Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church of Groups

Some fantasies are just doggedly persistent.  You know the kind.  They don’t go away on their own and they are really hard to shake!  One of the most persistent fantasies of churches with small groups is that the small group champion role can be delegated.

What makes it a fantasy?  Because it can’t be delegated!  At least, not if you really desire to become a church of groups, where nobody stands alone.  Why?  Why can’t the role of small group champion be delegated?  Say to the highly paid and super qualified small group pastor?  There are two main reasons:

First, the senior pastor almost always has the most clout in the organization.  While there are a few exceptions (i.e., an interim pastor, a brand new senior pastor that just joined the staff, etc.), there are very few.  Most of the time, the senior pastor has the most clout.  They are the most influential person.  If anyone is going to be able to persuade everyone to take a baby step and join a six-week 40 Days of Purpose small group…it’s going to be the senior pastor.  They are the most trusted person in the room.  They are the person everyone watches to see what is worth doing if you want to be like Christ.

Second, the most effective moment in the service to make the ask is during the message.  The optimum moment to challenge everyone to be part of a group as we begin this journey together is smack dab in the middle of the one time when everyone is paying attention to the same thing!  And that is during the message.  It is not during the announcements.  After all, doesn’t everyone know that just like when we watch TV, when the commercials come on we’re all thinking about what’s next or lunch or why anyone would come outside in that outfit!  If there’s one time when that is less likely to happen it is during the message.  And it goes without saying that the senior pastor is most often the person who is preaching when you’re preparing for a church-wide campaign or a small group connection.

Why Do Senior Pastors Resist Being the Small Group Champion?

It’s a fair question.  Having worked on a number of staffs, in my experience the main reason they’re resistant is that delegating the role just seems like the natural thing to do.  After all, the small group pastor or director usually knows more about it and is more passionate about community.  Another pretty common motivation is that they’re focused on preaching, they’ve got a biblical truth they’re trying to get across, and while they usually believe that being in a group is important, it’s just not their main message.  And last, they’re almost always very reluctant to steal the thunder from a teammate.

But…if they really want to become a church of groups…they’ve got to begin to see it another way.

The Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion

This is so important that I’ve written on this a number of times.  Here are some additional articles that will help you:

The bottom line?  If your senior pastor really values biblical community and really wants everyone to experience it for themselves…they need to champion the value.  That means living it out (values are caught not taught).  But it also means being the champion.

Narrowing the Focus Leads to a Church OF Groups

One of the most important strategic decisions a church can make is to narrow the focus, a concept that is explained very well in the 7 Practices of an Effective Church.  Essentially, to narrow the focus is to concentrate on one thing (or a very few things) in an effort to conceive, develop and promote the opportunity that will have the greatest impact.

Narrowing the focus is an easy concept to understand…and a great challenge for churches to pull off.  What makes it so hard is that one of the Top 10 Fantasies of Churches with Groups is that “it is enough to promote small groups once a year, annually every fall, along with everything else that’s starting up with the new ministry season.” As you can see, there are two parts to this fantasy.  First, that promoting small groups once a year will actually get the job done and second, that you can promote small groups along with everything else that’s starting up for the new ministry year.

In this article I want to concentrate on the second part of the fantasy and suggest that if you want to become a church of groups…you must narrow the focus to only promote the opportunity to host a group (for the weeks that you are recruiting hosts) or joining a group (for the weeks that you are encouraging everyone to be in a group.  And to clarify, I’m really only talking about what you’re highlighting.  You might have other opportunities mentioned in the bulletin or on the website…but even there it would be clear what the big thing is.

Only Promote One Thing at a Time

I want you to be sure and catch what I just pointed out.  In fact, go back and read the previous paragraph.  Notice that you start by only promoting the opportunity to host.  You’re not talking about hosting (or leading) OR joining a group.  Once you begin talking about joining, you’ve recruited your last host.  Few, if any, sign up to host a group if you give them the chance to simply be a member.  Now back to the point.

The Real World

I want you to stop there and think about your church.  How likely is it that on the weeks you’re doing those things (recruiting hosts or recruiting members) that those are the only things you’re doing?  That those are the only things you’re promoting?

See the problem?  If you’re launching a church-wide campaign or ramping up for a small group connection, you will have the greatest impact if you are narrowing the focus to only promote those opportunities.  If you are also promoting the Beth Moore Bible study and the Men’s Fraternity along with the season opener of DivorceCare, GriefShare, Celebrate Recovery, Bible Study Fellowship and Community Bible Study…you’re going to have real trouble getting traction in any of those efforts.  Most importantly, you’re not setting up a scenario that leads to a church of groups.  By promoting everything, by promoting a buffet, you’re making it more difficult for your congregation to say “yes” to a group.

