By Allen White
I learned the hard way that coaches help launch more groups.
One church I served had a weekly average adult attendance of 800. During our third launch in Fall 2004, we start 103 small groups. Those were pretty amazing numbers. In the middle of that series, I sent out a survey to determine how many of those groups would continue. I was hoping for at least 80 percent moving forward.
The results came back: 70 percent would continue with 30 percent ending. These were not the results I wanted or expected, so I sent a survey to the 30 leaders who were ending their groups. The response was startling. Out of the 30 leaders, only two leaders had actually led a group for the six week series. The other 28 groups had never started. This lead me to a very important principle:
Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.
It’s almost a proverb, isn’t it? It might deserve a needlepoint cushion.
Why didn’t the groups start? The new leaders got cold feet. Some of them were rejected by the people they invited. Some had good intentions starting out, then life just got in the way.
They didn’t miss the boat. I missed the boat. So, we did something new, immediately.
On the next campaign, we added 32 new groups to the 73 groups that continued from the Fall for a total of 105 groups. Every new leader met an experienced leader who would coach them at our New Leader Briefing. Their “coach” called them every week starting after the briefing through the end of the series. When they had a setback, the coach encouraged them. When they had a question, the coach gave them an answer. All of these groups started and most of them continued.
How many new groups are you starting? Divide that number by two. That’s how many coaches you need. One experienced leader for every two new groups. The experienced leaders are still leading their own group, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Then recruit experienced leaders to help the new leaders get started. And, they will start.
Where do you find these experienced leaders to coach? Make a list of your best leaders. Pray over the list. Then, invite them like this: “We are going to be completely inundated with new leaders. Our coaching structure is completely overwhelmed. I NEED YOUR HELP.” That is a very compelling invitation that will get a “Yes.”
At the risk of overstating my point, it is Mission Critical to have someone calling your new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” to starting a group until the study starts. More groups will end in that window than at any other time.
Start making your list right now.
By Allen White
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.
The only thing harder is not having one.
By Allen White
I caused a bit of a ruckus this week by proposing the idea of Disposable Small Groups. I used the analogy of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers. Here’s the bottom line (so to speak): diapers are useful for a brief period of time, but the goal is to potty train our children. If our small group ministries stay in diapers, we’re all in trouble.
While some small group strategies unfortunately produce groups that are short-lived or a system is not in place to sustain these groups beyond one series, the reality is this phenomena of “disposable groups” can be completely avoided, if the right things are in place.
1. Groups Require Coaching
I will admit coaching is a tough one. It’s hard to find the right people. Most small group pastors are unclear about the role of a coach. And, to top it all off, when you launch a church-wide campaign, whatever coaching system you did have in place is completely overwhelmed. I’ve been there. In fact, in our church in California we doubled our small groups in a day. Here’s how we figured out coaching.
Do the math: if you double your groups, then half of your groups are new and half of your groups have experience. We implemented the buddy system. We matched up an experienced leader with a new leader for the six week campaign. We didn’t call them “coach.” We called them “buddy” or “helper.” What we found was more of our new groups sustained and fewer of our groups were, uh, disposable.
At the end of the six weeks, we asked the experienced leaders if they enjoyed helping a new leader. If they did and they were effective, we invited them to coach a few new leaders during the next campaign while they continued to lead their existing groups.
Over time, this structure developed levels of Community Leaders, Coaches and Group Leaders similar to what Carl George advocates in Prepare Your Church for the Future. Just as Jethro instructed Moses in Exodus 18, we had leaders of tens, leaders of fifties, leaders of hundreds, and leaders of thousands. Or, in the case of that church, leader of thousand (singular).
A coaching structure may seem daunting, but without it, you are destined to produce disposable small groups.
2. Groups Need Training
People hate meetings. Meetings are inconvenient. People are busy. So, we really need to ask the question: What is training?
Training can be a blog post. In fact, that’s how this blog got started. I would answer one of my leader’s questions each week and send it to all of the rest.
Training can also appear on the curriculum DVD. By adding weekly training to the DVD, a leader has what they need when they need it as they go through the materials.
Training can be sent by video through an email. Any small group pastor/director with a smartphone, an iPad, or a laptop can record a 2 minute video (not longer) and send it out to his/her small group leaders each week. This is even better than training on the DVD, because you can answer timely questions as they are asked rather than anticipating what questions they might ask.
Yes, we still need initial training to get a group started. This could happen between services or even during a service, but we need to rethink small group training. If our leaders are learning through blogs, books, articles or video emails, then that IS training.
3. No EGR Left Behind
Every group sooner or later will encounter a difficult person. Personally, I am only comfortable in a group where I am the difficult person. No one is comfortable when a challenging person shows up to their group. But, there is help.
