Posts Tagged small group launch

[Part 1/3] Connecting Your Entire Congregation: 3 Secrets to Discipling a Growing Church

By Allen White

By captainvector via 123rf.com

By captainvector via 123rf.com

After the dismissal of our founding pastor, our church was devastated. Everyone left who was in favor of our pastor. Everyone left who was against our pastor. And, all of the staff left, except for me. There I was with the 85 remaining members praying about what to do. It was a hard year.

On the very last Sunday of that year, our new pastor joined us, and hope reappeared. Our church started growing — not dramatically, but consistently.

When we reached 250 people, we heard our congregation say, “I don’t know everybody anymore.”

When we went to two services and reached 400 people, the comments changed to, “I can’t find the people I do know.”

Everybody didn’t need to know everyone, but everybody needed to know someone. We knew it was time to start groups.

I attended conferences, read books, and interviewed other pastors about small groups. The more information I collected, the more confused I became. We launched our groups for better or worse. Some of what we experienced was better than expected. The things we didn’t expect were worse.

Here’s what worked for us:

1. Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.

As our church continued to grow, we didn’t want to see people get lost in the shuffle or fall through the cracks. Even though they didn’t come all at once, they were coming in a steady stream. We needed to start connecting and discipling folks ASAP.

As our couple of Sunday school classes and our midweek Bible study were declining, we found that groups were a great place for people to connect and go deeper into God’s Word. We offered a variety of curriculum for our groups to choose from. Since we only started with a few groups, it was easy to keep an eye on them and know what was going on. If a group started to stray toward the “loony fringe,” we very gently guided them back into the fold. Things were under control.

We made announcements in the services, sent postcards in the mail and emails, and featured groups regularly in the church bulletin. Our groups started to gain momentum.

In fact, we couldn’t recruit new leaders fast enough to keep up with the demand.

2. A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.

Now to make sure we didn’t set ourselves up for trouble, I took on the task of personally recruiting every group leader. I had been at the church for seven years at that time. I pretty much knew the good apples from the rotten apples. (And, God loves the rotten apples, too.)

The easiest place to start was to round up the usual suspects. You know, the folks we counted on for everything. I personally invited board members and founding members as well as other solid citizens. It didn’t take much effort to quickly find 10 willing leaders who I believed would offer a quality experience.

Admission: I also knew that they wouldn’t cause any problems for me. I was wearing a lot of other hats like children’s ministry, leading worship, and overseeing all of our ministries, plus speaking on Wednesday nights and occasionally on Sundays. I did not need any more problems. I had enough already.

We weren’t reaching for explosive growth. After all, since our church was growing steadily, but incrementally, we felt the gradual growth of groups would serve us well. I mean, we weren’t Saddleback or Willow Creek. There was something special about them. Normal churches like ours weren’t seeing huge percentages of people connected into groups…at least not yet.

We offered the groups to our people, and they signed up. Once the groups were full, then the rest of the folks who wanted to join a group had to hang out in the midweek Bible study with me or in a Sunday school class until the next batch of group leaders were ready to go. Even though we let a year pass before we offered groups again, we launched six more groups the following year and quickly filled them up as well.

Things were going well in the “trouble-free” department. Our groups were coming along. And, our church kept growing steadily.

Value: A quality group experience starts with a quality leader.

3. Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.

Every year I would gather my new recruits into a “turbo group” by way of Carl George and his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. We spent six weeks as a small group with the intention of every leader or couple starting their own group when the training was over.

I trained them on why groups were important; how to deal with various issues in the group like over-talkers and conflict; how to recruit an apprentice leader; and how to birth a new group. The training was in the format of a small group, so based on a Bible study, I was modeling a group meeting while I was training the leaders.

After the training ended, and the leaders started their new groups, we met monthly for group huddles. While I did have a couple of other people helping me coach the leaders, I was still learning about group life myself, so I did all of the training and led the monthly huddles. The coaches visited groups and connected with the leaders.

Result: We developed a solid groups system with 30 percent of our adults in groups.

As our church continued to grow, our groups also continued to grow. Groups weren’t keeping pace with the growth of the church, but we achieved 30 percent in groups, which somebody told me once put us in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S. — not too shabby.

The plan was for every group leader to indentify and train an apprentice leader. Then, once a year, the group would help a new group get started either by the leader starting a new group, the apprentice starting a new group, or the group dividing into two groups. With group multiplication and the new recruits I was inviting, we were on a good pace to double our groups or better every year. I looked forward to the day when group attendance would exceed worship attendance.

But, it started to feel like I needed another 100 years to catch up with the increasing size of the congregation.

Quick Recap:
Secret #1: Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
Secret #2: A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Secret #3: Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.

Where We Failed: Bottleneck!

Failure #1. The way we recruited leaders and launched groups couldn’t keep pace with the growth of the church.

The harder I tried to recruit more leaders and launch groups, the behinder and behinder I got. Some years we started 10 groups. Other years we started two groups. One year my training yielded zero new groups.

As the church continued to grow by 13 – 33% per year, our group formation just couldn’t keep up. More people were getting lost in the shuffle, and more leaders were not stepping up at the rate we needed them.

