When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
You’ve either just launched groups in your church; you’re about to launch groups; or you don’t know what you’re doing. How does that feel? If you just launched groups, you’re coming up for air. Your January fire drill has come to an end. The sprint you just ran has left you panting. Once you catch your breath, you’ll be at it again. But, what if you didn’t have to lose your mind every 12 weeks to have the leaders and groups you needed? It’s simple math: 12 months gives you more time than 12 weeks. The challenge is that it’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time. Here are some reasons to focus on 2018 instead of 2017:
1. Plan for Four Times Your Current Groups in 2018.
Many of us run our group launches hand to mouth. We get the groups going that we need, then have to start getting ready for the next go ’round hoping that many of the groups will stick, but not knowing for sure. What you do know is that you’ll have to recruit leaders again in a few weeks. You just don’t know how many yet. It’s hard to think ahead when you’re living “paycheck to paycheck.” It’s hard to come up for air. But, what happens when your church grows larger and your groups well outnumber what you’re dealing with now? Imagine that you’re a church of 200 people and your growth takes you to 800 people. You can’t hire a bunch of staff. At least, I never could. Would you stop placing people into groups, or would you ignore your family working late nights? Would you twist the arms of the usual suspects to lead groups and get another short term win? How are you going to manage four times as many groups when you probably don’t feel like you’re doing a great job managing them now? Stop and do the math. What does 4 times look like in your church? What would you stop doing that you’re currently doing? Stop placing people into groups. Stop handpicking leaders. Start asking your senior pastor to recruit leaders. Start your coaching structure and build on it. You would definitely need to change your process. Here’s the point: Start leading like you have 4 times as many groups now. If you wouldn’t place people into groups then, then stop placing them into groups now. If you would ask your senior pastor to recruit leaders from the pulpit, then start doing that now. If you would back off of coaching leaders yourself, then write down three names right now of people you would invite to help you coach new leaders. Write them down.
2. Build a Coaching Structure Over Time.
If you have 10 groups, you don’t need 8 coaches today, but when you have 40 groups you will. Start preparing your group leaders to coach new leaders. Observe how they handle issues in their groups. Notice the ones who genuinely care. Effective coaching is built on a relationship. Who’s good at forming and maintaining relationships? You can train on skills, but you can’t make people care. Don’t worry about your current leaders. If they have successful lead a group without a coach, then they will be great potential coaches. Don’t feel obligated to attach every leader to a coach just to fill in an organizational chart. The chart will look pretty, but the coaching will be pretty ineffective. Give new leaders a coach. Remember, you’re headed to 4 times as many groups next year. How many coaches will you need? Start preparing them now.
3. Think Sequence, Not Series.
Any church can generate a lot of excitement over a six week series. It’s like inflating a balloon. Building up to a six week campaign, the balloon gets bigger and bigger and bigger, then it POPS! Now what? If your balloon has already popped, then you’re asking the “Now what?” question too late. Start groups with an expectation that they will continue. In order for them to continue, they need a next step. Before you launch the first series, plan for what they will study next. If you offer the next step during the first six week study, then 80 percent or better should continue. If you offer the next step after the series has ended, you won’t do so well. The best seasons of the year to launch groups are Fall, New Year, and Easter. But, to retain groups, you need to plan for 52 weeks, not just three 6 week series. Now, it’s not 52 weeks of meetings. There’s variety. There’s ebb and flow. Keep the groups informed on what’s next, and they will take the next step. I would even go so far as to say if you don’t plan a next step for your groups, then abort your group launch now. Don’t get into the Ground Hog Day phenomena. Don’t connect them into groups only to watch them ungroup, then later try to regroup them. If this is what you’ve been doing, no wonder they’re turning you down now.
Launch. Next Step. Repeat. (except for Summer)
4. Recruit Leaders for 12 Months, Not Just a Few Weeks.
If you’re focused only on your next group launch, then you need to recruit leaders for your next launch. You’re playing the short game. If they won’t lead for this round, then maybe you ask them again for the next round. But, won’t you need leaders 6 months from now? Won’t you need leaders a year from now? Years back I was recruiting a member of our church to oversee our support groups. He was a great guy who led groups well. He was also a licensed counselor, which would be perfect for coaching our support groups. I called him and invited him to help these groups. He told me he couldn’t do it. Between completing a degree and the season his family was in, he just couldn’t do it. But, he might be able to take on the role in 2 years. I put a date on the calendar. Two years passed, then I called him. He said, “I knew you were going to call me.” The timing was better, so he said yes. He was the right person for the right position, but it was the wrong timing when I asked the first time. Rather than twist his arm, I waited for the right timing. It was certainly better than having someone lead under duress or not have time to lead at all. It was also better than having the wrong person in the role because I was running a fire drill. Ask yourself this: Am I interested in achieving my goals, or am I committed? There’s a difference. John Assaraf says, ” “If you’re interested, you come up with stories, excuses, reasons, and circumstances about why you can’t or why you won’t. If you’re committed, those go out the window. You just do whatever it takes.” I know that you are committed. You have given your whole life over to God to be used for His service. I understand. I have too. But, I spent so many years spinning my wheels in season after season only to find rather pathetic, incremental results. Out of that frustration was born a more impactful way of doing things. I would love to join you in your journey.