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10 Big Lessons I’ve Learned about Small Group Ministry

lessonsHave you ever sat down and listed the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Here are 10 big lessons I’ve learned about small group ministry:

  1. The interests of insiders are different than the interests of outsiders. Insiders can sometimes be guilted into caring about things senior pastors care about (theology, missions, capital campaigns, etc.). Unconnected people respond almost exclusively to topics that interest them. See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People.
  2. Belonging precedes becoming in the hierarchy of needs. This is why I say you must focus on making disciples as you connect unconnected people. Don’t lose sight of the fact that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again. Jesus knew what Abraham Maslow would propose 2000 years later and invited his earliest followers to come and see first, then to come and die. See also, 5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry.
  3. The best leader candidates are often not currently in a small group. Yes, it is true that some leader candidates are in existing groups and could be tapped as apprentices or leaders of new groups. However, in all but the smallest churches and churches with already very high percentage connected numbers, the best leader candidates are most likely not already connected (and in most cases are people who are unknown by staff). If the main strategies used to recruit additional leaders depend on cherry picking from the usual suspects, there is no question that the majority of the best candidates are flying under the radar and will never be spotted. See also, 8 Secrets for Discovering an Unlimited Number of Leaders.
  4. A test-drive is an easier first step than a long-term commitment. This lesson impacts both how you invite unconnected people to join a group and how you recruit additional coaches. When joining a group feels like a lifetime commitment (i.e., longer than about 6 weeks) or signing on to be a coach requires life-altering commitments (i.e., one year commitments, quitting other ministry commitments, etc.), you shouldn’t be surprised at hesitation. A toe-in-the-water allows an easier beginning than diving headfirst into the pool. See also, 5 Things to Remember When Planning Connecting Events.
  5. Coaching has very little to do with technique. Yes, the best coaches know the ins and outs of leading a group. Yes, it makes a lot of sense to recruit experienced small group leaders as coaches. But the real value of a coach is to do TO and FOR small group leaders whatever you want your leaders to do TO and FOR the members of their groups. That means long after the leader knows everything they’re going to need to know about leading a group, they will still need someone who loves them and cares for them in a way that models whatever you want to happen at the member level. See also, 7 Things You Must Do TO and FOR Your Small Group Leaders.
  6. Settling for warm and willing (instead of hot and qualified) is a loser’s game. Filling a coaching org chart with the wrong people is a poor substitute for holding out for the right people and asking for a full commitment. Never settle for favors. Favors almost always result in unmet expectations. See also, 6 Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach.
  7. Exceeding span of care limits has unavoidable consequences. A wise and realistic span of care (everyone needs to be cared for by someone, but nobody can care for more than about 10 people) leads to long term coaching teams and, just as importantly, the highest levels of new groups sustained. Burning out personally, or burning out your best players, is a rookie mistake. Learn this early and avoid the pain. See also, 5 Common Mistakes of Rookie Small Group Pastors.
  8. There are no problem-free small group systems, models or strategies. Fortunately, I learned this lesson very early. The realization that there is no problem-free saved me from the fruitless pursuit of something no more real than the abominable snowman or a formula that turns lead into gold. The sooner you learn the lesson, the sooner you realize that wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have. See also, Breaking: No Problem-Free Small Group System, Model or Strategy.
  9. Results are determined by design. Success or failure is not determined by a fluke. “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).” “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity (Albert Einstein).” Learn this lesson earlier, not later. Life is just better when you learn that results are determined by design. Focus your attention on a adopting or adapting a design that produces the results you need. See also, 5 Signs Your Ministry Design is Inadequate.
  10. Propping up existing groups (instead of starting new groups) leads to fewer groups.  It happens to all of us and if we let it, it will happen over and over.  “We are down to three couples…if you could send us a couple more it would be helpful.”  This is a losing proposition.  Far better to prioritize new groups and teach existing group leaders how to be on the lookout for new members.  See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs. Start New Groups and Great Question: How Do I Train Leaders to Add New Members?

Image by Quinn Dombrowski

Can Your Ministry Reach Escape Velocity?

escape velocityYou know your ministry isn’t what it needs to be and you really want to move it to the next level. In fact, you’ve known it isn’t what it needs to be for at least a year or two (or maybe it’s been five). And you’ve tried several tweaks to pry it loose, but it’s just stuck. Been there? There now?