If you want to become a church of groups, you’ll need to narrow the focus (at least when you’re in launch mode) and really highlight grouplife opportunities.  Once the launch is secure you can begin to promote other opportunities.

Developing an Annual GroupLife Calendar

While we’re on the subject, let me add an important clarification.  You really can’t become a church of groups if you’re only working on it once a year.  Understanding the ebb and flow of seasons and taking a longer view is very important.  Developing an Annual GroupLife Calender is essential.

Getting to There

Are you already there?  Are you promoting the one thing that matters most when you come into a strategic season?  Or are you still living in fantasyland?  If you’re already on the way to a church of groups…good for you.  If you’re stuck in fantasyland, maybe scheduling an exploratory conversation about narrowing the focus for impact is the best next step.  It might be that bringing in (by phone or in person) a strategic outsider with fresh eyes is the ticket.  This is a role I play all the time.  You can find out more or schedule an opportunity right here.

New Groups Lead to a Church OF Groups

Sometimes what keeps us from moving forward is something that just feels right (but really isn’t).  For example, a commitment to old friends, even when they’re involved in behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others, just seems like the right thing to do.  Sticking with friends through thick and thin.  Just seems like the right thing to do.

One of the greatest challenges in grouplife is overcoming the idea that we need to fill the groups the don't have enough people before we start new groups
On the other hand…we know that “bad company corrupts good behavior (1 Corinthians 15:33).”  But still, there’s something in the human spirit that makes it tough to move on.

And it is complicated.  It depends on the situation.  It’s hard to know what to do.  There’s the temptation that maybe you can help them change.  And on and on.  It’s complicated.  But there are times that sticking with old friends really does keep a person from changing themselves.

New Groups Lead to a Church OF Groups

One of the greatest challenges in grouplife is overcoming the idea that we need to fill the groups the don’t have enough people before we start new groups.  After all…the Smiths have room in their group for a few new folks, and so do the Howells and the Whites.  And come to think of it, we’ve got about 8 or 9 groups that need people.  We ought to be helping them fill their groups before we launch new ones!  That’s one of the top 10 fantasies of church with groups.

Seems the right thing to do, doesn’t it?  Just feels right.

Can I tell you something?  It’s killing you.  Making your old groups the priority is keeping you from becoming a church of groups.  The truth is that new groups lead to a church of groups.

If you want to become a church of groups, you need to become a master of launching new groups.  I’m not saying it’s easy or seems right.  I’m just telling you that launching new groups makes it easier to identify new leaders, helps unconnected people feel like they fit in faster, and creates a buzz that is totally unlike simply adding new members to old groups.  My article Top 5 Ways to Multiply Small Groups is a good place to start as you become a master of launching new groups.

I know it’s not easy.  You will have the conversations that I do.  You’ll have the phone calls I do and you’ll get the emails that I do.  But you need to become convinced that your first priority is to start new groups because that is the path that leads to a church of groups.

It’s not the easiest path.  In many ways it is much harder.  But it really is the right thing to do.

By the way, that’s the main reason I wrote Skill Training: 10 Ways to Find New Group Members.  I want to keep leaders and members of existing groups on the lookout for folks that would be a great match for their group.  Because that’s the right thing for them to do.

Review: Transformational Church

You’ve probably begun hearing about Transformational Church by Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer.  If you haven’t picked up a copy yet…you need to.  This is a book that will help you think carefully about what you’re doing in ministry, why you’re doing it, and if it really is making the kind of difference you want.  I think it’s also a book that is packed with insights that will help you sharpen your approach to small group ministry.

Transformational Church is the result of an intensive study of 7,000 churches.  Developed and conducted by Lifeway Research, the study looked carefully at a set of churches that met certain criteria (i.e., must have grown by at least 10 percent in worship attendance when 2003 and 2008 were compared, must have a predetermined percentage of worship attendees in a small group, Sunday school class or other similar group, etc.).  This aspect of the study was conducted by telephone.  A smaller set, 250 of the pastors representing the top 10 percent of churches, were personally interviewed by a Lifeway Research consultant in a visit to the church.

Their findings led to the identification of 7 elements in three categories (discern, embrace, and engage) that formed what they now recognize as a transformational loop. There is a chapter on each of the 7 elements of a transformational church, which were found to be:

  • Missionary Mentality
  • Vibrant Leadership
  • Relational Intentionality
  • Prayerful Dependence
  • Worship: Actively Embrace Jesus
  • Community: Connect People with People
  • Mission: Show Jesus through Word and Action

Stetzer and Rainer are careful to point out that what the study uncovered wasn’t a 7 step process to becoming a transformational church.  Rather, the churches that were found to be transformational were practicing these elements.  In addition, the study found that although the elements do stand on their own as an idea, they are “dependent on the other elements in order to take effect in the church (p. 33).”

