Avoiding Disposable Small Groups

Avoiding Disposable Small Groups

By Allen White Image

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.

Disposable Small Groups

Disposable Small Groups

By Allen White disposable diapers

Some things in life are just as effective and more efficient in their disposable form. Think about diapers. Our family has cloth diapers and disposable diapers. Both serve the same purpose. Yet the cloth diapers require a great deal of maintenance and care. The disposables serve their purpose, then find their way to the landfill. The added bonus to disposable diapers is the dad in our family will actually change those. Cloth diapers? Well forget it.

What if we offered small groups in a disposable form? Before the relationships get messy, before the leader needs training, before you need to assign a coach, just reboot the group. Dispose of the group before any of the usual group tensions take place. Think about it. Rather than enduring through the conflict and struggle of the small group lifecycle, we could just enjoy the first six weeks of the honeymoon phase, then cast the other problems aside.

Let’s face it. Maintaining groups for the long haul is exhausting.

1. Disposable Groups Don’t Require Coaching.

Most small group pastors feel overwhelmed by the thought of a coaching structure. Even if you can actually fill out the org chart, most coaches don’t even really know what to do. They like the title. They carry a certain amount of guilt from not coaching. For most churches, even if there is some sort of coaching structure in place, the small group leaders are basically on their own anyway. With disposable small groups, there is no need for coaching. If the group is really that bad off in the first six weeks, then you probably just need to dispose of it sooner rather than later.
2. Disposable Groups Don’t Need Training.

People hate meetings. Pastors feel their calling in life is to hold meetings. But, most small group pastors are frustrated by the low attendance and general apathy toward their meetings. Disposable groups don’t need training. Seriously, how much could they possibly mess up in only six weeks? And, if they do, then see the last sentence in Point #1.

After a long day’s work, people don’t have time to drive home, eat dinner, drive to the church, attend a meeting, then drive home and collapse into bed so they can do the same thing all over again in a few hours. Some small group pastors expect their leaders to give up part of their Saturday. Chances are slim to none leaders will show up then.
3. Why Deal with an EGR, If You Can Just Leave Them Behind?

John Ortberg’s book says it all, “Everybody’s Normal Until You Get to Know Them.” If that’s the case, then disposable groups will keep the group relationships as normal as possible — You don’t really get to know people. You do a six week Bible study. There’s plenty of value in that. But, before people feel comfortable enough to share their idiosyncrasies, you’re outta there.

What’s better is if you end up with an Extra Grace Required person, a.k.a. “weirdo,” you can cut them (and yourself)loose in only six weeks. After all, this group came together for only one series, and now you’re done! Whew! Dodged that bullet.
4. There Are Always More Groups in the Sea.

While there may be some practical aspects of sustaining groups for the long term and not reinventing the wheel during church-wide campaigns, the beauty of disposable groups is an endless supply of potential group leaders/hosts/gatherers in your congregation. If you could have the same number of groups (or more) next Fall as you have this Spring, then why do all of the hard work of helping them survive the Summer, manage group dynamics, or select follow up Bible studies? After all, if you can say you have 50 groups now, and then you can post 65 groups in the Fall, why does it matter who’s actually leading the group? Numbers don’t lie. Whether your 65 groups in the Fall is made up of 50 Spring groups + 15 Fall groups or 65 brand new groups, you’ve still grown your small group ministry.

Now, disposable small groups aren’t for everyone. Some prefer the cloth diaper approach, and that’s ok. Go ahead and spend the time avoiding sticks from safety pins and sloshing number two’s in the toilet. You’ll have continuity for sure. But, for the rest of us, we’ll just show up with a big case of Pampers in the Fall, and then we’ll see who has the most groups.

Next up: Avoiding Disposable Small Groups

Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Church-wide Campaign

By Allen White

Church-wide campaigns are a powerful vehicle for connecting congregations into community and impacting spiritual growth. 40 Days of Purpose from Rick Warren, One Month to Live by Kerry Shook, and a number of other church-wide experiences prove the catalytic impact of a small group study aligned with a sermon series. Churches and their members will never be the same.

One size never fits all, especially in a church-wide campaign. When you invite all of your groups to do the same study that aligns to the weekend service, you might have just set yourself up for trouble. Your groups are made up of new Christians and non-Christians, “mature” Christians and critical ones. How do you meet the needs of all of your different groups with one curriculum?

Over-Promising + Under-Delivering = Great Frustration

1.       State Up Front What the Curriculum Is and What It Isn’t

Managing expectations is key to focusing your groups on the right track. If your curriculum is designed for the broadest appeal, you will soon be hearing from your “mature” folks that the study is “light weight.” For the critics I know well, my  usually is “I can see how you could think that if you were only talking about the material….”

Recently in helping a church full of nuclear engineers and rocket scientists develop a curriculum on the One Anothers of Scripture, we concluded that if the group members simple memorized all of the One Anothers, then we had failed. Practicing the One Anothers was the key, and it isn’t rocket science.

Let your groups know up front how the curriculum is designed and why. “We have created this curriculum for any person to use in doing this study with their friends.” It’s not that you avoided creating a “deeper” study – boy, that’s a loaded word – but, you have intentionally designed or chosen a study to include as many people as possible. After six weeks, they can choose something that’s maybe more to their liking.

