Back in the good old days, the school year started after Labor Day and ended before Memorial Day as God intended. Lately, however, school districts have gotten creative with school calendars. Some schools take a week or two off every six weeks now – all year ‘round. While I’m sure there is a lot of reason and research that have gone into creating these optimal learning environments, I feel for those missing the lazy days of summer, but I especially feel for you as you plan your small group launches.
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Good News: Old Calendar Habits are Hard to Break
Even in areas where the school calendar looks a lot like the annual calendar, the traditional school calendar is well embedded into the hearts and minds of most adults. Look at the workplace. Most people take vacation during the summer months and little gets done the last two weeks of the year. It’s just like the good old days when we had summer vacation and Christmas break. In a way this is good news.
My wife taught in the California public schools. At one school there were 900 students on a campus built to accommodate 300 students. They added as many portables as possible, but it was impossible to have the entire student body on campus at the same time. So, students were divided into four tracks. Each track took a month off every fourth month. This way only 75% of the students were on-campus at any one time. But, here’s the thing – the most popular vacation months were May, June, July, and August. While families could have gone on vacation during either of the other two months their children were out of school, vacations happened during the summer months. Old habits die hard.
If your small group launch is faced with a new or changing school calendar, don’t fear. Your people are still conditioned by the traditional school calendar. Most people won’t go on vacation every six weeks. Most people can’t afford it. Vacations by and large will occur during the summer months. There might be a trip to Branson in October or a skiing trip in the winter, but most people will be around.
Your Groups Can Flex
Often the fear is that if you launch groups, then there’s a “fall break” two weeks into the aligned series or semester, then your groups will fall apart. This is not true. Breaks that occur after a series or semester launches are not a problem for most groups. But, you want to avoid breaks while you’re gearing up for a launch.
In most cases, the best times to launch groups are in the fall, the New Year, and after Easter. These are normal seasons of the year for folks to start things. People are still driven by seasons regardless of what the school calendar dictates.
In South Carolina where our family lived for 14 years, many South Carolinians went on vacation either the week before or after the 4th of July. This tradition went back more than a century. Back in the day, the textile mills closed for two weeks on either side of Independence Day. That’s when everyone took vacation. Now, generations later, many people still vacation during those two weeks because that’s what their families have always done. Recent calendar changes won’t disrupt decades-long traditions.
First, if you live in Canada, forget what I just said. Plan for your groups to start AFTER your Thanksgiving and lead up to the Christmas season.
Next, respect the traditions and culture of your neck of the woods. Churches in the Northwest plan for big small group launches in January to June. That’s when groups run. What about the fall? Well, since people aren’t back until around Halloween, there’s just not much there. Inland Maine churches don’t plan groups during January and February due to winter weather. (After all, they live north of most of Canada’s population!)
Learn the patterns people follow. Whether you make adjustments for cold weather, hot weather, or hunting season, don’t fight these rhythms. The fight for off season groups is simply not worth the result. Besides often after people have a break for group life, the next group launch is even stronger.
Protect the Month Leading Up to a Launch
The key to any successful small group launch is the month leading up to the launch. You want to wait until your people are “back” from summer vacation, Christmas vacation, or wherever else they’ve been. If you’re big kick off weekend is the first weekend everyone is back, then you’re going to have a difficult time recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups. Let’s say you’re people are back around mid-August. You want to plan for a group launch around mid-September. If your groups and series launch in mid-August, well, you’ve left a lot of cards on the table.
The same is true for the New Year’s launch. You can’t recruit new leaders and connect people into groups during the Christmas season. It simply does not work. This means your aligned series or small group semester can’t start in January. That’s okay. Maybe your series should run between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Use the month of January to recruit.
You need plenty of runway to recruit new leaders and form groups. During the month preceding a launch eliminate as many competing values as possible – no other announcements, no guest speakers, just groups, groups, and more groups. Avoid the random weeks off from school. It’s okay if your fall break occurs during your series – that won’t hurt you. But, avoid a week off during your ramp up to the group launch. That disruption will dampen momentum for your launch.
Think About This
Old habits die hard. Of course, the disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic has caused many to change course. They worship at home. They’re choosier about who they spend time with and how they spend their time. Things aren’t snapping back quickly. But, in this new normal, there is still underlying traditions and seasons. Get to understand the currents of your local calendar and follow that when you plan your small group launches.
How does your church navigate school calendars? Leave your comment below.
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
If you’ve been waiting to start something new, 2020 is a great year to experiment. Some might say that 2020 is an experiment gone wrong, but with life so some completely disrupted, you should embrace this as an opportunity to launch new things or end things that need to go away. Blame it on the pandemic! As difficult as this year has been, the healthy crisis, economic crisis, racial crisis, and political crisis are breaking up some very hard ground in the world, in the church, and in the hearts of individuals. There couldn’t be a better time to innovate. What needs to change in your church? Here are a few things that I’m seeing right now.
In my recent Small Group Network huddle, Bill Cleminson from the Church at the Mill (a.k.a. The Mill) in Moore, SC shared an experiment their senior pastor, Dr. D.J. Horton, launched this fall – they launched egroups. An egroup is five people or fewer who commit to meet together for 13 weeks. The group views a 15-minute teaching video from the pastor, then uses a sermon discussion guide for their meetings. In addition, the egroups journal daily based on a reading plan provided by the church or something else they choose. For accountability, the egroup members are asked to share a picture of their journal with their group with the words blurred out. This increases participation.
