Image by David Mark from Pixabay
When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
The small group in a box seemed like a good idea. The small group director secured the topic from the pastor and the logo from the graphic designer, then went into the hard work of writing curriculum, designing a study guide, gathering goodies for the box, and printing these branded boxes for the next small group launch. So far, so good.
As the launch approached, the small group director made an announcement in the service that anyone interested in starting a group could come to the lobby, grab a box, and do the church-wide study. This was the start of the trouble. A few people attended the online briefing for new leaders. The director reached out to a few others. The end result was disappointing. The small group in a box was not a bad idea, but it was only half a strategy. While I applaud the effort at trying something new, here are the problems I see in this director’s approach:
The Small Group Director Promoted the Study.
For most of my 30+ years of ministry, I’ve been the associate pastor or the vice president. You know — the #2 guy (or lower). In my experience, when I made the announcement about groups, it would receive only 30% of the result that my senior pastor would get by saying the exact same words. How do I know this? I recruited small group leaders for seven years and connected 30% of our adults into groups. We averaged 0-10 new groups each year…
The first time my senior pastor stood up on a Sunday morning, we doubled our groups in one day. Six months later, we doubled again to the point where we had 13% of our people leading groups and 125% connected in on-going small groups. Long story short: I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004 (and I serve a church of 6,500 since then). The small group director should have asked the senior pastor to make the announcement.
The Series was Only Promoted for One Week.
This small group director promoted groups for one Sunday and got a disappointing result. I’ve heard this story before. One year, I had two churches promoting groups on the same dates. One was in New York; the other in Florida. The New York church promoted for one week and recruited 20 new leaders. The Florida church promoted for three weeks and recruited 60 new leaders. Both created their own curriculum. Both had the senior pastor inviting people to lead. The difference was recruiting for one week instead of recruiting for three weeks. Oh, and on the first week, the Florida church also only had 20 new leaders, but they kept recruiting.
The Study was Only a Discussion Guide.
Most people don’t regard themselves as a leader let alone a Bible expert. What this small group director got right was encouraging their people to get together with the friends. What they got wrong was offering a discussion guide only. By creating a teaching video with the pastor’s teaching, you can make the series more popular with the people and with the pastor. You also remove the objection of “I don’t know enough about the Bible to lead a group.” The teacher is your pastor on the video.
You can invest tens of thousands of dollars into video curriculum production (I can help you), or you can shoot a video on your iPhone and upload it to Youtube (I can help you with that too). Either way you remove a barrier – the leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert. The pastor is the expert.
The Box and the Training were Disconnected.
If you want to get people to your briefing, only allow them to pick up the box at the briefing. The first time I did “small group in a box” back in 2004. People picked up the bag of materials. They put their name on a signup sheet. We never heard from them again. When I started inviting them to a briefing after the service, which was the only way they could get the curriculum, not only did they receive enough training to get them started, they also walked out of the room with a coach and not just curriculum. Keep the training and the resources connected. They will come to training.
The New Leaders Lacked Support.
Most small group pastors and directors are overwhelmed with the current number of leaders in their ministries. In fact, sometimes this is why the small group ministry isn’t growing any faster or any further. You have to multiply yourself. The other side of the equation is that many prospective group leaders will never actually start a group because they can be easily discouraged in the time between the briefing and the start of the study. I’ll be honest – I’ve lost far more group leaders before the group started than after the series ended. If the new leader has an experienced leader to walk alongside them, this will go a long way to get the group going, support the new leader, and help the group continue.
I applaud this small group director on trying something new. That takes guts. But, I also agonize with this director at the opportunity lost. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. I have. Half a strategy just doesn’t cut it. Yes, take initiative and try new things. But, also realize that most strategies have a history and a few secrets to success.
Here are a few resources that might help:
Exponential Groups book and workbook
Leading an Exponential Groups Launch Online Course
12 Month Small Group Ministry Coaching Group (starts July 2021).
By Allen White
You can’t have groups without leaders. Let’s face it, if you have a bunch of people interested in joining groups, you may or may not have groups. But, if you have a leader, you’ll have a group. Where do the leaders come from? There are several schools of thought on how and who to recruit. There is not a right or wrong for this. The method you choose depends on how many people you have to connect into groups, how quickly you want to connect them, and how big of a risk you are willing to take.
High Requirements and Incremental Growth
In this method, prospective leaders must meet certain requirements and complete comprehensive training before they lead groups. Some churches will even ask prospective group leaders to co-lead or apprentice with an experienced leader for a certain period of time before they are commissioned to lead their own group.
The benefit of this method is small group pastors/directors feel they know the prospective leaders better before they are invited to lead. Also, the pastors and staff may feel the leader is better prepared by completing comprehensive training prior to leading a group.
