every one their security team’s eye on me, they watched me go straight down the center aisle and approach the senior pastor. They were relieved when I hugged him. They should have had a security person present, standing next to the senior pastor. I thought it was strange that they didn’t engage me and say, “May I help you?” – Those 4 words are the biggest weapon or deterrent that any person in a church has on any given week. Please don’t forget that.
Q5.5: Being a Greer, South Carolina boy, Clemson or Carolina?
South Carolina Gamecocks all the way. Ever since I started watching football games with my grandfather as a young child, I’ve been a huge Gamecock fan and am excited for our future.
By Allen White
Photo by Unal Ozman
“If I did that for small groups, then I would have to do the same for everyone else.” Have you ever heard those words before?
When it came to getting airtime in the weekend services for small groups, I’ve faced a few culprits over the years. First, I thought the problem was the Worship Pastor who didn’t want to interrupt “the flow” of the worship service. Then, I thought the problem rested with the Communications Director, who just wanted to control everything. I’m not ready to rule them out entirely, but I have found the true troublemaker:
The Idea of Fairness.
Fairness says, “If I promote your ministry, then I have to promote everyone else’s ministry at the same level.” It also says, “I can’t promote only your ministry on one weekend or else others will think I’m playing favorites.” I am personifying Fairness here, because I think it’s demonic. Now, some of you may be thinking that I’m overstating my frustration with Fairness, but the rest of you are glad that I called it out.
If Fairness determines what gets promoted in your church, then don’t wonder why your church continues to flounder at small groups or anything else. If you’re ready to move forward and get unstuck from Fairness, then ask yourself a few questions:
1. Where is Your Church Headed?
Now, before you hike off into the woods and spend three days going ’round and ’round about the same things you discussed last year, let’s face it, most church mission and vision statements are practically identical. Our mission is Christ’s mission. Love God and Love People or Love, Serve, Share, or something similar. We’re all clear.
But, how is your church doing that? Maybe you’re not. I hope that’s not true.
Most churches “Love God” through worship services and through our relationships with each other. “Loving People” comes through serving them, caring for them, helping them grow in their faith, and so on. What is helping your people achieve what God has called them to in your church? If it’s Sunday School, then promote Sunday School. If it’s Serving the Community, then promote Serving the Community. If it’s Small Groups, then promote Small Groups. If it’s a combination of things, then promote a combination of things.
But, you don’t need to promote everything all at once or equally.
2. What is Growing in Your Church and What is Declining?
For most churches in North America, traditional means of discipleship like Sunday School classes and Midweek Bible Study are on the decline. People just don’t want to commit four hours every Sunday morning or come back on Wednesday night. Now, if these things are working for you, then don’t shut them down. But, no amount of additional airtime in the weekend services is going to get more people into Sunday School or Midweek Bible Study.
Now if you have a rockin’ Sunday School or Midweek and nearly 100 percent of your adults are being discipled that way, then promote what’s working. Don’t worry about Small Groups. When was the last time you stopped to compare your church’s discipleship options with your average weekly adult attendance? If there is a gap of more than 30 percent between your worship attendance and your discipleship options, then it’s time to promote groups. And, de-emphasize the other offerings that aren’t growing.
3. What Ministries Impact the Most People in Your Church and in Your Community?
In many churches, their church bulletins and websites are like the old Sears catalog. It lists about every possible thing anyone could ever want. The only problem is you can’t find it. At least the Sears catalog gave us an index.
A while back a study was conducted to determine ice cream sales. At one store, 20 flavors were sampled by customers. At another store, four flavors were offered. Which store sold the most ice cream? The store that was sampling only four flavors sold more ice cream. They found choosing one out of four flavors was a much simpler decision than choosing one flavor from 20 kinds.
If you took a hard look at the ministries your church offers, which ones impact the greatest number of people or have the potential to? It’s probably not “Paws for People.”
In the last church I served, we had a ministry called “Paws for People.” People brought their dogs to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. I am a dog lover. When I’m in a nursing home one day, a canine visitor would be very welcome. But, why would this ministry ever be promoted to our entire congregation of 5,000 adults?