I thought I had a good thing going by recruiting well-known people myself. The problems were kept at a minimum. But, now we faced a much bigger problem — where were the leaders going to come from?

Failure #2: Our leaders couldn’t identify an apprentice leader.

I put a lot of pressure on the group leaders to identify and train their apprentice. After all, the future of our small groups depended on apprentices, or at least, that’s what it seemed like. In every huddle and every encounter with the group leaders, I would emphasize the significance of raising up an apprentice leader. My words didn’t fall on deaf ears. They fell on stressed ears.

My leaders would pass me in the hallways on Sunday morning and say, “I’m working on my apprentice.”

I thought, “Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?”

The apprentice strategy was going nowhere good.

Failure #3: No one wanted to give up their group to start a new group.

Since the group leaders weren’t recruiting apprentices, I took the initiative to recruit potential leaders right out of their groups. There were great candidates right under the noses of the group leaders, but they just didn’t see them. I did!

Before they knew it, the new recruits were in my Turbo Group and headed toward leading their own group. The only problem was that while these potential leaders agreed to participate out of loyalty to me and the church, their hearts weren’t in it. They didn’t want to give up the group they loved. They were torn.

After the six weeks of training was complete, instead of going forward with a new group, many of them went back to the group they came from. This wasn’t progress. This was regress. My efforts were actually working against me.

Failure #4: After seven years of effort, our groups were stuck…

While we had 30 percent of our adults in groups, and our church was allegedly in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S., I felt like a loser. The church continued to grow. The groups were stuck. No new leaders. No new groups. No apprentices. So, I gave up on this strategy.

At the end of my time at this church, 125 percent of our weekly adult attendance was connected in groups.

I want to share with you a new strategy we created to recruit more leaders, form more groups faster, and maintain a quality group experience.

 

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Bad Times to Launch Small Groups

By Allen White

42505608 - launch word written on calendar using pen

After launching small groups with church-wide campaigns over the last 14 years, I’ve discovered there are some great times to launch groups, and there are definitely some seasons or situations to avoid. Considering the effort that’s put into a campaign whether you are purchasing someone else’s campaign or creating your own, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Why put all of that time, energy, and effort into something that will end up with a mediocre result? Here are some seasons and situations to avoid:

1. Summer.

My men’s group met 52 weeks of the year. We met at a restaurant for lunch on Wednesdays. Like most guys, we ate lunch 52 weeks of the year, so we did a Bible study too. I’m not sure 52 weeks per year is ideal, but it worked for us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for everyone.

Because of the school calendar, which was based on an agrarian society, most schools are in session from Labor Day until Memorial Day as God intended. Some schools, however, start early in August. This pre-Labor Day start is against the natural order of things, in my humble opinion. But, most schools offer the three reasons teachers have entered the profession: June, July, and August.

Families go on vacation. The evenings are longer. Even committed group members tend to forget about small groups. If getting groups to continue meetings is a challenge during the Summer, then starting groups in the Summer is even more difficult.

Summer is the weakest season of the year to launch groups. The strongest seasons for group launches are (in order): Fall, New Years, and Spring (after Easter). Summer is in last place by a mile. By launching groups in the Summer, you are faced with two issue. First, you’re not getting your bang for the buck as mentioned earlier. Second, you are taking away from the impact of your Fall campaign. Not only is Fall the start of the school year, but the Summer break before Fall helps to make a Fall launch the strongest of the year.

Now, there will be groups like mine who want to continue through the Summer come hell or high water. Let them meet. But, don’t spend a leadership coin on a Summer launch. Save it until Fall.

2. Capital Campaign.

Growing churches build. Building churches requires a lot of money and usually some sort of capital campaign. We understand this.

People who are in groups tend to give more than people who are not in groups. According to Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups, their research has shown that people not in groups give 6.07 percent of their income, while those who attended a group 4 or more times a month gave 10.34 percent (p 45). If a family earned $35,000 per year, this means their annual giving would increase by $1494.50 per year if they joined a small group.

If the church needs money, and people in groups tend to give more money, then why not get everybody into groups so they’ll give to more the capital campaign. That equation works for the short-term, but not the long term.

Once an association is made between small groups and capital campaigns, then the next time the call is made for people to join small groups, most people will think, “I wonder how much money they need to raise this time.” I’m not saying capital campaigns are wrong. They’re not. They are necessary. But, capital campaigns and small group campaigns simply do not go together.

To avoid a bad associate, get ahead of the capital campaigns. Form groups in the New Year, then start the capital campaign in the Fall. Groups can certainly study something about the church’s vision related to the capital campaign, and they’ve started well enough in advance that the association shouldn’t be made.

3. During a Church Crisis.

When a church is facing a major crisis, like the pastor’s forced resignation, a devastating financial blow, or a scandal of any kind, this is not the time to start small groups. I’m not being glib. My first pastor had to resign after I’d only been on staff for 18 months. While groups will certainly bond people together, disgruntled individuals can become platoons who will march right out of your church together. Wait until the dust settles, then launch groups.

