Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

Celebrating 2000 Posts: My 20 Favorites

celebrating-2000Earlier this month I published my 2000 post here at I knew I was closing in on it, but honestly it slipped by without me noticing.

I began blogging here in early 2008. Although I don’t have accurate stats on readers and pageviews until 2009, I know it was a slow beginning in terms of traffic. Today…well today is different.

I realized that some of my top 20 posts (according to Google) had benefitted from being among my oldest posts. So I decided to choose my 20 favorites instead.

Here is my best attempt at my 20 favorite posts. Hope they’re among yours too!

  1. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader (October, 2013)
  2. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People (May 2013)
  3. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People? (June 2012)
  4. 7 Practices for Developing and Discipling Your Small Group Coaches  (December, 2013)
  5. 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System (August, 2012)
  6. 7 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Strategy (June, 2013)
  7. 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor (January, 2014)
  8. 7 Things You Must Do TO and FOR Your Small Group Leaders (October, 2015)
  9. 6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry(November, 2014)
  10. Four Obsessions of the Extraordinary Small Group Pastor (February, 2015)
  11. 5 Stupid Things Small Group Pastors Need to Stop Doing (September, 2015)
  12. Ten Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry (December, 2012)
  13. Top 5 Reasons Small Group Leaders Quit (August, 2015)
  14. 8 Secrets for Discovering an Unlimited Number of Leaders (December, 2014)
  15. 5 Things that Used to Work in Small Group Ministry (January, 2016)
  16. 5 Things You Need to Know about 21st Century Small Group Ministry  (September, 2015)
  17. Foundational Teaching: Next Steps for Everyone (October, 2015)
  18. 10 Things Small Group Pastors Should Always Be Thinking (September, 2015)
  19. 5 Clues that Point to a Change in Small Group Ministry (October, 2015)
  20. The Future of Small Group Ministry (July, 2016)

What do you think?  Is your favorite missing?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Evan Long

7 Signs You Have the Wrong Small Group Ministry System

Pressure GuagesYou know how there are times when you just can’t figure out what’s wrong. Something’s wrong, but you just can’t quite put your finger on it. Like you’re driving along and the car just doesn’t feel right. Or something’s just off kilter in a relationship. Or when your back gets that feeling like it could give way at any time.

Can you relate?

It turns out there are some important signs that there is something wrong with your small group system. Might have worked fine previously. Actually, might have never really fired on all cylinders. Might have even been running rough for quite a while.

Doesn’t have to. You can do something about it, you know.

Signs You Have the Wrong Small Group Ministry System

  1. Your percentage connected is flatlined.  Whether your weekend attendance is increasing or not, a flatlined percentage connected (the percentage of your adults who are connected in a group) indicates that you’ve chosen the wrong small group system. The right system will not just make it easier to connect people. It will also be able to keep up with growth. See also, Breaking the Mythical 150% Participation Barrier and The Catch a Moving Train Scenario.
  2. You have trouble finding enough leaders.  This is a common symptom of systems that depend on selecting new leaders from the usual suspects.  Once your congregation is larger than about 250 adults it will become increasingly common that your senior pastor and platform staff will be recognized at the grocery store and restaurants by people they don’t know.  When this happens your system must be able to recruit from the adults you do not know because some of the highest capacity potential leaders will be unknown.  This phenomenon is what makes the HOST strategy and the Small Group Connection strategy so effective.
  3. You have leaders ready but not enough interest to fill their groups. This is often an indication that there are too many options on the belonging and becoming menu (i.e., Sunday school, discipleship training, Precepts, off campus small groups, etc.). It can also be an indication that your congregation sees the weekend service as everything they need. See also,Small Group Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu and Determining the Minimum Required and Recommended Dose.
  4. Your coaching structure does not work. This is a common symptom of bad small group ministry system. The right system will make it easier to find the right people and enough of them to adequately care for a growing number of new small group leaders. The wrong system will make it more likely that the men and women chosen to be coaches will warm and willing as opposed to hot and qualified. See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.
  5. Your senior pastor is reluctant to champion the importance of community. Although there are several other reasons a senior pastor may be reluctant to be the small group champion, a common reason is they don’t see your system as effective. The right system will produce the results that demonstrate the right design. See also, 5 things Senior Pastors Need to Know about Small Group Ministry.
  6. Your small groups deliver a sense of belonging but rarely produce becoming.  Small group systems that make it easy to connect but aren’t designed to make disciples are poorly designed.  See also, 5 Keys to Building Small Group Ministry at the Corner of Becoming and Belonging and Would You Rather: Connect More People or Make More Disciples?
  7. Only a small percentage of your new groups continue meeting after they’re launched. This design flaw is a leading indicator for flatlined percentage connected. Systems that struggle to launch and sustain new groups need an immediate overhaul.  Like a rocket launch, if massive energy is expended on the launch but the rocket’s orbit can’t be successfully sustained, there is a design flaw that must be corrected, See also, 5 Steps to Sustaining the New Small Groups You Launch.