What do you think the problem is? Why do you think you can’t break through?

Can I suggest something? I think the answer to your problem is what you’re trying isn’t enough to break out of the gravitational pull of the status quo. You can’t break out because you haven’t reached escape velocity*. And the truth is you can’t reach escape velocity by tweaking the strategy you’re using. Period. End of story.

If you want to do anything beyond the status quo, you’ll need to begin making evolutionary changes (extending beyond existing offerings or adapting to reach new users).

Can I help you do that?

I’d love to at least help you get started.

There are several ways I can do that:

First, you might consider taking advantage of one of my short courses. For example, Design, Build and Sustain a Thriving Small Group Ministry will teach you some killer concepts that will make a difference (or your money back). You can find out about it right here.

Second, you might take advantage of a coaching call package. We can tailor the calls to your specific situation. You can find out about my coaching call packages right here.

Third, you can sign up for my 2016 Winter/Spring Coaching Network. Every year I lead a small cohort through a sequenced set of conversations that help build thriving small group ministries. You can find out about my next network right here.

Bottom line? I’d love to help you. If you’re stuck and you can’t break through, isn’t now a good time to do what you need to do to reach escape velocity?

Questions? Email Me for more information.

*Escape velocity is “the lowest velocity that a body must have in order to escape the gravitational attraction of a particular planet or other object.”

Image by Chris Hagood

Escape Velocity: Free Your Company’s Future from the Pull of the Past


Add The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership to the Must Read List

4 dimensionsSpent some time this week with The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership, the newest book from Jenni Catron. A leader who loves putting feet to vision,” she has served on the executive leadership teams of Menlo Church in Menlo Park, CA and Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. Prior to ministry leadership, she worked as Artist Development Director in the Christian music industry.

Whether you’re working to become a better leader or raise up more and better leaders, The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership is a book you’re going to want to spend some time with. In fact, it really is the kind of book you’re going to want to savor. As I’ve learned to do, the first thing I did when I open was take a look at the table of contents and then give the book a quick skim, stopping here and there to get a feel for the contents. Let me tell you, I came across a couple things that told me this was a book worth a careful read over many sessions.

The point of The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership is a journey “to unpack the four areas every leader must develop in order to lead extraordinarily.” The four areas are:

  • Lead with all your heart (relational leadership)
  • Lead with all your soul (spiritual leadership)
  • Lead with all your mind (managerial leadership)
  • Lead with all your strength (visionary leadership)

After a strong introduction laying the groundwork, Part Two of the book takes the reader through the four areas in a way that is both packed with deep insights and full of valuable takeaways. My copy is very marked up, underlined, starred, and dog-eared as page after page revealed another memorable insight or quote.

The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership is also very practical. Every chapter concludes with a thoughtful set of questions for reflection. I can definitely see using this book as required reading for our leadership development efforts.

I am naturally a little bit of a sucker for assessments, so when I noticed the book included one I looked forward to evaluating it for use with my team. After the first couple of questions I realized this assessment was written for me!

Part Three is all about putting extraordinary into practice. It’s one thing to learn about the four dimensions. It’s another thing entirely to “consistently live the life of an extraordinary leader.” This last section takes the reader quickly through a wise set of practices that will both help you put extraordinary into practice and help your team do it as well.

If you want to become an extraordinary leader and develop extraordinary leaders, The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership is an essential read. Please don’t miss it! I loved this book and I know you will too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thinking Thursday: John Lasseter on Charlie Rose

john lasseterLike me, you may not be a creative in the sense that Pixar’s John Lasseter is a creative. But we can learn so much by hanging out with creative people. Charlie Rose has a fascinating conversation with John Lasseter, an American animator, film director, screenwriter, producer and the chief creative officer of Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios. He is also the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering.

Can’t see the video? You can watch it right here.

Every week I choose a video that I think you need to see and believe will inspire some new thinking. You can find the rest of the collection right here.

8 Things I Know For Sure about Making Disciples in Groups

9074800823_0dd89868b7_zThere were several great comments on yesterday’s post about the 5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry. All of the comments were focused on #5: “You must focus on making disciples as you connect connect unconnected people.”