Transformational Church is well written and packed with stories that illustrate principles.  As a result of the hours of interviews that form the basis of the study, there is plenty of qualitative data to go along with a very quantitative approach.  In other words, this is a book that’s about more than numbers.  It really does share the real life evidence of transformation and that’s very helpful when we’re trying to break it down and transfer learning to action.

I noticed the two chapters that most obviously concerned small group ministry right away.  Relational Intentionality and Community: Connect People with People are both filled with takeaways and insights that will make a lot of sense and will no doubt have a lot of light bulbs going off.  I’m sure I’ll be coming back to Transformational Church again and again, just like I have to Simple Church and the 7 Practices of Effective Ministry.  It will have an impact on my ministry and I bet it will on yours as well.

Transformational Church is written in such a way that you’ll be able to diagnose and very quickly begin prescribing some new practices.  If you want more or want help, you can check out where you’ll find information about other available products, upcoming seminars and retreats, as well as an assessment tool that will help you evaluate the transformational potency of your congregation.

Host a Screening of the World Premier of I Am!

From the creators of Liquid comes the new motion picture “I Am.”

You’re already a fan of Liquid’s small group curriculum.  Take advantage of a free opportunity to be 1 of a 1000 churches that will host the world premier of “I Am,” a new feature film developed using the backstory of The Ten (Liquid’s dynamic study of the Ten Commandments).

I recently previewed part 2 of The Ten and it is a very good study.  I can honestly say that Liquid’s studies provide an experience that is different from every other curriculum line.  I have to believe this premier will be a great experience for your church.  Click here for more information or to sign up to be a premier site.

I’m hearing from one of the producers that they’ve already distributed about 3/4 of the 1,000 licenses.  I’m also hearing that if you tell them Mark Howell sent you they’ll still set you up through the end of the month!

New Church-Wide Campaigns for Fall 2010

I post new information about available church-wide campaigns every year.  The latest information is in The Latest on Church-Wide Campaigns (2012).

Whether you’re choosing a church-wide campaign that you’ll use right away or you’re already thinking about fall, 2011, there are three new offerings that you need to add to your list of great options.  The Power of a Whisper, Love at Last Sight and Act Normal all have real potential and should be on your radar.  And unlike 2008 when it seemed like everyone had the same idea (One Month to Live, Live Like You Were Dying, and 30 Days to Live), these three carve out there own unique spot on the easy/hard continuum.

The Power of a Whisper, featuring Bill Hybels and published by Zondervan is designed to help your congregation learn to listen to God for guidance.  As you can imagine, that’s a concept that will mostly appeal to people who are already part of a congregation, but should also be considered a way to engage people who consider themselves Christians but might not be growing the way they’d like to.  From the standpoint of Reveal (Willow Creek’s ground-breaking congregational study), you might look at Whisper as a way to help people who feel stuck spiritually begin to grow closer to Christ.  You can read my full review right here.

Love at Last Sight, featuring Kerry and Chris Shook (Woodlands Church), is designed to help your congregation learn how to deepen their most significant relationships.  Developed as a 5 week experience with downloadable sermon outlines, DVD-driven small group studies, and companion resources for children and teens, an important aspect of this campaign is that this is a topic that will provide an easy invitation for neighbors, friends and family who aren’t already Christians but are longing for a way to grow relationally.  Their previous book and campaign, One Month to Live, was used by churches around the country as a way to help people live life more fully.  You can read my full review right here.

Act Normal is another new campaign that will release this fall* based on a new book by Scott Wilson, senior pastor of The Oaks Fellowship, a multi-site congregation in the Dallas area.  Act Normal: Moving Compassion from Niche to Norm, published by Cross Section and Influence Resources, will provide a path for churches interested in developing an external focus and a way to impact their community.  Wilson’s previous book, Steering Through Chaos received a lot of attention in 2009 when it was published by Zondervan.  This project will no doubt get a lot of traction as churches everywhere try to help their members move from spectator to participant.

Based on the idea that Jesus redefined what was normal in the Sermon on the Mount (where Jesus repeatedly contrasted “You have heard it said” with “I say to you,”) and that Acts depicts what is normal for the church and for Christians, the purpose of this campaign is to motivate (through the book and resources) and mobilize (through the site) people to move towards God’s standard of normal – living spirit-led, compassionate and generous lives.

