By Allen White The temptation to start new groups after Easter is fairly irresistible. Easter is by far the largest Sunday of the year. Why not launch groups from the largest crowd you’ll see all year? You might not see them again until Christmas. But, there are three group killers after Easter: June, July and August. Why start groups in the Spring only to watch them die out over the Summer? It seems they would have a better chance of survival in the Fall. I have to admit this is exactly what I used to think about launching groups off of Easter, but I had a change of heart once I discovered ways to sustain 80 percent of those new Spring groups in the Fall. Here’s what I’ve learned: 1. Groups Need a Next Step. Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time. Of course, the other factor here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is. The first time we launched groups in the Spring, we gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise. When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it. 2. Very Few People Take the Entire Summer Off. Only a handful of folks spend the entire summer at the beach. For the rest of us, chances are we will miss more weekend services in the Summer than group meetings. Before the group hits Memorial Day ask everyone to bring their calendars. Then, find six dates during the Summer when the group can meet. You might choose a six session study or you might choose one of the options below. The six dates probably won’t fit neatly in a row, but that’s okay. Even if the group can only meet once per month, it’s a great way to stay connected to group life, even if you don’t have a formal group meeting. 3. Summer is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group. You will find more neighbors outdoors during the Summer than any other time of year. With longer days and kids out of school, why not host a neighborhood block party with your group? Roll the barbecue grill out onto your driveway to grill a few hot dogs. Rent an inflatable bounce house for the kids. Bring plenty of lawn chairs. Maybe even have a little music. Invite everybody. People will wonder by and join in before you know it. This is a great way to meet your neighbors, and maybe even invite them to your group. By putting the party in the front yard rather than the backyard, neighbors will come and see what’s going on. 4. Get Your Group Outside. Group discussions don’t work so well outside. The neighbors haven’t agreed to confidentiality for what they hear over the backyard fence. Outdoor Bible studies usually don’t work, but there are plenty of other reasons to go outside. Who does your group know who needs help? Plan a service day and help a neighbor. If you’re not aware of someone in need of help, go to wydopen.com and see if there’s a project in your area. Or, volunteer a day with Habitat for Humanity or another community organization. Experiencing life together in a different setting will add depth and richness to your group. Once everyone sees the group in action, the dynamic of your meetings and studies will become dramatically different. Summer shouldn’t be the death of small groups. In fact, June, July and August can breathe new life into both new and existing groups. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, Summer could become the best time of year for group life.
By Allen White By now most small group pastors and directors understand coaches are essential to sustain and support small group leaders. While everyone will agree to the necessity of coaches, most don’t know what to do with coaches, and unfortunately, most coaches don’t know what to do period. Beautiful org charts in a lot of churches actually net zero results. Here are some tips to moving your coaches in the right direction: 1. Coaches Aren’t Accountants. The problem with most accountability in Christian circles is that it becomes too much like accounting. Unlike Santa Claus, coaches do not relish keeping a naughty or nice list. What’s more, group leaders don’t appreciate being supervised by a supervisor. This doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind, but we also don’t put a cruel task master over small group leaders. After all, “love keeps no record of wrongs,” right? (1 Corinthians 13:5). Read more on accountability that works here. 2. Coaches Aren’t Middle Managers, Bureaucrats or Spies. Years ago, Carol, one of my coaches, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” At that point, I was still recruiting and training all of the group leaders myself. Carol and the other coaches were sent out to visit the groups and report back what they saw. No wonder she felt that way. In recruiting coaches, we work hard to select mature, capable people to serve with us. Then, often because we don’t have the coaching role figured out ourselves, we tend to micromanage them as if they are neither mature nor capable. I didn’t keep many coaches that way. The key is to elevate the role of coaching. When I chose coaches the next time around, I invited capable, mature people to join me in a journey. We met every week for dinner and to talk about the direction of our small groups. I committed to never make a decision about our small groups outside of that meeting. We led together. These folks aren’t underachievers who need our constant motivation. These aren’t people who are prone to wander and need a steady reminder of direction. If they are, then they shouldn’t be coaching groups. If they’re not, then they deserve more respect than a place in our little bureaucracy. 3. The Role of the Coach is to Refocus the Player. My friend and mentor, Carl George has drilled this phrase into my psyche. When you think about a coach in sports, he stands at the sidelines and guides his players. If the last play went terribly wrong, his job is to refocus the players on the next play. They can’t replay the last play on the field. But, if a bad play keeps replaying in the players’ minds, then the next play will also suffer. Small group leaders have busy lives and are pulled in many different directions. On a particularly hectic day or difficult season, it’s easy for leaders to become discouraged and wonder why they ever got into this business in the first place. The relationship with the coach is key to maintaining momentum in groups. The coach is not making sure the job gets done. The coach is making sure the player is okay. 4. Give Your Leaders the Space to See What God is Doing The most valuable function of a coach is giving a small group leader an opportunity to reflect on what God is doing in his or her group. Most would admit to the difficulty of working “in” something and “on” something at the same time. It’s nearly impossible. Often group leaders are working so hard in the group, they don’t see the big picture of what God is doing. By setting aside an hour or so once every quarter, a coach can give group leaders the space they need to see what God is doing and to identify what is next. This is as simple as the coach asking the leaders to list the names of their group members, then asking them to talk about what God is doing in each person’s life. As the leaders discuss their members, the logical next steps will begin to surface for the leader.
