By Allen White
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
By Allen White
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.
By Allen White
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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By Allen White
Some launches go better than others. Over the last 10+ years of group launches both in the churches I’ve served as well as churches I’ve coached, we have seen some significant progress and we’ve seen some incremental growth. Whether your launch feels exponential or expected really comes down to your grasp of four keys.
1. Is Your Senior Pastor All In?
Having been an associate pastor for over 20 years, I know that if I invite people to lead groups, I will get 30 percent the result of my senior pastor. How do I know this? Well, after reaching the seventh year of my five year plan, I only had 30 percent of our adults in groups. The first time my senior pastor make the invitation, we doubled our groups in a day, and within six months, we had 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, that’s not funny pastor math. Not everyone attends every Sunday, but they will go to their group. And, we had a good number of people who had never darkened the door of our church join groups as well.
Let’s face it, if people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend is because of the senior pastor. My family is part of NewSpring Church at the Greenville, SC campus. We don’t know a lot of people there, but Kidspring and Fuse are stellar for our children, and Perry Noble, well, he’s pretty amazing.
When the senior pastor stands up and makes the invitation for people to gather their friends and grow, it’s huge. Now, what will help both your senior pastor and your “unconnected” people get on board with groups is creating your own curriculum with your senior pastor’s teaching. Your pastor’s teaching + your pastor’s invitation + your pastor’s message series aligned with the study is a Win/Win/Win. For more on engaging your senior pastor, check out my free ebook, Exponential Groups.
2. Is Your Topic Relevant to Your Community?
The topic of your series will creating determine who is included and excluded in your launch. Obviously, there has been huge success with topics like 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren and One Month to Live by Kerry Shook. What is your community, not your church, but the people in the place you live concerned about? What previous sermon series have had an appeal? The right topic will make a huge difference.
A few years ago, I was coaching a church in Baltimore. I asked the pastor what his series would be for the new year. He said, “I’m thinking about doing a series on dying.”
I said, “You’re killing me, Frank.”
While everybody will die, people usually don’t want to be confronted with that reality. It ended up being a great series, but not one to launch an exponential number of groups. Whether you talk about relationships, stress management, conflict resolution, or something else, think about what would draw the most people into the topic.
3. Will Your Coaching Structure Support a New Influx of Leaders?
More groups will stall before the start of a series than will stop after the series. When someone steps up to lead, they have just painted a huge target on their back, and the enemy will try to discourage them in every way possible. They will invite friends only to discover some can’t come on Tuesday night; others are already in another groups; and a couple of them really aren’t their friends. In that moment, they need someone to encourage them or that group is toast.
A few years ago, a couple in our church, Ray and Pam, left a group they loved to start a new group. (I’m not longer in that forced birthing business by the way). I asked them on a Sunday morning how their group was going. They said, “Not very well. We think it was a mistake to leave our group and try to start our own group. We have invited 20 people to our group, and they all turned us down. We shouldn’t have left the group we loved.”
Trying to contain my panic, I said, “Ok, you guys had an idea of what your group should be. Now let’s pray and see who God wants in your group.”
A week later, Ray and Pam called me, “Pastor Allen, please stop sending people to our group. We have 14 people, so we are maxed out.” Now, how many people had I sent to their group. Well, none. God answered our prayer. Their group started around 2003 and continues under different leadership to this day. But, if I hadn’t had that conversation with Ray and Pam on that particular Sunday, that group never would have happened.
Your coaching structure (or lack of one) will be completely overwhelmed by a successful launch. But, you cannot leave those baby groups unattended. They need care and encouragement. Ask your existing group leaders and other mature members of your church to check in on the new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” until the end of the campaign. This will greatly increase the success rate of your group launch. After all groups that don’t start tend to not continue. For more on enlisting new coaches, check out this video interview I did with Steve Gladen and Brett Eastman.
4. What’s Next?
Now that your head is swimming about what the topic of your series should be, you also need to have a next step curriculum ready for groups to continue. The reason so many groups fell off the cliff at the end of 40 days was because they weren’t given a specific next step. If you send them to christianbook.com or a book store, they will get lost in the choices. Most new groups don’t have a real opinion of what to study next. In the middle of your first campaign, give them a next step to continue their group. If you can get a group to complete two back to back six week series, you’ve got them. They will continue from there with some coaching, training, and direction.
Your success in your next group launch will be greatly affected by which of these four keys you implement. If you go four for four, you can certainly see exponential results. If you implement two of these and neglect the other two, you’ve probably halved your result as well.
If you would like to learn more about experiencing your own exponential group launch, I’d like to invite you to a free webinar on Wednesday, August 5 at 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT. Click here to register. Registration is limited to 25 seats, so register now.