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If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups.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 28 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.
By Allen White
I learned the hard way that coaches help launch more groups.
One church I served had a weekly average adult attendance of 800. During our third launch in Fall 2004, we start 103 small groups. Those were pretty amazing numbers. In the middle of that series, I sent out a survey to determine how many of those groups would continue. I was hoping for at least 80 percent moving forward.
The results came back: 70 percent would continue with 30 percent ending. These were not the results I wanted or expected, so I sent a survey to the 30 leaders who were ending their groups. The response was startling. Out of the 30 leaders, only two leaders had actually led a group for the six week series. The other 28 groups had never started. This lead me to a very important principle:
Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.
It’s almost a proverb, isn’t it? It might deserve a needlepoint cushion.
Why didn’t the groups start? The new leaders got cold feet. Some of them were rejected by the people they invited. Some had good intentions starting out, then life just got in the way.
They didn’t miss the boat. I missed the boat. So, we did something new, immediately.
On the next campaign, we added 32 new groups to the 73 groups that continued from the Fall for a total of 105 groups. Every new leader met an experienced leader who would coach them at our New Leader Briefing. Their “coach” called them every week starting after the briefing through the end of the series. When they had a setback, the coach encouraged them. When they had a question, the coach gave them an answer. All of these groups started and most of them continued.
How many new groups are you starting? Divide that number by two. That’s how many coaches you need. One experienced leader for every two new groups. The experienced leaders are still leading their own group, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Then recruit experienced leaders to help the new leaders get started. And, they will start.
Where do you find these experienced leaders to coach? Make a list of your best leaders. Pray over the list. Then, invite them like this: “We are going to be completely inundated with new leaders. Our coaching structure is completely overwhelmed. I NEED YOUR HELP.” That is a very compelling invitation that will get a “Yes.”
At the risk of overstating my point, it is Mission Critical to have someone calling your new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” to starting a group until the study starts. More groups will end in that window than at any other time.
Start making your list right now.
By Allen White
Stop recruiting group leaders. Am I crazy?
If we stop recruiting group leaders, then where will they come from then? From within a group? Maybe. Will they just line up my door and demand to lead? Probably not. Will they just appear from outer space? Definitely not.
In our efforts to connect everyone into groups we forget one basic thing — everyone is already to group. (That’s the premise of my book, Exponential Groups). People are in groups called families or friends or neighbors or coworkers or some combination of those. If our church members would gather these groups for a Bible study, then they are group leaders. As Steve Gladen says, “Leaders have followers.”
Unfortunately these leaders don’t spontaneously appear. They need a little help. They need a little incentive. This is where our Senior Pastors comes in. If we would give the same words we might say to our Senior Pastors, we would have triple the result. How do I know that?
Well, after recruiting group leaders myself for seven years, we managed to connect 30 percent of our adults into groups. When my Senior Pastor recruited leaders, we doubled our groups, then we tripled them. I haven’t personally recruited a group leader since 2004! (And, I served a whole other church since then).
But, how do we get our Senior Pastors interested in recruiting groups? Read more here.
Often our focus in the Fall is to connect as many people in groups as possible. We do a big church wide campaign with the goal of getting a hundred percent or more connected into groups. In order to have groups we have to have leaders. In order to have groups we have to have members. So we focus all of our energy on recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups. Then after the six-week campaign is over we find that we have very little to show for it. We work so hard to connect all these people into group, only to see groups just as easily fall apart.
Stop recruiting group leaders. Spend your time and energy on something that will actually help your groups and leaders last. Namely coaches and training. If you put the same amount of effort into coaching and training as we used to put into recruiting leaders and forming groups, you will keep far more groups for the long term.
By Allen White
I am a coach. The reason I’m a coach is because once upon a time, I was greatly helped by a coach. In fact, I still have several coaches and mentors I turn to regularly for help and advice. They ask me thought provoking questions. They offer me their experience. They care about my success. Here is the story of my success in working with a coach.
After attending conferences and reading every small group book I could get my hands on, our groups hit a wall. I followed what I understood from the best and brightest. We made a plan and executed it wholeheartedly for seven years. We connected 30 percent of our average adult attendance into groups, then we got stuck. I was up against a wall, and I was banging my head against it. As our church continued to grow, our groups fell further and further behind. I needed help.
2. A Laboratory and a Network
I found help in a coaching group with 40 other churches from across the country. While we tended to be from churches of the same size, the group crossed denominational lines and represented about every region of North America. While it was a little ridiculous to have 40 other pastors on a weekly conference call, we learned from each other and from our coach. Some pastors would jump ahead and try a new idea when it was thrown out. I was one of those. Others would hold back and see if there were any survivors before they jumped in. And, that was okay. Everybody adopts new ideas at their own rate.
3. Place to Discuss Small Group Stuff
As I became more enthused about discussing small groups, some of our church staff became less enthused to hear about it. While my senior pastor was completely on board (after all he found the dollars to fund it), other staff weren’t so thrilled to hear about small groups. The coaching group provided a place with like-minded people who also had small groups on the brain. This was our community. Our band of brothers (and sisters) in the small group trenches.
Everybody faces setbacks, especially when they try new ideas. After all, when you’re performing experiments, sometimes an experiment blows up. The coaching group provided a place to test new ideas; debrief less than stellar results; and gain the momentum to move forward. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As one of my friends and mentors, Carl George said, “Do whatever it takes to keep yourself inspired.” The coaching group kept me encouraged.
5. I didn’t have to walk alone.
What I discovered in my coaching group is that everyone else’s coaching structure was also lousy or nonexistent. They struggled to recruit leaders. Air time in the weekend service was scarce for small group announcements. Their group leaders didn’t like to attend meetings either. Leading up was always a challenge. I soon realized I wasn’t defeated. I was normal.
Now don’t get me wrong.
I love conferences. In fact, I wish every day was a conference, because at a conference your mind is filled with vision and grand ideas. But, as soon as you get home, reality slaps you in the face. Reality stinks.
But, what if you could take the benefits of a conference and spread it over an entire year for basically the same money?
My next coaching group is starting in a few weeks. Will you join me?