Escaping the Straitjacket of Conventional Thinking

How limited is your thinking? When you stop long enough to examine how your ministry is designed…particularly the assumptions that it is based on…how limited is your thinking? Need an example? Try these statements on for size:

  • “New groups must begin with a qualified leader and an apprentice.” I remember hearing Jim Dethmer talk about how new groups were formed at Willow Creek in 1991 and those were his words. I wonder how many small group ministries operate with this underlying assumption?
  • “New leaders have to have already gone through the curriculum in an existing group or attend the special all-day training.” This is the essence of the system in order to use The Truth Project curriculum.
  • “Only church members can lead a group. To become a member you have to go through our 15 week schedule of core classes.” Whether yours is a one hour class, a four hour class, or a 15 week class…you need to be sure you understand what you gain (and what you lose) by establishing that hoop.
  • “Members of new groups make a 18 to 24 month commitment and the group is closed to new members.” This is one of the basic ideas of North Point’s small group system and has always led me to wonder about missed connection opportunities. Asking your newest attendees to join a closed group seems sure to make it harder for the friends of the newest people to connect.
  • “Our groups are semester based. Members make a 13 week commitment to their group and may choose a new group at the beginning of the next semester.”

To escape the straitjacket of conventional thinking, you have to be able to distinguish between beliefs that describe the world as it is, and beliefs that describe the world as it is and must forever remain.
These are just five of many, many underlying assumptions that drive (or hinder) small group ministries. Sometime in the past a set of assumptions were adopted, many times intentionally, other times they’ve just drifted into place. They remain in place…mostly unexamined…and some of them are absolutely preventing exponential ministry. What if that’s true about your small group ministry? Could it be true?

I know most of us badly want to have the greatest impact, on the largest number of people, for the longest period of time. We’ve committed to the vision of life in community. We believe wholeheartedly that life-change happens in community. We’d never knowingly do things that would prevent a full-scale assault on the schemes of the evil one. And yet, it is a great challenge to slow down long enough to fully examine the assumptions that drive the way we do what we do.

One of the books that has shaped my thinking in the last two years is Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management. Sounds like business…I know. But much like Jim Collins’ Good to Great, The Future of Management is packed with thinking that help you seriously examine why you do what you do. It is the reason Hamel is speaking at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit this week.

One of the lines from Hamel’s book that grabbed my attention is that “to escape the straitjacket of conventional thinking, you have to be able to distinguish between beliefs that describe the world as it is, and beliefs that describe the world as it is and must forever remain (p. 131, The Future of Management).”

I believe we would all benefit by slowing down long enough to think about our ministries this way. We need to slow down long enough to carefully identify the things that are true about discipleship and must forever remain…and be unafraid to try new possibilities that will help us “escape the straitjacket of conventional thinking.”

Can you think of other assumptions or practices that may be limiting our thinking in small group land?

Determining Essential Ingredients

Had a fascinating discussion over the weekend with a passionate devotee of the worship + ABF philosophy of ministry.  He was definitely passionate.  He was absolutely committed to the philosophy.  And he was in some amount of denial about why it is so difficult to find churches with contemporary worship, relevant teaching and a great selection of on-campus classes.  They do exist…but are increasingly hard to find.  Why?  It may have to do with what you’ll read below.

Whether you call them ABFs (Adult Bible Fellowships) or Sunday School classes, there are certain perceived advantages (and disadvantages) that are difficult for long-time participants to dispassionately evaluate.  In all fairness, long-time advocates of off-campus small groups have an equally difficult time evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of a group life strategy.  Why?  Sometimes long-term solutions that have been effective are the toughest to evaluate.  At the same time, winning solutions from the past often turn out to be the very things that prevent the best opportunities for future growth.

So, what’s the big deal?  Do we really need to understand and honestly evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of a given program or system?  Absolutely.  Why?  Unexamined assumptions do not lead to a good place.  Rather, unexamined assumptions are what ultimately lead to failure.

