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.
One of the primary purposes of an alignment series or church-wide campaign is recruiting potential group leaders for a trial run. The other primary purpose plays into the first one – engaging the senior pastor to recruit potential group leaders. When the sermon series is linked to the small group study or even better, the pastor’s teaching is the basis of the small group study, the pastor will be more interested in groups. When pastors make the investment in creating small group curriculum, they want to make sure the curriculum is used to its full potential. They want as many people to lead groups as possible. You want that too!
While there are other good reasons for alignment series like
the whole church studying a topic together and getting more people into groups,
all of this rests on the number of leaders a church will recruit. The more
limitations the church puts on who can lead a group, the fewer leaders the church
will recruit. Fortunately, the reverse is also true, but who is the church
Attempting to recruit a large number of leaders is a two-edged sword. On one side is the desire to provide a quality group experience with a qualified group leader. The other side is the simple fact that most people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of leader. As soon as you bring up the word “leader,” many people will decline your invitation to start a group. They want to help, but not necessarily lead. Many churches have found it helpful to do away with the term “leader” altogether.
In the early days of church-wide campaigns like 40 Days of Purpose, Saddleback Church chose to call people H.O.S.T.s instead of leaders. This took away the sense that people were being asked to do more than they felt qualified to do. The churches that I served used this strategy, and it worked for a while. But, after using the term “Host” in campaign after campaign, people became wise to the idea that “Host” really meant “Leader.” The jig was up. Now what?
Many of the churches I’ve worked with have dispensed with the terms leader and host all together. While many have struggled with what to call these folks, others have recruited for the function of a group leader without using the term. The invitation would sound more like “get together with your friends and do the study.” While the pastor invites people to “lead” a “group,” neither of those terms were used, and yet people would gather a group of friends and do a study together. See everyone is already in a group after all.
This is more than a rouse to get admitted non-leaders to
lead groups. Churches should be stingy with the term “leader.” In the Bible,
commissioning someone as a leader was a significant proclamation. In fact, Paul
writes to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy 5:22,
NIV). The sense here is that before someone is commissioned as a leader, they
must prove themselves. It’s not enough just to select the “right” people and
thoroughly train them, the church also needs to see them in action. Do they
have the stuff to lead? In most cases, the church won’t know until they’ve
actually seen the potential leader in action – actually leading something.
Thus, the dilemma, if the church has a high standard for leadership, which they
should, and the people they are attempting to recruit do not consider
themselves to be any kind of leader, how do you recruit a significant number of
leaders? You don’t.
Let’s take this beyond semantics. This is not a debate of what to call someone or even of lowering the bar on leadership to the point where small groups seem unimportant because so little is expected. The dilemma speaks to the importance of a recruitment process that will bring in the maximum number of potential leaders possible without putting the church leadership into a scenario that bears an uncomfortable level of risk.
The answer can be found in viewing a church-wide campaign as a trial run to evaluate potential leaders. Campaigns are short-term commitments — usually around six weeks. The trial run can be safe for the potential leader by allowing them to “get together with your friends and do the study.” The trial run is also safe for the church by providing the curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, offering a coach to walk alongside them, and not advertising these groups. (The church will need to advertise some groups, but the leaders should be known and proven.)
At the end of the trial run, potential leaders should be evaluated. Did the fulfill their commitments? Did they enjoy leading groups? Are they willing to continue? If they were successful, then offer another study. If they weren’t successful, then thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
It’s easier to recruit avowed non-leaders to a short-term opportunity to do a study with their friends. Once you see what they can do, then build on this experience and eventually commission them as leaders.
