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5 Main Causes of “Failure to Thrive” in Small Group Ministry

Failure to thrive is a term used primarily in pediatric medicine “to indicate insufficient weight gain or inappropriate weight loss.”

Because I write so often about building a thriving small group ministry, failure to thrive seemed like a good term for a small group ministry that struggles or where growth is stunted or blocked.  There is a short list of primary causes for a small group ministry that has a failure to thrive.

Here are the 5 main causes I’ve identified for failure to thrive:

  1. An inadequate model: This underlying cause of failure to thrive is rarely diagnosed.  If one of the marks of a thriving small group ministry is an increasing percentage connected, certain small group ministry models struggle with the catch a moving train syndrome and simply cannot keep up with demand.  One of the main symptoms of an inadequate model is a constant inability to find enough leaders.  Another symptom is an inability to develop leaders who are more than hosts.  See also, How to Choose the Right Small Group System or Strategy and You Know You Have the Right Small Group System When…
  2. The wrong person in the role of small group champion: This is very commonly the cause of failure to thrive but is often misdiagnosed.  Read incorrectly the symptoms may indicate the small group pastor is not up to the task when in reality, small group ministry struggles are due to the senior pastor’s resistance to accepting the role of small group champion.  The role of small group champion cannot be delegated away from the senior pastor.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.
  3. A poorly designed and/or defined next step pathway: For a small group ministry to thrive, it must be an easy and attractive next step for unconnected people.  Along with being easy and attractive it must be an obvious step.  When there is no defined next step pathway (when it is not clear what to do next), indecision will be the most common response.   step pathway is poorly designed, there will be a lack of interest on the part of unconnected people.  When the nextSee also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #3: Indecision about the Best Next Step.
  4. Small group participation is seen as a helpful elective: A very common cause of failure to thrive in a small group ministry is hesitation about declaring group participation as an essential ingredient.  When attending the worship service is seen as the main thing and participating in a small group is seen as a nice extra thing, you should expect failure to thrive.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, group participation must be consistently declared an essential ingredient (i.e., consistently in the worship service by the senior pastor, on the website, in the bulletin, etc.).  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group Ministry.
  5. Small group model fatigue: Building a thriving small group ministry takes time and a long commitment to a strategy.  Once you’ve chosen an adequate model (see cause #1) you must stay the course over a number of years.  When a new model is proposed after every conference attended or book read, small group model fatigue sets in.  Churches with thriving small group ministries are examples of churches with long term commitment to a single small group model or strategy. See also, 5 Easily Overlooked Secrets to Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

What do you think?  Have something to add?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Growth’s Conterintuitive First Step

What do you do when you’re trying to grow your ministry?  Read a book?  Go to a conference?  Hire a consultant?  Brainstorm?

According to Peter Drucker, “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon (Inside Drucker’s Brain, p. 101).”

Peter Drucker had a lot to say about purposeful abandonment.  In my view, it was one of his most important ideas.  The essence of the idea is that “planned, purposeful abandonment of the old and of the unrewarding is a prerequisite to successful pursuit of the new and highly promising.  Above all, abandonment is the key to innovation—both because it frees the necessary resources and because it stimulates the search for the new that will replace the old (Managing for Results, p. 143).”  See also, Purposeful Abandonment: Prerequisite to Innovation.

Do you see where purposeful abandonment fits in a growth initiative?  Drucker would say that before you plan a new thing, a new strategy, you should be thinking about what should be eliminated.

Is that what happens in your world?  Does anything ever get eliminated?  Or do you just add the new program or strategy to the old list?  See also, Narrowing the Focus Leads to a Church OF Groups and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

Remember.  “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon.”

What do you think?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

6 Understandings that Changed the Game for Me

Have you ever suddenly noticed something and never looked at it the same way again?  You know how sometimes you can get so used to the cracked mirror that you stand in front of it and never notice it…every morning?  This is the opposite experience.  This is that thing that you’ve seen a million times but once you see it, once you notice it, you can never miss it again.

Once you’ve noticed certain things…they change the game forever.

