The Unfairness of Being Fair

The Unfairness of Being Fair

By Allen White

Photo by Unal Ozman

Photo by Unal Ozman

“If I did that for small groups, then I would have to do the same for everyone else.” Have you ever heard those words before?
When it came to getting airtime in the weekend services for small groups, I’ve faced a few culprits over the years. First, I thought the problem was the Worship Pastor who didn’t want to interrupt “the flow” of the worship service. Then, I thought the problem rested with the Communications Director, who just wanted to control everything. I’m not ready to rule them out entirely, but I have found the true troublemaker:

The Idea of Fairness.

Fairness says, “If I promote your ministry, then I have to promote everyone else’s ministry at the same level.” It also says, “I can’t promote only your ministry on one weekend or else others will think I’m playing favorites.” I am personifying Fairness here, because I think it’s demonic. Now, some of you may be thinking that I’m overstating my frustration with Fairness, but the rest of you are glad that I called it out.
If Fairness determines what gets promoted in your church, then don’t wonder why your church continues to flounder at small groups or anything else. If you’re ready to move forward and get unstuck from Fairness, then ask yourself a few questions:

1. Where is Your Church Headed?

Now, before you hike off into the woods and spend three days going ’round and ’round about the same things you discussed last year, let’s face it, most church mission and vision statements are practically identical. Our mission is Christ’s mission. Love God and Love People or Love, Serve, Share, or something similar. We’re all clear.
But, how is your church doing that? Maybe you’re not. I hope that’s not true.
Most churches “Love God” through worship services and through our relationships with each other. “Loving People” comes through serving them, caring for them, helping them grow in their faith, and so on. What is helping your people achieve what God has called them to in your church? If it’s Sunday School, then promote Sunday School. If it’s Serving the Community, then promote Serving the Community. If it’s Small Groups, then promote Small Groups. If it’s a combination of things, then promote a combination of things.
But, you don’t need to promote everything all at once or equally.

2. What is Growing in Your Church and What is Declining?

For most churches in North America, traditional means of discipleship like Sunday School classes and Midweek Bible Study are on the decline. People just don’t want to commit four hours every Sunday morning or come back on Wednesday night. Now, if these things are working for you, then don’t shut them down. But, no amount of additional airtime in the weekend services is going to get more people into Sunday School or Midweek Bible Study.
Now if you have a rockin’ Sunday School or Midweek and nearly 100 percent of your adults are being discipled that way, then promote what’s working. Don’t worry about Small Groups. When was the last time you stopped to compare your church’s discipleship options with your average weekly adult attendance? If there is a gap of more than 30 percent between your worship attendance and your discipleship options, then it’s time to promote groups. And, de-emphasize the other offerings that aren’t growing.

3. What Ministries Impact the Most People in Your Church and in Your Community?

In many churches, their church bulletins and websites are like the old Sears catalog. It lists about every possible thing anyone could ever want. The only problem is you can’t find it. At least the Sears catalog gave us an index.
A while back a study was conducted to determine ice cream sales. At one store, 20 flavors were sampled by customers. At another store, four flavors were offered. Which store sold the most ice cream? The store that was sampling only four flavors sold more ice cream. They found choosing one out of four flavors was a much simpler decision than choosing one flavor from 20 kinds.
If you took a hard look at the ministries your church offers, which ones impact the greatest number of people or have the potential to? It’s probably not “Paws for People.”
In the last church I served, we had a ministry called “Paws for People.” People brought their dogs to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. I am a dog lover. When I’m in a nursing home one day, a canine visitor would be very welcome. But, why would this ministry ever be promoted to our entire congregation of 5,000 adults?
How many were dog owners? How many were already involved in a ministry? How many had a heart to go to nursing homes? (When was the last time you visited a nursing home outside of work?) The subset of potential candidates gets smaller and smaller.
While “Paws for People” would be great in a booth at a ministry fair, they don’t need airtime in the weekend services. Why? What they offer doesn’t impact 50 percent or more of the people in the service. But, if Fairness had its say, “Paws for People” would get equal airtime with everyone else.
What does impact 50 percent or more? Small groups, of course. Maybe Women’s Ministry or Men’s Ministry, if you have them. (If you don’t have these, don’t start them). All church events. You get the picture.

