Pastor, you are not your numbers. Your worth and your value come from who you are in Christ. You are called. You are chosen. You are valued and loved. Your numbers are your numbers. Sometimes they will be up. Sometimes they will be down. Your worth isn’t based on the appearance of success. Easter is coming, but is everybody coming back? Probably not. And, that’s okay, because you are not your numbers.
Numbers are important. You want to know if you are succeeding, failing, or holding steady. These hard metrics can be encouraging or even exciting. They can also be motivating. If your small groups are lagging in some way, then you can kick it into high gear, recruit more leaders, and get more groups started. Everybody likes numbers that climb up and to the right. But, when numbers start falling, you might feel all of your efforts don’t count. The good news is that numbers are only part of the equation.
Hard Metrics aren’t the Only Factor
Numbers are hard metrics: names on rosters, number of groups, meetings attended, verses memorized. Hard numbers don’t paint the entire picture. You also need to look at soft metrics: stories being told, how God is working through groups, lives being changed, problems overcome, next steps achieved, and so on.
In a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast, Bill Willits reflected on this ministry season at North Point, “We’ve been averaging 35-40 percent of what we would typically connect in our short-term and long-term groups. I think that’s [because of] Covid. It’s been a challenging, challenging season.” Bill continued, “[Weekend] attendance is running between 40-50 percent compared to pre-Covid at North Point. We are looking at about a third of the typically connections we would see in a fall season.” Clearly, those are disappointing results for North Point and for your church as well.
In this challenging season like in every church, the North Point team has to navigate the emotions surrounding the ministry. Bill adds, “One of the biggest things is just reminding our team, ‘Let’s make sure that the people taking the step are finding a great experience. Let’s make sure that we are helping to onboard new groups, new group leaders and their members well.’ We are putting in a lot of touch points in the first 90 days of a new group just to make sure…that this experience in really unique times is still a good one. It’s taking a lot more effort.” Are you feeling that in your fall launch right now?
“For a staff going into a connection season when you’re used to having a [high] level of engagement, it can be a major bummer to have a [much lower] level of engagement. We keep reminding staff that in this unique time, we are dialing down the euphoria about numbers and let’s dial up stories about people who are having meaningful group experiences.”
Things You Might Have Overlooked
When your numbers are strong, things are usually moving pretty fast. You probably don’t slow down to look at what’s happening with your coaches, your leaders, and your groups because too much is happening. But, when things aren’t moving fast enough, you can follow one of two approaches: frustration or evaluation.
If you expect things to work the way they always have, you will live in a lot of frustration. The world has changed. The culture has changed. New approaches are necessary in a new culture. Longing for the good old days of 2019 isn’t going to propel you forward. In fact, it will discourage you to the point of giving up. You and I both know pastors who have left the ministry in the last 18 months. When things aren’t happening fast enough for you, it’s time to slow down.
If you choose evaluation, then you ask yourself if what you’re doing is still effectively fulfilling the Great Commission. Be willing to strip away all of the plans and programs down to their core. What should you keep? What should you end? What new thing should you try? What does this make possible?
Another big question is: What is your current system producing? Are you seeing leaders developed? Are you seeing people become more like Christ? Do you see an increase in selflessness and a decrease in selfishness?
What you’ve been doing is not wrong. But, it’s not working at the level it once did. Riding this season out is not the answer. It’s time to take the thing apart – strip it down all of the way, evaluate each piece, and decide what to invest in.
Think About This
Counting your groups and leaders is important. After all, you count your money, why wouldn’t you count your people? People are far more important than money. Counting is important, but it’s not all important. The metrics that matter the most are difficult to measure. How are you creating environments where disciple-making can take place? How are you multiplying yourself? Are people coming to Christ? How are people becoming more like Christ? Who has surprised you by stepping forward to lead a group for the first time? What is God doing in your groups?
Be encouraged. You matter. Your work matters. God is using you. There’s much to do. There’s much to celebrate.
Ministry is more decentralized than ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, many of the things you typically count on to monitor the health and activity of small groups aren’t functioning at their optimal level. How can you know what’s going on with your groups when your “dashboard” has short circuited?
Don’t Just Hope It Works.
If you launched a lot of new online groups in the last year or moved your established groups online, then your reporting system is probably not functioning quite as well as you’d like. But, if you are depending on a report to know what’s going on in your groups, you’re already in the weeds.
In-person leader meetings aren’t happening and online leader training is poorly attended. While it’s great to see everyone’s face, meetings are okay at dispensing information, but you still don’t know what’s going on in your groups.
Some have basically given up. They are hoping that one way or another, groups will survive the pandemic and come out okay. The truth is what you don’t know will hurt you.
Where Do Online Groups Need Help?
Your group leaders are facing issues they’ve never faced before. The stress of the global pandemic, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and political chaos has taken a toll. Overall mental health is precarious. Your group leaders may or may not be equipped to handle what they’re facing.
The sheer numbers of issues coming up among your people are too much for you to manage alone. You need a level of leadership between you and your leaders. This doesn’t mean becoming aloof to your leaders’ needs. It means that you have very quickly become stretched too thin. It’s time to bring in the reinforcements! Which of your established leaders could help you carry the load and care for your group leaders?
What’s the Next Step for Your Online Groups?
Where are you leading your online groups? Are they just a stop-gap until the pandemic ends? There is more potential in your temporary, online groups that you realize.
If people have stepped forward to lead a short-term online group with their friends, they have essentially self-identified as a potential group leader. If they are leading an egroup, book group, or something else that you’ve come up with, then give them the next step into small group leadership. But, don’t make the step too big. (If you haven’t launched short-term online groups, then start promoting now and launch “egroups” for the 30 days prior to Easter, which is the Lenten season.)
As I talk to pastors every day, churches and small groups are faced with very different restrictions and regulations depending on their region of the country. Even if churches and groups aren’t limited in meeting, some of your members may be avoiding physical contact out of an abundance of caution. People need connection and conversation. Use this season to experiment. Tell them you’re only doing this “because of COVID.” For every group that is divided over meeting in-person or online, start two groups. Then, give them a next step.
Give the group a study or a sermon discussion guide to use after Easter. Most short-term groups disband because they aren’t invited to continue. (That isn’t rocket science, but it sure took a long time for some of us to figure out.)
The link to successfully getting new groups launched and to help them continue is a coach who will encourage and instruct the leaders as they need help. You can’t host the meetings you used to. You can’t personally check in on dozens or hundreds of new leaders. You can’t write off these short-term groups and hope things get back to normal.
You have an amazing opportunity to grow your small group ministry in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Many of the other ministries in your church which might have competed for the same leaders and group members have been postponed or shut down. Nothing has cleared the deck of church activities like COVID. This is your opportunity. Assess your established leaders to recruit coaches. Ask your senior pastor to promote “egroups.” Then, buckle up!
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.