Boost Your Blog Participation Savvy with 3 Free Tools

Once you’ve built your blog you need to take advantage of three services that will really boost your awareness of who is reading what you’re writing.  Best of all…they’re all free!

Clicky

Clicky is a free service that allows you to easily track blog usage during the day.  It’s not hard to set up and is available even with Blogger.  I use it on all my blogs as a way to watch traffic and see what people are reading.  Here’s more about it and here’s how to integrate it into your blog.

Feedburner

Next, let me tell you about Feedburner.  One of the things you’ll definitely want to do is make it possible for your readers to sign up to get an update whenever you add a post to your blog.  Most blog platforms (Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, etc.) have that as an included feature using their service.  They also make it possible for you to offer an improved capability through the free service Feedburner.  When I direct you to sign up to get the update…I’m using Feedburner for 2 of the 3 ways you can sign up here at MarkHowellLive.com.  Here’s more on the what and why about Feedburner.

Google Analytics

Another great free service that you’ll want to integrate into your blog is Google Analytics.  If you’d like to see where your readers come from and what they read while they’re on your blog…this is the best free way to do it.  It’s easy to install with pretty thorough instructions.

A Last Word on Tools

Admittedly, these tools may seem like an unnecessary addition.  After all, for a blog offering always-on info to your leaders…what more do you care about than that they can read what’s there?  And I guess that’s true as far as it goes.  But I’ll say this…with Clicky, Feedburner, and Google Analytics you’ll know what’s happening and how many of your leaders are actually reading what you write.

How To Get Started Using a Blog To Resource Leaders

What’s the easiest way to make information available to the leaders in your system?  I think you’ll find that a blog is an easy to start resource that’s always-available, makes it easy to share, and offers some huge advantages over almost every other method.

Easy-to-Start

It’s easy to get started.  Just follow the outline below to jump-start a blog today.  It’s not hard to do.  There is a range of available products, from free with limited functionality to pay-as-you-go with enhanced capabilities.

Always-Available

Blogs are not only easy to start, they’re always available.  While you can leave out hard copies of leader materials on the small group table in the lobby…as soon as the building closes (or someone picks up the last copy) it is no longer available.  On the other hand, if I make the same resource available online, my leaders can read it wherever they are…even when they’re out of town.

Easy-to-Share

Another very big advantage that a blog offers is that information becomes super easy to share.  When a leader recruits a member to facilitate Thursday night’s session…they only have to email a link to the leader’s notes.  When a new leader is identified at a small group connection or 28 people attend your HOST orientation…it’s easy to send them a link to the online resource you’ve created to enhance their experience.

How To Get Started

Here is a basic guide to launching a blog:

  1. Choose a blog platform.  You can sign up for a free version with Google’s Blogger or WordPress.  Both offer good functionality and are easy to understand and get started.  A good example of Google’s Blogger functionality is Eric Dunaway’s Journey Together.  Or take a look at Rick Howerton’s old blog site using the free WordPress platform.  Although they’re built on free platforms…they offer a lot of functionality.  You can use the sidebar to feature archives or promote an upcoming leader’s meeting or a blogroll (a list of recommended sites).  My new site for small group leaders and coaches at Parkview is an example of a pay-as-you-go platform.  GroupLife @ Parkview uses the pay-as-you-go WordPress platform.  Note that I have my own domain name (www.parkviewgrouplife.com).  I’m going to write a separate article for designing a blog using the pay-as-you-go  WordPress platform.  Steps 2 and 3 here are for free Blogger or the free WordPress.
  2. Once you’ve chosen your platform, step 2 is to just get started.  On Blogger it literally takes 3 to 5 minutes.  You choose a name and choose a template (colors, look and feel, etc.) and you’re rolling.  Once you’re rolling you can arrange the features of the template (put in a blogroll, add archives, add a picture, etc.  Not hard at all.  Very similar on WordPress.com.
  3. Write a welcome post.  Take a look at mine right here.  Notice that in mine I direct readers right away to “sign up to get the update.”  That is a very important detail to me.  Once they’re signed up to get the update…they’ll be notified as soon as I write a new article.  Also, note that in my welcome article I have a link to take a survey.  I am always looking for a little more interaction and a little more information.  I’ll have more about using SurveyMonkey.com in an upcoming article.

Hopefully, this will get you started!  The first step really is to take the plunge.  Jump in!  If you don’t yet have a blog to get the latest information to your leaders…you’re missing out on a huge advantage.  If you missed my overview article, you can catch up right here. You can also catch my follow-up article on three free blog tools that can really boost your participation right here.