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 The new year is an awesome time for new starts. Everyone is planning to lose weight, lose debt, learn a foreign language, and of course, grow in their faith. The new year is an ideal time to start new groups too. Why not leverage the momentum before mid-February hits and new year’s resolutions crash and burn? The way you launch groups in the new year, however, will greatly affect your success. While this is an ideal time to form new groups, how and when you form groups will largely determine whether or not those groups last for more than one series, or in some cases, even get started. Here are some mistakes to avoid in new year’s launches. Mistake #1: Launching in Early January. Senior pastors love to start new sermon series after the first of the year. While the first Sunday of the year may be for vision casting or giving a “State of the Church” address, when it gets to the second Sunday, they are ready to get their preach on and dive into a new series. This is great for sermon series timing, but terrible for group timing. If your church launches groups in early January, it forces you to form groups in December. Have you lived through a December at church? No one is thinking about January. If they were, then they wouldn’t be buying so many Christmas presents on their credit cards. Over the years, I’ve tried to recruit and train new small group leaders in December. I’ve also found myself standing in an empty room wondering if I had missed God’s calling on my life. People don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year. To effectively launch groups in January, you need to use the first three weeks to form groups, then launch in late January, or better yet, launch in early February. Mistake #2: Failing to Leverage the Christian Holiday of Super Bowl Sunday. I know some of you might immediately be objecting to associating something as holy and spiritual as a small group with something as hedonistic as Super Bowl Sunday. After all, promoting anything about the Super Bowl will only weaken the attendance of the Sunday night service. At least, that’s the way I grew up. But, think about this: how would your members respond to the idea of small groups if it resembled something that looked more like their Super Bowl parties and less like what they fear a small group might be? No one calls the church to see who they should invite to a Super Bowl party. They invite their friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members. That’s the same group they should invite to their, well, group. In fact, if groups were launched after the Super Bowl, maybe the Super Bowl party could serve as an “open house” for a group and then the next week, the study could start. You may be saying, “Well, not every Super Bowl party would be suitable to introduce people to small groups. They might overeat or something and be a bad witness.” These things could happen. But, what if a small group became more “normal” to the average Christian’s life?. That would be a huge win. Mistake #3: Launching Groups in January without an Easter Plan. The downfall of most church-wide campaigns, including some I’ve launched over the years, is you can experience great success for 6 weeks, then the whole thing falls off the cliff. But, it doesn’t have to. If in the middle of your post-Super Bowl series (formerly called “New Year’s series”), you announced a next step series which would run between the Christian holidays of Easter Sunday and Memorial Day, you could easily retain 80 percent of the groups that start in your Super Bowl series. By offering a next step, your groups are given a good reason to stay together. Now, if your church is about to launch groups this Sunday, it might be time to take a timeout and regroup. Call an audible. Do what you need to do before you have to throw a Hail Mary or punt! If you try this, you should get at least 50 percent of your people connected into groups. If you don’t, call me. We’ll figure something out!
Now that your group has spent a few weeks together in the Fall study, you probably have a sense of whether or not you actually like each other and want to continue as a group. Your first thought might be “Continue? What? I thought that this was a six-week commitment.” And, you’re absolutely right, this was only a six-week commitment. I want to thank you for honoring your commitment. This six weeks has been significant in the lives of your group members.
This is not bait and switch. Six weeks is six weeks, fair and square. If you aren’t planning to continue with your group, we do need to think about a couple of things:
1. Is there anyone in your group who has shown interest in continuing the group? If you group has passed around the leadership each week, you probably have a sense of who would be capable of moving the group forward. Who truly cares about the group? Who has attended the most faithfully? Who called when they couldn’t make it? These are the people who care the most about the group and very well could lead the group forward.
2. If there is no apparent leader, are there other groups that you can recommend to your group members? Check to see if there is another group like yours or if there is another group that meets nearby. Don’t just send your group to the wolves, I mean the web. Point them to a couple of specific choices.
If you want to continue with your group, now is the time to decide on your next study. This is the fourth week of the study. It usually works best for groups, especially new groups, to decide on their next study before the current study ends. There are so many choices for studies out there that a period of indecision, even just a couple of weeks, could easily cause your group to falter.
If your group would like to follow the next series at Brookwood Church, we will spend the eight weeks following The Me I Want to Be series looking at the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-13). There are a couple of options that I would like to recommend for your group:
1. Life's Healing Choices is an 8-week study from Saddleback Church. Rick Warren teaches on the DVD. There is also a hard cover book that you can read along with the study.
2. Living a Blessed Life by Lance Witt, a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church, is a 6-week study. This study is an enriching, verse-by-verse discussion of the Beatitudes. A teaching DVD is also available.
3. Message Discussion Guide. The discussion guide is written and posted every Sunday nearly year-round. The guide will help your group apply the teaching from Perry's messages to your daily life. It is available as a download at brookwoodchurch.org/discussionguide
Now if your group has been around for a while or if none of these studies interest you, you are welcome to study what your group is the most interested in. We have a wide variety of Small Group DVDs at the Brookwood Bookstore including studies by Andy Stanley, John Ortberg, Chip Ingram, and many others. You can check the DVD out of the Small Group Library, and then just order the books that you need for your group. When your order comes in, your group members can purchase the study guides from the bookstore.
The most important thing is to make a decision in the next week. If your group is new, you may find that they don’t have much of an opinion about the next study at this point. That’s okay. Just choose one of the options I mentioned for the Beatitudes study and go from there. If you have any questions, your coach will certainly help you.