Bob – Hasn’t been around for a while. I need to give him a call.
Joe – Struggling at his job. I need to pray for him and give him some encouragement outside of the group.
Steve – Lost his job. I need to check-in with him and see if there’s any way the group can help.
Tony – Making poor choices. I need to pray for him and for the right timing to have a tough conversation.
Brett – Shows strong leadership potential. I need to give him more responsibilities in the group and eventually invite him to co-lead with me.
You get the idea. The coach must approach this conversation as a learner, not as an instructor. It would be easy to quickly diagnose each member and offer next steps, but the next steps determined by the group leader will be the next steps that are actually executed. To make this work, start with a few assumptions. Assumption #1: Group leaders have made themselves available to God, and God is using them in their group. If a group leader is going through a hard time, he may be wondering if God is doing anything at all. He needs encouragement. But, some group leaders so naturally use their gifts, they might not even realize how gifted they are. They also need a coach’s insight. Assumption #2: Who you are as a coach is more significant than what you could every say to a group leader. Your relationship with your group leaders is the greatest gift you can offer them. When relationship comes first, tasks get accomplished. Without relationship, leaders easily burn out. 5. Small Group Pastors: Get Out of Your Coach’s Way How many Team Owners or General Managers have made their coaches’ lives miserable? Small Group Pastors and Directors, like their coaches, should approach their roles as learners, not drill sergeants. God wants to use your coaches. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to effective coaching is often a well-meaning Small Groups Pastor. While you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry, empowered coaches are effective coaches. Disempowered coaches become burned out middle managers. Your expectation of your coaches should be clear, reasonable and accountable. But, again, don’t approach accountability as an accountant. Give your coaches the benefit of the doubt: “How are your groups doing?” not “Have you followed up on your groups lately?” If your coaching system is in disarray, then you’re probably in the way.
By Allen White Every believer sins. No one is perfect. Whether you’re struggling with temptation or just out rightly sinning, how much do you share with your group? After all, while confession is good for the soul, it is bad for the reputation. Here are some suggestions in navigating this tricky issue: Being Holy, Being Human Until you signed on as a small group leader, you were just Joe (or Jane) Christian, sitting in the congregation, dealing or not dealing with your stuff, but then you became a leader. All of a sudden the struggles you felt you could share with your friends, no longer seem appropriate in your group. After all, if as the leader, you continue to fail, won’t that only give the group license to fail? Where do we come up with these thoughts? As Christians we often specialize in ranking sins. While transgressions registered on a radar gun may be permissible, sins registered on a breathalyzer are certainly not. There are different ramifications for different transgressions. You cheated on a test in college. That was a long time ago, you were young and stupid. You cheated on your taxes. Okay, not good. The IRS would be interested. Is there a bounty for tax evaders? You cheated on your spouse. That’s a huge one. It’s all cheating, but very different levels. What you share and how you share it will determine whether your group creates a climate of openness or a façade of pretending. But, how do you know the right timing to open up to your group? Check In with Your Coach If you’re not sure what to share in your group or at what level of detail, check in with your coach. If you’re right in the middle of something, your coach can point you to the right resources. “But, what if my coach judges me or takes my group away?” First of all, no believer has any right to judge any other believer. If your coach is judging you, well, that’s on them. As far as leadership goes, it really depends on what’s currently going on in your life. If it’s a past sin, then it’s in the past. Let God use your experience to help another. If it’s a current struggle, then you might need to step out of leadership to focus on the issue for a time. How Much Victory Have You Achieved? Where are you in regard to your struggle? Is it behind you? Is it in front of you? Are you in the middle of it? It’s one thing to talk about a struggle you’ve overcome to inspire or challenge others. Everyone needs God’s grace to make it one day at a time. But, if you’re currently struggling with a