Small Group Ministry in Perpetual Beta

Perpetual beta is an attitude.  It’s the attitude that what you’re doing is in development all the time.  It’s an attitude that says, “this is working good enough, this is working well for now, but we expect that we’ll figure out how to improve it.”  Think Google and you’ve got the right idea.  They’re always improving the product.  Some companies take years to perfect the product and then release it.  Google gets it good enough, releases it, and then continues to improve it.

Perpetual beta for small group ministry is a very helpful philosophy.  It establishes the sense that we’re trying to become more effective.  I’ve found it to be an important attitude to build into what I’m working on.  Here’s how it applies:

Pick a Model and Adapt It

Some of the most important advice you’ll get about small group ministry is to pick a model and adapt it to fit your church.  Since what you read in a book or hear about at a conference was developed to fit the personality of that church (whichever one that might be), it only makes sense that your church will be different in some ways.  Adapting the model to fit your church will make it more likely to succeed.

Stick with the Model You Choose

Another very important key to small group ministry is to choose a model, adapt it to fit your church, and stick with it.  One of the most frustrating things for leaders is the sense that every time you come back from a conference (or every time you read a new book) you change what you’re doing.  A high level of uncertainty rarely gets buy-in from leaders.  Consistency and momentum, the sense that we’re going somewhere together, gets buy-in.

Establish a “This Is Working Now Culture

Choosing a model and sticking with it does not mean that it will always be the direction for your ministry.  An important mark of an effective ministry is the freedom and wisdom to adjust strategy to win the next battle.

Establishing the freedom to adjust strategy is a really important concept.  It may seem a little contradictory to the first two principles (choose a model and stick with it), but the freedom to adjust strategy is what allows you to seize the next opportunity.  Here’s how to establish a “this is working now culture.”

  1. Carefully choose a model and adapt it to fit your culture.
  2. Think development in stages.  It may take you several ministry seasons to fully implement a different model.  You might think of the implementation as being a journey that has several stages (i.e., this spring and summer we recruit a launch phase coaching team, this fall we use a church-wide campaign to launch groups, this winter we select the most fruitful and fulfilled members of the launch-phase coaching team and challenge them to continue, etc.)
  3. As you’re casting vision about where you’re going, all along the way, be consistent in talking about how this strategy is helping you accomplish the goal that you’ve established.  At the same time, be careful to never use phrases like “from now on” or “from here on out.”  Instead, be consistent in saying things like, “this strategy will help us connect an additional 40% of our congregation” or “the next phase is to add community leaders to develop our coaches.”

Small Group Philosphy 101

What is the philosophy of your small group ministry?  Do you have one?  I think that the most fundamental step for every small group ministry is to develop a personalized philosophy of ministry.

Developing a personalized philosophy of ministry is critical because you will be the one defining priorities, determining next steps and defending actions.  Without a personalized philosophy of ministry what you do will be far more driven by the urgent and not the truly important.

Here are some of the core elements of my philosophy of small group ministry:

  • Life-on-life is the optimum environment for spiritual growth. I’ve often said that what happens in a worship service is closest in kind to a defibrillator.  A great message and inspiring worship can jump start your heart spiritually, but it’s not permanent change.  It’s temporary.  As soon as you’re in the traffic jam on the way out of the parking lot you’re heart is back to where it was.  What does bring change?  Life on life.  Surgery or therapy happens when the Holy Spirit uses relationships.
  • The best delivery system for life-on-life is a small group. Will it work for everybody every time?  No.  But the easiest way to impact the most people is a small group system that is pervasive.
  • Interaction is a key to life-change. A smaller version of the worship service (singing together followed by listening to a Bible teacher) is not the ticket.  Facilitated discussion leading to personal application combined with the support and nurture of shared lives leads to life-change.
  • Every believer is the relative shepherd to someone (and in most circumstances a group of someones).  The Small Group Connection strategy works because there is a relative shepherd in every group gathered.  The HOST strategy works because when I gather a few of my friends, I tend to be a step or two ahead of the ones I gather.  As my friend Brett says, “I don’t have to be Jesus Junior.  Only a step ahead.”
  • Whatever I want to happen at the member level in groups has to be happening in the life of the leader. This is the raison d’être for a coaching structure.  Coaching is only about technique and skill training in the very beginning.  It is almost entirely about life-on-life once a group is beyond 90 days.
  • Groups have a life span.  The normal life span of a group is about 18 to 24 meetings.  Groups can meet much longer than that but barring the infusion of new blood and a very proactive leader, groups that continue to meet become more about fellowship and less about transformation.
  • Providing life support for dying groups is counter-productive. When I proactively send new members to a dwindling group I am usually keeping alive something that needs something a few new members won’t provide.  Better to build leaders and groups that are intentionally building new relationships outside the group.
  • The easiest way to impact a community is through an ever growing network of outward looking groups. With the right curriculum and the right strategy…a church can impact the neighbors and friends of every member.  This is the essence of crowd-to-core.