4. Simultaneously with Another Major Initiative.

My friend, Gilbert Thurston says, “If you are casting vision for two things at the same time, you are creating Di-vision or division.” No pastor wants to promote division. The problem is if the best time to launch small groups is in the Fall and the New Year, well, it’s also the best time to launch everything else. Sigh.

To avoid creating di-vision in your church, stagger your announcements. If you’re church has on-going or semester-based groups and ministries like Celebrate Recovery, Financial Peace University, DivorceCare, GriefShare, or others, then start those before you make the call for groups. While it’s nice to have everyone in the church studying the same thing, it’s not necessary for an effective group launch. Once the support groups have started, then gear up for your big Fall or New Year’s launch.

5. If the Majority of Your Adults are in Sunday School.

Some churches don’t need small groups. Maybe they’d like to have groups, but for those churches who still run a thriving adult Sunday school, groups really aren’t necessary. Now, I’m talking about churches with 90 percent of their adults in Sunday school today. This is different from churches with declining Sunday schools who think that promoting Sunday school more will boost attendance. If that’s you, then you need to start groups. Your Sunday school ain’t coming back. But, there are those churches with well established, thriving Sunday schools. My word to you — Keep Sunday School working. If it begins to slip, then think groups.

You really have to ask yourself: Are we in the meeting business or are we in the discipleship business? You can make disciples in Sunday school. You can make disciples in groups. The goal is not groups. The goal is developing leaders and making disciples.

6. Christmas.

For many of the same reasons as Summer, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day become overloaded with activities for most people in your church. Between school programs, Christmas parties, special Christmas services, shopping, traveling, and whatever else they’ve piled on themselves, the Christmas season is a very difficult time to start groups or for groups to even meet regularly. Groups can have fun together or serve together, but weekly meetings are probably out.

7. Immediately after New Year’s Day.

Most senior pastors want to kick off the new year with a “State of the Church” type of message or “Vision Sunday,” then they want to get right into their series the second Sunday in January. If this is when the church chooses to launch groups, there’s a big problem — there is no time to recruit leaders or form groups. If you think, “We will just recruit leaders in December for the January launch,” then go back and read #6. I’ve tried this. I ended up standing in the briefing room, listening to crickets, and questioning the call of God on my life. You can’t recruit nobody for nuthin’ in December. Save yourself some headaches.

The “New Year’s” launch will go much better if there is time in January to recruit leaders and form groups before the series starts in late January. Better yet, use the whole month of January to recruit and form groups, then run your series between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter.

Every church is different. For instance, Canadian churches will want to start their Fall series after Canadian Thanksgiving. If you live in Seattle and the mountain is still out in September, you might want to wait until October to start your series. If your people’s calendars fill up very quickly at the start of the school year, then you’d better launch groups when school starts, so folks still have an evening available.

Use these seven suggestions to guide you. I want you to succeed with your next group launch, but in the end, you need to do what works best in your neck of the woods.

c u r r E n t l y

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Avoiding Ground Hog Day This Fall

By Allen White

Photo by Nicolas Fernandez

Photo by Nicolas Fernandez

Most of us know the movie starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who is sent to cover the story of a “weather forecasting rat.” Obviously, this is not his favorite assignment. This time something is different. Every day when he wakes up, it’s once again Ground Hog Day. He’s basically having the worse day of his life over and over and over again. Until he finally gets it right.

Some churches had stellar Fall launches last year, then they failed to retain as many groups as they would have liked. The plan for this Fall is another big launch without a next step. The result will be Ground Hog Day.

Other churches are carefully handpicking leaders hoping to have an incremental increase in groups this Fall. I followed this strategy for seven years and got stuck with only 30 percent of our people in groups. After six Ground Hog Days in a row, I knew something had to change.

How will your Fall launch this year be different from your Fall launch last year? Now, you could do the exact same thing you did last year only louder, more frequent, and with great intensity, and you will probably gain a few more. But, the result will be far from exponential, and it will feel like Ground Hog Day all over again. Consider these six things as you prepare for your Fall launch:

1. What topic will attract more?

In working with over 1,500 churches over the last 11 years, some topics have been real winners in connecting not only congregations, but communities into groups. Other topics, well, not so much. Let’s start with the narrow topics.

If you’re church is going with a rather mature topic like fasting, giving, evangelism, or anything by Francis Chan, you will have a limited amount of new groups starting. After all, when most of us read Francis Chan, we wonder if we’re even still Christians. There is a place for more mature topics, topics with lots of homework, and anything to do with money, but it’s not in a Fall campaign where you have the biggest possibility of connecting people into groups.

Think about felt needs. What needs do your people and your community have? How could a Fall campaign help? Topics like parenting, relationships, stress, fears, hope, peace, and similar could certainly scratch where folks itch. This does not mean you need to cater to peoples’ needs in every curriculum you promote, but if you want to draw them in for a big Fall launch, that is certainly the direction to head. In fact, you might even think about creating your own curriculum.

2. What strategy will connect more?

What has worked in the past will not continue into the future. If your people are filling out sign up cards or web forms, get out of that business ASAP. This is the most time consuming, ineffective method of forming groups known to man. You do all the work of getting them into a group only to discover that either the leader never follows up with the person, the person never shows up, or the person doesn’t stick with a group where they have nothing in common with anybody else. In fact, this practice makes me want to change the analogy from Ground Hog Day to the definition of insanity!