Here are a 6 things that have changed the game for me:

  1. Connecting people is a first step.  Making disciples is a second step.  Belonging is a higher motivation than becoming.  Period.  End of story.  If you want to make more disciples, focus on making it easy to connect into an environment where most barriers to following Jesus have been removed.  See also, 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Ministry at the Corner of “Belonging” and “Becoming”.
  2. Unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  One tough thing.  A marriage problem.  An illness.  Loss of  a job.  A teen who goes south.  One tough thing.  And it could happen at any time.  For some of the unconnected people in your congregation it will happen this year.  For others it will happen this week.  If you want the opportunity to help them…you need to act sooner than later.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  3. The pursuit of problem-free delays more ministry than anything else.  There are no problem-free models, systems or strategies.  Zero.  Every model, every system, and every strategy comes with a set of problems.  Wise leaders simple choose the set of problems they’d rather have.  See also, The Pursuit of Problem-Free.
  4. You don’t have to be a leader to lead a small group.  The old school understanding was that you needed to be a leader to lead a small group.  Somewhere along the line I realized that the s.h.a.p.e., or the wiring, of the leader just determines the way the leader leads.  Have the gift of encouragement or mercy?  Your group will look different than the group of a leader with a hospitality gift or shepherding gift.  See also, Raising the Bar, Lowering the Bar, or Open Bar?
  5. “Coaching” small group leaders has almost nothing to do with coaching.  The best coaches understand that it’s really about doing “to and for” the leader whatever you want the leader to do “to and for” their members.  This is why I say, “Whatever you want to happen in the life of a member must happen in the life of the leader first.”  6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach and Four Small Group Coaching Insights that Might Be Eye-Opening.
  6. Your senior pastor must be the small group champion.  This role cannot be delegated.  If your senior pastor is not fully in the game, you cannot build a thriving small group ministry.  Period.  End of story.  It doesn’t matter how passionate or committed or knowledgeable or experienced your small group pastor is.  Without the senior pastor…it just can’t happen.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.

What do you think?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

10 Principles for Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry

Want to build a thriving small group ministry in your church?  It won’t be easy.  It will require a commitment to the long haul, major determination, a willingness to commit resources, disappoint the guardians of the status quo, and much, much more.

But…if you believe that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again, if you want to connect far beyond the usual suspects (and even beyond your average weekend adult worship attendance)…there is no alternative.  A commitment to building a thriving small group ministry is a non-negotiable.

10 principles that will guide the work that is ahead.

  1. Begin with the end in mind.  Describing in vivid detail a picture of the preferred future is essential.  Make no compromise and take no shortcut.  As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
  2. Diagnose the present with uncompromising honesty.  If you begin with the end in mind, brutal honesty about the here and now is another essential.  See also, Brutal Honesty about Your Present.
  3. Clarify what you will call a win.  According to Peter Drucker, very few things are as important as determining what you will call success.  See also, Clarifying the Win in Your Small Group Ministry.
  4. Think steps, not programs.  Design easy, obvious and strategic steps that lead to the preferred future and only to the preferred future.  See also, Think Steps, Not Programs.
  5. Narrow the focus (to eliminate all but the best steps).  There is no room for turning a blind eye to the inadequacies of yesterday’s solutions.  See also, Small Group Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.
  6. Allocate resources to the critical growth path.  Choosing a preferred future is one thing.  Allocating finite resources to get to the preferred future is what demonstrates conviction.  Budget, key staff and volunteers, space, promotional bandwidth, and senior pastor attention are just a few of the most important resources.  See also, Budgeting for the Preferred Future.
  7. Commit to the long haul.  The journey to build a thriving small group ministry is not a short sprint.  It is a marathon.  If you want to arrive at the finish line, you must commit to the long haul.  See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run.
  8. Keep one eye on the preferred future.  Maintaining focus on the end in mind, using preferred future language to cast vision for the promised land is a non-negotiable.  It will be tempting along the way to settle for something less than a thriving small group ministry.  Only by rehearsing again and again what it will be like will the steadfast pursuit continue.
  9. Keep the other eye on the very next milestone.  Milestones that are clearly visible in the near future enable your team to stay focused and encouraged.  Milestones could be quantitative (a number of groups or a percentage connected statistic).  Milestones can also be qualitative with a little effort (capturing life-change stories or monitoring feedback cards).  The objectives that must be accomplished to reach the next milestone are the kind of things that keep teams focused.  See also, Are We There Yet? Milestones that Lead to the Preferred Future.
  10. Celebration is expected.  A culture of celebration is a must have.  Celebrate milestones reached and wins experienced.

Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Celebrating 1500: Here Are 15 of My Favorite Posts

Arriving at 1500 posts on a blog calls for a celebration…and a little retrospective.  I started blogging back in 2005 and have over 1200 articles on StrategyCentral.org.  I wrote my first post here back in January of 2008.

I get asked why I do this quite a bit.  The simplest answer is that I aspire to be a disruptor of the status quo and the mayor of Crowd’s Edge.  I love the dream of helping small group champions everywhere build thriving small group ministries that connect way beyond the usual suspects and impact whole communities with the life-changing truth of the gospel.

Here are 15 of my favorite posts (and by the way…it is really hard to choose 15 out of 1500!)

  1. Ten Ideas That Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry
  2. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader
  3. This Is Why We Need Community
  4. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  5. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People
  6. 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry
  7. Evaluate Your Small Group Ministry with My Signature 10 Point Checklist
  8. Top 10 DNA Markers of Churches with Thriving Small Group Cultures
  9. 5 GroupLife Dots You May Not Be Connecting
  10. 10 Commandments of Small Group Ministry
  11. 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor
  12. 5 Essential Ingredients of Small Groups that Make Disciples
  13. 5 Non-Negotiables that Define True Small Group Ministry Success
  14. Top 10 Ways to Launch New Groups
  15. 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact

Did I miss one of your favorites?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Community and Congregation Traits Can Help Determine Connection Strategy

Did you know that understanding your community and congregation can help determine the best connection strategy?  It’s true!  Building a deep understanding of the people in your community, as well as the people in your congregation, really can help you choose the most productive connection strategies.  You’ll also be able to figure out why some unsuccessful strategies have not worked.  See also, Learn to Empathize with Your End User and 4 Steps to Extending Your Reach into the Crowd and Community.

Here’s an example:

During the years I was on the team building a small group ministry at Fellowship of The Woodlands, the community of The Woodlands was growing at a rapid pace (it still is).  One of the most important traits to know about The Woodlands (and by extension, Fellowship of The Woodlands) is that there were many, many people who had been transferred there or who had moved there to take a job.

The community and the church were exploding with growth.  And there were two important data points that made the small group connection a winning strategy:

  1. Lots of new attendees who didn’t know anyone (i.e., didn’t know anyone at the church and didn’t know their neighbors).
  2. A large and growing crowd attending the church whom none of the staff knew.

The small group connection strategy solved two significant problems:

  1. People were looking for ways to get connected and make friends in a new community.
  2. Many capable potential leaders were attending but were unknown by any of our staff.

Can you see why the small group connection strategy worked?  We were able to promote small groups as a way to get connected and make friends.  And the small group connection strategy actually identifies leaders at the event.  Voilà!  The strategy was a fantastic match for the needs of the community and the congregation!

Here’s another example:

Contrast the situation in The Woodlands with the situation in Orland Park, Illinois.  Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois (a suburb in southwest Chicago), is a fast-growing church in a part of Chicago that is very static.  While there are some who move to the area from elsewhere, they are the distinct minority.  Most people in Orland Park and the surrounding communities have lived nearby all of their lives.  Looking across the lobby it is common for attendees of the church to see both members of their extended family and people they went to high school with 20 years ago.

A very important data point was that our average attendee already had friends…they just weren’t necessarily Christ followers.  Most of our attendees had been raised in Roman Catholic families (perhaps as high as 75%).

In response to the fact that our average attendee already had friends, we made two important strategy decisions:

  1. We still held small group connections, but we shifted our marketing verbiage to highlight connecting with some new friends who are growing in their faith and taking the steps you need to take.
  2. We chose topics for church-wide campaigns that would interest the extended families and friends of our average attendee (who had deep networks in the community).  The HOST strategy was made for situations like this.  See also, How to Choose the Right Church-Wide Campaign.