If you’re not signed up to get the update here at MarkHowellLive.com, you can sign up right here.

Question: Why Not Gather Leaders Monthly for Leadership Community?

In yesterday’s article on How To Build An Annual GroupLife Calendar I made the statement that “although the idea of a monthly leadership community has been the model for some churches, I’ve rarely found that to be a workable idea.”  This statement prompted a reader to ask, “Why isn’t a monthly gathering workable?”

First, that’s a great question!  After all, the idea of a monthly leadership community has long been a theoretical aspiration for small group ministry practitioners (going back even earlier than Carl George’s foundational Prepare Your Church for the Future).  Long time Willow Creek watchers will remember that the transition to a MetaChurch style group ministry included a monthly Leadership Community.  But it’s been a long time since that was on the calendar at Willow.

Here’s why I wrote what I wrote:

Idealism vs. Pragmatism

First, let’s get a key question or two out of the way.  Many will ask, “Isn’t it important that we invest in developing small group leaders?  Don’t they need more frequent encouragement and training?”  Yes and yes.  But it’s important to keep the lifestyles of a volunteer clearly in view when you’re setting  expectations.

When you’re building an annual calendar, keep in mind that this is a calendar for volunteers.  In fact, it’s a calendar for volunteers who are already giving 2 to 3 hours a week (or twice a month, depending on how often they meet) just for the small group meeting.  Add preparation time, contacting members who miss a meeting, and offline social gatherings with group members and you have a good picture of a healthy time commitment to a good project.

Now, take those same volunteers and add in a normal life.  That will often mean commuting to work, kids activities, school involvement, and important social opportunities with family, friends and neighbors.

When you add it all up, the average volunteer leads a very busy life.  It’s against that backdrop that we’re trying to build a calendar that will serve the volunteer base for small group ministry and get across the board participation.  And it’s against that backdrop that we’re pragmatic about what attending one 90 minute meeting at the church actually means because for most people you have to add the commute to and from the meeting.  A 90 minute meeting quickly becomes a 2 1/2 to 3 hour commitment.

A More Reasonable Alternative

Remember, I do think the development of small group leaders is important.  I just think a monthly centralized meeting isn’t workable in most communities.  On the other hand, a decentralized huddle with a coach that is geographically assigned can make a lot of sense.  Follow along:

Weekly Check-In

The assignment/job description of every coach ought to include frequent contact.  A weekly check-in by phone or in person is not an unreasonable expectation.  It can be a 5 to 10 minute phone call.  It can be a cup of coffee in between services or before work.  It can be convenient for both the leader and the coach…if the assignment makes geographical sense.

Monthly Huddle

The assignment/job description of every coach ought to include a periodic group huddle with the assigned leaders.  Again, if the assignment makes sense geographically, this can be a once a month breakfast together before work or dessert and coffee in the evening.

You might say, “What’s the difference between this and a monthly centralized meeting for all leaders?”  Easy.  If it’s just a coach and their 4 to 6 leaders and the huddle is near where they live or work…it eliminates the commute and focuses on the important element: connecting as a group with their coach.

How To Build an Annual GroupLife Calendar

How does calendar planning happen in your world?  Maybe the question should be, “does calendar planning happen in your world?  Let me tell you, whether you are naturally a planner or you will only plan when it’s done for you or you’re forced…calendar planning is a key to small group ministry effectiveness.  Here’s why it’s important and also some keys to doing it well.

Why Calendar Planning Is Important

Although you may be be a play-it-by-ear type when you’re on your own, when you’re leading a ministry that involves a lot of people you’ve got to take the needs of a lot of people into consideration.  Another very important reason that calendar planning is important is that we’re all competing for the attention of leaders.  If you want your ministry to catch and hold the attention of leaders…you’ve got to plan ahead.  Enough about why, here’s how to put together an annual calendar.