Now that you’re giving up your sign up cards, how do you connect people into groups. Start with the group leaders. Who do they know that would enjoy the study? Personal invitation will go a long way to form healthier, long-lasting groups. If you have a lot of new people in your church or moving into your area, then create an environment where new people can meet group leaders face to face, then sign up for a specific group. Some people want to lead a group, but don’t want strangers coming to their house. Why not have them start a group by just inviting their friends? In fact, could your people “do the study with their friends” and not even mention “groups”?

3. What new method will recruit more leaders?

Are you still handpicking leaders? How stressed are you already about Fall? Are your leaders supposed to be training an apprentice? How well is that working? Are you still recruiting “hosts”? If you’ve been recruiting hosts for the last 14 years, your people are wise to you. They know “hosts” means leader.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These have all been very effective methods of recruiting and developing leaders. But, if you are continuing to recruit dwindling amounts of leaders with these same strategies, then you must face the fact that your people have effectively said “No” to these recruiting methods. What could you offer this Fall that they might say “Yes” to?

4. Who will coach your new leaders?

Just reading that question evokes a lot of guilt for most small group coaches. I know your coaching structure is not what you imagined or is non-existent. Some of you have even deceived yourselves into thinking that staff can handle the needs of group leaders. You’re sending out emails and inviting people to meetings. How are those meetings working out?

The most important person in the life of a group leader is his or her coach. I was the sole coach for all of my leaders for a long time. Technically, it worked. Practically, it didn’t. They didn’t receive the care and support they needed. In fact, one year all of them quit. That was not a Ground Hog Day I ever wanted to repeat, so we put coaching in place before we recruited another group leader.

The main focus of any small group pastor should be on two things: coaching and curriculum. Coaches are the only way to know what’s in the head and heart of a group leader. And, of course, coaches must be accountable to you or your small group team depending on the size of your church.

5. What training tool will be more effective?

Seminary taught me I needed to train leaders in meetings. I offered meetings. Some were better attended than others. Once I stood in an empty room at about 15 minutes after the start time questioning the call of God on my life because no one had showed up for my training. Then, I had a big realization: people hate meetings.

Heading into this Fall (and attempting to avoid another Ground Hog Day), are you in the training business or the meeting business? They are not the same thing. If your training is based on centralized meetings, then you are missing a good portion of your leaders. How else can you train? I started this blog by answering my group leaders questions. Some small group pastors create a 2 minute video they email to their leaders every week. What could training look like in your church?

A while back I was talking to a pastor who had a background in corporate training. He told me, “This might sound strange considering my background, but I’ve come to realize the best training comes from the person who is proximate to the group leader when they are facing a problem.” Now, we’re back to coaching.

6. How will more groups continue into the New Year?

Creating a lot of excitement and starting a bunch of groups for a six week series is relatively easy. The test comes at the end of the six weeks. For some reason when people are invited into a six week study, they get the impression that at the end of the six weeks their group is done. I don’t know where they would get such a crazy idea.

If we don’t challenge these groups to continue, then not only will we experience Ground Hog Day every Fall, we will have Ground Hog Day at the start of every semester and every group launch. In North America, people like to stay together. This is why the apprentice model is a struggle. This is also why semester-based groups which practice what I call “fruit basket upset” at the end of the semester create a lot more work and dissatisfaction among group members.

If you give groups an opportunity to continue in the middle of your Fall series, chances are they will take you up on it. If you execute all six points of this post well, you could have 80 percent or more of your groups continue.

Ground Hog Day isn’t just for February.

What are you willing to change this Fall that will increase your result and effectiveness in forming and retaining groups? What risk are you willing to take? Would you lower the requirements for group leaders temporarily? Would you try a new strategy to form groups? Could you try your hand at developing a coaching structure and reworking your training?

This Fall could be unlike any Fall launch you’ve lead before. Isn’t it time to get out of the cycle of Ground Hog Day. If you would like to learn more, please join me for an upcoming webinar: allenwhite.org/webinars

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7 Insights for Successful Small Group Launches

By Allen White 7 Insights Ad

I’ve seen small group launches go really well. And, I’ve had churches come to me after the launch or a series of launches and ask for help. Not so secretly, I really wish I had the opportunity to talk to them first. Any church only has so many opportunities to successfully launch groups and connect the majority of their members. Failure to launch in these circumstances is fatal for future launch attempts.

As I’ve worked with churches, large and small, across North America, I have discovered seven things that help churches successfully launch groups. By having these things in place, you have a better chance of recruiting the leaders and coaches you need, forming groups that will last, and make your senior pastor a raving fan of groups.

Insight #1: Choose the Right Topic.

The right or wrong topic will make or break your launch. Think about who you are trying to connect: church members or folks in the community. If you chose a mature topic like tithing or fasting, more than likely you’ll have a tough road getting your members to participate let alone anyone from outside of your church. Think about topics that would be a felt need for your people and your community.