Today I want to tease out a few things about a few things I know for sure about making disciples in groups. But first, take a moment to consider this statement:

One advantage of working on the same endeavor for many years is that you sometimes develop a well-reasoned understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Let me make two important notes about this statement. First, working on an endeavor is different than working in an endeavor. See also, Working On vs Working In…Your Ministry.

Second, I say “sometimes” because it is also true that there are people who work on the same endeavor for many years and never try anything new. They use the same approach again and again even though it doesn’t work. There are three reasons they don’t try a new approach:

  1. Some of them do the same thing again and again and never evaluate their results. Without evaluation they use the same program or strategy year after year and never even think about improving. See also, Four Questions that Evaluate Small Group Model Effectiveness.
  2. Some of them do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Albert Einstein would say that is the definition of insanity.
  3. Some of them do the same thing again and again, knowing it hasn’t worked before, but are unaware of any other way to do what needs to be done. See also, Innovation Step #1: Acknowledge What Isn’t Working and  Innovation Step #2: Become a Student, Not a Critic.

8 things I know for sure about making disciples in groups:

  1. Your definition of a disciple is important. I like Dallas Willard’s definition of a mature disciple: “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”
  2. “Come and see” precedes “come and die.” Jesus invited his disciples to come and see and then over an extended period of time (18 months?) He taught them how to “effortlessly do what He would do.” See also, Moving from “Come and See” to “Come and Die.”
  3. The disciple-making efforts of the New Testament happened in groups. The idea of one-to-one discipling method isn’t found in the practice of Jesus or Paul.
  4. Disciples are rarely made in rows. A class to attend or curriculum to complete misses the point. Disciples make disciples.
  5. There is more than one way to make disciples in groups. A number of strategies have been proposed and implemented over many years.
  6. There are no problem-free strategies for making disciples in groups. Every strategy comes with a set of problems. Wise leaders choose the set of problems they’d rather have.
  7. Your disciple-making strategy should be evaluated regularly. Forging ahead without evaluation is not wise. Continuing to do what has been determined to be ineffective will not hear “well done.”
  8. “Whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first.” Therefore, making mature disciples in groups requires an intentional leadership development effort (i.e., what you do TO and FOR the leaders of your groups determines what may happen in the lives of the members of your groups).

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

Image by Penn State


Breaking! Don’t Miss the Early-Bird Pricing for My 2016 Coaching Network

BREAKINGNEWSEvery year I block off six days and several hours a week for six months to personally invest in a very limited group of small group pastors.

Breaking! I’ve extended early-bird pricing for my 2016 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network through midnight PST 12/5/15.

My Winter/Spring 2016 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 14th, February 11th, April 14th, May 12th, and June 9th).
  • Two day gathering in Las Vegas. March 9th: 1pm-5pm followed by dinner | March 10th: 8am-12pm
  • 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 $1150* (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 Winter/Spring Coaching Network begins on January 14th, 2016. Questions? Contact me.

Image by Jenn Vargas

5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry

wish you knew

In some ways, small group ministry is like a puzzle. A big puzzle with lots and lots of pieces.

And in other ways, it is really so simple. It’s not complicated. Sure, there are some things that are easy and obvious. And there are other things that might require a coach. Someone who has been there before.

There are some things I just wish everyone knew as they build their small group ministry. And believe me, the word “as” is an important word. A very important word.

You see, some things are so important they must be done concurrently. You can’t really build a thriving small group ministry in a growing church (or in a catch a moving train scenario) if you try to do it one step at a time.

5 things I wish you knew:

  1. You must build your coaching structure as you’re launching groups. If you believe what I do about unconnected people, you will spot this imperative right away. You will know you don’t have time to build a coaching structure first. You will also know that you can’t expect to sustain the new groups you launch if you aren’t building an effective coaching structure. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. See also, 5 Obstacles to Building an Effective Coaching Structure.
  2. You must focus on launching new groups as you are training leaders to fish for new members. If you want to build a thriving small group ministry you must focus on launching new groups. If you want to build a thriving small group ministry you must help existing small groups learn to fish for new members (rather than relying on you to send them new members). Existing leaders will always want to be prioritized. Catering to the weakest is a losing proposition. See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs. Launching New Groups.
  3. You must work hard to sustain new groups as you’re prioritizing new groups. Related to the previous thing I wish you knew, this is slightly different. Launching new groups must be your priority but working hard to sustain as many of your newest groups as possible is an essential activity. It is not a nice extra. Launching new groups, whether via a church-wide campaign, small group connection, or short-term on-campus strategy, takes a lot of energy. Anytime this much energy is expended, you must capitalize. To launch new groups without a well-thought-out, detailed plan to sustain as many new groups as possible is to waste energy. See also, 5 Steps to Sustaining the New Groups You Launch.
  4. You must position your senior pastor as small group champion as you become a behind-the-scenes strategist. You may believe you are the best on your staff team at casting vision for community. You may actually be the best on your staff team at casting vision for community. It doesn’t matter. The most influential person in almost every church is the senior pastor. Exceptions are very, very, rare. If you want to build a thriving small group ministry you must leverage the influence of the most influential person in the church. And you must own the behind-the-scenes “strategery.” If you’re not yet a great strategist, become one. Read the best books and blogs. Listen to the right podcasts. Go to the right conferences. Network with the smartest people. Building a thriving small group ministry requires leveraging the most influential person and becoming a shrewd strategist. See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  5. You must focus on making disciples as you connect connect unconnected people. Never let anyone tell you this is an either/or proposition. Anyone who suggests this is an either/or needs to re-read the Gospels. The only worthwhile small group systems, models or strategies make disciples as they connect unconnected people. Almost everyone who suggests making disciples requires a separate program for disciple-making is hoping to sell you something. See also, 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Ministry at the Corner of “Belonging” and “Becoming”.

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

Image by Cliff

Black Friday: Take Advantage of My 72 Hour Sale Pricing

5309486652_bb04cd65ff_zI’ve never done this before. I thought I’d try it out. For the next 72 hours, until 3:30am PST on Monday 11/30/15, I’m offering several screaming deals.

Save on a 5 call package of coaching calls:

  • Regular Price: Five 60 minute coaching calls for $625
  • Black Friday Price: Five 60 minute coaching calls for $500

Save on two popular Online Short Courses:

Design, Build and Sustain a Thriving Small Group Ministry is a 4 session audio course that will take you through what I believe are four essential steps.  This course is based on my most requested and most popular workshop, it draws more positive comments and rave reviews than anything else I talk about. You can find out more about the course right here: Design, Build and Sustain a Thriving Small Group Ministry

Black Friday

Supercharge Your Ministry Season provides a jump start for a powerful small group launch.  Recorded during a series of  live conference calls in August, 2014, there are references to the fall ministry season, but the strategies and tactics I reference will help no matter the season. You can find out more about the course right here: Supercharge Your Ministry Season

Black Friday

Image by Elliott Brown

We Have So Much To Be Thankful For

4537175786_96f711c423_zIt has been just over 14 months since Eric, our 19 year-old son, was killed in a motorcycle accident. We’ll never forget the knock on our door just before midnight. As word got out, we were quickly surrounded by friends and family and inundated with calls, texts and emails as our friends from everywhere offered their support and prayers. We were numb but surrounded by community.

This morning I did what I do almost every morning. While I made coffee, I thought about Eric and thanked God for the years we got to spend with him, watching his transformation from the 35 pound, shell shocked and painfully shy six year old we adopted to a truly amazing young man who impacted pretty much everyone he came in contact with.

This morning, I thanked God for Eric and asked God the same thing I do every morning. “When you see Eric, could you tell him we all miss him and can’t wait to see his big smile again?”

This morning I went on to thank God for the way He has blessed us with so much. I’m thankful for Debbie, who has endured me and loved me for almost 27 years. We’re thankful for our son Chris and his wife, Dee, and their three children. We’re thankful for our daughter Alexis and her three children. And what a blessing our parents and brothers and sisters are every day.

We’re thankful for so many friends both here in Las Vegas and everywhere we’ve been (Parkview, Adventure, LifeTogether, Seacoast Grace, Lake Avenue, Woodlands Church, WoodsEdge, Heritage, etc.). Actually, our friends go back to even before Debbie and I were married (to First Baptist Duncanville and Del Cerro).