In When Growth Stalls, a recent article over at HBR, authors Olson, Van Bever, and Verry share some powerful ideas about the importance of examining your assumptions:

  • Assumptions held the longest or the most deeply are the most likely to be its undoing.
  • Leaders must bring the underlying assumptions that drive company strategy into line with the changes in the external environment.

Reading those two statements should cause us to pause and think about our own passion for a particular solution.  Think about it.  Whether you’ve been ultra committed to an ABF strategy or to a group life strategy…what if it turned out that it would prove to be your undoing?  Could it?  Have you thoroughly examined your underlying assumptions in order to bring your strategy in line with the external environment?  What does that have to do with today’s dilemma?

I want to suggest that an unexamined strategy (and unexamined assumptions) is a recipe for what could be your undoing.  How do you get to the bottom of the assumptions that drive what you believe and do?  Not as hard as you might think.  Here is the first step:

Start by assembling an assumption hunt team that includes some outsiders. It’s important to acknowledge that “the people who have a stake in the old…are never the ones to embrace the new…it’s always someone on the periphery, who hasn’t got anything to gain by the status quo, who is interested in changing it.”

In the next few posts I’ll be unpacking the assumption hunt idea.  Want more?  Be sure and sign up to get the updates.  You can do that right here.

Philosophy of Ministry: Off-Campus Groups vs. On-Campus Classes

I’ve written quite a bit about the subject of building a small group ministry in a church with a Sunday School culture.  This is an important topic because it is where so many churches are.  A legacy program in a changing landscape.  And it’s a challenging situation.

That said, I want to talk today about some underlying philosophical assumptions that are shaping decisions around the country.  It may seem a little more rambling than normal.  Just work with me!  And as always, I’d love to hear your take and you can jump in by using the comment section below!

Q: Are there philosophy of ministry questions that help make the case for off-campus vs. on-campus?

A: I think there are at least three.

  1. Does the experience make disciples?  I’ve listed this first because I believe it is the first question.  It leads to a deeper question (that we can tackle another time), but at a minimum, making disciples takes observation (someone modeling how to do it), discussion, and participation in a set of practices.  Obviously, that cannot happen in a lecture environment (whether the class is on-campus or off-campus).  I often make the statement that a smaller version of what’s happening in the worship service will not get it done.  Two-way communication is essential.  Doing things together is essential.  Going out to do it on your own is another essential.  Information is not the point.  It is all about transformation.  Is that happening in your on-campus class?  Is it happening in your off-campus small group?  If the experience isn’t making disciples…then there’s something missing.
  2. Are we helping our congregation prioritize the activities that make disciples?  Since every member’s available time is limited (again, this leads to a deeper discussion), and since all of us struggle to choose what is best for us, many churches are moving in a simple church direction that limits activities to those that contribute best to the desired goal.  Options are eliminated in order to insure that the right choices are easy, obvious and strategic.
  3. Does the on-campus arrangement make service less likely?  My argument is that on-campus tends to provide additional opportunities to consume while making it more difficult to contribute (serve).  This is a little complicated, but if by providing a worship + class arrangement I’ve insured that whole segments of the congregation are unavailable to serve…

Obviously, there are other key questions.  These are three that must be asked when determining your discipleship philosophy of ministry.

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

Groups Interactive

What are you using to manage and grow your small group ministry?  As I’ve mentioned previously, 24/7 access is a very important detail.  Whether you have 10 groups or 100, the ability to find out what groups are available, how to contact the leader, and when and where they meet are almost an essential ingredients.  Reporting and leader communication are two additional keys to a robust solution.  The popularity of facebook and other social media solutions make the availability of  member to member communication an attractive feature in any web-based application.

Groups Interactive, developed by Upper Room Technologies is a web-based application you may want to check out.  Offering an easy search solution (that can be customized to feature certain groups), integration with many church management systems, along with reporting and the ability to add coaching layers as your system grows, it is very robust.  A feature that many will find particularly appealing is the function that allows group members to set automated updates to Outlook, iCal, Google and Yahoo calendars.  That’s big!