I’ve coached churches who have done a two step strategy with this. The first campaign was used to connect and cast vision to the church body. The second campaign was designed for the church to reach the community. For instance, Capital Area Christian Church in the Harrisburg, PA area launched a New Year’s series in 2015 called Manifesto. This series laid out the vision and mission of the church to their people. Then, after Easter 2015, the launched a second series called Monsters Under the Bed, which addresses the topic of fear — now that’s a significant felt need. In the second series, they connect more in their congregation, but also quite a few in their community.

Insight #2: Lower the Bar on Leadership.

That doesn’t mean throwing people who are completely unprepared with no coach into the deep end. When I say, “lower the bar” I mean temporarily setting aside your requirements for short term series groups. These groups aren’t advertised. You don’t send people to these groups. You invite people who are open to doing a study with their friends give small groups a try. Maybe for the first time.

If they have a good experience leading a group, then invite them to do more. Eventually, you will offer them a leadership track to make them official leaders. If things didn’t go so well for them, then thank them for giving it a try and encourage them to try another ministry.

As Neil Cole says, “We need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” Not everyone has a leadership gift, but we are all called to “go and make disciples.” No one is exempt from the Great Commission. By giving your people an easy to use tool like a video-based curriculum, you can help your people live in obedience to God by equipping them for what God commands them to do. When did this become an option?

Insight #3: Focus on Recruiting Group Leaders.

If your pastor is willing to give “airtime” in the weekend service to talk about groups, recruit leaders. If your pastor gives you airtime for multiple weekends, recruit leaders. If you are recruiting leaders, people will figure out the church is launching groups or doing a church-wide campaign. Don’t waste this precious airtime promoting groups. And, certainly don’t waste this precious airtime promoting classes and Bible studies that are on their way out. Recruit leaders.

Insight #4: Keep the Invitation and the Response Close Together.

People only think about church when they are in church. When the pastor invites folks to lead a group, then provide a way IN THE SERVICE for them to respond. Don’t send them to the lobby. Don’t send them to the website. Don’t send them out the door without collecting their response.

Whether you use a response card which is placed in the offering, an online survey taken on a smartphone, or texting a message to a designated number, you want to get a “Yes” from every willing person before they head out the door. If you send an email invitation from the Senior Pastor during the week, provide a link for them to sign up online.

Insight #5: Shorten the Distance Between Their “Yes” and Starting the Group.

Since we’ve already waved the requirements, the new leaders are already one step closer to starting their group. Whether the Senior Pastor encourages them in the service to begin inviting people to their groups or they are instructed on how to form their groups in a briefing immediately after the service, don’t allow any time to pass from when they say “Yes” to when the new leaders put things in motion.

The longer you wait, the sooner they will get cold feet. Don’t schedule a briefing or orientation a month from the invitation because it’s efficient. I would rather host three briefs per weekend for three weeks in a row with a handful of people at each than wait a month and lose half of the prospective leaders in the process. You’ve made it easy for people to start groups, now get them started!

Insight #6: Recruit During the Month Prior to Your Launch.

While you can promote well in advance of the series, don’t take signups for months. I learned this from a PTA president. Promote early and often, but only take signups right before the event. Otherwise, you can recruit and recruit only to discover most people will sign up in the last three weeks before the start of the launch.

One month out gather your existing group leaders to give them the first look at the series. I call this a Sneak Peek. This will honor your leaders by giving them an exclusive opportunity to check out the new study. This will also take pressure off of your new leader briefings by briefing your established leaders ahead of time. This is also a great opportunity to recruit your established leaders to coach new leaders.

Then, recruit new leaders for the three weeks leading up to the launch. Not everyone attends every weekend, so you want to ask for more than one weekend. Also, some people will need time to warm up to the idea. The first week they might say “No” to leading a group, but by the third week, their “No” might turn to a “Yes.”

Insight #7: Your Senior Pastor Must be Your Church’s Small Group Champion.

Going back 20 years, I used to personally recruit every small group leader in my church. While I had stellar group leaders, my church also got stuck at 30 percent of our people in groups. Then, I asked my Senior Pastor to invite people to lead groups. We doubled our groups in a day. I have not personally recruited another small group leader since 2004. And, I served in a whole other church since then!

To gain your Senior Pastor’s interest in groups, put your pastor on the curriculum. If you do, your pastor will be more interested in groups because he will want people to use his curriculum. Also, your people will be far more interested in joining a group, because they already like your pastor’s teaching.

I know I gave you these seven insights in rapid fire succession. If you hit these seven points, you will have a great small group launch. If you want to hear more, then register for my next webinar at allenwhite.org/webinars.

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4 Questionable Practices in Small Groups

By Allen White

Photo by Lina Mikuckiene. Used with permission.

Photo by Lina Mikuckiene. Used with permission.

In leading small groups and tracking trends over the last 25 years, I’ve done all kinds of things to recruit leaders and get people connected into groups. Some of those things, I had to apologize for. Others, I simply avoided from the start. While this post is not meant to cast aspersions on other well-meaning practitioners, it might be time to slow down and rethink some of the things we’ve been doing.

