Phil Cooke has a unique resume. He has a PhD in Theology and is an active producer in Hollywood. Phil was Executive Producer of “Let Hope Rise – the Hillsong Movie” released to theaters nationwide, and Producer of “The Insanity of God” a feature documentary that premiered nationally as a Fathom Event. He is the founder of the Cooke Media Group and is the author of several books including his most recent book, Maximize Your Influence: How to Make Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You.
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.
There are several options for children during the online group meeting. The important thing is to be flexible. If child interrupts to ask a question, that’s okay. You can mute your mic and tend to your child. Some parents get uptight when their child interrupts the group meeting, but please remember your group is not more important than your child.
Here are some options to consider when it comes to meeting online and caring for your children:
Meet Later After the Children are Asleep.
If group members have younger children, then you might want to meet later in the evening after the children have gone to bed. This way parents can give their attention to their children at bedtime, put them to bed, then join the online group meeting. The group may need to meet at 8 o’clock at night, but it won’t take long for the group to get home after the meeting. They are home.
Offer a Children’s Online Small Group.
There are a number of online children’s ministry options on various online platforms. Maybe kids could have their own group during the adult group. Older children could moderate the group time. Kids are very interested in Zoom meetings just like they’re parents are doing!
Spouses Could Trade Off.
Spouses could agree to take turns in attending to children during the online group meeting. One spouse would help with the kids this week, if they need something during the meeting. Then the other spouse could help next week. Both spouse can participate in the meeting, but one would be “on call” when their children need someone.
Enlist Grandparents or Other Relatives.
If group members have family nearby, the group night could be a great time for a little Grandparent-Grandchild time. Other relatives or friends might also be available to help during the meeting. In one church I served, there was a group of grandparents that met on Tuesdays, then their children had a group on Thursdays. The grandparents kept their grandchildren on Thursday nights, so the parents could meet for their groups.
The most important thing is to relax and go with the interruptions. They happen. The author has worked from home for a number of years. I’ve had kids walk in during online meetings. Sometimes those interruptions involve a cookie or a hug. They’re not so bad. Remember, your group is not more important than your children!
The phrase “planning in pencil and prayer” is borrowed from a pastor who serves in of all places, Corona, California. The sentiment rings true. It’s hard to know how or what to plan at this point.
Back in March when our church, NewSpring, announced that worship services, KidSpring, and Fuse (student ministries) would be opened in mid-July, I felt they were operating out of abundance of caution and wisely chose to regather once the pandemic was well behind us. Well, that’s next weekend, and the fact that they are persisting makes we question their wisdom at this point. But, it’s not just my church.
Considering the uptick in Coronavirus cases since Memorial Day, I can’t imagine the number of cases that will appear in the 14 days following the Independence Day weekend. Someone online questioned the validity of all of this precaution. He asked his followers, “Have you seen anything different this year than during a normal flu season?” I have. I know of more people in the hospital and more people who have died than during a typical flu season. These aren’t statistics: a friend’s 35-year-old healthy co-worker and others have died.
So, how do you plan during a pandemic? Are we looking at online Christmas services? (Honestly, I was surprised by the idea of online Easter services at one point). It seems nearly impossible to plan during such a continuously ambivalent period. What does planning in pencil and prayer look like?
Your people will be worshipping somewhere.
Imagine your congregation was forced to meet at a different physical location. What would you do? Would you wait for them to return to your building before ministry could resume? Of course not! You would follow them to the new location and conduct services in the building that is currently housing them. Well, your congregation moved.
They moved online. They may or may not be able to regather in the remainder of 2020. Either way, they need a place to worship. The good news is that more people will participate in your online services than will ever join your on-campus services. When your congregation eventually regathers will you slam the door on your online followers?
The future will be a hybrid off online and on-campus services — but hear this — these are two different kinds of services. Streaming a regular worship service doesn’t work, but ignoring the people in the room to speak directly to the camera doesn’t work either. Two services are necessary just like you might have a traditional worship service and a contemporary service. The message is the same but the method is different.
The only true loser in all of this is the multisite campus. If people can watch the service online at home or even with friends, why would they need to watch online at a building the church rents? Streaming is streaming, right
Small groups are essential for your church’s continuity.
Again, in the vein of planning in pencil and prayer, we don’t know if small groups will be online, offline, on-campus, or off-campus. Groups are important for a variety of reasons as you can review in the Senior Pastor’s Guide to Groups. Groups are normally important because it’s a great format for disciples to make disciples.
