COVID has done a lot of things in 2020. The pandemic has caused people to lose their jobs and pivot their business trajectories. It has created economic uncertainty for many and fueled political polarization. COVID has caused people to rethink what they do and how they do it. It’s done a lot of things, but COVID didn’t break your small group ministry.
That doesn’t mean that small groups haven’t suffered in 2020. Groups have suffered Zoom Fatigue. Group members have become overwhelmed by working at home while their children are doing school online. Or even more stressful, group members are in health care or other essential work and face the tragedies of the pandemic every day on top of everything else. Sometimes it’s hard to gather a group meeting in-person or online. But, while some churches are seeing a decrease in small groups, others are increasing their groups by 50-211% in 2020. Here is what I’m seeing:
Groups that Broke Were Already Breaking
Like most things in 2020, the businesses that went bankrupt were already on a downward slide. That restaurant you never frequented went out of business. That place you rarely shopped had to close their doors. Century-old institutions like JCPenney filed for bankruptcy when it was once the king of mail order. Do you see the irony there?
Similarly, your groups that struggled the most in 2020 were struggling before. This is not to place blame, but it is a wakeup call. If all of your groups had ended when the pandemic hit, then you could blame the pandemic. But, when you look at the groups that have struggled this year, what was particular about them that caused them to end? What was the quality of their relationships? What was the group’s level of commitment? Were you aware of how the group was struggling?
I don’t mean to blame the group. People have faced devastating circumstances in 2020. But, the groups that fell apart already had cracks in their relationships. When things got harder, the group got worse. For those who didn’t connect with the group regularly, they just disappeared. For leaders who didn’t regularly check up on their group members outside of the group meeting, relationships continued to fray. The bottom line is what held the group together previously wasn’t sufficient to keep the group together during a crisis.
If It Was Hard for You to Connect with Leaders Before…
…Then trying to connect with group leaders during 2020 has seemed nearly impossible. Churches as a whole have depended far too much on the weekend service as a place for connection, discipleship, evangelism, worship, and everything else. The church is more than a worship service. This year has demonstrated that more clearly than ever. Yet by relying on chance meetings in the lobby with group leaders to take the temperature of groups is an insufficient measure of the health of groups anyway. Once that was gone, small group pastors began to realize how little connection they had with their groups.
The churches who have communicated best with their leaders in 2020 have a coaching structure in place. They never relied on leader meetings, reports, or lobby conversations to gauge the health of their groups. Coaches are the glue that holds these small group ministries together. If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know I’m a huge advocate for coaching. Here’s why.
It would be easy to assume that the solution for connecting with leaders will come in six months or so when everything is back to normal and you can go back to bumping into your leaders in the lobby. If you don’t hear anything else in this post, please here this: COVID didn’t kill the communication with your leaders. The lack of a coaching structure was already working against you. You didn’t have as much of a grasp on the health of your groups that you thought you did. If your leaders aren’t calling you back, there is a problem, but this problem didn’t just happen.
You don’t need a coaching structure to prepare for the next national crisis. (Let’s hope there isn’t one soon). You need a coaching structure for the health of your groups and the benefit of your leaders. If you are personally trying to coach more than eight leaders, you are beyond your capacity already. Get started on your coaching structure ASAP!
If It was Hard to Train Your Leaders Before…
…Training feels nearly impossible now. Whether you’re attempting to gather leaders in-person or online, it’s hard to get people together. But, the reality is that it was hard to get everyone to training before.
Years ago, a pastor asked me why I thought his leaders didn’t attend his training meetings. I told him it was because his training was boring and irrelevant. He was more than a little offended and shot back with “How would you know? You’ve never been to my training.” I told him I knew because that’s why my leaders didn’t attend my training meetings – they were boring and irrelevant.
Training that works is centered around what small group leaders tell you they need. Otherwise, to attempt to train all of the leaders together will result in either being over the heads of new leaders or taking experienced leaders back to Kindergarten. Poll your leaders and ask them what they’re dealing with, then select three topics and publish the agenda for your next training meeting. Better yet, create two-minute videos with training on each of those topics and send them out to your leaders. You don’t need a meeting at all.
In both coaching and training, it’s best to determine the least amount of structure needed to keep your leaders and groups healthy and to help them succeed. Now, by “least amount of structure” I don’t mean you doing it by yourself. You don’t want a structure that’s too cumbersome, but you do need something that’s flexible and scalable.