How To Build an Annual GroupLife Calendar

  1. Keep in mind that there are two kinds of events that will go into your annual calendar.  Connecting events and strategies should be dropped in first.  Right on their heels you’ll want to put in training and encouragement opportunities for both leaders and coaches.
  2. The first step is to put in the biggest of the big connecting rocks.  For most of us, that will be to plug in the dates of a fall church-wide campaign and all the pieces that go with it.  Most of the time that will include things like host recruiting, host orientations, and coach recruiting and training.  I’ve also found it to be helpful to plug in a mid-campaign leader’s meeting for encouragement and to guide leaders of new groups into a next curriculum.  The best time for this is usually end of September or the first of October.
  3. Another very big rock that needs to be placed is an event or strategy that will help unconnected people find a group in late January or early February.  In most cases the best strategy to connect people is a small group connection.  It’s always a good idea to build in at least 2 weeks of promotion before the event.  Also, you’ll want to plug in a new leader’s orientation no more than 10 days after the connection.
  4. The last big connecting rock is often an opportunity to connect people after Easter.  Again, it makes sense to promote the event at least 2 weeks and choose a curriculum that will interest unconnected people.
  5. It’s often a good idea to put in a connecting event for women following Mother’s Day and also men following Father’s Day.
  6. With your connecting events in place…step back and look at the calendar.  Next, you’ll want to drop in some encouragement and training for your leaders.  Although the idea of a monthly leadership community has been the model for some churches, I’ve rarely found that to be a workable idea.  Instead, consider planning 2 annual training/encouragement opportunities that are centralized.  Do everything else as decentralized events in the homes of coaches or leaders.
  7. I’ve found two leader gatherings a year to be about all that can be pulled off.  Early February is often a good time to schedule a Friday evening, Saturday morning event.  It can be done at a retreat center or right on campus.  Get your senior pastor involved in a time of vision and encouragement on Friday night.  Use Saturday morning for a combination of huddle and skill training.
  8. Another good time to drop in a leader training and encouragement event is at the mid-point in your fall church-wide campaign.  This allows you to build into the lives of new hosts and experienced leaders.  Use the first part of a 90 minute event to allow your pastor to cast vision, tell stories and make heroes.  Gather your leaders at tables with their coach (or by affinity) for encouragement for the middle segment.  Dismiss to separate venues for appropriate skill training.
  9. Once you’ve got the big rocks of connecting and leadership encouragement/training in place…begin to promote an annual view of small group ministry.  Use the website.  Hand it out at meetings.  Have it with you everywhere you go.

The most important key to planning…is to get started right away.  The sooner you get your big rocks in place and publicized, the sooner you’ll see the benefits of planning.

Question: How Do I Keep All Of Our Groups Viable?

A frequent question is, “How do I keep all of our groups viable?”  A little poking around reveals that this usually means one of a several things:

  1. I have some leaders whose groups have dwindled down to only a few people.
  2. I have some groups where the “leader” moved away, quit, or was disqualified and no one else wants to jump in.
  3. I have some groups only exist on paper…they no longer meet.

In response to these underlying situations…I’ve formulated two of my core small group ministry philosophical axioms.  “Groups have a life span” and “providing life support for dying groups is counter-productive.”  Why?  Follow along and see what you think.

First, if you think about your own group experiences you’ll probably acknowledge that the first 6 to 12 months of any group are the most engaging.  You’re meeting new people.  You’re hearing new stories.  You’re making new friends.  Although there are exceptions, the first 6 to 12 months have the most zip.

This begs the question, “Can groups last beyond 6 to 12 months?”  Absolutely.  But it requires a level of skill on the part of the leader and commitment on the part of the members that is only rarely present.  Can it be developed?  Sometimes.  Should it be the goal?  Absolutely.  Can every group develop it?  Nope.  Conclusion?  Groups have a life span.

Second, although there are times when sending another couple or two to a dwindling group is all they need, it’s only rarely sufficient.  Most of the time there are dynamics that make it tough for new members to fit in.  Can members of existing groups that are dwindling help potential new members fit in?  Sometimes.  Can every group develop this capability?  Nope.  Conclusion?  Providing life support for dwindling (or dying) groups is counter productive.

So what’s the solution?  Two parts:

  1. Focus on launching new groups.  Strategies like the Small Group Connection and HOST make it easy for new people to connect and identify leaders that people will follow.
  2. Periodically use the Small Group Vacation strategy to revitalize existing groups.
  3. Train leaders to help members share their lives in a deeper way, giving existing groups an experience that will take them into year two.  A great way to begin this process for leaders is to equip them in using the Purpose Driven Life Health Assessment (you don’t have to be Purpose Drive to use this tool).

Have a question?  Take my short survey and get into the discussion.  Want to make sure you don’t miss what’s next?  Be sure and sign up to get the update!

Technology: Tools That Enhance GroupLife

What are you using to communicate with your small group leaders?  What are you using to train your leaders?  If you’re not yet using a blog or e-newsletter to communicate you’re missing a great opportunity.  What about Facebook and Twitter?  If you’re still relying on centralized, come-to-the-church meetings for training and encouragement…you’re not in step with some ideas that will increase the number of leaders you can train.