2.       Mayday, Mayday — If a Study Does Work, Throw It Out.

The worst thing that can happen to a group is to feel obligated to complete a study because they spent $10 on the book. Some studies just don’t work in every group. It’s better to lose the study rather than to lose your group.

Problems with ill-fitting studies can range from outright complacency to lack of participation to high absenteeism. This is not the time to just tough it out or put your head in the sand. State the obvious: “Is it just me or is this study not going very well?” Then, get feedback from the group. If the feeling is mutual, then it’s time to move on. If your members didn’t use the books (and they didn’t), there’s always Ebay.

The problem may not be the whole study, but just part of the study. A few years back, a group of 20-somethings were participating in a church-wide study. They were enjoying the study guide, but felt the DVD-teaching wasn’t scratching them where they itched. I recommend that they do the study without the DVD. Their response, “Oh, we’re way ahead of you on that one, Pastor Allen.” Some groups will never do a study without a DVD. Others will never do a study with one. And, that’s okay.

The bottom line is to do what makes sense for each group. Even if other groups raved about the study, it has to fit each group in order to work.

3.       Design Your Curriculum to Meet a Variety of Needs

In designing your own curriculum, you can meet a variety of needs with one study. As my friend, Brett Eastman at Lifetogether.com says, “You need to double clutch the study.” At the beginning of the study offer two different ice breaker questions. For new groups and new believers, maybe the question is light-hearted and offers a way for folks to get to know each other. This is something that everyone will feel comfortable talking about. “Who is your favorite super hero and why?” “What was the source of warmth in your home?” “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (That last one’s a joke.) For more mature believers, the question should go something like, “How did you apply what you learned in last week’s study?” Deeper involves doing.

For the rest of the study, you can offer a variety of questions at different levels. For newer folks, you want to start with questions that are easy to answer right out of Scripture. For more mature members, it’s good to include a “Going Deeper” section that offers more personal questions as well as Scripture cross-references to the core text. The aim in the “Going Deeper” section is to meet a need for knowledge along with a greater need for application.

The point here is to create different questions for different types of people, then articulate the study design to the group members. Some groups will use the first half of the study only. Other groups will skip the first section and dive into the deeper questions. Giving group members the full picture of the design will help them to understand and appreciate what you have developed.

You can’t please everybody all of the time. But, by taking the time to develop your own study with different group members in mind, you go a long way in meeting a variety of needs. Hearing and addressing their expectations up front will go a long way in leading a unified campaign.

Connecting the Last 30 Percent: Including the Isolated

Connecting the Last 30 Percent: Including the Isolated

By Allen White

People are isolated for a variety of reasons. Sometimes poor health or a disability limits their participation. Rotating shifts or even certain occupations can work against group participation. Connecting isolated folks takes some creativity, but can lead to some great results.

Some barriers are easy to remove. If a single mom can’t afford to pay for childcare, then figure out a way to cover the costs of childcare for them. In the past, I have given group leaders gift cards to the church bookstore to either purchase childcare vouchers for on-campus childcare or study guides based on the leader’s good judgment of the situation. While the church may not offer free childcare to every group, single moms are really our modern day widows and orphans (James 1:27). If your church lacks the means, then enlist volunteers to provide childcare while these moms meet.

Health problems can greatly limit small group participation. With the aging of our population and the rise of autism and other disorders, this segment of the church body is growing every day. Our son was born with some special needs. When he was little, we would feed him and put him to bed before the group started. The baby monitor was nearby, so we were always close at hand during the group meeting. While we couldn’t allow other group members to host the group in their home, this was the best solution for us to be involved.

If folks can’t get to the group, then bring the group to them. You might need to send someone early to help get their house ready. But, the extra effort to include them will mean a great deal.

Some jobs make small group participation difficult. If a business or agency runs on rotating shifts and varying days off, it’s impossible to commit to a specific day of the week for group. At New Life in California, two couples had this exact situation. They started a group with just the four of them. One week they’d meet on Tuesday. The next week they’d meet on Friday. Since there were only two rotating schedules to coordinate and fewer people involved, they could make the changes they needed to without inconveniencing others or missing meetings.

A few occupations make group life difficult. Recently a group of police officers presented the idea of starting a group specifically for first responders. One dilemma they faced was rotating shifts, so they chose two nights of the week for the group to meet. While members only went to group once per week, their shift schedules dictated which night they could go.

Police officers found some interesting reception in other groups. One couple, after trying several groups finally gave up. In the first group, someone wanted them to fix a ticket. In another group, someone wanted them to intervene for their child who had a brush with the law. These officers needed a group that would give them a level playing field, so they decided to form a group of just first responders. They don’t meet to talk shop, but they have a common understanding of life. No one is asking to get a ticket fixed.

There are many other groups of isolated folks out there. A church in Hilmar, California holds a men’s group at 4:00 am for dairy workers. They get a Bible study before they milk the cows. I had one leader start a group on a commuter train. Rather than reading the paper on the way to work, they gathered every Tuesday morning to study God’s Word. Once they started, word spread and they filled an entire section of the train. Folks who work swing shift may like a group at midnight when they get off work. Others working the graveyard shift might prefer a group at 7:00 am.

Isolated, Independent and Introverted folks don’t fit nicely into typical small groups. Rather than expecting them to get with the program and join a predetermined group, why not give them permission to create biblical community on their own terms? You will be surprised at the ideas that surface.

Read More About Connecting the Last 30 Percent: 

Enlisting the Independents

Engaging the Introverts

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