These are some of the essential pieces of my small group philosophy.  Every group life discussion I have is influenced by this philosophical stance.  As I’ve often said, there is no problem-free solution to anything.  This philosophy produces the set of problems I’d rather have.

What’s your philosophy of small group ministry?  How is it different?

Skill Training: Top 10 Ways To Find New Group Members

Who makes the best new members for your group?  That’s easy.  Unconnected people with whom you are actively building a relationship.  Here are some ideas that will help you find new members:

  1. Look for people who are already doing the same things you are.  If your kids are in High School, make it a point to get to know other parents.  If your kids are younger…make it a point to meet other parents as you check them in to Sunday School.  Whether you’re in a bunko group, on a softball team, do scrapbooking, or regularly watch your kids’ little league games…be on the lookout for people who are already doing the same things that you are.
  2. If you sit in the same area at the same service every week, you’ll often begin to notice some of the same people.  Get in the habit of getting to know one or two new people every week.  In the “say hello to a few people around you” part of the service…make it a point to remember their names.  Write their name(s) down as soon as you sit down.  As the service ends tell them you’ll see them next week.
  3. Take a few minutes in your next meeting to talk about who your members know that would be a good fit in your group.  It’s a good idea to talk through the Circles of Life handout (click here to download a copy). Sometimes all you need is something to jog your memory.
  4. Plan a social get-together (potluck, cookout, theme dinner, chili cookoff, etc.) and invite unconnected friends over.   This is a great idea to schedule on a regular basis between studies.  The perfect way to get to know a few new people.
  5. Volunteer to serve at your membership class.   Think about it.  Everyone at the class is taking a next step…the perfect time to join a small group.
  6. Volunteer to serve as an usher or greeter.  You’ll see a lot of the same people.  Easy to be friendly and invite them to your group.
  7. Volunteer to serve at the small group kiosk in your lobby.  You’ll have first crack at the people looking for a group!  How cool is that!
  8. Volunteer to serve with…(see a pattern developing? almost any volunteer opportunity will put you in contact with unconnected people).
  9. Make sure your group is absolutely, positively, up-to-date in the Small Group Finder.
  10. What ideas do you have?  Take a moment and add your tips in the comment section below!

How To Choose Curriculum That Launches Groups

Choosing the right curriculum is an essential ingredient in launching new groups.  Make a great selection and you’ll significantly increase interest in the group.  You’ll also increase the likelihood that the group continues beyond the first 6 weeks.  Choose poorly and your new groups may not even get off the ground.

Here are the four keys to choosing curriculum that launches groups:

  1. Topic: Look for a topic that has broad relational appeal. Be very careful about topics that might only appeal to one segment, for example, married couples (unless you’re intentionally trying to launch groups for couples).  Look for a topic that will interest a range of spiritual maturity.  Keep in mind that what some mature believers might find interesting will have little or no interest for unbelieving neighbors or friends.
  2. Study Length: The ideal length is 6 weeks. Lyman Coleman said that 6 weeks is short enough to encourage commitment and long enough to begin to produce a sense of connection and community.  Be careful about selecting studies that are longer than 6 weeks.  Unconnected people are less likely to commit if the initial study seems too long.  At the same time, a 3 or 4 week study may not be long enough to produce the beginnings of connection and community (Be careful about choosing consecutive 4 weekers to meet the six week ideal length.  That produces an additional transition from one study to the next).
  3. DVD-Driven: DVD-Driven makes it easy for a new leader to get the meeting started. It takes the pressure off the leader and allows the group to focus on a great communicator sharing the main idea.  This is especially important if you’re using the HOST or Connection strategies where you’ve recruited new leaders with the idea that the curriculum is easy to use (i.e., the “T” in the original HOST acronym stood for “turn on the VCR”) and requires little preparation allowing the leader to focus on helping members connect.
  4. Discussion-Driven (vs. Teaching or Lecture): Questions ought to produce discussion, not right answers.  Look for curriculum that helps members engage in personal application.  Knowing how to take a next step is much more important than knowing who wrote Romans or where they were when they wrote it.