Here’s an overview of a few of the possibilities:

Blogs: A blog is an easily updated web-based tool.  It can look like a website (markhowelllive is actually a blog) or it can look more like an online journal (like this).  The key idea with a blog is that you can update it.  It’s not hard.  You don’t need your webmaster.  It’s not expensive (some are free like Blogger, others are inexpensive like Typepad and WordPress).

E-Newsletters: You’ve probably assembled a newsletter at some time in your ministry.  Your church may still be mailing out a hard copy newsletter or making it available in the lobby.  The advantage of an e-newsletter is that there’s no postage and it can be easily forwarded to someone else.  I use a service called ConstantContact.  Easy to use.  Template based (you don’t have to design anything…you pick from many prefabricated designs).  Looks great.

Facebook: If you’re not using Facebook, you may think it’s a little crazy to talk about it, but you need to realize that regardless of where you live or where your church is…many of your members are already using every day.  It’s a free service.  Easy to update.  Your leaders can get the update on their computer or as a text message.  Very cool.  You can connect with me right here.

Twitter: You may have heard about Twitter and not really understand what it is.  Think about it like sending a text message that everyone in your small group ministry gets.  You set up an account.  It’s free.  Group leaders follow you on Twitter.  They get the update either on the computer or cell phone.  I also use Twitter to follow ministry leaders around the country that I want to keep track of.  You can do the same!  In fact, you can follow me right here.

Survey Tools: I’ve been using web-based survey tools for about 5 years.  It’s a great way to gather information from your leaders.  You can find out how their group is going.  You can see what they think about the most recent study they’ve done.  You can use it to ask your leaders what kind of training they need.  Two very popular services are SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang.

YouTube and Vimeo: If you’re not taking advantage of YouTube or Vimeo for online training opportunities…it might be time to check it out.  With so many easy-to-use digital video cameras (I picked up a Flip camera last year) it’s getting easier and easier to post your training videos online and let your leaders watch the skill training from home (or a coaches home).  Here’s an example of how Seacoast is using the idea.  I shot this welcome video with my Flip camera (and a tripod).

This is an overview of some technology ideas that you can use to enhance your small group ministry.  Here are my expanded posts on each technology:

Design a System That Identifies Potential Leaders

“We can’t find enough leaders!”  This is one of the most common responses when I ask small group champions around the country what they’re biggest challenges are.  If it sounds familiar…read on.

The underlying reason that finding enough leaders is a challenge is a design issue.  I love Andy Stanley’s line that “your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results that you’re currently getting.”  Implication?  The problem is in the design.  Here’s how:

Most small group ministries have incorporated one or more of the following leader recruitment strategies as their main source of potential leaders:

  1. Announce (or run a blurb in your bulletin) that you’re taking sign-ups for new small group leader orientation.
  2. Tap the shoulders of the usual suspects (deacons, elders, etc.).
  3. Require each small group leader to have an apprentice.

Design Flaws

The problem with the most common strategies is that they each have a design flaw.  Here’s what I mean:

  • When you announce an upcoming new small group leader orientation it is very common to end up with a mix.  There is no guarantee that those who sign up can actually engage small group members.  Worse, it is often the way into the system for people with wrong motives (power trip, want a group to teach, etc.).  To test your design, think about the success of your most recent new small group leader orientation.
  • The qualifications for deacon or elder don’t predict the best qualities of a potential small group leader.  They might predict a type of leadership, but it is often a type at odds with what produces the right environment in a group.  To test your design, evaluate whether you would want to be in a group led by that deacon or elder.
  • Requiring each leader to have an apprentice is not the problem.  Developing and sending out the apprentice is the problem.  To test your design, determine the percentage of apprentices who actually left their group to successfully form a new group in the last 12 months.

Effective Designs

So what are the elements of a more effective design?  I’ve found three:

  • Develop and celebrate the practice of rotating facilitators in all your existing groups.  Begin by surveying your existing groups to see how many have already embraced this practice (this establishes a benchmark).  Teach your existing leaders how to implement the practice.  Measure again at 6 months and one year.
  • Use a process like the Small Group Connection that allows participants to identify leaders they would follow.  If you’re familiar with the premise of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, people can accurately assess other people very quickly.  In my experience, adults can easily identify the relative shepherd after a 45 minute conversation.
  • Promote an annual opportunity for adults to host a short term group using a church-wide curriculum and inviting their own friends and neighbors.  Note: their ability to fill their own group (inviting their own friends and neighbors) is a predictor of long-term suitability.

Have you found another effective design for identifying potential leaders?  We’d all love to hear them!

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!