Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

Page 30 of 181

Andy Stanley on “Matters of the Heart”

I am at re:group today.  Yesterday’s main session was so good and so important I thought I’d better let you in on one of my most important takeaways.

In Andy Stanley’s main session to start the conference, he used a series of statements to make a point that all of us–every single one of us–need to know.  Not only do we all need to know this, we all need to figure out more and better ways to use this knowledge to persuade everyone to get connected.

"Community is not optional. It is critical. What you do is not optional. It is critical." Andy Stanley

Andy built the premise for the talk with a set of 5 statements and then told the story of David and Bathsheba to illustrate the idea.

Here are the statements:

A small group is a voluntary structured relationship designed to address matters of the heart.

We avoid matters of the heart in spite of the fact that heart matters matter most.

Matters of the heart determine our relational satisfaction quotient.

Matters of the heart only get dealt with in trusted relationships (or with a professional counselor who costs a lot of money).

We resist most what we need most for the relationships that matter most.

Here is the essence of the story:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army” (2 Samuel 11).

Andy told the story with another series of statements.  Here are two of the most important.

David permanently undermined his credibility and moral authority with his adult children.

David got into trouble when he isolated himself from the community of men to whom he was most accountable.


We, who are working hard to build a culture of small groups in our churches, have a mission that is critical.  We must keep working to help connect unconnected people who are one tough thing away from never being at our churches again.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People.

I loved Andy’s closing words.  Speaking to a room full of small group pastors and leaders, he said, “Community is not optional.  It is critical.  What you do is not optional.  It is critical.”

5 Main Causes of “Failure to Thrive” in Small Group Ministry

failure to thriveFailure to thrive is a term used primarily in pediatric medicine “to indicate insufficient weight gain or inappropriate weight loss.”

Because I write so often about building a thriving small group ministry, failure to thrive seemed like a good term for a small group ministry that struggles or where growth is stunted or blocked.  There is a short list of primary causes for a small group ministry that has a failure to thrive.

Here are the 5 main causes I’ve identified for failure to thrive:

  1. An inadequate model: This underlying cause of failure to thrive is rarely diagnosed.  If one of the marks of a thriving small group ministry is an increasing percentage connected, certain small group ministry models struggle with the catch a moving train syndrome and simply cannot keep up with demand.  One of the main symptoms of an inadequate model is a constant inability to find enough leaders.  Another symptom is an inability to develop leaders who are more than hosts.  See also, How to Choose the Right Small Group System or Strategy and You Know You Have the Right Small Group System When…
  2. The wrong person in the role of small group champion: This is very commonly the cause of failure to thrive but is often misdiagnosed.  Read incorrectly the symptoms may indicate the small group pastor is not up to the task when in reality, small group ministry struggles are due to the senior pastor’s resistance to accepting the role of small group champion.  The role of small group champion cannot be delegated away from the senior pastor.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.
  3. A poorly designed and/or defined next step pathway: For a small group ministry to thrive, it must be an easy and attractive next step for unconnected people.  Along with being easy and attractive it must be an obvious step.  When there is no defined next step pathway (when it is not clear what to do next), indecision will be the most common response.   step pathway is poorly designed, there will be a lack of interest on the part of unconnected people.  When the nextSee also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #3: Indecision about the Best Next Step.
  4. Small group participation is seen as a helpful elective: A very common cause of failure to thrive in a small group ministry is hesitation about declaring group participation as an essential ingredient.  When attending the worship service is seen as the main thing and participating in a small group is seen as a nice extra thing, you should expect failure to thrive.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, group participation must be consistently declared an essential ingredient (i.e., consistently in the worship service by the senior pastor, on the website, in the bulletin, etc.).  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group Ministry.
  5. Small group model fatigue: Building a thriving small group ministry takes time and a long commitment to a strategy.  Once you’ve chosen an adequate model (see cause #1) you must stay the course over a number of years.  When a new model is proposed after every conference attended or book read, small group model fatigue sets in.  Churches with thriving small group ministries are examples of churches with long term commitment to a single small group model or strategy. See also, 5 Easily Overlooked Secrets to Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

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

Image by César Rincón

Growth’s Conterintuitive First Step

What do you do when you’re trying to grow your ministry?  Read a book?  Go to a conference?  Hire a consultant?  Brainstorm?

According to Peter Drucker, “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon (Inside Drucker’s Brain, p. 101).”