In order to recruit leaders, either the small group pastor will need to personally recruit prospective leaders for the training process or take nominations from other group leaders about prospects in their groups. The number of leaders recruited will depend on how many people are recruiting and how well the recruiters know the church members. As the church grows this becomes a more difficult task.
From my experience using this method is very slow going in offering new groups. If your church is large or is rapidly growing, this method will leave you in the weeds very quickly, especially if your church doesn’t offer much else beyond the weekend worship service. I personally handpicked leaders for seven years and ended up with 30 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. The recruits joined a six week training group with the purpose of launching all of the members as small group leaders. Some years we started 10 new groups. One year we started two groups. One year we started zero groups, even though the prospects completed the training. Then, we got stuck and couldn’t grow further.
Fortunately, there were some lessons learned. First, the invitation was to lead a group basically for the rest of their lives. This was too much of a commitment. Secondly, I didn’t know everybody in the church, so there were a lot of great prospects being overlooked because I had never met them. Third, I felt I needed to maintain control over the groups and the leaders to make sure we didn’t have a bunch of problems, which turned out to be our biggest problem. I had become the bottleneck for leadership.
A few positives in this method are certainly worth keeping. Most people do not regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. For the small group pastor, a staff member, or a group leader to say, “I think you have what it takes to lead a group,” is huge in people’s lives. Many people who don’t regard themselves as leaders would make great leaders, they just need someone to call that out of them. Those personal conversations won’t get all of the leaders you need, but they will make a significant impact on the life of the potential leader.
Then, there’s the term “leader.” We should be hesitant to call someone a leader. Whether that means someone must meet the qualifications and fulfill the training requirements before they are designated “leader,” or if they start a group with their friends, no one should be designated as a leader until they’ve proven themselves. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs his apprentice, Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” No matter how people have entered your leadership pipeline, wait and see how God uses them and gifts them before you give them the title of leader.
Low Requirements and Rapid Growth
After being stuck with 30 percent in groups after seven years of using the first method, my pastor and I decided to do something different. We created our own video-based curriculum, so the group meetings would be easy to prepare and lead. Rather than handpicking leaders, my pastor made a public invitation in the service that went something like this: “We’ve prepared video curriculum materials for you. If you would be interested in opening your home to host a group, then we will help you get the group started.” With that invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. And, I got out of the recruiting business permanently.
Every church must choose their own acceptable level of risk in “lowering the bar.” I don’t even like that term any more. I’d rather say “delaying the requirements.” For some churches, anyone who is willing to lead a group is qualified to lead a short-term group. (I prefer not to advertise these). For other churches, the recruit must be a member, complete Growth Track, provide references, or be interviewed. Choose the acceptable level of risk that’s appropriate for your group. For more on this, see Chapter 3 of Exponential Groups.
Once people said “yes” to my pastor’s invitation, we brought them into a briefing to give them a start on how to gather and lead their group. Eventually at the briefings, we introduced them to an experience leader who would walk alongside them for the six week series. For us, by providing the curriculum, we knew what was being taught in the groups, and by offering a coach, we knew what was going on. This gave us more on-going reassurance of quality groups than we had ever had.
The number of new groups you start this way is limited only by the number of people who attend your church. Every person in your church could do a Bible study with their friends. I know you’re immediately thinking of who you don’t want to start a group. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Only 2 percent or less will be a problem. The other 98 percent will do a great job.
In the first church I served, we quickly reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, compare that to 30 percent in groups after seven years of doing it the other way. We had 1,000 people in groups and 800 on the weekend. In the second church I served, we had about 4,000 of our 5,000 regular attenders in groups. (That church offered a LOT of other options to our adults).
While there is more risk in this method, there is also more reward. Like I said at the beginning, you can go either way. Neither is wrong. It all depends on how much time you have to get everybody in a group. If you have months, then the second method is the way to go. If you have years, then the first method is fine. If you’re not sure, then run a pilot with a few groups and see what works.
Requirements and training should never go away permanently. If you “lower the bar,” remember you must eventually “raise the bar.” In the first one to three years, most churches can get their entire congregations connected. After that window passes, you must up the ante for groups. Qualify “unqualified” leaders. Create a discipleship pathway. Offer more mature topics in addition to felt need topics.
It’s up to you. What are you willing to risk? If you go too fast, you might be embarrassed or blamed. But, if you go to slow, you can miss out on some great leaders and an opportunity to disciple your members. What are you willing to try?
By Allen White
Photo by bestgreenscreen
You’ve either just launched groups in your church; you’re about to launch groups; or you don’t know what you’re doing. How does that feel? If you just launched groups, you’re coming up for air. Your January fire drill has come to an end. The sprint you just ran has left you panting. Once you catch your breath, you’ll be at it again. But, what if you didn’t have to lose your mind every 12 weeks to have the leaders and groups you needed? It’s simple math: 12 months gives you more time than 12 weeks. The challenge is that it’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time. Here are some reasons to focus on 2018 instead of 2017:
1. Plan for Four Times Your Current Groups in 2018.
Many of us run our group launches hand to mouth. We get the groups going that we need, then have to start getting ready for the next go ’round hoping that many of the groups will stick, but not knowing for sure. What you do know is that you’ll have to recruit leaders again in a few weeks. You just don’t know how many yet. It’s hard to think ahead when you’re living “paycheck to paycheck.” It’s hard to come up for air.