1. Telling People, “Your small group will be your new best friends.”

Sometimes in our zeal of connecting people into community, we overreach and make unrealistic promises about small groups. Let’s face it, we’ve all been in small groups. Some of those groups rocked. Some of those groups don’t rock. The more random the method in forming small groups, the less likely people will become friends, let alone, close friends. I’ve actually had to apologize for this one.

Maybe a better way to say this is that prospective group members will meet some friendly people in groups. That’s a safer bet. But, you can even go one better.

Encourage people to form a group with the friends they already have. This way they are doing something intentional about their spiritual growth and getting together with their friends. This is much better than forsaking their current friends for a group of possible future friends. After all, why reconnect people who are already connected?

Now there may be some new folks in your church who honestly don’t know anyone. People who have just moved into the community or are new to your church might not get invited into a group. These tend to be the exceptions and not the rule. Make allowances for these exceptions, but don’t oversell groups in the process.

2. Recruiting Leaders by saying, “Hosting a group is simple.”

Fourteen years ago, we were introduced to a new strategy to recruit hosts instead of leaders. The idea was that if people would open their home, provide some refreshments, and push play, then they can very easily host a group.

Then, we ran into an issue — everybody is normal until you get to know them (Thanks, John Ortberg for that line). Once people got into groups and got to know each other, we discovered there were a few problems. These issues went well beyond pouring coffee and pushing play. Now, what do we do?

The issue really comes down to how well the hosts were prepared and what kind of backup you’ve provided. Starting with the first briefing or orientation the new host attends, they need to understand when something comes up, they will have a coach to turn to, and not just a phone number. They will also receive on-going training, and not just jump into the deep end and have fun! Something as simple as sending out a short training video on a regular basis to answer common questions or to direct hosts in where to turn for help makes for suitable backup.

The risk of not offering coaching, training, and help is hosts who end up with a bad experience, no group, and no plans for hosting a group again. These causalities can and should be avoided at all costs. Regardless of the whether the church has dozens, hundreds or thousands of new groups, it’s necessary to effectively support them. Otherwise, you end up with the dilemma of disposable groups.

3. Believing New Leaders can Survive Without a Coach.

One of the biggest factors in the failure of new groups is discouragement. The friends who a new leader invites can’t join the group. Twenty people signed up, but only a few showed up. The enemy beats the new leaders up and convinces them they aren’t good enough to lead. Discouragement is devastating to new leaders.

Most new leaders aren’t going to pick up the phone and seek out encouragement. In fact, if they did, they might feel they were confessing a fault rather than seeking help. But, a coach who checks in on them regularly is far more likely to hear the new leader’s need first and respond. The new leaders will be more open with their coaches, since they have a relationship.

Building a coaching structure is the real work of small group ministry. Regardless of the size of your church, if you follow the principles of Exodus 18, you will have more groups and better leaders. Neglecting new leaders is unwise.

4. Inviting People to Join Groups, then Making Them the Leader.

Years ago I came across a strategy where you put prospective members in a room, went through a series of exercises, then at the end of the evening, groups were formed including a newly designated leader chosen by the group. I’ll be honest. The first time I heard this idea, I put the materials in the bottom drawer of my desk and didn’t look at them again for three years!

While I am a huge advocate of inviting any willing soul to lead a group or to do a study with their friends, I have to admit, this idea of walking in as prospective members and walking out as group leaders makes me uneasy. I understand people need to be challenged to step out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that putting them on the spot is the best way to do it.

In all of our efforts to recruit leaders and connect people into groups, I believe we need to be careful and not cross a line into questionable practices. There are plenty of strategies which will achieve better results that are more forthright. And, of course, launching new groups without a coach is just a bad idea.

There is huge potential for groups and group leaders in your church. And, I will admit, I am a big fan of anyone who will take risks to make that happen. But, rather than focusing on a short term win, we need to look at the long game. If someone gets burned in a group experience early on, how likely will they try it again? Let’s keep from over-promising and under-delivering in groups. Group life is so amazing, there really is no need for shortcuts.

Now, in today’s post, I may have picked on one of your favorite strategies. You may disagree with me. Let me know by leaving a comment. Let’s talk about it.

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4 Mistakes Senior Pastors Make with Small Groups

By Allen White Title

In my last 11 years of coaching over 1,500 churches in North America, I’ve observed that the senior pastor’s attitude and involvement in small group launches is more significant than any other factor in a church’s success. I’ve seen churches of 2,000-2,500 launch 500 small groups or more and keep those groups going forward. Another church recruited 30 percent of their adults on one Sunday to lead groups in their church. Now that wasn’t a church of 100 adults with 30 new leaders. It was a church of 4,000 with 1,200 new leaders. In all of these successes, the senior pastor was leading the charge.

Yet, many pastors have not seen the benefit and have not felt the need to focus on groups in their churches. In conversations with some of these pastors, I have discovered some mistakes in the pastor’s thinking which are holding back the momentum and impact of groups in their churches and communities.

Mistake #1: Relegating Small Groups to a Staff Member.