Peter Drucker had a lot to say about purposeful abandonment.  In my view, it was one of his most important ideas.  The essence of the idea is that “planned, purposeful abandonment of the old and of the unrewarding is a prerequisite to successful pursuit of the new and highly promising.  Above all, abandonment is the key to innovation—both because it frees the necessary resources and because it stimulates the search for the new that will replace the old (Managing for Results, p. 143).”  See also, Purposeful Abandonment: Prerequisite to Innovation.

Do you see where purposeful abandonment fits in a growth initiative?  Drucker would say that before you plan a new thing, a new strategy, you should be thinking about what should be eliminated.

Is that what happens in your world?  Does anything ever get eliminated?  Or do you just add the new program or strategy to the old list?  See also, Narrowing the Focus Leads to a Church OF Groups and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

Remember.  “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon.”

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

Quotebook: Steve Jobs on Change

I love this line from the 2005 Stanford commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs:

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Only an enduring small group pastor makes it to the finish line.  And only the constant learner can look in the mirror and know when a change is in the wind.

6 Understandings that Changed the Game for Me

15223336584_3bcf3d1d81_zHave you ever suddenly noticed something and never looked at it the same way again?  You know how sometimes you can get so used to the cracked mirror that you stand in front of it and never notice it…every morning?  This is the opposite experience.  This is that thing that you’ve seen a million times but once you see it, once you notice it, you can never miss it again.

Once you’ve noticed certain things…they change the game forever.

Here are a 6 things that have changed the game for me:

  1. Connecting people is a first step.  Making disciples is a second step.  Belonging is a higher motivation than becoming.  Period.  End of story.  If you want to make more disciples, focus on making it easy to connect into an environment where most barriers to following Jesus have been removed.  See also, 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Ministry at the Corner of “Belonging” and “Becoming”.
  2. Unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  One tough thing.  A marriage problem.  An illness.  Loss of  a job.  A teen who goes south.  One tough thing.  And it could happen at any time.  For some of the unconnected people in your congregation it will happen this year.  For others it will happen this week.  If you want the opportunity to help them…you need to act sooner than later.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  3. The pursuit of problem-free delays more ministry than anything else.  There are no problem-free models, systems or strategies.  Zero.  Every model, every system, and every strategy comes with a set of problems.  Wise leaders simple choose the set of problems they’d rather have.  See also, The Pursuit of Problem-Free.
  4. You don’t have to be a leader to lead a small group.  The old school understanding was that you needed to be a leader to lead a small group.  Somewhere along the line I realized that the s.h.a.p.e., or the wiring, of the leader just determines the way the leader leads.  Have the gift of encouragement or mercy?  Your group will look different than the group of a leader with a hospitality gift or shepherding gift.  See also, Raising the Bar, Lowering the Bar, or Open Bar?
  5. “Coaching” small group leaders has almost nothing to do with coaching.  The best coaches understand that it’s really about doing “to and for” the leader whatever you want the leader to do “to and for” their members.  This is why I say, “Whatever you want to happen in the life of a member must happen in the life of the leader first.”  6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach and Four Small Group Coaching Insights that Might Be Eye-Opening.
  6. Your senior pastor must be the small group champion.  This role cannot be delegated.  If your senior pastor is not fully in the game, you cannot build a thriving small group ministry.  Period.  End of story.  It doesn’t matter how passionate or committed or knowledgeable or experienced your small group pastor is.  Without the senior pastor…it just can’t happen.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.

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

Image by Spiros Vathis

10 Principles for Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry

buildersWant to build a thriving small group ministry in your church?  It won’t be easy.  It will require a commitment to the long haul, major determination, a willingness to commit resources, disappoint the guardians of the status quo, and much, much more.

But…if you believe that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again, if you want to connect far beyond the usual suspects (and even beyond your average weekend adult worship attendance)…there is no alternative.  A commitment to building a thriving small group ministry is a non-negotiable.

10 principles that will guide the work that is ahead.