Act Normal will launch as an adult experience based on a 31 day devotional book, a six session study guide and a 6 session resource DVD.  In addition, will be launched as a platform that will enable churches to create their own branded campaign site. It is a free resource where churches can make serving opportunities available and their congregation can log and track hours of performing acts of compassion.

*Act Normal is expected to be available in early fall.

Looking for an idea that you don’t see?  You’ll find other church-wide campaigns here:

A “Plated Meal” Leads to a “Church of Groups”

We’ve all been to a buffet or a cafeteria.  Long display cases of entrees, side dishes, salads, breads and desserts.  Some buffets are an amazing collection of incredible food.  Others are a wide variety of bland, predictable food.

Most of us have also been to a banquet or event where there was a plated meal.  Maybe it was a wedding rehearsal or a $1,000 a plate fund-raiser, but most of us have also had this kind of meal.  There are times when a plated meal can also be amazing.  And to be fair, there are also plenty of times when the food is only so so.

I want to suggest that the most predictable path to becoming a church of groups…is the plated meal approach.  It’s not the buffet or cafeteria.  The most difficult scenario is one where a customer walks up to the long line of options, grabs a tray and begins sliding it down the counter in front of the display case, choosing for themselves an entree, a side dish or two, a salad, a roll, and a dessert.

Now, please understand.  It’s not that a customer can’t get a healthy and delicious meal from a buffet or a cafeteria.  They certainly can.  But unless all of the options are equally healthy and delicious…encouraging choice doesn’t necessarily lead to health or delicious variety.   And it’s not that your members and attendees (your crowd) can’t choose for themselves from the buffet that you’re offering.  They can.  But it’s less likely that all of the menu items actually lead in the direction you want them to go.  This is why I’ve identified “menu items promoted equally as one of the top 10 fantasies of churches with groups.

That’s why I say that a plated meal leads to a church of groups. If you believe that the optimum environment for life-change is in a group…you need to be moving in the direction of plated (as opposed to the buffet line at Luby’s or The Mirage.  I believe that for two reasons:

First of all, most of us will have a hard time pulling off a buffet line of amazing and delicious choices that move people in the direction we want them to go.  And that’s a key point.  If you can pull off options that move people in the direction you want them to go…put an asterisk on this point.  But most of us cannot.  We don’t have the resources.

The second reason that I think plated is the better route is important for you to understand.  It’s been conclusively demonstrated that more choices leads to decision paralysis.  I cite the now famous study where one week a sample tray of 6 different jams was offered to customers at a grocery store.  The following week an amazing array of 26 options was offered.  Guess which week produced more sales at the checkout?  That’s right.  Fewer.

What’s the lesson?  When it comes to selecting the best way to move someone in the direction of spiritual health and balance…a plated meal is the most likely path.  If you want to become a church of groups…you’re going to probably need to think “plated,” not buffet.

Next Steps:  I want to suggest that if you want to become a church of groups…but you know your current menu of options makes you more like a buffet…two books that will help you are The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry and Simple Church.  A third that ought to be on your staff reading list is Church Unique, by Will Mancini.  These three books provide the basis for a great conversation when read as a team.  A word of caution though, if you’re not the senior pastor or executive pastor…you can’t make the kinds of changes you’ll want to without their engagement.

You can take a look at my Top 10 Fantasies of Churches With Groups right here.  And if you’re not signed up to get the updates you can do that right here.  I’ll be posting the prescription for each of the 10 fantasies in the next couple weeks.

Don’t Forget the Most Essential Step This Fall

Ready to pull the trigger?  You’ve worked hard on the calendar for the fall.  You’ve lined up coaches and ordered curriculum and set up a Small Group Connection or a Church-Wide Campaign.  You’ve got the lobby redecorated and ordered the direct mail piece and the signs to promote what you’re about to do.

Don’t forget the most essential step this fall.  Don’t forget to pray.

I was reminded about this again last night as I wrapped up a conference call with our new coaches.  Great call.  Great bunch of men and women getting ready to help us try and sustain over 70% of the 200+ new groups we’ll launch.

It was a great conference call and I prayed at the start and prayed at the finish…that God would bless our time and even sweep away everything that’s not on His agenda.

At the end of the call, when I had said goodnight and stopped the recording, right after I hung up the phone…I was reminded of something that happened every year at Fellowship of The Woodlands.  As we approached the fall, often as we got within a couple weeks of the launch of the message series designed to engage the community and make it easy to invite friends and neighbors, Pastor Kerry would ask the pastoral team to join him in his study for the next two weeks at 8:30 a.m. to pray specifically for the launch.

Monday through Friday.  Even on your day off if you can.  Just “join us here as we pray for the launch.”