Important Note: Like every other aspect of small group ministry…there is no problem free and I’ve not found a perfect launching curriculum.  I’ve found some that satisfy most of the keys to choosing curriculum.  I like Building Biblical Community featuring Bill Donahue and Steve Gladen.  I also really like several of the Liquid studies (particularly Mirror Image).  I’ve also reviewed a number of DVD-driven series right here.

What studies are you using?  Have a suggestion?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” I’m also LifeWay’s small group specialist. 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.”

Who Are You Trying To Connect?

Memo: Approach connecting strategies much like you would if you were launching a new product.  Think like a marketer if you want to succeed.  There is a connection between effectiveness and design.

Now…before you get too concerned, I’m not discounting God’s role in how things happen.  Just saying that it is a little crazy to start without being smart about what you’re trying to do.  Here’s how I think about a connecting strategy:

The first thing I do is determine who I’m trying to connect. We need to think about this the way McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris does if they’re trying to appeal to a certain segment of customers.

  • I think about the people I’m trying to attract to the connecting event.
  • I spend time wondering what their feelings are.
  • I ask them how it feels to attend a church where you’re not known.
  • I think about their schedules.
  • I get to know a little about where they work (do they commute? how far? what time do they get home?).
  • I think about their life stage (do they have kids? how many? are their kids grown? are they single parents? are they newly married?).

The second thing I do is think about the strategy (the kind of event, the timing of the event, the way it’s marketed, etc.) that would have the best chance of connecting the kind of person I’m trying to connect.  Remember, I’ve already fine tuned my understanding of the potential customer.  Now I need to choose an strategy that would have the very best chance of connecting this exact group.

I’ve written about different strategies a number of times and will just refer to them here.  You need to understand though that the Small Group Connection strategy is a great way to get unconnected people to an event and HOST is very good at recruiting people who will go out and enlist their own members.  These are two very different strategies, work differently based on the time of year, and will connect different kinds of people.

The third thing I do is choose a curriculum that works for the who I’m trying to connect and the strategy I’ve selected.  This is a huge distinction.  Once you have identified who you’re trying to connect it only makes sense to choose a topic and style of delivery that will appeal to them.  This important distinction has caught a lot of people unaware.

I’m going to continue this discussion on Monday with a close look at how to choose curriculum that works for the who you’re trying to connect.

Managing Expectations (Childcare and Otherwise)

Sometimes a question comes in that has answers…but they’re not simple answers.  Take a minute to read the following…and then we’ll talk:

In Small Groups, one of the things I face most often is what do we do with our kids?  This prevents participation and potential leaders from leading. Our church offers Sunday School, Small Groups and we have adult programming on Wednesday nights here at church.  However, I have such a difficult time getting people plugged into small groups because they don’t want to leave the church where the children are, or they don’t like the idea of babysitters.

Our on campus programming is nearly full, if we want to add anything else, it has to be off campus in a small group.  How do you tackle the challenge of providing good quality care for your kids, while parents are able to participate in group life?

Let me say to begin, as much as this might seem like a question about childcare, this is really about managing expectations.  This question is about managing expectations in two ways.  First, just like every business makes an offer of a certain level of service (think McDonald’s vs. Outback), every church makes an offer of a certain level of service.

When you walk into a McDonald’s you expect it to be clean.  You expect prompt service at the counter.  You expect your food to cost a certain amount.  But you don’t expect to be greeted by a maitre d’ or offered a wine list.  You don’t expect a waiter to attend to your every need.  Frankly, you don’t expect that at Outback either.  But if you’re at Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s…

Every church makes an offer of a level of service.  The notion that the church is somehow responsible to provide childcare for off-campus events is problematic.  Remember, the reader asked: “How do you tackle the challenge of providing good quality care for your kids, while parents are able to participate in group life?”