  1. Begin with the end in mind.  Describing in vivid detail a picture of the preferred future is essential.  Make no compromise and take no shortcut.  As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
  2. Diagnose the present with uncompromising honesty.  If you begin with the end in mind, brutal honesty about the here and now is another essential.  See also, Brutal Honesty about Your Present.
  3. Clarify what you will call a win.  According to Peter Drucker, very few things are as important as determining what you will call success.  See also, Clarifying the Win in Your Small Group Ministry.
  4. Think steps, not programs.  Design easy, obvious and strategic steps that lead to the preferred future and only to the preferred future.  See also, Think Steps, Not Programs.
  5. Narrow the focus (to eliminate all but the best steps).  There is no room for turning a blind eye to the inadequacies of yesterday’s solutions.  See also, Small Group Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.
  6. Allocate resources to the critical growth path.  Choosing a preferred future is one thing.  Allocating finite resources to get to the preferred future is what demonstrates conviction.  Budget, key staff and volunteers, space, promotional bandwidth, and senior pastor attention are just a few of the most important resources.  See also, Budgeting for the Preferred Future.
  7. Commit to the long haul.  The journey to build a thriving small group ministry is not a short sprint.  It is a marathon.  If you want to arrive at the finish line, you must commit to the long haul.  See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run.
  8. Keep one eye on the preferred future.  Maintaining focus on the end in mind, using preferred future language to cast vision for the promised land is a non-negotiable.  It will be tempting along the way to settle for something less than a thriving small group ministry.  Only by rehearsing again and again what it will be like will the steadfast pursuit continue.
  9. Keep the other eye on the very next milestone.  Milestones that are clearly visible in the near future enable your team to stay focused and encouraged.  Milestones could be quantitative (a number of groups or a percentage connected statistic).  Milestones can also be qualitative with a little effort (capturing life-change stories or monitoring feedback cards).  The objectives that must be accomplished to reach the next milestone are the kind of things that keep teams focused.  See also, Are We There Yet? Milestones that Lead to the Preferred Future.
  10. Celebration is expected.  A culture of celebration is a must have.  Celebrate milestones reached and wins experienced.

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

Image by Richard

Don’t Miss This Unique Study: The Power of Your Story

power of your storyI had the opportunity this week to spend some time with a study from Thomas Nelson that I think you might find pretty interesting.  The Power of Your Story is not brand new (it was published in 2012), but is so different and fresh that I think you’ll want to check it out.

Developed by Ben Arment, creator of Story in Chicago and Dream Year (and author of Dream Year), The Power of Your Story is “designed to explore the Christian life through the lens of story.  Each of the seven sessions is oriented around a classic element of screenwriting.  If you enjoy watching movies, you’ll love considering your own life through the same storytelling principles (from the Conversation Guide).”

DVD-driven, The Power of Your Story is a 7 session small group experience.  Every  session features a fascinating conversation between five very interesting people (Ben Arment, Ginny Owens, Chris Seay, Leonard Sweet, and Pete Wilson).  Also included in every session is a vignette featuring an engaging story told by one of the five).  The DVD segments are just the right length (12 to 18 minutes) and will easily hold your members’ attention.

The Conversation Guide includes several elements that will help your members engage in the study.  Along with the DVD segment, every session features a Bible study that will help your members get into the story of David.  Every session also include a well-designed set of group discussion questions, an experiments in story segment, and an exploring the story further section (daily Bible readings and reflection questions).

The Power of Your Story also includes a very comprehensive Leader’s Guide that will help even brand new leaders facilitate an very good group experience.

If you’re looking for a study that will provide a unique experience for groups, take a look at The Power of Your Story.  I’m not sure how I missed it in 2012…but I loved this one and I think you will too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may 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.”

Celebrating 1500: Here Are 15 of My Favorite Posts

Arriving at 1500 posts on a blog calls for a celebration…and a little retrospective.  I started blogging back in 2005 and have over 1200 articles on  I wrote my first post here back in January of 2008.

I get asked why I do this quite a bit.  The simplest answer is that I aspire to be a disruptor of the status quo and the mayor of Crowd’s Edge.  I love the dream of helping small group champions everywhere build thriving small group ministries that connect way beyond the usual suspects and impact whole communities with the life-changing truth of the gospel.

Here are 15 of my favorite posts (and by the way…it is really hard to choose 15 out of 1500!)

  1. Ten Ideas That Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry
  2. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader
  3. This Is Why We Need Community
  4. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  5. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People
  6. 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry
  7. Evaluate Your Small Group Ministry with My Signature 10 Point Checklist
  8. Top 10 DNA Markers of Churches with Thriving Small Group Cultures
  9. 5 GroupLife Dots You May Not Be Connecting
  10. 10 Commandments of Small Group Ministry
  11. 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor
  12. 5 Essential Ingredients of Small Groups that Make Disciples
  13. 5 Non-Negotiables that Define True Small Group Ministry Success
  14. Top 10 Ways to Launch New Groups
  15. 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact

Did I miss one of your favorites?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Community and Congregation Traits Can Help Determine Connection Strategy

Did you know that understanding your community and congregation can help determine the best connection strategy?  It’s true!  Building a deep understanding of the people in your community, as well as the people in your congregation, really can help you choose the most productive connection strategies.  You’ll also be able to figure out why some unsuccessful strategies have not worked.  See also, Learn to Empathize with Your End User and 4 Steps to Extending Your Reach into the Crowd and Community.