With pricing based on worship attendance, Groups Interactive is competitive with other services.  One aspect of their pricing that will benefit smaller or newer churches is a free one-year subscription to the service (with a $50 dollar set-up fee).  That’s big!  With many church plants starting out with a fully functioning web presence, Groups Interactive could be a great addition.

Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve already gone multi-site, Groups Interactive is a service you’ll want to take some time to investigate.  I’ve found their team to be very knowledgeable and extremely accessible.  Want to set up a demo?  You can do that right here.  Need more information about Upper Room Technologies?  You’ll find out a lot about the company and their roots on their blog.

Diagnosing Your Discipleship Strategy

Ever slow down long enough to look at whether your discipleship strategy is actually working?  I know…who has time?  Here’s the thing, we better make time!   As I see it, you don’t have to read between the lines to see the link between leadership and accountability for results (See Matthew 25 or Luke 19 if you doubt me).  That said, how can we determine whether our discipleship strategy is working?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Assessments like Willow’s Reveal can play an important role.  Designed to give an indepth analysis of congregational health, Reveal will also give some important help in determining next steps.
  2. Taking the time to carefully articulate what it is that you are trying to do.  Taking my lead from The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, I’ve referred to this step as clarifying what a win will be.
  3. Be on the lookout for great diagnostic questions.  If you’re wired this way, it will come easy.  If you’re not, watch for team members who are analytically wired and invite them into the discussion.  Here are a couple of my favorite questions: (a) What 21st-century challenges are testing the design limits of our discipleship strategy? (b) What are the limitations of our model that have failed to keep up with the times?  Let me take a moment to unpack these two questions.

What 21st-century challenges are testing the design limits of our discipleship strategy? Think about this one.  If you’re like many churches, much of what you do is based to a degree on decisions that were made a long, long time ago.  You may no longer have a Sunday night service.  You might have severely trimmed your Wednesday programs.  At the same time, a little digging will probably show that a lot of what you’re doing is based on things that were true in another time.  Work schedules, commuting, family commitments, technology, learning styles  and reduced attention spans are just a few of the dynamic changes that have impacted today’s culture.

What are the limitations of our model that have failed to keep up with the times? This is a great follow up question.  Things like limited time slots, qualified teachers, curriculum expense, facility-based programming are just a few issues that may come to the surface.

These are just two of a whole set of questions that I use to help debug broken systems.  Both of these questions come from Gary Hamel’s fantastic read The Future of Management.  What questions are you asking to diagnose your discipleship system?

Video That Recruits HOSTS: Take 2

If you’ve been with me for any length of time you know that one of my core assumptions is that newer people to the church (provided they didn’t move from out of the area) have more connections with unchurched people.  Or, in a Saddleback sense, people new to the Congregation, just in from the Crowd, have more connections to the Community.  That said, if I want to reach the crowd it only makes sense for me to try and figure out ways to help new people say yes to:

  • Opening up their home
  • Serving a few refreshments and
  • Telling a few of their friends.

What do I need to do to help a larger number say yes?  The missing ingredient is having a Heart for unconnected people.  I’ve found that the best way to do this is to have someone who has already done it share their story.  I’ve written about it before, but this year have tripped across an even better way to tell the story.  Want in?  Here it is:

If you’ve recruited HOSTs in the past who have successfully invited friends, neighbors or co-workers to join their group (maybe in 40 Days of Purpose or One Month to Live) you’ve got the basis for a great video or live testimony.  You can read about the questions they need to answer right here.  These questions perfectly set up an opportunity for your pastor to make the ask in a way that gets a good response.  But there’s a little detail that you can add that will make it even better.  Here it is:

Instead of interviewing just the host…add a person or a couple that said “yes” to attending the group and had a life-changing experience.  Whether you video the interview or do it live, you’ve got the ingredients for a very powerful moment.  I’m very excited about the piece we just shot to show on August 9th in the recruiting stage for our fall campaign.  I’ll post it as soon as I’ve got it.  If you haven’t signed up to get the update be sure and do that today!

Where Can I Find New Coaches?

A great conversation yesterday drew an important question.  We’re getting ready for a church-wide campaign and know we’ll need coaches for our newest hosts.  Where can I find new coaches?