To that question I have to draw attention to the fact that I don’t recommend that your church take on that responsibility.  After all, if these same parents want to participate in a softball league, have a regular date night, or any number of other activities…they’re able to figure out how to do it!  Is it easy to find a good babysitter?  Rarely.  Can it be done?  Absolutely.

It should also be noted that there are many churches with vibrant small group ministries that are connecting big numbers of parents with kids in off-campus groups, and are not doing it by providing childcare.  They’ve simply put that responsibility back on the parents (where I believe it belongs).

There are some very good and practical childcare solutions and I’ve written about them right here.

The second set of expectations that must be managed concern the number of programs needed to move people in the direction you are trying to take them.   While commitment to providing Sunday School and small groups may feel necessary (based on the history of your church) and may actually be necessary (based on the current politics of your church), it would be wise to be in discussions about how many programs are essential…and which ones.  I’m thinking primarily about the Wednesday night programming for adults and wondering about participation levels and how many of those people are also in groups?

Finally, I should note that neither of the discussions I’ve mentioned are easy.  It is never easy to alter expectations.  At the same time, effective ministry is dependent on managing expectations in a way that leads to the win you’ve identified for your church.

Breakout Chicago 2010

Looking for a way to provide training for your small group leaders?  If you’re near Chicago you may want to take a look at Breakout Chicago 2010.  Coming up on Saturday, April 20th, the training event features 10 breakouts to choose from on a wide range of topics presented by a top notch panel of practitioners, authors and speakers.  The best part?  At $29 per person it’s a great value (there’s also a 10 pack price that brings the per person fee down to $25).

With the cancellation of Willow’s onsite small group conference, Breakout Chicago 2010 is a very good training opportunity.  Do you have a local opportunity I could help get the word out on?  Let me know!  I’d be glad to help.

GroupLife Philosophy: Test Drive First

“What if I’ve got a coach that really isn’t a good fit for the job?”  That was one of the questions I was asked in a recent survey here at MarkHowellLive.  Another question was, “We need more leaders!  How can I encourage more of our congregation to step up and lead a group?”

I want to suggest that the answers to these two questions are actually related.  Might seem strange…but follow along.

I think a key to effective small group ministry is building a culture of test drive first.  Here’s how it works for members, leaders and coaches.

Members: Be sure that you’re marketing groups as a test drive as opposed to a lifelong commitment.  For example, “In the upcoming message series there will be a group curriculum that goes along with what we’re learning on Sunday.  If you’re not in a small group, we want to invite you to take a test drive.  It’s a six week commitment.  We have groups meeting all over the place.  And you’re invited!  Just fill out the…”

The Small Group Connection strategy is another way to encourage people to try a group.  It’s an event that launches 6 week test drives.  “Feel like a face in the crowd?  Join us at the next Small Group Connection.  Give us one hour.  We’ll help you get connected!”

The key to the concept is to make it okay to only take a baby step.  Lyman Coleman recognized long ago that 6 weeks is short enough to encourage people to try a group and long enough to allow the good stuff of community to begin to have an impact (a very loose paraphrase).

Leaders/Hosts: Much like encouraging people to simply try a group, it is possible to implement a strategy that helps more people try leading a group.  Here are two that work well:

  • The HOST strategy invites members (and attendees) of the congregation who have a Heart for unconnected people to Open their home for 6 weeks, Serve a few refreshments, and Tell a few of their friends.  It’s a test drive!  There’s no commitment beyond the 6 weeks (although you hope it’s a great experience and they want to continue).
  • Invite existing groups to consider “taking a small group vacation” and instead of meeting together for the upcoming church-wide campaign, pair up with another couple or a few singles and host a new group.  A group of 12 can help launch 3 groups!  There’s no commitment beyond the 6 weeks (although you hope that many of them have such a good experience they want to continue).  It’s a test drive!

Coaches: An important aspect of good recruiting is to give people an opportunity to do the function before you ask them for a formal commitment.  Sometimes this is expressed as function before form.  I’ve learned the value of getting to know prospective coaches informally, sizing up what I perceive as the right kind of character and influence, and then inviting them to “help me take care of these 2 new leaders for the next 8 weeks.”