But, what happens when your church grows larger and your groups well outnumber what you’re dealing with now? Imagine that you’re a church of 200 people and your growth takes you to 800 people. You can’t hire a bunch of staff. At least, I never could. Would you stop placing people into groups, or would you ignore your family working late nights? Would you twist the arms of the usual suspects to lead groups and get another short term win? How are you going to manage four times as many groups when you probably don’t feel like you’re doing a great job managing them now?
Stop and do the math. What does 4 times look like in your church? What would you stop doing that you’re currently doing? Stop placing people into groups. Stop handpicking leaders. Start asking your senior pastor to recruit leaders. Start your coaching structure and build on it. You would definitely need to change your process.
Here’s the point: Start leading like you have 4 times as many groups now. If you wouldn’t place people into groups then, then stop placing them into groups now. If you would ask your senior pastor to recruit leaders from the pulpit, then start doing that now. If you would back off of coaching leaders yourself, then write down three names right now of people you would invite to help you coach new leaders. Write them down.
2. Build a Coaching Structure Over Time.
If you have 10 groups, you don’t need 8 coaches today, but when you have 40 groups you will. Start preparing your group leaders to coach new leaders. Observe how they handle issues in their groups. Notice the ones who genuinely care. Effective coaching is built on a relationship. Who’s good at forming and maintaining relationships? You can train on skills, but you can’t make people care.
Don’t worry about your current leaders. If they have successful lead a group without a coach, then they will be great potential coaches. Don’t feel obligated to attach every leader to a coach just to fill in an organizational chart. The chart will look pretty, but the coaching will be pretty ineffective.
Give new leaders a coach. Remember, you’re headed to 4 times as many groups next year. How many coaches will you need? Start preparing them now.
3. Think Sequence, Not Series.
Any church can generate a lot of excitement over a six week series. It’s like inflating a balloon. Building up to a six week campaign, the balloon gets bigger and bigger and bigger, then it POPS! Now what? If your balloon has already popped, then you’re asking the “Now what?” question too late.
Start groups with an expectation that they will continue. In order for them to continue, they need a next step. Before you launch the first series, plan for what they will study next. If you offer the next step during the first six week study, then 80 percent or better should continue. If you offer the next step after the series has ended, you won’t do so well.
The best seasons of the year to launch groups are Fall, New Year, and Easter. But, to retain groups, you need to plan for 52 weeks, not just three 6 week series. Now, it’s not 52 weeks of meetings. There’s variety. There’s ebb and flow. Keep the groups informed on what’s next, and they will take the next step.
I would even go so far as to say if you don’t plan a next step for your groups, then abort your group launch now. Don’t get into the Ground Hog Day phenomena. Don’t connect them into groups only to watch them ungroup, then later try to regroup them. If this is what you’ve been doing, no wonder they’re turning you down now.
Launch. Next Step. Repeat. (except for Summer)
4. Recruit Leaders for 12 Months, Not Just a Few Weeks.
If you’re focused only on your next group launch, then you need to recruit leaders for your next launch. You’re playing the short game. If they won’t lead for this round, then maybe you ask them again for the next round. But, won’t you need leaders 6 months from now? Won’t you need leaders a year from now?
Years back I was recruiting a member of our church to oversee our support groups. He was a great guy who led groups well. He was also a licensed counselor, which would be perfect for coaching our support groups. I called him and invited him to help these groups. He told me he couldn’t do it. Between completing a degree and the season his family was in, he just couldn’t do it. But, he might be able to take on the role in 2 years. I put a date on the calendar.
Two years passed, then I called him. He said, “I knew you were going to call me.” The timing was better, so he said yes. He was the right person for the right position, but it was the wrong timing when I asked the first time. Rather than twist his arm, I waited for the right timing. It was certainly better than having someone lead under duress or not have time to lead at all. It was also better than having the wrong person in the role because I was running a fire drill.
Ask yourself this: Am I interested in achieving my goals, or am I committed? There’s a difference. John Assaraf says, ” “If you’re interested, you come up with stories, excuses, reasons, and circumstances about why you can’t or why you won’t. If you’re committed, those go out the window. You just do whatever it takes.”
I know that you are committed. You have given your whole life over to God to be used for His service. I understand. I have too. But, I spent so many years spinning my wheels in season after season only to find rather pathetic, incremental results. Out of that frustration was born a more impactful way of doing things. I would love to join you in your journey.
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?