Have you chosen the best strategies given your congregation and community?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Could Do Right Now

Ready to take things up a notch?  There are at least 5 things every small group pastor could do right now that would shift their ministry onto a new trajectory.  And there really are no exceptions.  Every small group pastor (or reasonable facsimile thereof) could do these things.

Every small group pastor could…

Develop preferred future language for their small group coaches. leaders, and members.  Have you developed the language that will help you envision what your ministry will look like in your preferred future?  You may not realize this, but shared language is actually a prerequisite to any kind of teamwork or collaboration.  Want to build a thriving small group ministry?  You cannot do it alone.  It takes a team.  And you can’t go anywhere significant without a shared language that describes where you want to go.  See also, Start with the End in Mind and Creating Your “Refined” Preferred Future.

Thoroughly evaluate their percentage connected numbers.  Spending sufficient time gathering the numbers that will yield an accurate understanding of your percentage connected is so important.  You’ll never talk about look at your crowd the same way again.  You’ll never accept delays or the pursuit of problem-free the same way again.  Basically, once you’ve discovered your true percentage connected…you’ll be very motivated to connect unconnected people.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected? and What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?

Diagnose their coaching structure.  Do you have the right people in the role of coach?  Do you have enough of the right people?  Do you have some in the role who are really coaches in name only?  This is an important thing to do.  The coaches in your system play an important role in whether a new group sustains and also help determine what happens in the lives of group members.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure and Diagnosis: The Coaches in Your System.

Meet with their senior pastor.  I realize I’ve just tripped a booby trap for some, but this is a very important activity that could set in motion a powerful chain reaction.  Sure, it might require a preliminary step (having coffee with your supervisor and convincing them to set up coffee or lunch), but it will be worth the effort.  Sitting with your senior pastor and sharing your heart for unconnected people and making disciples may be the thing that sets in motion a series of amazing next steps.  See also, Note to Senior Pastors: Authentic Community Begins with You.

Lay the foundation for an annual calendar approach.  You may not be able to get very far beyond initial planning, but to pull out a calendar and begin pencilling in any existing sermon planning, major congregational emphases, holiday schedules, and the optimum group launch seasons will help you begin to see when it might pay to collaborate.  See also, How to Build an Annual GroupLife Calendar and When Is the Best Time to Launch a Church-Wide Campaign?

Need a bonus suggestion?  Spend some time with my Signature 10 Point Checklist.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

 

7 Things I’ve Learned about Community

I’ve been at this community building thing a long time.  A very long time.  Learning about community and more importantly, building our own.  The response of our community has played a very important role in our world after the recent death of our son.  See also, This Is Why We Need Community.

For a variety of reasons the need for community is more desperate today than ever before.  Broken families, job transfers that take people far from family and friends, concerns about safety and fear of strangers, and settling for entertainment all play a part in the need for community and a sense of family.

Here are 7 things I’ve learned about community:

  1. The desire to belong is innate.  We come prewired with this desire.  It is a higher felt need than becoming or impacting.  See also, Would You Rather: Connect More People or Make More Disciples?
  2. The desire to belong is not equally obvious to everyone.  Upon finding community, many people describe sensing that something was missing but not knowing what it was.  See also, 5 Ingredients that Build Pervasive Community in Your Church.
  3. The desire to be known is very powerful.  In some ways it is a precursor to belonging.  Remembering names and points of connection is a weapon against which there is no defense.  Imagine if everyone on your guest services team (ushers, greeters, parking team, etc.) simply learned one name every week!
  4. Unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  Without community, it is always easier to simply disappear when the hard things in life appear.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?
  5. It is very common for people to feel more connected than ever before after a simple 75 minute connecting event.  Many of the people in your church have never felt like anything other than a face in the crowd.  Many of the people who attend your church drive into the parking lot, walk into your auditorium, sit for 75 minutes and leave without ever talking to anyone.  See also, How to Connect People Using a Small Group Connection.
  6. True community is built over time and in between.  Small groups that only connect from 7 to 9 p.m. on 2nd and 4th Thursdays cannot expect to build true community.  It is what happens between meetings that plays the most important role in creating and cementing community.
  7. Jesus understood this important human need.  He invited his closest followers to belong (to be with him) before he invited them to become anything.  See also, Moving from “Come and See” to “Come and Die” and Even a Lizard Can Respond to “Come and See”.