life-controlling problem or a serious relationship issue, it’s time to step out of leadership and address the issue directly. While no leader is perfect, some situations are serious enough to fully deal with now before things get worse. When you’ve achieved a measure of victory, then it’s time to focus on serving others again. Why would a leader have to step down? When you’re in leadership, you’re on the enemy’s hit list. When the pressure’s on, he will use your struggle to destroy you, your family and your group. It’s important to resolve this foothold in order to avoid a multiplication of consequences in your life, your family’s and your group’s. When you’re leading others, you tend to focus on their needs rather than your own. Good ministry can actually help you avoid dealing with the situation in your life. Sometimes folks are even deceived into thinking that because God is using you, your habit must not matter. Oh, it matters. The enemy is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re Only as Sick as Your Secrets The power of sin is secrecy. Once you share what’s going on with you, you expose your secret to the light of Truth. The hold on you is no longer as great. The help you need is now within arm’s reach. The Bible says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Often believers wish to declare, “This is between me and God.” Well, how’s that working? If you could have quit on your own, you would have quit by now. As Rick Warren says, “Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.” A conversation with your coach or your group is the place to start on your journey to healing and wholeness. Every believer struggles with something. Don’t beat yourself up over struggling. It just means that the Holy Spirit is working within you. If God’s Spirit wasn’t in your life, you probably wouldn’t be struggling at all. Allow God’s Spirit and God’s people to encourage and support your road to recovery.
By Allen White Small groups aren’t meant for eternity. But, how do you end it? Do you gather your group members together for an uncomfortable conversation?
“It’s not you. It’s us. Can we just be friends?”
While some groups can last 20 years or more, most groups simply can’t run that distance. That’s okay. After all, we have friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime. But, how do you know when you’re small group has run its course? Look for these key indicators: 1. Your Group has Lost Its Edge. Group life demonstrates a tension between speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The balance lies in correcting each other and understanding each other. When a group starts, a member’s weaknesses and failures seem more obvious.
“Why does he do that?”
“Why does she treat them that way?”
But, over time, the group begins to understand why. Rather than saying, “You might have more success with a gentler approach,” we find ourselves saying things like,
“He’s a little rough around the edges.
His childhood was a nightmare. We understand.”
Deep seated problems aren’t resolved over night. They take a great deal of work and are often beyond the scope of the group’s ministry (read more here). The problem comes when our understanding becomes enabling. The goal of every group should be to help each other reflect Christ. When a group has been together for a while and loses its edge of truth, it no longer helps anyone fulfill the goal. Iron isn’t sharpening iron. It’s more like marshmallow sharpening nerf (read more here). If your group started as a Gensu knife, but has dulled and become a butter knife, then it’s time to regroup. If your group can regain its edge, great. If not, then it’s time to disperse and form new groups. 2. Your Group has Lost Its Members. Over time every group loses members. It’s not a bad group. Life just gets in the way. A group member moves out of town. A new job or family activity conflicts with the group’s meeting day. Sooner or later, good group members will leave for good reasons. My group is now in its fourth year. We have two original members. One of them is me. While there are only two in the senior class, we have a couple of juniors, a few sophomores, and a couple of freshmen. If Jamie and I were the only two left in the group, we might get together now and then, but we probably wouldn’t meet every week. When your group gets down to just a couple, it’s time to reconsider and rebuild – either by invitation or forming a new group. But, sometimes new members won’t stick. No one likes to see their good group members go. If you’ve become close friends, you certainly don’t want things to come to an end. If your group is beginning to see the beginning of the end, act now to turn things around. Become a more welcoming and including group. Invite prospects to attend. Develop your freshman classes. Otherwise, “us four” will eventually become “no more.” More Tomorrow…