As the staff grew that room got more crowded every year!  Kerry would say, “Who wants to pray for the people in the Community who will be invited by a friend or neighbor and will consider coming for the first time?”  “Who want to pray for the Crowd?  The folks that come occasionally, but will be here this weekend?”  “Who wants to pray for the Congregation?  Our regular attendees and members who are here all the time but really need to move from attending to contributing, to serving?”  “Who wants to pray for the Committed, that God will bless them and strengthen them as they step out in faith and invite friends and neighbors?”  “Who wants to pray for our core…that God will strengthen them to press on?”

Those really were amazing times as Fellowship of The Woodlands grew from 1,500 to 10,000 in 7 years.  Very cool to be part of that.  A lot of great memories.

Want to know the best memory?  I think for me it’s those times in Pastor Kerry’s office as the pastoral team wedged in there to pray.

Fellowship of The Woodlands (now Woodlands Church) was the fastest growing church in the 90s.  People ask me all the time what the secret was.  I can tell you this…I know for sure it was not the staff.  All of us knew it was a God thing.

What was the secret?  Prayer.

As we all get ready for the fall launch…don’t forget the most essential step.  Don’t forget to pray.

Top 10 Fantasies of Churches WITH Small Groups

What prevents many churches from realizing their desire to become churches OF small groups*?  Most of the time they’re stopped in their tracks by one or more of these fantasies:

  • Fantasy #1: We can keep the peace by making small group participation one of several menu items that are promoted equally as “the way we help people grow in Christ.”  (see my prescription: A Plated Meal Leads to a Church Of Groups)
  • Fantasy #2: It is enough to promote small groups once a year, annually every fall, along with everything else that’s starting up with the new ministry season.  (see my prescription: Narrowing the Focus Leads to a Church of Groups)
  • Fantasy #3: An announcement at the end of the service is all our people need.  Anything more is overkill.
  • Fantasy #4: We can make this happen without the senior pastor’s vocal and continual support.
  • Fantasy #5: We can go from a church “with” groups to a church “of” groups in one ministry season.  (See my prescription: The Last 10% Leads to a Church of Groups)
  • Fantasy #6: We don’t need our senior pastor to be the small group champion.  What are we paying the small group pastor (or director)  for if we can’t delegate the champion role to them? (See my prescription: Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church of Groups)
  • Fantasy #7: We don’t need to start new groups until we fill up the groups we already have! (see my prescription, New Groups Lead to a Church OF Groups)
  • Fantasy #8: All of our groups use the same curriculum.  It provides everything that every group needs.  (see my prescription, All Kinds of Groups Leads to a Church OF Groups)
  • Fantasy #9: We don’t need to provide next steps for our newest groups.  They’re all adults.  They can figure out what to do.
  • Fantasy #10: We don’t really need to change our approach.  Trying harder or tweaking what we’re doing will fix it next fall. (see my prescription, Different Leads to a Church OF Groups)

By the way, even healthy churches on the way to becoming a church “of” groups often have a fantasy (or two).  At the same time, when fantasies go unchallenged they will prevent or delay the decisions that lead to “of”, where nobody stands alone.

* It probably needs no explanation, but a distinction was made at Willow Creek between churches “of” groups and churches “with” groups.  To be a church with groups means that you do have small groups…but it’s not the expectation that everyone be part of a group.  To be a church of groups means that everything happens in groups and everyone is expected to be part of a group, where life-change happens.

Introducing: Dave Treat and thinking small

One of the names you need to add to your grouplife watchlist is Dave Treat.  You may have met Dave because of his work at the Willow Creek Association as Director of Innovation for Adult Ministries (a big part of his job was helping to put on the Small Group conference and Advanced Training).  If not, you definitely took advantage of his expertise as he played a big role in the selection of speakers and trainers.

Prior to joining the WCA in 2006, he was a Division Leader in the Men’s Ministry and Area Pastor in Neighborhood Ministries at Willow Creek and had previously led the adult small group ministry at Granger (read: big time experience).

Dave joined the team at Friendship Church in Athens, Alabama as Discipleship Pastor in July of 2010…and the Southeast region will never be the same!  In addition to his work there, he is available for training events and has a full slate of options right here.

One of the resources I have on my feedreader is where Dave blogs.  Although he doesn’t add content regularly, what he writes is consistently insightful and well worth adding to your reader.  You’ll also find content from Dave at

And then there is Smalltop…modeled after Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop, it is a collection of many of the top small group blogs and sites.  Very cool…although it lists me pretty far down the page!

You can also connect with Dave on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

You can find more of my grouplife introductions right here.