Notice…I’m not calling them a coach.  There’s no job description.  There’s no real training.  And there’s no commitment beyond the 8 weeks.  To them, it’s an opportunity to serve.  To the leader they’re helping, it’s invaluable.  To me, it’s an opportunity to assess their potential.  If they’re really not a good fit it’s easy to simply thank them for their help and move on.  If they do what I’ve asked them to do and they enjoy it (both elements are critical), I’ll invite them to meet with me and then I’ll go over the job description of a coach.

Test Drive First

Can you see how a philosophy of test drive first makes a difference?  I want to encourage you to evaluate each of these aspects in your ministry.  I know it will make a difference in the response you’re getting.

If you haven’t taken my survey you can do that right here.

2 GroupLife Keys That Predict Sustainability

What are the keys to sustaining the groups you launch?  Although there are many variables, I’ve found there are two that are often missed…and they are both easy to build in to every group in your system.  What are they?  Multiple facilitators and multiple locations (The idea for this article came from a survey I’m running right now.  If you haven’t completed it, you can do that right here).  Here’s what’s going on:

  • Multiple Facilitators: Nearly every group that begins will have a best facilitator.  When that person becomes the only facilitator the group is dependent on their presence.  If they are out of town or sick the group often misses a step.  If they move away…the group is almost always toast.  The key is to begin developing multiple facilitators from the beginning.
  • Multiple locations: In the same way, groups often settle on a best place to meet.  It may be the home that’s best set up for childcare.  It may be the most central location or the most comfortable.  It may even just be where the best snacks are produced.  No matter the reason, when a group can only meet in one location it becomes dependent on that one host.  If they’re out of town, are sick or move away…the group often dwindles or dies.

What can be done?  Obviously, there are some differences for new groups and existing groups.  Here they are:

New Group Strategies

First, launch new groups with an intentional plan for both keys.  Here are two ideas that I always include in my new leader orientation:

  1. Ask every new leader to identify and recruit a co-leader as their first assignment.  Regardless of the launching strategy, beginning with a co-leader allows every new group to begin with more than one facilitator (and more than one location).
  2. End the first or second meeting of new groups with a quick look at a calendar.  Ask members to sign up to share the load of bringing refreshments, hosting the meeting in their home, or taking a turn facilitating a sessions.

Existing Group Strategies

Second, although you may be tempted to leave well enough alone in your existing groups, they can still adjust their style and add these keys to sustainability.  Here’s how:

  1. Begin by measuring the number of groups that have more than one facilitator and meet in more than one location.  This becomes your baseline.
  2. Identify any groups that are dependent on a teacher (as opposed to a facilitator).  This one variable accounts for a large number of groups that are vulnerable.  A solution is to periodically introduce a church-wide curriculum using a format that is easier to facilitate.  Challenge the teacher to use these opportunities to develop members who can facilitate.
  3. Select a variety of recommended studies that are easily facilitated.  Look for studies that include easy-to-follow leader notes or are DVD-driven.
  4. Challenge your existing leader/facilitators to begin developing additional facilitators.  Encourage members to take a turn on an upcoming session (or even a section of an upcoming session, for example the icebreaker question or the prayer time).

Do you have questions you’d like answered?  Complete my brief survey and get into the action!  You can take it right here.

Take Advantage of My Free ‘Launch Groups This Easter’ Call

You can register and listen to the recording of this call right here.

Easter is just around the corner (April 4th) and with it comes one of the three best opportunities to launch groups.  So that you don’t miss a trick, I’ve scheduled a free 60 minute teleconference designed to help you increase the number of groups launched as well as the number of people connected.

There are two times available:

  • Thursday, March 11th at 10:00 a.m. (CST)
  • Tuesday, March 16th at 10:00 a.m. (CST)

You can sign up for the call right here.

Already have your strategy in place?  You might pick up one tip that could add another 10%.  Haven’t even thought about it?  It’s not too late.  You can still put some moves in place that will make a big difference.

Sign up right here and don’t miss out.

Want the scoop but can’t listen in at those times?  I’ll be making the recording available only to the people who sign up for the call.  You can do that right here.