What do you think?  Have a question? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Breaking: No Problem-Free Small Group System, Model or Strategy

Recently I gave a short talk to a Small Group Network huddle in Kansas City on the subject of no problem-free small group systems, models or strategies.  This is a very important topic because I believe the pursuit of problem-free solutions delays more ministry than anything else.

You know this right?  At least at the basic level you probably already have the understanding that there are no problem-free small group systems, models or strategies.  I’ve talked about this many times over the last several years.  But sometimes, even when we know this in a general way, when it comes to choosing a particular model, we still find ourselves believing that there may be a problem-free solution.

With me?

Listen to the talk

Want to listen to the talk?  You can do that right here.

On the call I referenced the following posts:

The Pursuit of Problem-Free

Problem-Free Leader Identification and Recruitment

How to Choose a Small Group System

Small Group Models

Free Market (New Life Church, National Community Church, etc.)

An Analysis of the Free-Market Small Group System

Free-Market

Activate by Nelson Searcy

Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Evangelism in the 21st Century by Ted Haggard

Sermon-Based (North Coast)

An Analysis of the Sermon-Based Small Group System

Sermon Based Small Groups

Sticky Church by Larry Osborne

Church-Wide Campaign Driven (Saddleback)

Church-Wide Campaign-Driven

Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen

5 Ingredients that Build Pervasive Community in Your Church

If you believe that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again…you have all the motivation you need to invest in building a pervasive sense of community in your church.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People? and This Is Why We Need Community.

There are 5 essential ingredients that build a pervasive sense of community in your church:

  1. A thriving small group ministry.  If you want to build community in your church, you must understand that not only does life-change happen best in circles (not rows), so does community.  A thriving small group ministry is an essential ingredient that builds community in your church because unless your church is flatlined, you will always need a growing number of new groups to connect a growing number of unconnected people.  See also, 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.
  2. Build steps into community that are easy, obvious, and strategic.  Building a thriving small group ministry is an essential ingredient.  Still, putting energy and resources into small group infrastructure without making the hard choices that create first steps and next steps won’t build community.  To build pervasive community it is essential to design steps that are easy for unconnected people to take.  In addition, the steps you design will need to be obvious (not hidden in a buffet of options).  Finally, the steps you build will need to be strategic, eliminate sideways energy and lead only in direction of the preferred future.  See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.
  3. Build glimpses of community and connecting opportunities into your weekend service.  Although the desire to belong is innate in the human heart, the longing for community is not always obvious to unconnected people.  In order to whet appetites and persuade tentative first steps, a steady diet of satisfied customer stories coupled with low risk connecting opportunities is essential (think auditorium section hosts and friendly ushers on a mission).  See also, How to Develop Video or Live Testimony that Recruits Members or HOSTs.
  4. Introduce friendlier and stickier points of connection from street to seat.  Community building begins on the website and in the parking lot.  Introducing an all out effort to humanize every point of contact is an essential ingredient.  Until you can truly empathize with the unconnected people in your crowd and community, you can’t expect to build a pervasive sense of community.  It will always be insider vs outsider.  See also, Learn to Empathize with Your End User.
  5. Cast vision for community with every opportunity.  Website, newsletter, video, bulletin, welcome, announcements, sermons, greeters, parking team, ushers, worship team, children’s ministry, student ministry, counseling, recovery and care, outreach, etc.  Everything must cast vision for community.

How would you diagnose your church’s capabilities when it comes to building pervasive community?  Is it happening?  Is it only a fantasy?  Is it just a couple ingredients away?  Is it even on your agenda or in the conversation?

It is true, you know.  Unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  In my mind, that ought to make this building a pervasive sense of community a number one priority for all of us.

What do you think?  Have a question? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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