We’re thankful for the members of so many small groups and Bible studies over the years. We’re thankful for neighbors who stay in contact long after we’re gone and look forward to seeing us when we’re back in town. We’re thankful, too, for many, many connections that have made big churches seem small.

We’re thankful for the opportunity to be part of the mission in churches that are committed to reaching unchurched people and making a difference where they are and around the world.

And I have to say, I thank God every day for the opportunity to share what I’m learning with small group ministry point people  everywhere. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone somewhere in the world about how what I’m sharing has made a difference.

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in America and we have a lot to be thankful for.



Image by Judy Merrill-Smith

My 2015 Christmas Reading List

21395471761_c9ee04d057_cEvery year I create a list of books I think you should read.  Sometimes the books I include are very purely about small group ministry, discipleship or spiritual formation.  Other times, the books I include may seem pretty far afield (innovation, design, leadership, or strategy).  You’ll just have to trust me.  I wouldn’t include a book I didn’t think would be added to your toolbox and contribute in a trajectory-altering way.

This year my reading list is a combination of books I’ve just read (or am reading now) and a few that are on my stack and I’ll read over the next few weeks. You may want to keep these books in mind and pick up one or two yourself!

My 2015 Christmas Reading List

lasting impactOne of the books that I’ve already begun reading is Carey Nieuwhof’s Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations that Will Help Your Church Grow. Carey’s blog is one I read every day and is always packed with insights into reaching people far from God. I’m just a couple chapters into Lasting Impact and I can already tell it is going to be very helpful. As you know, I’m a fan of great questions that lead to great conversations. If you are too, this book will be right up your alley!

H3 leadershipI just ordered Brad Lomenick’s newest book, H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle. Brad served as lead visionary and president of Catalyst (one of America’s largest movements of next-generation leader) for more than a decade. He’s an influencer and has tremendous insights into leadership and developing leaders. He also has a blog that I have in my feed reader as a daily read. This one will be next up on my stack. Can’t wait to jump into H3 Leadership!

rising strongBrené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability got my attention several years ago. Her book Daring Greatly was so good a couple years ago. Her newest book is Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution and I added it to my must read list when I heard her talk at this year’s Leadership Summit. If your work is like mine, you regularly swing for the fences and you suffer your share of knock downs. This book is about getting up to go another round. I’m in for that and can’t wait to get started reading it!

what the mystics knowWhat the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self is my introduction to Richard Rohr. I’m always looking for content that can help shape my devotional life and have been greatly helped by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton and others. I’ve heard about Richard Rohr but never read any of his work. What the Mystics Know is organized like a daily reader and pulls together the best of the rest of his writings in shorter sections. I’m a few days in and can see this is going to be a helpful addition to my daily devotional habit.

boldBold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World byPeter Diamandis may seem an odd choice (especially to follow What the Mystics Know!), but I’m looking forward to reading this one. I’ve heard Diamandis a couple times on the Tim Ferriss podcast (his first interview was so good I listened to it twice) and can’t wait to jump into this book. I’m always looking for exponential thinkers who can help me think differently. I know I was inspired by two powerful ideas I heard about on the podcast. I’m very excited to jump into Bold.

the innovatorsThe newest book by Walter Issacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution has been out for about a year. Steve Jobs was a great read and The Innovators looks like it will be a very good addition. There is just something about a good biography about great leaders, inventors, or thinkers that I find very helpful in my own journey. I always like to have a biography working on my bedside table. Can’t wait to get started with The Innovators.

how we got to nowHow We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World is Steven Johnson’s latest book. One of my favorite authors, I loved his earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From (if you’ve heard me talk about the adjacent possible future, this is where the idea came from). How We Got to Now is a great read. Johnson takes a deep look into how innovations like refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses have changed the world. I loved this book and if you enjoy learning and have an eye for transferable insights, you’ll love this book too.

the wright brothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough is so good. McCullough is another of my favorite authors and I’ve loved several of his previous books. You may think you know the story of how the age of flight began. Trust me, The Wright Brothers is an amazing story of perseverance, ingenuity, and exceptional courage you need to read. I had no idea of all these two men went through in pursuit of their dream. It’s a very inspiring story and I’m sure will impact my thinking.

Image by Catface27

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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