How many were dog owners? How many were already involved in a ministry? How many had a heart to go to nursing homes? (When was the last time you visited a nursing home outside of work?) The subset of potential candidates gets smaller and smaller.
While “Paws for People” would be great in a booth at a ministry fair, they don’t need airtime in the weekend services. Why? What they offer doesn’t impact 50 percent or more of the people in the service. But, if Fairness had its say, “Paws for People” would get equal airtime with everyone else.
What does impact 50 percent or more? Small groups, of course. Maybe Women’s Ministry or Men’s Ministry, if you have them. (If you don’t have these, don’t start them). All church events. You get the picture.
4. How Do Your People Stay Informed?
Most churches have a variety of ways to communicate to their people: bulletins, slides before the service, videos, inserts, ministry tables in the lobby, e-newsletters, other emails, church apps, church website, etc. But, which ones are actually effective in getting the word out about your ministry?
Often I survey the churches I work with (and those I have served) and ask how people stay informed about church events. While every church is a little different, this is important information. If you expect your church’s website to do all of the heavy lifting on keeping people informed, well, 1995 just called and they want their AOL back.
In the last church I served, they were big on video announcements. But, the video announcements were played before the service when less than 10 percent of the congregation was even in the auditorium. What I discovered through a survey was that our people stayed informed through the church bulletin, a weekly email newsletter, and announcements made in the service.
When we met to plan our events, they thought I was being humble when I told them a video announcement wasn’t necessary. I only wanted an ad in the bulletin and the e-newsletter. And, leading up to a campaign, the Senior Pastor made announcements to recruit leaders (and there were no other announcements on those three weeks). Worked every time.
A Few Thoughts
As a pastor, it’s hard when anyone accuses you of anything, let alone playing favorites. You face enough pressures just from ministry. Who needs the pressure?
Fairness says, “Everything is important.”
Let’s face it, if Everything is Important, then Nothing is Important.
But, there are plenty of pastors who cower behind Fairness. They would rather make the announcement for “Paws for People” rather than face a confrontation. It’s too bad. They are doing a disservice to their churches.
Promote what you want to see grow in your church. Stop promoting what is declining or dying. No amount of life support is going to bring it back. Then, set priorities for your promotion. And, please don’t relegate these decisions to the Worship Pastor or the Communications Director.
Let me know what you think?
By Allen White
I met a remarkable man yesterday named Ralph.
Ralph is an employee at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen located near gate B14 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. ATL is my second home.
Rushing between gates yesterday, I decided to stop in for some spicy chicken. The line wasn’t long, but the tables were full. My eyes darted around trying to find a spot. If I couldn’t find one, then I’d be dining at my gate, which usually results in something spilled on my shirt. I was headed home, but nonetheless. Then, Ralph walked up to me.
He said, “Would you like a table?” Of course, I did. Then, Ralph said, “I will have this table ready for you right here. And, what would you like to drink?” I hadn’t even ordered yet. I told him sweet tea, then he said, “Alright, just stay in line to place your order.”
Once I had ordered and paid, my table was ready. Ralph had provided me with my drink, napkins, a plastic spork, and a straw. This is not what I expected from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at the airport.
As I ate, I noticed Ralph approached every customer in line and asked if they would like a table. If a couple was standing together, he would seat the lady and ask the gentleman to stand in line to place the order. I don’t know whether Popeye’s is trying a new strategy or if this was unique to Ralph, but it was quite remarkable.
Ralph was no ordinary dining room manager. Ralph was the maitre de at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at gate B14. He provided a level of service you never expect at any fast food restaurant except for maybe Chick-fil-A.
Next time I’m in the ATL, which will be soon, I will stop by Popeye’s near gate B14 again, but not just for the spicy chicken. I’ll stop by for Ralph and the spicy chicken.
What does your organization or business do when someone’s eyes are darting around looking for a solution? The regulars will make their way to where they need to go. But, new people will be looking around perplexed. What are you intentionally doing to help them? How’s your hospitality?
You need a Ralph, or a team of Ralphs
By Allen White
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?