Image by SteFou!

Who’s coaching you? Anyone?

whos-coaching-youWho’s coaching you? Anyone?

Who’s coaching you?

Now before you even think about that, take a moment and think about the following:

You realized a long time ago that whatever you want to happen in the lives of small group members has to happen in the lives of their leaders first.

It was one of those things that was just self-evident. Right?

So you started working hard to build an effective coaching structure (so your coaches will be able to do TO and FOR your small group leaders the things you want your leaders to do TO and FOR their members).

And now that you’ve got that going, you are able to begin investing in your coaches. Doing TO and FOR them the things that you want them to do TO and FOR the leaders they are developing.

And that begs a question.

Can you see it?

Yep! Who’s coaching you? Who’s developing you? Anyone?

Doesn’t it stand to reason that whatever you want to happen in the lives of the members of your small groups might ultimately have something to do with your own growth?

If you can see that, I want to invite you to consider joining my 2017 small group ministry coaching network.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Mark’s kind of already coaching me. He’s just coaching me via his blog!” And if my blog is helping you…I’m really glad. But…I’d still say you’re missing a key ingredient of coaching. You’re missing the two-way conversation. You’re missing the feedback!

Alternatively, you might be thinking, “Well, I’m getting some good feedback from the other small group pastors in my huddle.” And if you are part of a huddle or you’ve got some knowledgable small group ministry compadres, I’m really glad. But…I’d still say you’re probably missing a key ingredient of coaching! Depending on who is in your huddle, I might just bring something to your table that only someone with my experience can bring.

Honestly, I don’t really know what you’re thinking! I just know how often I hear from previous coaching network participants telling me how valuable the experience was and how much of a difference it made in their most recent church-wide campaign or how their coaching structure is finally effective and healthy!

Super Early Bird Registration closes October 31st!

Bottom line? I really wish you’d consider joining my 2017 small group ministry coaching network! And join the network before the super early bird registration closes on 10/31!

And, I want you to remember that the super early bird gets more than the worm! The super early birds also get the best prices! And, if that weren’t enough, this year the super early bird also gets the added bonus of attending GroupLife Southwest as part of your package!

Here’s the scoop about my 2017 coaching network:

My 2017 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network experience is designed to give you the tools and strategies you need in order to build a small group ministry that works in the 21st century. The coaching network program will expose you to a new perspective. While it makes sense that in order to get different results you need to do different things…it’s not always clear what those different things might be. My coaching network program is designed around the idea that different, not better, leads to the kind of strategy that connects beyond the usual suspects.

Who will be part of the network? Each of my networks are limited to 15 participants and are designed for small group champions who serve in a local church. Because of the nature of the role, champions may be senior pastors, executive pastors, small group pastors and directors, ministers of education, and other key leaders.

What will you receive?

  • Five monthly coaching sessions. Anchored by a 90 minute video conference call, these group session provides focused exposure to the strategies that will build a more powerful platform.  Sessions are scheduled at 11am Pacific on January 19th, February 16th, April 20th, May 18th, and June 15th).
  • Two day gathering in Las Vegas. March 29th: 1pm-5pm followed by dinner | March 30th: 8am-12pm
  • Bonus: Registration for GroupLife Southwest is included (my small group conference here in Las Vegas is March 27th and 28th)
  • Focused training on key strategic steps including planning with the end in mind, developing an annual grouplife calendar, identifying an unlimited number of new leaders, launching new groups in waves, and impacting your community through groups.
  • Tools, strategies and next steps to be implemented after every session.
  • Access to special password protected network pages with customized content for each session.
  • Scheduled 60 minute one-on-one calls to address questions more specifically, bring team members into the conversation, or help equip your senior pastor or other key staff members.
  • The opportunity to connect with other network participants between sessions
  • Email access to Mark during the six months

What are the expectations?

  • Participate in all six sessions
  • Invest as little as $1050* (*super early bird pricing thru 10/31/15, early bird pricing of $1150 from 11/1-11/30, $1250 after 11/30/15)
  • Cover your own travel expenses to the two day gathering
  • Commit to the reading and exercises between sessions

What’s next? Complete the Coaching Network Application. My 2017 Coaching Network begins on January 19th, 2017. Questions? Contact me.