Identifying needs, even challenging ones, presents a great opportunity to offer help maybe in a way you weren’t able to before. Changes are the church staff may not have even known about the need. Don’t shy away from these opportunities to serve. While the group doesn’t need to turn into that individuals support group, you can direct them to support through actual support groups in the church or community as well as counseling resources. Of course, any person should be welcome to stay in your group, but they need to be reminded that the purpose of the group is for fellowship and Bible study not for group therapy.
4. There Are Always More Groups in the Sea, But Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Growing churches have great potential to recruit new hosts during every church-wide campaign. But, don’t turn this into a numbers game. Rather than merely celebrating in your group total, we need to celebrate whose groups are continuing and how these groups are growing deeper in relationship with each other and with God.
I hope you were disgusted with the idea of disposable small groups. While some groups will form for only one series, then disappear until the next church-wide campaign, this should be the exception and not the rule. By following these principles, disposable groups can be avoided.
By Allen White
In my travels I’ve learned to automate certain things. By automate, I mean repeating the same patterns, not in an OCD fashion, but just so I don’t have to think about things over and over. For instance, I always park on the same level of the same parking garage. When I arrive home after several days on the road, I don’t have to think about where I parked. I parked in the same place I always park.
I do the same with the rental car companies. For years, I’ve used Avis. Why Avis? Someone way back when booked a couple of cars with Avis for me, so I just stuck with it for the same reasons as above. I never have to think about which rental car company I have.
I’ve also learned with Avis to use “Preferred” so I can skip the counter, go directly to the garage, see my name up in lights, find my car and get out of dodge. No lines. No conversations. I’m on my way.
The other day I received a new card from Avis in the mail. I had qualified for “Avis First.” I had no idea what Avis First even was. While airlines often change on trips, Avis is a constant. It’s automated. Now, for my “loyalty,” I received a new status. This qualifies me for free upgrades, but I’m guessing not free drinks, since they are a rental car company…and I don’t drink.
My next step with Avis First was activating my new status online. I went to the website, typed in my information, and received the following message:
“We’re sorry. You may not qualify for Avis First. Please contact customer service, blah, blah, blah.”
I felt almost special. Here this surprise came out of the blue only for me to discover this might have been a fluke. I would have happily stayed “Preferred.” I didn’t need to be “First.” But, Avis led me on. Avis promised me something, then quickly took it back. Then, I began to wonder how I’ve ever done that to other people myself.
How many times have I asked people to sign up for something, then not followed up with them? Did they feel “almost special”? The pastor invited them to host a group or teach a class or lead in some way. They said, “Yes,” then they never heard from anybody.
How many times on a whim had I tossed out an offer that I wasn’t prepared to follow through on? Now, from the size of the churches I’ve worked with, I could probably make some excuse about the sheer numbers of responses. But, to the person who took me up on the invitation, the only response they were thinking about was theirs. If I gave them a bad experience, how likely would they be to stick their necks out again?
An invitation without a next step in place is a disaster. If you invite someone to lead a small group, what’s the next step? Often I’ve offered the next step immediately after a weekend service rather than asking them to come back during the week. If people are open to joining a group, do we make them wait for us to process a card or send them to a website? What if the card gets lost or if I get lazy, do they feel “almost special”? What did it take for them to say “yes,” and will I ever get that “yes” from them again?
A good idea without a next step is a bad idea. So is a good idea with two or three or five next steps. What does this look like?
Step 1: If you’d like to join us, please fill out a card.
Step 2: If you’re patient, we will reply to your card at some point after we’ve entered it into the database and figured out what we’re going to do for you.
Step 3: Now that you’ve patiently waited, we are going to invite you to a meeting to come back to, so we can give you more information about what you’re interested in.
Step 4: Thanks for coming to the meeting, if you’re really serious about this, we’d like you to join us for training so you’ll be qualified to do what you want to do. We’ll send you some information on when the next training is coming up.
Step 5: Thanks for joining us for training. You are now qualified, provided that your a member of the church, complete an application, and set up a time to be interviewed.
Step 6: Thanks for submitting your application, we will contact you about a time for your interview.
Step 7: Welcome to your interview. Let’s take some time to get to know each other and see where you can serve in our church (or can’t).
None of these steps are bad, but every additional step increases your margin for error. Either someone on your team will drop the ball by not following up with the person, not getting an email on time, or is just too busy to pick up the phone, or the person who was interested lacks the gift of perseverance and gave up somewhere around Step 3.
The next step should be both clear, accessible and somewhat automated. If you want to gather some friends and do the small group study, give us 10 minutes after the service, and we’ll give you enough to be dangerous and an experienced leader to help you. No cards. No waiting. No endless communication loop. Briefing, boom, you’re good to go.
Avis finally got their act together. After I emailed customer service, I received a reply the following day saying I was indeed special and qualified for Avis First. Granted, I wanted to feel special sooner via their website, but now I am special nonetheless.