Here’s an example:

During the years I was on the team building a small group ministry at Fellowship of The Woodlands, the community of The Woodlands was growing at a rapid pace (it still is).  One of the most important traits to know about The Woodlands (and by extension, Fellowship of The Woodlands) is that there were many, many people who had been transferred there or who had moved there to take a job.

The community and the church were exploding with growth.  And there were two important data points that made the small group connection a winning strategy:

  1. Lots of new attendees who didn’t know anyone (i.e., didn’t know anyone at the church and didn’t know their neighbors).
  2. A large and growing crowd attending the church whom none of the staff knew.

The small group connection strategy solved two significant problems:

  1. People were looking for ways to get connected and make friends in a new community.
  2. Many capable potential leaders were attending but were unknown by any of our staff.

Can you see why the small group connection strategy worked?  We were able to promote small groups as a way to get connected and make friends.  And the small group connection strategy actually identifies leaders at the event.  Voilà!  The strategy was a fantastic match for the needs of the community and the congregation!

Here’s another example:

Contrast the situation in The Woodlands with the situation in Orland Park, Illinois.  Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois (a suburb in southwest Chicago), is a fast-growing church in a part of Chicago that is very static.  While there are some who move to the area from elsewhere, they are the distinct minority.  Most people in Orland Park and the surrounding communities have lived nearby all of their lives.  Looking across the lobby it is common for attendees of the church to see both members of their extended family and people they went to high school with 20 years ago.

A very important data point was that our average attendee already had friends…they just weren’t necessarily Christ followers.  Most of our attendees had been raised in Roman Catholic families (perhaps as high as 75%).

In response to the fact that our average attendee already had friends, we made two important strategy decisions:

  1. We still held small group connections, but we shifted our marketing verbiage to highlight connecting with some new friends who are growing in their faith and taking the steps you need to take.
  2. We chose topics for church-wide campaigns that would interest the extended families and friends of our average attendee (who had deep networks in the community).  The HOST strategy was made for situations like this.  See also, How to Choose the Right Church-Wide Campaign.

Have you chosen the best strategies given your congregation and community?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Join My 2015 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network

Looking for an opportunity to grow in your ability to connect beyond usual suspects? I want to invite you to join my 2015 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network; an experience designed to give you the tools and strategies you need in order to build a small group ministry that works in the 21st century.

The coaching network program will expose you to a new perspective. While it makes sense to many that in order to get different results you need to do different things…it’s not always clear what those different things might be. The coaching network program is designed around the idea that different, not better, leads to the kind of strategy that connects beyond the usual suspects.

Don’t take my word for it!

Here’s what three of my alumni had to say about the coaching network experience:

  • “I was a part of Mark’s Coaching Network and found it to be not only beneficial to helping me think outside the box, but also to hear from other pastors across the nation. If you are looking for a coaching network that will help you grow in your skills, sharpen your strategies, and guide you to take your next steps in small group ministry, make sure you sign-up for this coaching network!”  Jonathan Holcomb, LifeGroups and LifeMissions Pastor,, South Tulsa
  • “I would highly recommend Mark Howell’s Small Group Ministry Coaching Network.  I had been studying small group strategies prior to joining the network and discovered I had all kinds of questions as to which was the best approach for our church.  Rather than try to figure it out all alone, the network was a tremendous resource for me personally as well as our church as we began to implement a small group system.  Mark did a great job encouraging, challenging, and resourcing us as we chose a model to help us identify and reach our ‘preferred future’.  My experience with Mark Howell’s Coaching Network was well worth my investment of time and finances.  It has had a profound and lasting effect on my perspective of small group ministry.”  Kem Stickl, Journey Groups Director, Whitehaven Road Baptist Church
  • “I joined Mark Howell’s coaching network because I needed to make several significant decisions in our church’s group ministry. Adding Mark’s experienced, strategic mind to our process for that season was super helpful. But the best part has been the relationship I’ve continued to build with Mark since the coaching network.”  Mark Riggins, Community Life Pastor, Bible Fellowship Church

Ready to join?

My 2015 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network begins in February and I’ve just opened up applications. You can find out all about it right here. I’m hoping you’ll come along!

« Older posts Newer posts »