Friday’s List: October 21


Friday’s List: October 21

I’ve been meaning to do this for quite awhile. I’m asked for recommendations all the time. I’ll be posting a short list every Friday.

Here are the things I’m reading, listening to, loving and wrestling with:

Here’s what I’m reading right now:

5 Emotional Intelligence Hacks that Can Immediately Improve Your Leadership by Carey Nieuwhof. If you haven’t subscribed to Carey’s blog, you’re missing out on some of the best ministry writing on the web.

The Lesson Donald Trump Taught Me by Pete Wilson. Pete recently resigned from Cross Point in Nashville and became the President of the A Group, a marketing firm in Nashville. I’ve always loved his writing and am glad he’s still publishing.

Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Things in Extraordinary Ways by William C. Taylor. Bill Taylor was the co-founder of Fast Company magazine and also the author of two of my favorite books (Practically Radical and Mavericks at Work).

Here’s what I’m listening to:

Craig Groeschel Leadership Podcast Craig Groeschel is no stranger to any of us, but you may not know about his podcast. He only releases a new podcast once a month but it is so good I listen to each episode multiple times.

Hillsong Worship: Let There Be Light We were at Hillsong London this summer when two of the songs on this album were part of the worship set. So good!

Quote I’m wrestling with:

“The idea that you can trust Christ and not intend to obey him is an illusion…. In fact, you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor or your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you do not intend to follow their advice, you simply do not trust them.” Dallas Willard

My own post I hope you’re reading:

Top 10 Reasons My Church Has a Long Way to Go (in small group Ministry After posting several top 10 reasons other leading churches are succeeding in small group ministry, I decided it was time to post some of my concerns about my own small group ministry.

trust“The idea that you can trust Christ and not intend to obey him is an illusion…. In fact, you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor or your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you do not intend to follow their advice, you simply do not trust them.” Dallas Willard

You can see the rest of my quotebook right here.

Image by Carol Walker

You May Need This Simple Logic about Small Group Coaching

simple-logicYou May Need This Simple Logic about Small Group Coaching

Follow me on this simple logic about small group coaching:

  1. Whatever we want to happen in the lives of the members of our small groups has to happen in the lives of our small group leaders first. I believe you know that too, even if this is the very first time you’ve ever thought about it.
  2. Small group coaching is only initially about technique. That is, only in a new small group leader’s first 3 or 4 months will a coach be needed for guidance on technique (i.e., how to help the non-stop talker in the group let others into the conversation, how to help the group pray together, etc.). If the new small group leader doesn’t learn the basic in the first few months, the group probably dies.
    • Note: I’m often asked whether a coach has to have experience leading a small group. Can you see that these first 3 or 4 months make it important that the coach has some experience leading a small group?
    • Note: This is also at the root of why retroactively assigning a coach to an experienced leader is almost always rejected. Experienced leaders know they know what they need to know in order to lead a group.
  3. Only after a relationship is established between a new leader and coach (in those first 3 or 4 months), does the coach have the  opportunity to take on the role of a spiritual mentor or discipler.
    • Note: In order for the coach to take on the role of a spiritual mentor or discipler, they need to be the right kind of people.
    • Note: The most effective spiritual mentors or disciplers have someone mentoring or discipling them.
  4. Until the coach takes on the role of a spiritual mentor or discipler they don’t have permission to do TO and FOR the leader whatever we want the leader to do TO and FOR their members. Effective coaches build relationships with leaders in the first few months and earn permission to speak into the life of the leader.

Questions that begged to be asked:

  1. Do the men and women who are currently serving as coaches in your small group ministry know what they need to know to begin working with new small group leaders? Remember, what the new leader needs in their first few months is almost entirely about technique.
  2. Are the men and women who are currently serving as coaches in your small group ministry the kind of people who can take on the role of a spiritual mentor or discipler?
  3. Do the men and women who are currently serving as coaches in your small group ministry know how to shift from coaching on technique to coaching on life?
  4. Who is doing TO and FOR your coaches whatever you want them to do TO and FOR the leaders they are coaching?
  5. Who is mentoring or discipling you?

Further Reading:

  1. Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders (2015)
  2. 7 Rules at the Essence of Small Group Coaching (2014)
  3. The Big Idea Behind Small Group Coaching (2015)
  4. The Big Misunderstanding that Dooms Most Coaching Structures (2015)
  5. 5 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Coaching Strategy (2015)

Image by Derek Bruff

Top 10 Reasons My Church Has a Long Way to Go (in small group ministry)

top-10-reasons-my-church-has-a-long-way-to-goTop 10 Reasons My Church Has a Long Way to Go (in small group ministry)

I’ve shared a few top 10 lists with reasons Saddleback, North Point and North Coast have had great success with their small group ministries.