If It was Hard to Track Your Groups Before…
…It’s doubly hard to get reports from your groups now. COVID didn’t break your report-taking. The disruption to the normal pattern of ministry has revealed the weakness in regular reporting and your group metrics. Nobody’s report-taking is perfect. There are always those group leaders who will never complete a report. If they’re good at relationships and bad at reporting, then consider yourself blessed.
If group leaders aren’t task-oriented and won’t complete reports, then designate someone else in the group to give a report. Use a database like ChurchTeams.com that sends report reminders automatically and notifies you when reports are completed.
Reports are only one metric. If you’re waiting for a report to understand the health of your groups, then you’re already in the weeds. This is why coaching is so important.
The stresses of 2020 have revealed many weaknesses in small group ministry. That’s a good thing, because now you know what you need to work on. When COVID subsides, don’t expect your prior small group ministry to just snap back into place. The problems will still be there.
Make a plan and begin to work on the weaknesses in your ministry now. Build a coaching structure. Align your metrics. Make your training more relevant. Deepen your leaders and your groups. Once you have these things in place, your small groups will be stronger for it.
By Allen White People typically don’t find a lot of success in promoting something they fear. They can actually be relieved when they have a poor result. There is less to be afraid of. On pastor admitted to me, “What if I put myself out there and no one responds? I would be embarrassed.” That is definitely true. The answer is don’t invite people to something you don’t believe in. But, what do you and your church believe in? First, if you’re a small group pastor or director, ask yourself where does your pastor want to start? If your pastor is more risk averse like I used to be, then ask for your pastor’s help to handpick solid citizens who could lead groups, then promote those groups. You won’t get as far as you would if you threw down the gauntlet to everyone. But, you will get much farther than if you went beyond where your pastor wants to go. Start where your pastor wants to start, then we will see where it goes from there. Once you have the first success under your belt, then your pastor will be open to try other things. I’ve also seen the reverse. Sometimes the pastor wants to go full bore, but the small group pastor or director are more risk averse. While you definitely don’t want to squander the opportunity, you also have to reach a place where your fear doesn’t impede your success. A few years ago, we were working with a very large church. This is a great church with a great history of biblical teaching and a solid group ministry, but their groups needed to catch up with their attendance. In one teleconference, the small group team reported back that their existing group leaders were fearful of the Gather and Grow strategy. They perceived many problems from letting the uninitiated lead a group. Now, part of their concern related to the fact the experienced leaders had paid their dues in the leadership process, and now “You’re just going to let anybody in?” I said a quick prayer during the teleconference, “God, what do I say to them? This could be dead in the water.” After I finished listening to the concerns, these words came out of my mouth, “This isn’t a call to leadership. This is a call to obedience, because we are all called to go and make disciples.” The room was quiet. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Maybe I killed it. Then someone spoke up and said, “Could you repeat that?” Suddenly, the light came on for them (and for me). The Gather and Grow strategy was the way to go. The Senior Pastor was already there, but it took his team a little more time. When it was all said and done, hundreds of people offered to gather their friends and grow together using video curriculum based on their senior pastor’s teaching. I’ve had staff members freak out when their senior pastors have suddenly taken initiative in the staff member’s area of ministry. They’ve said things like, “Why couldn’t we plan ahead on this? We could be better prepared for the response. We could do this in a better way.” Some folks have become downright angry over their pastors meddling in their area of ministry. If your senior pastor takes an interest in small groups out of the blue, first, thank God your pastor is interested in groups. Then, do whatever you have to do to make it work. After all, you don’t know when this opportunity may come again. Some pastors are strategic and lead with a road map. But, some pastors are more intuitive. Their leadership appears more like a lightning strike. Learn to organize yourself around those lightning strikes and make the most of it. Excerpt from Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potentialby Allen White. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright (c) 2017 by Allen White Consulting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
By Allen White 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
with Allen White
1. Take a brief survey to share where your launch fell short.
2. Login to the webinar on: Tuesday, October 17 at 3pm ET/ 2pm CT/ 1pm MT/ Noon PT Wednesday, October 19 at 11am ET/ 10am CT/ 9am MT/ 8am PT Take the Survey and Register Here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/YGW6WZ7 One Participant from Each Webinar will receive a free copy of Exponential Groups by Allen White. You must be on the webinar to win.