Most churches that are serious about small groups have already hired a small group pastor or director to oversee the groups. While the commitment to a staff position for small groups is significant, depending on a staff member to grow and maintain a high percentage of the congregation in groups is unlikely. Even the best small group folks out there typically can only maintain about 30 percent of a church’s adults in groups, unless the senior pastor takes a larger role.

Now, some senior pastors will argue that they do care about small groups, after all didn’t they hire staff members to oversee groups? Doesn’t that mean they care? Well, it does, but it doesn’t. If a senior pastor has relegated a small group pastor or director’s ministry to one of many ministries in the church, groups will not grow. If the senior pastor desires to connect the majority of the congregation into groups, then the pastor needs to get involved. While there are many dependable small group pastors out there, should the senior pastor turn the care of the entire congregation over to the small group pastor or director? Absolutely not. Would the senior pastor turn the entire weekend service over to the Worship Pastor? To connect a large percentage of the congregation into groups, the senior pastor must take the lead.

I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years of ministry. Once I discovered the impact my senior pastor had in inviting the congregation to lead groups, I never recruited another small group leader. That means after working seven years to connect 30 percent of our adults in groups, then watching my senior pastor recruit enough leaders to double our groups in a day, I haven’t recruited a single group leader since 2004. (I served two more years in that church, then served a whole other church since then, but I did not recruit any more leaders. My senior pastor did.)

As the senior pastor, you are the key influencer in your church. If you say the very same words your small group pastor/director would say, you will have three times the result. We’re seeing this across the country. Churches of 2,000-2,500 adults are launching 500 groups at a time. Imagine if 20-25 percent of your adults were leading groups. What would discipleship look like in your church? How would that change assimilation? What difference would it make in reaching your community? The answer is a huge difference.

Mistake #2: Using Someone Else’s Curriculum

Your members don’t need Rick Warren’s curriculum. They want your teaching.

The 40 Days of Purpose is by far the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns. Some 30,000 or more churches went through the series with Rick Warren’s teaching on the curriculum aligned with the pastor’s sermon on the weekend. At first, it seemed the key to the campaign’s massive impact on a congregation was Rick Warren’s curriculum. What we later came to find out was the secret was not in the curriculum. The link to the senior pastor’s messages and leadership in the campaign made the results happen.

While I have nothing against Rick Warren or the 40 Days of Purpose, what I know now is that your congregation wants to be involved with what you are doing, pastor, not with what another senior pastor is doing. In fact, if your members are not already connected to each other in groups of some kind, I would venture to say the reason they attend your church other than Jesus is because of you. They like you. They like your teaching, your jokes, and your personality. When you offer your people more of what they already like — your teaching on a group curriculum — you will find greater interest and involvement in groups than ever before.

Mistake #3: Thinking Everyone Sees Small Groups Like You Do

Many pastors don’t want to be in a small group. Let’s face it. You’re busy. You have essentially a term paper due every week. You get called out at odd hours to help people. I’ve never met a lazy senior pastor. If there was one, then he got fired.

Small groups can be awkward for senior pastors. It’s risky for them and their spouses. If they talk openly about their personal struggles, where will those admissions go? Will open sharing somehow undermine their leadership in the church?

After 25 years of serving churches, I’ve come to understand that church staff, and especially senior pastors, are not normal. We are not like the rest of the congregation. We don’t focus on the things they think about. We aren’t motivated by the same things. Pastors have a unique calling on their lives that can only truly be understood by other pastors. What works for pastors is very different from what works for church members, and what works for church members is very different from what works for their pastors.

Senior pastors are surrounded by other believers on a daily basis. Every staff meeting is filled with believers. Every person they encounter in the office hallway is a believer. For the most part, the people they hang out with are believers. This is not the case with most people. They don’t have these regular interactions with other believers unless they worship with them, serve with them, and group with them.

Often pastors will feel guilty about promoting groups if they are not in a group. Here’s the deal: find something you can call “your group” and go with it. Whether it’s your foursome at golf or a pastor in a neighboring town you connect with, make that your group. You don’t have to do exactly what your members are doing, but you need to do something in community with other believers to set the example.

Mistake #4: Not Realizing the Benefit of Small Groups in Their Churches

If your church is larger than 250 people, then everybody can no longer know everybody any more. If your church is 400 or more and has two or more services, then your people can’t find the people they do know. But, the good news is everybody doesn’t need to know everyone, as long as everyone knows someone. This is where groups come in.

Much of the burden of care and support in your church could be served in groups. Imagine if the counseling appointments on your calendar disappeared because your people were caring for each other. Now, we all know that serious counseling cases would be referred to a professional counselor most likely anyway. But, those folks who need a listening ear, some encouragement, and prayer can find that in a group.

If groups are helping people grow as they study your curriculum, it may lessen the need for additional Bible studies or classes your congregation expects you to lead. Now, a word of caution here, don’t transition this too abruptly or you could have a mutiny. But, if you turn the heat up and talk for 90 minutes, your midweek Bible study will shrivel up in no time (just kidding…kind of).

Once people find their need for spiritual growth met in a group, some of the other offerings at your church will dwindle. Over time, they will disappear. The needs have changed. Imagine that day.