I thought it might be time for me to share why my church still has a long way to go in its small group ministry efforts before we make the who’s who list ourselves.

Depending on your own progress in building a thriving small group ministry, you might want to spend some time talking about my list and developing your own. Until we are crystal clear on the state of our own present is remains impossible to arrive at our preferred future.

Here are my top 10 reasons we have a long way to go:

  1. Our groups pastor (me) isn’t staying 100% focused on our groups ministry. I will acknowledge that as a member of our lead team I have responsibilities beyond groups. At the same time, I must acknowledge that accomplishing our mission and reaching anywhere near the preferred future we have identified will require a much greater focus than I have given.
  2. We still haven’t narrowed the focus enough to help unconnected people know for sure what is important. We have made very good strides in the direction of a narrow focus. We’ve reduced the offerings on the buffet, but we still have a buffet. It’s not easy to find the buffet…but it’s still there.
  3. We are still figuring out how to consistently tell the stories that establish that it is essential to be in a group. This is almost entirely a matter of prioritizing the collection of stories. The stories are there. We hear them when we ask the right questions or happen to be standing in the right place. But if we prioritized their collection we’d never lack for a great story about the power of community.
  4. Too few of our coaches are effectively doing TO and FOR our leaders what we want our leaders doing TO and FOR their members. Although our span of care (the coach to leader ratio) is improving and looks much better on paper, beautiful org charts do not produce results. Span of care is important, but only if leaders are being cared for in a way that impacts the members of their groups.
  5. Our senior pastor and teaching pastors mention groups regularly but only occasionally have the stories they need to be convincing and compelling. Unconnected people are rarely convinced to put a toe in the water with hum drum announcements and pronouncements. Testimonials and satisfied customers sell more than soap and weight loss products. If we want to connect unconnected people we need to be better at collecting stories and using them compellingly in message after message, service after service.
  6. Our annual church-wide campaign has been hit or miss with focused energy and effectiveness. There is no question in my mind that a well-run and executed annual church-wide campaign provides the greatest opportunity to connect the largest number of unconnected people. It is simple to do but definitely not easy. Missteps and false starts are so common! Skillful execution can lead to a home run and be followed the very next year with an overconfident and half-hearted swing. If we want to optimize the results of this powerful strategy, I need to be much more dedicated to execution.
  7. We have relied too heavily on just-in-time leader training and haven’t invested enough energy in a leadership development system. Yes, some of our reliance on just-in-time leader training is simply the result of my commitment to make it as easy as possible to begin to lead (to build the bridge as we walk on it), knowing that we in order to connect the vast number of unconnected people (whose windows are closing) we’ve got to act now and not wait for systems to be developed. Still, we need to work harder and exert more energy in building the leadership development conveyor belt for our newest leaders to step onto.
  8. We haven’t identified the right ingredients that will help experienced leaders stay invested in their own development. It is far too common for new leaders to form groups and slip away before they develop the connective tissue, rhythm and desire for their own development. We need to be on an all out hunt for these missing ingredients.
  9. We haven’t created a compelling sense of responsibility for our experienced leaders to prioritize investing in an apprentice. While apprenticing is clearly not a strategy that multiplies groups dependably and at the pace we need, we are leaving a massive opportunity on the table. We must make apprenticing a priority and we must make it a priority immediately.
  10. We haven’t built a culture that makes leadership development both an ordinary and an extraordinary experience. This must become a system-wide preoccupation. While this is not something I can do alone, it is a preoccupation by which I must be seized.

Further Reading:

I’d love to keep you posted as things develop. Want to stay in touch?

Simple to stay in touch. Just fill in the subscribe form below and I’ll keep you posted.

How Do We Help a New Host* Get Off to a Great Start?

help-a-hostHow Do We Help a New Host* Get Off to a Great Start?

“How do you help a host* get off to a great start?”

This is easily one of the most frequent questions asked about one of our main strategies for launching new groups at Canyon Ridge (the other strategy being a small group connection).

*Important Note: Although some small group models emphasize the roles of leader (the person who leads the group) and host (the person who opens their home for the group meeting), that is NOT what is meant here. In this case “host” refers to someone who simply responds to our invitation to invite a few friends to do a study together. Often referred to as the host “ask,” it is simply including the following phrase in the weekend sermon and/or announcements:

“If you have a couple friends you’d like to do the study with, drop by Groups Central after the service today and pick up a HOST Kit. It has everything you need to do the study with a couple friends and we’ve made it super affordable.”