4. How Do Your People Stay Informed?

Most churches have a variety of ways to communicate to their people: bulletins, slides before the service, videos, inserts, ministry tables in the lobby, e-newsletters, other emails, church apps, church website, etc. But, which ones are actually effective in getting the word out about your ministry?
Often I survey the churches I work with (and those I have served) and ask how people stay informed about church events. While every church is a little different, this is important information. If you expect your church’s website to do all of the heavy lifting on keeping people informed, well, 1995 just called and they want their AOL back.
In the last church I served, they were big on video announcements. But, the video announcements were played before the service when less than 10 percent of the congregation was even in the auditorium. What I discovered through a survey was that our people stayed informed through the church bulletin, a weekly email newsletter, and announcements made in the service.
When we met to plan our events, they thought I was being humble when I told them a video announcement wasn’t necessary. I only wanted an ad in the bulletin and the e-newsletter. And, leading up to a campaign, the Senior Pastor made announcements to recruit leaders (and there were no other announcements on those three weeks). Worked every time.

A Few Thoughts

As a pastor, it’s hard when anyone accuses you of anything, let alone playing favorites. You face enough pressures just from ministry. Who needs the pressure?
Fairness says, “Everything is important.”

Let’s face it, if Everything is Important, then Nothing is Important.

But, there are plenty of pastors who cower behind Fairness. They would rather make the announcement for “Paws for People” rather than face a confrontation. It’s too bad. They are doing a disservice to their churches.
Promote what you want to see grow in your church. Stop promoting what is declining or dying. No amount of life support is going to bring it back. Then, set priorities for your promotion. And, please don’t relegate these decisions to the Worship Pastor or the Communications Director.
Let me know what you think?

Managing Expectations in Group Life

Managing Expectations in Group Life

By Allen White
Disappointment results from unmet expectations. We expected something other than what we got, but we didn’t get it. For some, this disappointment comes on Christmas morning. For others, disappointment shows up in a relationship. For group members, disappointment might arrive in a much hyped small group or an eagerly awaited study. The key to fending off disappointment and the frustration it brings is to manage expectations. Here are some practical ways to direct the thinking of your group members:

1.       Avoid the Blind Men and the Elephant Syndrome.
Everyone has an opinion on basically everything. The temperature of the room is too hot or too cold or somewhere in between. The music is too loud, too quiet or just right. If your opinion becomes the Goldilocks standard of “just right,” then everyone else’s thoughts become either Mamma Bear or Papa Bear. “Just right” for you is usually not “just right” for someone else.
In the fable of the blind men and the elephant, the men have very different opinions on what an elephant is. The one holding the tail believed an elephant is like a snake. The one touching the elephant’s leg thought it’s like a tree. The one with the tusk thought the elephant was like a plough. The one with the ear thought it was like a basket. And, so goes the fable.
When it comes to groups, everyone has different expectations of the group and of the studies they take on. Some want a group for connection. Others want a group for support. Some want deep Bible study. While others want action: outreach, ministry, parties or worship. Some long for that great group they were a part of in another church 10 years ago. While no group can be all things to all people, a conversation about expectations can go a long way in avoiding disappointment with the group.
2.       What Do the Group Members Want?
The key to creating a group members actually want is to ask the group members what they want to see in a group. Don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing. This is the beauty of small groups – there is flexibility in each group to uniquely serve its members.
What is your church communicating about small groups? The communication sets the expectation. Do your groups offer community built around a Bible study? Are they fellowship groups without a Bible study? Are they Bible study groups first, then everything else later? Are your groups sharing life or just sharing information?
When people are invited to form groups, the message from the church sets the tone. Avoid trigger words like “deeper.” The study or group will take you deeper relative to what? This creates a very unmanageable expectation, and you’ll soon find yourself deep in something else.
3.       Never Assume.
A simple exercise can quickly make the group aware of its expectations. Have each group member write their top 5 expectations on a piece of paper and turn it in anonymously. These expectations can arrange from having a weekly worship time to healthy refreshments to serving the poor.
After the leader has collected everyone’s Top 5, compile the list for the next meeting. List each item, but don’t tally the number of votes for each just yet. Give the list to your group members at the next meeting. Have them circle the Top 3 values from the list, then collect their sheets.
From this new data, the leader should clearly see the group’s interests. At the next meeting, have a conversation about the results. Then, create your group’s core values around the Top 5 values indicated by all of the group members. The group’s core values should become part of your group agreement.
While lesser values may come into play, the group will focus on the Top 5 and then re-evaluate periodically. Decisions made for the group create resentment. Decisions made together create community.