The pastors I know worry about a number of significant things in their church. Attendance, Spiritual Growth, Closing the Back Door, Outreach, and Finances are just a few. Research has shown that small groups meet all of these needs. In their recent book, Transformational Groups, Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger show how small groups are the solution for assimilation and spiritual growth. People in groups attend more often and serve more than people who are not in groups. And, group members also give more than other people in your congregation.

How should the senior pastor lead the groups ministry in the church? Take the charge. Create your own curriculum. Challenge your members to lead. By leveraging the weekend service to launch groups who study the pastor’s curriculum during the week, the church will grow and its people will grow. Senior Pastor, do you really think the small group pastor or director can do all of that alone?

Churches I’ve coached who’ve launched hundreds of new groups at a time were led by their senior pastor. Don’t blame your small group pastor for not doing your job. The church has only one leader. It’s time for you to step up.

I am offering a webinar for Senior Pastors on May 3-5, 2016. If you want to go big with groups in your church this Fall, you need to sign up. Don’t send a staff member. Register at allenwhite.org/webinars

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Maximizing the Calendar for Your New Year’s Group Launch

By Allen White
New year 2016
The New Year is one of the best seasons to launch a new groups or relaunch an existing group system. Turning to a fresh page on the calendar motivates people to embrace change. Whether they will attempt to break bad habits or start good ones, this is a key time of the year to launch groups. People are very receptive.

But, even in an ideal season to launch groups, you can still encounter some less than ideal factors which can throw off your launch. Here are a few things to think about as you are planning a New Year’s launch.

1. A Narrow Topic Can Limit Your Impact.

Over the years, I have coached quite a few churches who had very different ideas of starting the new year. Some churches begin the new year with a fast. Others will start with a “State of the Church” message. Then, others will dive into evangelism, tithing or some other more mature topic.

A while back I asked the senior pastor what his new year series would be. He said, “I’m doing a series on dying.”

I replied, “You’re killing me, Frank.”

If the goal of your series is to connect as many people as possible, the topic will have a lot to do with who steps up to start a group. One church launched groups with a relationship series and had a huge response. Then, they followed up with a very insider, evangelism series and cut their groups in half.

This does not mean we should avoid “mature” topics. We just need to time them right. Capital Area Christian Church, Mechanicsburg, PA, pastored by Don Hamilton, started this year with a series called “Manifesto” to connect his members into groups and get the group DNA started. He followed the series with a broader topic called “Monsters Under the Bed” where his members invited people in their lives to join the study. It worked.

Whether you choose an “insider” series or a topic with broad appeal, keep your target audience in mind. While the snacks will be very easy for a series on fasting, it’s really not where most people start group life. And, if you start the year with a giving series or a capital campaign, then forget it. Stop reading this post. Give up on your group launch right now.

2. Don’t start the series too early.

In discussing a possible coaching partnership with one church a few years back, I discovered their preaching calendar called for the start of their new series on New Year’s Day. I mean actually January 1st. I considered turning down the partnership.

Pastors like to kick off the New Year with a new series. The problem is you can’t really recruit leaders and form groups between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Believe me, I’ve tried. My pastor would make the call in December for folks to lead groups. I waited in the briefing room after the service…listening to the crickets and questioning the call of God on my life. It just doesn’t work.

Most people don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year (just like most people don’t think about the Fall until after Labor Day). So, how do you follow the pastor’s lead with a new year’s series and launch groups? You don’t. Now, before you go and get yourself fired, read on.
Remember the church who wanted to launch new groups with the series on New Year’s Day, well, they launched the series, but not the groups. In fact, they moved their February series to January 1, and their series with the broader topic to the first Sunday in February. Now, we had the whole month of January to recruit, and then successfully launched groups with a Super Bowl Party.

The best time to launch groups in the new year is between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. For some churches that may mean a Lenten series. If your church follows the liturgical calendar, you might consider something like Christian Life Trilogy. Otherwise, come up with a great topic that your buddies at the Super Bowl party will want to study.

Now, please understand, before I attempt to direct Senior Pastors on what series they should do when, I do my best to accommodate what they already have in mind. If your pastor has a January launch in mind, then work with that. You might only have a couple of weeks to recruit, but it’s better than nothing. If the second series of the year is more amenable to a group launch, then recruit during the first series, and start groups in the second series.

3. Think About More Than a Single Launch.

The beauty of early church-wide campaigns like the 40 Days of Purpose was the ability to launch a huge number of new groups with broad appeal. I remember an Episcopal church of 260 people who launched 70 groups. (The pastor is also the author of the Christian Life Trilogy). But, the beauty of the launch potential was paired with the agony of Day 41 and the sudden disappearance of the new groups. This doesn’t have to happen.

The success of a New Year’s launch is not the number of groups you start during that series. Your success lies in how many of those groups take a next step with a series after Easter. If you can get groups to do two back to back series (12 weeks total), then they are very likely to continue on as a group, even over the Summer.
Whether your church chooses to produce its own curriculum, purchase curriculum, or do a combination of things, a New Year’s launch plus an Easter follow up series will give you more groups than you can imagine. And, they will last.

What will it take for your church to pull this off?

Allen White Consulting
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