Ever asked that one?  It’s a good question.  Important on a couple levels.  First, it is important that your newest hosts have a coach who is available to help and who is checking in with them on a weekly basis.  The first 10 to 13 weeks of their new existence is a critical time period, not unlike the first few days and weeks of a newborn’s life.  That said, it follows that if you recruit a wave of new hosts to open their homes for a church-wide campaign, you could suddenly need an additional coach (or 10!).  So…where will they come from?

Here are a couple thoughts:

  1. Although it’s not essential, I look first among existing small group leaders for coaches.  You probably do to.  The reason I look there is that they’ve made it as a group leader and understand some things about what works.
  2. Depending on what I find among existing group leaders, I’m not opposed to recruiting from outside but they have to really fit the bill from a teachability standpoint and from a SHAPE standpoint.
  3. I’m not looking for warm and willing.  I’m looking for hot and qualified.  That is, the ideal candidate has a passion for group life, is a high-capacity leader, is loyal to our church and our pastor, is very relational and fun to be around.

The second reason this is an important question is that coaches need to be recruited to the function before they’re recruited to the form.  You’ve heard of “form before function?”  I’ve found it makes a big difference when I simply ask a seasoned small group leader to take a new host or two under her wing, just for 10 to 13 weeks (six weeks of the campaign, couple weeks before, couple weeks after).  I’ll frequently say:

I’ve seen you in action over the last year.  You’re doing a great job with your group.  Would you be willing to help get a couple of our new hosts get off to a good start?  Sit with them at the orientation.  Connect with them weekly.  Make sure they have what they need to really succeed?

This is function before form.  Before I sit down with them and invite them to join our coaching team, I want to see them in action.  By agreeing to help get a couple new groups started they’re able to put their toe in the water without a long-term commitment.  I’m able to see if they’ll do the job and whether they’re really a fit for it…before I offer them an ongoing role on the team.  This is big because it’s a lot easier to ask someone to become a coach than it is to ask them to stop coaching!

Once you’ve had a chance to see them in action you can decide if they are a good fit and whether you’d like to add them to the coaching team.  I’ve found it is really beneficial to ask them how it felt to help a couple new hosts get started.  You need them to be fruitful and fulfilled.  One without the other is not good.  Fruitful without fulfillment doesn’t lead to long term service.  Fulfillment without fruit doesn’t help anyone.  You want both and it’s worth holding out for.

Church-Wide Campaigns: Clarifying the Win

Great question recently from a Small Group Pastor preparing for a meeting with his Senior Pastor to talk about the fall campaign.  Here’s his question:

“What are the campaign critical questions to ask when working with the Lead Pastor on Fall Campaign Strategic Plans?”

Great question!  Assuming you’ve already made the case for a church-wide emphasis, here’s where I start:

  1. What are you hoping will happen?  If you had to declare now what a win will be, how would you describe it?  For example, are you trying to connect everyone in your church?  Or are you really more interested in reaching the community?  The way you answer this preliminary question helps determine many things.
  2. Given your answer to #1, ask yourself if you’ve chosen the right topic or the right off-the-shelf campaign.  In other words, given the topic you’ve chosen, would it really appeal to that kind of person?  Memo: If you are a pastor…you might want to ask a few certified regular folks.  As Rick Warren pointed out years ago, “The longer you are a pastor the less you think like a regular person.”  Choosing a topic that actually appeals to the target will go a long way toward getting them to say “yes” to joining a group.
  3. Once you’ve chosen your topic, take a look at the calender and begin developing a timeline.  Sequence is very important.  Jamming a 10 to 13 week preparation into 6 or 8 weeks can be done, but not without some trade off.  You can’t get the same results with a shorter ramp up and it’s unfair to expect it.  I’ve included a sample timeline right here.
  4. Make sure you have the right people on your team.  A campaign is time-consuming work.  Potentially very effective, but really requires some of your best people (if not all of them).  Recruiting broadly will pay off.

This will get you started.  If you need more help, I’d love to talk with you personally.  You can find out how to set up a phone call right here.