Often used in combination with the church-wide campaign strategy, in it’s earlier form the Host ask was a little more involved. You can read a little bit about the history and earlier strategy right here: How to Make the HOST Ask: The 2012 Version.

Here’s how we help a host get off to a great start:

A few things to remember about the host strategy:

  1. Our first contact with most people who respond to the host ask is a stop at Groups Central to pick up a Host Kit. We have discovered it to be highly advantageous for the first contact to be face to face.
  2. We staff Groups Central with small group coaches and leaders who are knowledgable about starting groups and the specifics of the campaign.
  3. In most cases we charge a nominal amount for the kit. We incentivize the price to make it attractive (for example, in 2015 we wold the host kits for $20 (it had a $65 retail value). We try to decrease the burden for the host to shoulder the whole expense of inviting a couple friends.
  4. The kit includes everything needed to invite a couple friends and do the study with them (a host kit typically includes (a) the DVD, (b) 3 study guides, (c) a few simple invitations, and (d) a thumb drive with some helpful “how to get started” videos and information.
  5. In order to pick up the host kit a simple Host Info card must be completed. The card collects the host’s name, best phone, and best email.
  6. Only new hosts can pick up the host kit. Leaders of previously existing small groups pick up materials on a separate days.

Here are a few specifics about how we help new hosts begin well:

  1. When they complete and turn in the Host Info card, they immediately begin receiving a series of emails that provide just-in-time coaching.
    • Tips on inviting a few friends
    • The ABCs of a great first meeting
    • Ideas for helping new group members connect
  2. Each week the email includes specific tips and ideas for the upcoming session of the study.
  3. The weekly email also includes a look ahead at what’s coming.
  4. The 4th and 5th week’s emails point them toward a study to do next.
  5. New hosts are invited to a host gathering at or near the end of the series. At the host gathering they are connected to a coach.

As you can see, the connection with a coach happens much later for a host than it does for someone who is chosen as a leader at a small group connection. Because most host groups begin with the simple invitation of a couple of friends, the need for a coach is seen as less urgent on the part of the host. As the weeks progress they are often more and more receptive to the idea of a coach. See also, How to Launch New Groups with a Small Group Connection – 2016.

Further Reading

Can I help you? It’s actually why I do this!

Can I help you? It’s actually why I do this!

mark_howell-headshotI created my first conference in 1996 (or maybe it was ’97). It was a children’s ministry conference (think about that!)

I invited Sue Miller to bring some of her Promiseland team to the Houston area. I got ahold of a mailing list of Willow Creek Association churches and other like-minded churches in the region and promoted it to them. It was before Willow Creek or anyone like that began holding conferences away from their own place.

The conference was great! We did it two years in a row. It was well attended.

I remember at the conference the second year someone asked me why I had organized it. Off the cuff I said, “Because I can.” What I really meant was, “It seemed like a way I could help children’s ministry leaders.”

Can I help you? It’s actually why I do this!

There are several ways I might be able to help you (beyond my blog).

GroupLife Southwest – 2017

I’m hosting a small group ministry conference March 27-28, 2017. I’m excited about it. I’ve lined up a great speaker list and am planning some experiences that I think will really help small group ministry point people build thriving small group ministries in 21st century North America. You can find out about it right here (and p.s., the Super Early Bird Pricing ends tomorrow).

My 2017 Coaching Network

I’ve just opened registration and started taking applications for my 2017 small group ministry coaching network. There are 12 to 15 spots. I love the interaction. It really is a highlight for me and has been every year since 2008. This year early signups include a registration for GroupLife Southwest – 2017. You can find out about my 2017 coaching network right here.

Coaching and Consulting

Every year I work directly with 10 to 20 churches. I actually do an onsite consultation at a few and provide telephone (Skype or FaceTime) at most, You can find out about setting up coaching or consulting right here.  You can also find out about what people are saying about my coaching and consulting right here and see a partial list of who has used my services right here.

Downloadable Mini-Courses

I’ve videoed many of my most popular workshops and made them available as downloadable resources. This is an increasingly popular option as it’s less expensive and convenient. You can see all my current offerings right here.

New to Small Group Ministry Course

I’m always experimenting with something and right now I’m testing a series of emails designed to coach new small group champions step by step through a process. You can find out about that right here.

together“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

To see the rest of my quotebook, click here.

Image by Georgie Pauwels

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