In a couple of hours, I will pick up my first special car with Avis First. If “special” means Crown Victoria, I’m not going to feel so special…unless it’s equipped with lights and siren.
By Allen White
A debate runs between small group pastors and sometimes senior pastors about whether to keep small group attendance and why. While it can be difficult at times to get relational small group leaders to accomplish the task of keeping group attendance, here are some benefits to taking weekly group attendance.
Alerts You to Major Shifts
Groups who typically have 80 percent or more of their group members in a meeting on a regular basis are in their sweet spot. Even if their attendance occasionally dips below 50 percent, there really is not much to worry about.
But, there are two situations where you or your small group coaches need to intervene:
- Groups with Too Many Members
Warm, welcoming groups can’t help but to grow. The members keep inviting their friends and in a matter of days to weeks, the group can grow well beyond what’s comfortable for a group meeting or even the average sized house. Rather than putting a cap on how many new people the group can invite, it’s time for a conversation. What’s next?
If the group is sub-grouping to smaller groups of eight or less, discussion can continue and everybody can get their word in. Sub-grouping paves the way for new groups to form potentially. But, I would not recommend using words like: birth, split, multiply or divide. These are code for “the small group pastor is only concerned about his/her own success and doesn’t truly care about people.” While small group pastors know that’s simply not true, the reality is our group leaders and members are wise to us.
The best way to get a group to multiply/divide/birth/split is to allow the size of the group to become a problem for the group. When they “feel the pain” of an oversized group, they will be more motivated to relocate some of the sub-groups to another house. Coach them toward this decision. Don’t dictate this, but guide them into something they will feel good about down the road.
2. Groups with a Rapid Decline.
For most small group leaders, especially new group leaders or hosts, a significant decline in attendance often feels like personal failure, even though it’s not. If they started with 14 and are now sitting in a cavernous living room with four people, they assume it’s their fault – maybe they’re just not cut out for this. But, we know better than that.
These group leaders need to know 100 percent attendance is not necessarily the goal. What we’re striving for is letting God work in the group. Sometimes God can’t do what he wants when 14 people are there, but He can when it’s only four. When attendance drops, leaders need to be reassured.
But, if attendance drops and stays low, that’s whole other issue. What’s going on in the group that might be keeping people away? Are the meetings going to long? Is the leader unprepared? Is someone dominating the discussion and turning this into his/her personal support group? Not only is it time to coach the leader, it’s also time to conduct some “exit interviews” with group members who have left the group. This is not license for whining, but it could certainly give insight into what’s going on in the group.
The presence of a narcissist (read more here) or someone with a major life issue could certainly curtail the group’s effectiveness and ultimately its existence. Intervention by a group coach is essential to the group’s survival. Don’t hesitate to act.
Identifies Potential Trouble Spots
If a group fails to report attendance, it either means the group leader is not a detail-driven, task-oriented person or the group is facing trouble they’d rather not report. If the group leader is not a report-taker, then have them designate someone else in the group to submit the reports. Sometimes the leader’s spouse is more diligent with reporting. After all, opposites do attract.
If the group leader has gone silent, then the group coach needs to investigate. Maybe the group has stopped meeting. Maybe their attendance has dropped and they’re embarrassed to report (see above). If they miss one week of reporting, it’s probably no big deal. But missing multiple weeks should put the group on your hot list for follow up.
Warns of Groups Going Underground
If groups aren’t reporting their attendance and leaders aren’t calling anybody back, either the group has failed or gone underground. While we live in a free country and people can gather and study whatever they want, there are some key advantages to staying connected to a group coach and a small group system (Article: Why Do I Need a Coach?)
Failure to take attendance is certainly only one indicator that a group may have “gone rogue.” This is not the time to evoke a strict, controlling approach to group oversight. Group coaching is built on relationship (Article: Why Small Group Coaching Fails). Encourage their small group coach to work on the personal relationship. In time, this will bring the group and its leader back in the fold.
Practical Solutions to Group Attendance
Back in the day, the Sunday School superintendent left a folder in every classroom. The teacher would check off the attendance and put the folder outside of the door. Attendance was fairly easy to collect. But, collecting attendance from off-campus groups can be a little trickier.
Paper forms are probably not the solution, especially if they need to be mailed or dropped off at the church. Digital solutions are far superior. You can use a survey tool like Surveymonkey.com to send a simple survey to your group leaders asking them to list their members by name or just give a total for the week, add any prayer requests, and ask questions about group life.
A far superior solution is an online database such as churchteams.com which sends a report reminder after each group meeting. Leaders just need to click a link, fill out their report, click “save,” and then they’re done. Churchteams saves all of the data online and sends out analytics at the end of each month identifying potential trouble spots.
While there are many good reasons to take attendance in groups, there are also some negatives around record-keeping. But, that’s for another post.
When to Refer Someone
Why Do I Need a Coach?
Why Small Group Coaching Fails