Summer “To Do” List

Ah the joys of summer!  Vacations.  Cookouts.  The beach.  The lake.  The River.  The Pool.  Family time.  Good times.  Summer (I know it’s winter for many of you in the Southern Hemisphere…but work with me here!).

What have you got going wherever you are?  Hopefully some good downtime.  Also, hopefully you’re working smarter, getting ahead for the fall–one of the best opportunities of the year to connect beyond the core, beyond the usual suspects.  Let’s take a quick pass as a few ideas that should be on your “to do” list.  Here we go:

  1. Deepen your relationships.  This is a great time to catch coffee, breakfast or lunch with your coaches.  The agenda can just be “how ya doin’?  It will pay off in the fall when you’re asking your coaches to work a little harder than the rest of the team.
  2. Build your coaching team.  Think about which of your hosts might be misappropriating their SHAPE by caring for 8 to 10 adults instead of 4 to 6 leaders (who each care for 8 to 10 adults).  You probably have at least one or two that fit that category.  This is an opportunity to help them move to the right seat on the bus.
  3. Plan and shoot the videos you’ll need in August and September.  This is a great time to capture the video (or line up the testimonies) that will enable you to recruit new small group hosts in August and encourage unconnected people to test-drive a group in September.
  4. Fine tune the time-line for your fall strategy. You can think about things like the dates that your host insert will be in the bulletin, when you’ll start talking about being “in a group” vs. hosting a group, how you’ll promote each of those steps, ways of marketing the campaign you’ll be launching, when you’ll introduce the next curriculum, etc.
  5. Encourage your existing small groups to take a “small group vacation” this fall.  This is a very strategic move that can pay off big time but you’ll need the big guns and some preparation to pull it off.  See my article for more.

How To Develop A Timeline For Your Church-Wide Campaign

How are you shaped (or wired…depending on your philosophy of ministry!)?  Are you a planner?  A detail oriented, think ahead kind of person?  Or are you more of a last minute, play-it-by-ear, scrambler?  It’s okay either way.  There’s not a right shape.  It’s just that pulling off a church-wide campaign is the kind of activity that really depends on advance planning–strategic planning.

Whether you’re wired as a planner or not, you probably have someone on your team (or could recruit someone), who thinks this way.

I tend to be more of a vision-oriented, play-it-by-ear person.  I love talking out loud about what could happen!  i’ve found it is in certain environments where my imagination is fired up.  But I’ve also learned over the years that I need more than vision…I need detail.  So, I’ve always recruited that person and I’ve taken advantage of planning tools to think more concretely about how things will happen.  One of the tools I’ve learned to use is a timeline.

We’re in the middle of developing a church-wide campaign.  30 Days To Save Your Family.  I’ll have more about it soon.  In the meantime, let me tell you how I develop the timeline for the campaign.  Here’s a link to what I’m talking about. Go ahead and open it up.

  1. I use a spreadsheet (Excel) to begin thinking about the details.
  2. Column 1 is where I plug in the Sunday dates from now all the way through the campaign and as far as I intend to plan.
  3. Column 2 is where I plug in the message titles for the campaign, for the host recruiting services, etc.
  4. Column 3 is where I list inserts or other items that will be distributed to promote the campaign.
  5. Column 4:  things that will happen in the lobby, on campus or on our website.
  6. Column 5: since we’re producing the curriculum for the campaign, this is where I detail activities related to its preparation.
  7. Column 6: “media needs” are things that need to be produced that require collaboration with our creative arts team.
  8. Column 7: “print” details the items that our graphic designer needs to be working on.
  9. Column 8: includes the information about our HOST Orientations.

This timeline is specific to the small group aspects of the campaign.  How to promote it, how to cast vision for it, how to recruit hosts, train hosts, help new groups continue beyond the campaign, etc.  If you were creating a timeline for the whole campaign you might have fewer small group specific columns and you might add columns for the campaign director, prayer team, campaign marketing, etc.

Need more help?  I am available by telephone!  Find out how to schedule a phone appointment right here.
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