During the pandemic, groups are especially important because in addition to content people also need conversation. They need a place to process what they’re dealing with. They need to discuss what was presented in the weekend service. Groups have always been a great means of taking your weekend into your week, but this is more important now than ever.
Since churches have been unable to gather, many of the entry-level service roles such as ushers, greeters, parking lot attendants, guest services, coffee station workers, and so forth have disappeared. For churches who are depending on serving opportunities to assimilate their guests, that strategy just went out the window. But just because the church isn’t meeting in the building doesn’t mean the church has closed.
Again by giving your people permission and opportunity, you can empower them to do something about the needs that they are discovering. How can they love their neighbor when they have to social distance? What needs are they seeing in the community, what can they do about it? The more you get people engaged in ministry instead of arguing on Facebook, the better off everyone will be.
Personalized your ministry.
Closing church buildings resulted in the shift from centralized to decentralized ministry. You are well aware by now that people will only tolerate a certain number of zoom meetings in a day. But there are a lot of other ways to connect with people and help them other than more online videos and more zoom meetings.
When the church doors closed, ministries got smaller and larger at the same time. We’ve already talked about the larger part with online services. But the smaller part is focusing on a select group to disciple personally. The smaller part is connecting regularly with the top 25% of your givers. The smaller part is focusing on the committed core of your church, serving for the crowd through online worship services, and caring for them through small groups. Your ministry priority should be clearer now and than ever been.
Many pastors have greatly overestimated what the weekend service could accomplish. Buildings closed and the church marched on. The church’s mission was never dependent on a building anyway.
On-campus worship services got a bunch of people in the room, but they were deceiving in two ways. First, sermons don’t make disciples, and second, the shoe was limiting the size of the foot. There are far more people to serve “out there” than could ever fit “in here” (or would even darken the door of a church).
In your planning, plan for necessities, but also plan for opportunities. The normal you are longing to see return won’t be the normal you remember. That’s okay. As long as your open to learn new things, you’re future is brighter than it might seem.
This is a season to try new things. This is the time to hit play while the rest of the world is hitting pause. What opportunities do you see? What are you doing to make the most of those opportunities? I’d like to hear what you’re thinking. Respond in the comments.
Unless they offer an essential service, suddenly everybody has time for a small group. The #1 excuse people give for not joining a group is that they are too busy or they don’t have enough time. Small Group Pastors know what they are really saying is, “Small group is just not a priority.” I get that. But, now the “I don’t have time” excuse has been erased, and small groups should become a greater priority — even if they can’t meet in person.
Why do you need to start new groups during a pandemic?
Whether by choice or by mandate, people are staying away from other people right now. Church services have gone online. School has gone online in many places. While people are making their best attempts to curtail the spread of a disease, isolation and loneliness coupled with a steady intake of cable news and social media is a breeding ground for fear. Isolation and fear come straight from a page in the enemy’s playbook. The devil is having a heyday with this.
People have spiritual and emotional needs. With all of the conflicting information and no one to discuss this with, the monsters in our people’s heads just become bigger and bigger. Last week I wrote about practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible while in quarantine. People need more than worship and a sermon to reassure them and help them deal with what’s going on. Beyond that some people have practical, physical needs. How is your church keeping up with older people or people with medical conditions. We must find a strategic way to care for our members. Here’s a tough thought — your people can find a better online service. How you help them right now will determine where they go and where they give after this is all over. This is fertile ground for the enemy to do his work. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to do its work.
As a church staff, you are working hard to transition worship and sermons to online services, but what about the social time people spent in the lobby or even in the parking lot. How are you meeting your members’ need for connection? This is the time to launch new groups. Groups could meet on a video platform. Groups could meet on a free conference call line. While many are forced to be apart, there are ways to be together.
How to Start New Groups
Starting new groups online is not so different than starting groups offline, except you have one advantage. People need connection more than ever. Now is the time to get all hands on deck and start as many groups as possible. Churches must mobilize the most people they can for ministry right now. Your people need personal care like never before. You can do this. Here’s what you need to get started:
A willing, caring person to initiate.
If there was ever a time to bypass bulky requirements for group leaders and get all hands on deck, the time is now. Invite every person who will willing and caring to start a group right now. If you are insecure about that method, then review a copy of your church’s membership roster. Who would you feel good about? Call them and invite them right now. Who is willing and caring? Remember, they suddenly have time for a group.
A system to connect.
