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. Related Articles: When to Refer Someone Why Do I Need a Coach? Why Small Group Coaching Fails
By Allen White When it comes to measuring up, most small group leaders fall short. That’s the simple truth. You’re not the only leader who fought with your spouse right before the doorbell rang and your first group member arrived. You’re not the only group leader who’s lost your temper, then felt the need to paste on a smile. What do you do when you feel like you don’t measure up to God’s standard? Should you stop leading? If that’s the case, we’d all stop leading. In the Bible, David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart”Psalm 15:1-2 While we should all strive to become more like Christ, if perfection is the qualification, then that sounds like a pretty empty tent to me. I hope Jesus enjoys His solo camping trip. Every person on the face of the earth has fallen short (Romans 3:23). No exceptions. There are no perfect people. Now, this isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. It’s just the simple truth that even at our best, we just don’t measure up. Fortunately, there is also good news.
If the requirements are to be blameless, righteous and truthful, we all fail to meet those requirements. But, Jesus is blameless (Hebrews 4:15), righteous (Romans 5:17), and the Truth (John 14:6). Some would say the solution is to act more like Jesus. WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) Only problem is, we can’t live up to that either. Jesus always did the right thing. Jesus always had the right thing to say. He always had the right response to the Pharisees’ tricky questions. No one tied Jesus up in knots intellectually. No one got His goat emotionally. Nothing broke His connection with God spiritually. Imitating Jesus is not the answer. We’re just not that good. What if we stopped trying to live for Christ and allowed Jesus to live His Life through us? Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus doesn’t desire for us to try to become like Him with our own efforts. Jesus just wants us to get out of His way, so He can do His work. Our job is not to work hard on being blameless and righteous. Our job is to remain connected to the Vine. Sometimes we’re so busy with the appearance of the fruit, we forget the connection to the Root. Decorating ourselves with artificial fruit might fool some of the people, but we’re really only fooling ourselves. Disconnection from Christ doesn’t produce fruit. It produces death and uselessness (John 15:6). How do we remain connected with Christ? First, we keep ourselves in constant conversation with Jesus. Not out loud in public places like some kind of a freak. But, to ourselves. Rather than mulling things over and over in our heads – replaying old tapes that keep us defeated – we need to talk to Jesus about it. “I don’t feel too good about this meeting coming up. What should I do? How should I handle this? Please guide me and help me.” And, guess what? He does. When we read the Bible, it’s not for the purpose of discovering more things that we’re required to live up to but can’t. The Bible reveals God’s vision for our lives. When we read things that might seem impossible to do, we take those to Jesus: “Jesus, if you want me to be kind and compassionate like you said in Ephesians 4:32, you’re going to have to do that in me, because I’m not going to get there on my own.” As we surrender ourselves and give our natural responses to situations over to Jesus, He will guide our words, our actions and our steps. Here’s the best part – the blamelessness, righteousness and truthfulness required to dwell with God is exactly what Jesus gives us. We aren’t blameless. We don’t become righteous on our own. We walk in the Truth by allowing the Truth, Jesus Christ, to live in us. What part of your life doesn’t look like Jesus? Before you start beating yourself up, ask Him to create Christlikeness in you. You just might be surprised at how Jesus can change you for good. Doing ministry without the power of Christ is like trying to fly without an airplane. You and I lack the ability. Doing God’s work in God’s way with God’s power will reap God’s result. You are not alone.
By Allen White If the plan works right, group members form close-knit bonds. They become a true band of brothers. It’s a cord that’s not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The group has become exactly what everyone wanted. People you can count on. People who know you and you know them. A safe place to deal with the struggles and mess of life. But, sometimes groups become too tight. Groups over time develop a history. There are stories of victory and defeat. Inside jokes abound. Group is like family. This is all great until someone tries to join the family. Adding new members to your existing group is often more like getting new in-laws rather than having a new baby. No one resents a new baby, except for the next youngest sibling. But, in-laws are another story. Who is this person? How will they fit in? But, the new in-law is asking questions too.
“Will this group accept me?” “What are they joking about?”
It takes hard work to welcome a new group member into the family (read more here). I’ve seen great groups become very close-knit over time. They’ve developed a tight bond. But, when prospective members visit the group, they don’t come back. Soon they discover their group is a revolving door. Visitor after visitor comes and goes. It might be time for your group members to move out. It’s Time for the Kids to Move Out. No one would ask their infant to move out of the house. They’re so little and vulnerable. You need to nurture and protect them. There may be a case, however, for asking a two-year-old or a teenager to move on. But, parenting responsibility and child neglect laws dictate otherwise. But, there comes a time when your children should move on. When children become adults, they should be encouraged to fulfill their God-given purpose in life. That purpose is not living in your basement until they’re 35. (Yes, go tell him right now). Group life bears a resemblance. New and growing believers need some care and guidance. As they learn and grow, they also need additional responsibility over time. They don’t need a co-dependent leader who wants to do everything for them, who never thinks they’re ready to move on, and who needs to be needed. After a season of no more than two years, group members should be encouraged to lead on their own. Leaders often find a million reasons why this shouldn’t happen.
“Who’s that living in your basement, leader?”
Jesus gathered His disciples with the invitation to “Follow me.” After a short season of training, Jesus sent them out to experience ministry for themselves. He gathered them back together and debriefed their experience. Eventually, Jesus died on the cross and ascended into Heaven, leaving His disciples fully in charge of the church on earth. While group leaders won’t necessarily follow the path to capital punishment, Jesus provided an effective model for developing leaders. The Son of God, who knew everything about His disciples, chose to empower and release them for ministry. The pinnacle of this empowerment was Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. While He promises to be with us always (Matthew 28:20), the disciples reached a place where they needed to serve on their own. Your group members will get there too. Jesus knew Peter was impulsive. He knew Thomas needed More Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Jesus knew the tension between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector. Libertarians and Liberals don’t mix well. Jesus knew Judas Iscariot wouldn’t make it. He knew the good, bad and ugly of His small group members, yet He chose to empower them to serve. If your group has been together for 18-24 months, someone is ready to step out and start a new group. If your group is younger than 18 months, it’s time to pass around the group responsibilities and see who rises to the top. Don’t get stuck with old group members living in your basement.