The Mill intentionally chose a new name for these groups to avoid confusion with their other small groups and discipleship groups. eGroups are a short-term trial run at groups, but more importantly, they give their members an opportunity to connect and process life together. It’s a great combination of both communication and content. After the first 13 weeks, eGroups may have served their purpose at The Mill, but depending on how 2021 looks, they could certainly serve an extended purpose. As with most churches, planning is in pencil and prayer.
Find Your Loopholes.
Some churches have rather rigid leadership requirements for small groups. While the bar for leadership should be high, the issue comes down to two things: (1) How many years will it take for you to connect people into groups? and (2) Do you really need a “leader” to make disciples?
Recently I talked to a pastor whose church leadership was leery of inviting people they didn’t know into small group leadership. I understand that feeling. That’s how my church got stuck at 30% in groups years ago. I understand that every church has an acceptable level of risk. There is a line they are reluctant to cross for a variety of reasons. I can’t force anyone to cross that line, but I can work to convince them.
I asked this pastor, “What’s too small to be a group in your church?” He said that three people was too small to be a group. Then, I challenged him to form some non-groups of three people. He just needed to ask people to invite two friends to discuss the weekly sermon questions. These non-groups won’t be advertised or acknowledged anywhere, but they will do two things for the church: (1) It will prove to the pastor there isn’t as much to worry about as he once thought, and (2) the non-groups will give people confidence to expand their group and eventually become a recognized group in this church.
Level Up Your Online Services.
Most churches did better with online services before anyone regathered in the building for worship. When the house was empty, pastors looked directly at the camera. Pastors got up close and personal with the online audience. Some even created interactive experiences to field questions during the message. But, then people started coming back into the building, things got weird.
When people are in the room, most pastors want to talk to the people in the room. I do! But, there are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” Yet, you can’t look over people’s heads and only look at the cameras. The churches who understand this are producing separate online services and in-person services to meet both needs. It’s more work, but it’s certainly worthwhile since so many unchurched people are looking in on online services. After all, streaming video is NOT church online.
Put Everything Online.
Some aspects of life have permanently changed amid the pandemic. I don’t know that I’m ever going to pile items into a grocery cart again, when we can order everything online for pickup or delivery. Going to the bank has been replaced by an app. I’m reconsidering whether I still need two cars in my driveway. Online group leader training has gone so well, I’m not sure I need to fly to you to train your leaders (but after the pandemic I might consider it).
In a world where people can do a doctor’s appointment online, they could take your membership class online. They could go through your Growth Track online. You no longer have to limit these to a Sunday afternoon. People can participate anytime over 168 hours per week. Potentially, they could become a member of your church at 2 am!
Practice these phrases with me:
We stopped doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of COVID.
We started doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of the pandemic.
Allen White gave us that idea, but now we realize it’s really stupid. LOL
This is a great year to experiment. Don’t waste your time waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. To quote Jason Caston, “The church was moving slow because they thought the world would stay the same.” Nothing is the same. Get moving!
Tell me how your church is innovating in 2020 in the comments below.
What if the difference between success and failure lies in the few steps between the auditorium and the lobby? That’s what I witnessed about a year ago. The much beloved founding pastor of a multi-site, megachurch invited his congregation to open their homes and invite their friends to join them for a six week study the church had produced. The curriculum was awesome. The pastor did the teaching. The topic was relevant. It was a sure thing, but don’t be so sure.
At the close of the service, the pastor made an impassioned appeal for his members to take the next step and start their own group. But, it wasn’t just one next step, it was 20-30 next steps out to the lobby. That evening a crowd of 1,000 adults netted 18 groups. All of our hearts sank.
The pastor had said the right words. He was presenting the right offering at the right time. The church was familiar with small groups. Why the poor result? Over the years, I’ve seen great messaging become ineffective simply by the distance between the invitation and the response. The best curriculum, the strongest leadership or even the most carefully crafted appeal can all unravel in a matter of minutes if the wrong step is given in recruiting group leaders. A few simple nuances can net a profound effect.
At that church, we made a quick change. Rather than prospective group hosts responding by signing up in the church lobby after the service, the new next step involved no steps at all. The response was simply to take out a card and sign up right there in the service. The cards were collected at the end of the service. The result went from 18 groups to 248 groups in less than 24 hours. The final result over the next three weeks was 1,100 new groups across all of their campuses.
I am convinced most people only think about church when they are sitting in church. Any effort to send people to the lobby or God forbid send them home to sign up on a website simply does not work. By the time well intended church members hit the threshold on Sunday morning, their stomachs have raced to lunch and their minds have raced to evacuating the premises as soon as possible. The moment has gone.
The closer you connect the invitation to the response, the better the response. If the invitation is made in a service, then collect the response in a service. If the same invitation is made by a video email at midweek, then collect the response in the email. By simply providing a link in the email, a willing member can click the link and sign up to start a group right on the spot.
In a perfect world, church members would go home, login to the church’s website, and sign up electronically. No fuss. No sign up cards. No data entry. Simple. That world does not exist. To send someone from the service to the lobby or to their computer to sign up is equal to making no invitation at all. The reverse is also true. To send an email midweek asking for a response the following Sunday is just wasted megabits.
Think like the people who sit in your rows.
What’s available to them in their row?
Is there a response card or do you create a card?
Do they have a pen?
Who will collect the cards? Are they placed in the offering, collected at the end of the service, or handed to an usher on the way out?
Maybe pen and paper doesn’t cut it. What else do they have? What about their cellphones? Can they send a text to a designated number (not yours!)?
When you send an email invitaiton, can they fill out a survey or a web form?
Missed opportunities occur when you can’t adequately collect the response. These thoughts may seem elementary. They may seem unnecessary. You may feel you are getting a good enough result from how your collecting responses now. Or are you?