Once you have invited people to lead these groups, then ask them who they know who would be interested in a group. Take a week and have them invite everyone they know inside the church or outside the church to join their group. Then, invite the rest of your congregation to sign up online or even give out some names for leaders to call and invite to their group. The idea is that everyone in the congregation would have someone to connect with personally every week.
A platform to meet on.
Some localities are still allowing meetings of groups less than 10 people. If people are comfortable meeting in person, then they can. Personally, I would recommend an online option like a teleconference or a conference call. This will prohibit any unnecessary contact and potential spread of disease. Teleconference services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other services offer a stable platform and an easy way to connect online with video. Most services offer a call-in number for those who might be less tech savvy. For a comparison of video platforms, click here. If video is not a good solution because of the internet service in your area, then a free conference line could work as well. Several services are available.
For families with children, encourage them to meet later in the evening when their kids have gone to bed. Wear headphones to eliminate background noise. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. And, do not take your device into the bathroom with you!
Curriculum to guide.
Your groups could start with just a weekly check in to see how everybody is doing. Start the meetings by allowing people to debrief what’s going on in their lives and in their minds. Another great way to start a new group is to ask people to tell their stories or at least the part of the stories that they’re willing to tell. This is an important way for the group to begin to understand each other and have context for what they share in the group.
For new leaders I have discovered that it’s best to use some sort of video-based curriculum that contains the teaching on the video. This makes things safe for both the new leader as well as the pastors. The new leader doesn’t have to be the Bible expert, and the pastors don’t want the new leader to teach or be the Bible expert anyway. By giving them a curriculum that you’ve created or a curriculum that you trust, you could assure that the group will follow the topic that you’ve given them and have a great meeting to encourage each other, build up their faith, and grow spiritually in an unusual time.
Just-in-time training and coaching. Don’t skip this step!
There won’t be a lot of time to train these leaders at first. I have discovered that if you recruit an established leader to follow up with new leaders, you create a win-win situation. The new leaders get help and support right when they need it, and the experience leader gets a trial run at being a coach. Once the trial is over, you can determine whether the new leaders will want to continue and whether the coaches should continue.
Just like groups can meet over a teleconference or conference call, training can also happen in the same way. In the last church I served we had an immediate need for coaches. I knew it would be difficult to add another meeting to an already busy schedule which included all of the coaches leading their own small group, so we met together on a conference line at about 8:30 at night for 30 minutes and did this for about six weeks in a row. Why did we meet so late? Well everybody was home from work, finished with dinner, and their kids were hopefully in bed. With all of these distractions removed, I was able to conduct the training and get these new coaches started. The same can be true for leader training, but I would recommend letting the coaches do the work for at least the first six weeks, then offer more formal training when the leaders are ready to move forward and when the leaders feel like they actually need the training.
Follow up and feedback.
Leading a small group and coaching is important work so you must inspect what you expect. If you’ve asked your coaches to call the new leaders every week, then you need to call the coaches every week and hear what’s going on with the groups. As a pastor, you want to know what’s going on with your people especially during a crisis. Your coaches can give you the needs that you need to address that maybe they cannot. You also get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you wait for a report, you are already in the weeds.
Do for your coaches what you expect them to do for your leaders. Just like your people need the care of a leader and your leaders need the care of a coach, your coaches need care from you. Now that your schedule has changed, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up the phone and give each of your coaches a call.
Supervision and accountability.
While you have successfully given away the ministry to new leaders and new coaches, the only thing that you cannot give away is the responsibility for the ministry. The buck still stops with you. I don’t say this to make you nervous, but I do say this so you will avoid an entirely hands off approach. The coaching structure is effective, but it cannot run on auto pilot. While you are not in the day-to-day care of leaders, you cannot be completely out of it either. This is still your baby.
The End Result
In this climate, everything you do is essentially a startup. You cannot call a meeting and gather people on campus. You cannot do on-site training. You can’t even visit your people in their homes. But you can start online groups that will accomplish all of this. This may go against your personality. This may go against everything that you’ve done before. But the message is the same — We are better together even if we are apart.
By starting new small groups right now, your people will feel less lonely, less isolated, and less fearful. These groups can help your people build their faith and experience the care that they deserve. And the hard truth is that you cannot create that with an email.
My hope for you is that the end result of starting online groups will be at the beginning of something new for your ministry and your church. Pastors and staff cannot possibly meet all of the needs of any congregation. And they shouldn’t. Now more than ever, you need to get your people to engage their gifts and serve others in groups like never before. Don’t waste this moment. Suddenly, everybody has time for a small group!
If you’re ready to start groups, I want to share this webinar with you: