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Small Group Ministry Case Study: Choosing Your Customer

customerIf it’s true that your ministry (or program) is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing, then the design of your ministry is almost everything.

There are several key components of ministry design. According to Peter Drucker, three main components are:

A significant aspect of my work with churches and ministries is to help them choose their customer. A key component of design is the intentional selection of a customer. Many start out believing that their ministry or program really can meet the needs of everyone. This is a theology of wishful thinking. The truth is that a common ingredient of failed ministry design is the illusion of being all things to all people.

This is a very bad strategy.

Far better to focus on choosing your customer.

Here’s what I mean.

Designing for a Specific Customer: A Case Study

Outback Steakhouse, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine BarCarrabba’s Italian Grill, and Bonefish Grill are all owned and operated by Bloomin’ Brands Inc.  P.F. Changs China Bistro and Pei Wei Asian Diner  are owned by Centerbridge Partners.

Think about the restaurants in these two parent companies. Why would Bloomin’ Brands own both Fleming’s and Outback? Why would Centerbridge Partners own both P.F. Changs and Pei Wei?  If you’ve been to these restaurants you probably shouted back an answer just now.  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  Each restaurant pair is designed to appeal to a different customer. The Fleming’s diner anticipates spending in the neighborhood of $100 per person. The Outback customer will spend closer to $30 per person.  Does Fleming’s feel bad when someone chooses Outback over them?  What do you think?

Why would Centerbridge Partners own both P.F. Changs and Pei Wei?  Same basic idea.  Eat at Changs and plan to spend about $50 per person. Eat at Pei Wei and spend closer to $25.  Does Pei Wei feel bad when they don’t attract a Changs customer? What do you think?


When you design your ministry, think carefully about the customer you most want to reach. Design the ministry for them. Don’t feel bad when you can’t be all things to all people. Instead, design a different step for the people that haven’t yet been reached.

Image by Didriks 

3 Questions You Should Be Asking about Your Small Group Ministry

questionsYou have a set of problems you’d like to solve.

Too many unconnected people. Not making enough disciples. Can’t find enough leaders.

Sound familiar?

Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

When I think about problems, I try to stay focused on determining the right questions.

Peter Drucker noted that, “The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions… Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question”

Are you asking the right questions?

Here are the questions I think you should be asking:

  1. What are we trying to do? This is a very important question and really another way of asking, “What business are we in?” Don’t miss this question. If you don’t ask this question you may very well end up with a small group model, system or strategy that won’t actually do what you want to do. For example, some small group strategies will connect unconnected people but won’t make disciples. Others will make disciples but will only appeal to the tastes of high achievers. See also, If I Was Starting Today and Clue #1 When Designing Your Small Group System.
  2. Who do we hope to connect to a small group? This is another very important question and is a version of asking, “Who is your primary customer?” The answer to this question ought to inform the strategy you use to connect people. The kind of person you hope to connect should dictate the way you market connecting opportunities, the studies you use to start new groups, the length of the commitment you require, and many other aspects. And don’t fall for the false hope that everyone can be your primary customer. The product that attempts to appeal to everyone appeals to no one. See also, Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group System.
  3. What will we call success? Another very important question. Sometimes framed as, “What will you call a win?,” this is a question to which the answer should be determined before you begin. Waiting until the results are in to determine whether your strategy succeeded is more than just foolish. It is foolish but it is also dangerous. When you wait for the results to come in you are more likely to justify a miss. When you thoughtfully declare in advance what you will call success, the lack of wiggle room will force you to evaluate more honestly. See also, Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group System.

These are the main questions, but there are a few others you may want to ask.

  • Who can be a leader? The answer to this question will determine some important aspects of your small group ministry. The higher the bar you set, the more difficult it will be to find the number of leaders you need. The lower the bar you set, the easier it will be to find them but the more important an excellent coaching structure will be. See also, Leader Qualification: Raising the Bar, Lowering the Bar, or Open Bar?
  • What will we call a group? This answer to this question will either narrow your focus (make it more like a laser) or broaden your focus (more like a floodlight). Keep in mind that the design of your ministry will determine the results of your ministry. See also, Top 10 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Is Schizophrenic.
  • Will groups be the only way to do what we’ve decided they will do? Essentially a follow-up question to #1 above, clarity surrounding the answer to this question is a must. Calling everything a group will create a simpler (but less potent) pathway. See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs. Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.

Are these the only questions? Not by a long shot, but I do believe they are the most important.

Image by Luis Sarabia

Quotebook: Following Jesus Entirely

long pathWhat do those who follow Jesus’ do?  I love this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship:

“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burden they must bear to be light. In the gentle pressure of this yoke they will receive the strength to walk the right path without becoming weary.…Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Image by Neil Wellons

Thinking Thursday: Tracy Chevalier: Finding the story inside the painting

girl with a peal earingWhen Tracy Chevalier looks at paintings, she imagines the stories behind them: How did the painter meet his model? What would explain that look in her eye? Why is that man … blushing? She shares three stories inspired by portraits, including the one that led to her best-selling novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Image by TED

Sole Proprietor? Or a Builder of a Great Team?

sole proprietorMore and more I’m finding myself talking about the importance of a great team in building a thriving small group ministry. Another way I’m saying it is that thriving small group ministries are never built by sole proprietors.
Thriving Small Group Ministries Are Never Built by Sole Proprietors
The truth is whether you are averaging 100 adults in your worship service or 1000 adults (or even 10,000 adults), you cannot build a thriving small group ministry alone. Thriving small group ministries are never built by sole proprietors. See also, 10 Principles for Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.
This is true for two principal reasons:
First, developing a healthy span of care demands that you build an effective coaching structure. Once you have more than about ten groups, even a high capacity sole proprietor will struggle to provide appropriate care for group leaders. Only by learning how to identify, recruit and develop (i.e., care for) a team of coaches will a sole proprietor be able to begin building a thriving small group ministry. See also, 6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach.
Second, every church has high capacity people who are passionate about community and not shaped to be a coach. Learning to shape serving opportunities for this group of people will allow the small group pastor to focus more and more attention on the things that cannot be delegated. See also, Rethinking the Role of the Small Group Pastor.
Which are you? Sole Proprietor? Or a Builder of a Great Team?
So…are you a sole proprietor? Are you building a great team? Do you want to build a great team but maybe not sure where to start? If that’s you, why not let me help you? Sometimes the fresh eyes of a trusted outsider makes all the difference. You can find out how to schedule a coaching call right here.
P.S. I’m on the lookout for a couple of great players for my team at Canyon Ridge. If you’ve got a heart for couples or men I might have an opportunity you’ll want to check out. Click here for the full scoop on the Couples Pastor opening on my team. We’re still a few months away on the Men’s Pastor opening but you can Email me for the scoop.

Think Twice–and Think Again–Before You Approve the New Menu Item

menuI think it’s fair to say that most of us have complained at one time or another about the cluttered belong and become menu that we’ve inherited. “Whose bright idea was it to let the Precepts class begin in the first place!” “If only they never began approving classroom space for those ABFs back in the day!” “With everything else going on around here, I wish we didn’t have to compete with adult Sunday school classes for small group sign-ups!”  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

Sound familiar? It should, because if you can’t admit to some of these same feelings it may be that you’re in denial.

And before you get all worked up, I will readily admit to my share of pent up frustration. We are in this together. But today, I want to get you thinking about the other side of the equation. You see, while you can do something about your bloated belong and become menu, it’s easier to become an expert at the skills necessary to only allow the right additions from here on out.

  1. Learn to think steps, not programs. This is a foundational understanding made clear in 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. Do not miss this. A program (i.e., Precepts, AWANA, Celebrate Recovery, etc.) may be a step, but it may actually be designed or positioned as a destination. If it doesn’t foster movement in the direction you want people to go and instead serves as a destination that gathers proponents, fans, and advocates, it is likely a program and not helping to make mature disciples. See also, Think Steps, Not Programs.
  2. Develop a clear way of articulating your philosophy of ministry. For example, “We want to provide next steps for every Ridger and first steps for their friends. We want to develop sequential and tailored next steps that are manageable (easy to take), easy to spot (obvious), and only lead in the right direction (strategic). In order to maximize the number of people taking these next steps, we want to make it easy to choose the right one by only featuring the step that is the best way to get from here to there.” See also, How to Design First Steps and Next Steps.
  3. Learn to clearly define the win for every step. This is no small thing. When every step in your strategy is required to have a clearly defined win, it becomes much easier to determine whether it truly is the best way to do what you are claiming it is designed to do. See also, Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group Ministry.
  4. Learn to say “no” with grace and patient determination. You have acquired an educated opinion about the best way to do help unconnected people become mature disciples. It most likely did not develop overnight. In fact, it may have developed over many years. The people who hear “no” do not yet share your opinion or your philosophy of ministry. Even when they assure you that they too are only interested in the best way to do what they want to do, they will almost always struggle to see it any other way. See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs. Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.
  5. Never forget that one day someone will question what you allowed to be added to the menu. It is always easier to to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. Let it be said about you that the things you allowed to be included on the menu were truly the best way to help unconnected people become mature disciples.

Here’s the thing. To some extent, we get to be architects and stewards of the pathway that leads from crowd to core. I believe that one day, just like in the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25, our efforts will be reviewed by the King. May all of us hear “well done.”

Image by Basheer Tome


The 4 Best Small Group Ministry Lessons I’ve Learned This Year

lesson mistakeEvery once in a while I like to jot down the most recent lessons I’ve learned. Sometimes they amount to relearning the same lessons. I love the line that “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” Maybe you can learn something from mine!

  1. Not everything can be learned. Many things can be learned, but not everything. For example, I believe you can learn to be a better recruiter, but some of what comes naturally to some people can never really be learned by those who have a different wiring. I have found that one of the most important skills a small group pastor needs is the ability to identify, recruit and develop high capacity volunteers for key roles. Expecting someone who doesn’t have those skills to do the job that needs to be done is almost always a waste of time. Better to find the right person and help the wrong person find a new role. See also, 7 Skills Every Small Group Pastor Needs.
  2. No matter the church size, paying staff to do ministry is a bad idea. Ephesians 4 makes it fairly clear that the role of a pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. While this doesn’t mean a pastor will never directly pray with someone or visit someone in the hospital, it does mean that their primary role is to recruit and train (equip) a team of people who will do the work of the ministry. It is not always the case, but if the natural inclination of a pastor is to do the work of the ministry, they may be more fruitful in another vocation (while they may be quite fulfilled in ministry). See also, Rethinking the Role of the Small Group Pastor.
  3. Never confuse delegation or empowerment with a blind eye. ‘Trust, but verify,” was one of Ronald Reagan’s famous maxims. A product of the Cold War era, it is no less valid today. I am a determined believer in the priesthood of the believer and I am convinced that involving high capacity leaders is one key to building a thriving small group ministry. At the same time, I retain a set of capabilities (and so do you) that may only be delegated away with great care. When it comes to vision and mission, short of my senior pastor, I cannot assume that just anyone can deliver. It will always be an “I do, you watch. You do, I watch” maneuver. See also, Are You Playing to Play? Or Playing to Win?
  4. It is always easier to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. Have a menu item that you wish you could eliminate? Maybe a program that’s not bad but it gets in the way of making a next step obvious (by cluttering the menu)? The truth is, at some point in the past that menu item (Precepts, BSF, Discipleship Pathway, etc.) seemed like a good addition to someone and it was added. Or maybe someone volunteered to serve as a small group coach and despite misgivings, no one said “No.” It is always easier to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. The best practice is to become an expert at saying “No” in the very beginning. It won’t be fun and it won’t be easy. But it will pay off in the long run. See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs. Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.

Honestly, I hope this is helpful. I’ve learned much more in the last year, but these are the most important lessons. I’ve relearned all of them. They are not new. At the same time, every one of them ought to be on a post-it stuck to my laptop screen.

And they ought to be on yours too.

Image by Herman Yung

Hoping for Problem-Free

hopeWhat are the decisions you know you need to make but you just can’t bring yourself to do it?  Do you know the list by heart?  Is it a long list?  What’s keeping you from pulling the trigger?  Still searching for a problem-free solution?

I’ve made the case for a long time now that the pursuit of problem-free delays more ministry than anything else.  That the belief that there might be a problem-free solution–just around the corner–causes more boards, more teams, and more leaders to push the pause button that anything else.  See also, The Pursuit of Problem-Free.

I’m coming to believe there might be another explanation.  What is it?  There is certainly a temptation to hope that the issue will just resolve itself some other way.  That’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m actually more and more convinced that we don’t make the decisions that we need to make because we lack the courage we need to make them. At times we try to disguise our lack of courage with the garb of caring for people and not wanting to disappoint. Other times we attempt to disguise our lack of courage by asking for a pause in decisions as we “seek wisdom.”

I believe that hoping for problem-free is an emotional state that must be overcome in order to truly build anything significant.

Sometimes we finally overcome it when we learn to say the last 10 percent (Several years ago Bill Hybels shared the idea that we often say only 90 percent of what needs to be said and withhold the final 10 percent because that’s where the tough stuff and the true gold resides).

And sometimes we finally overcome this emotional state when we acknowledge the reality that the pursuit of problem-free is putting off a solution that will eliminate obstacles for unreached or unconnected people.

Are you free? Or are you still hoping for problem-free?

Image by Trina Alexander

Thinking Thursday: Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Andrew StantonNo matter your role, at some point and in some way, what you do is about the ability to tell a story. Whether you are recruiting a coach or trying to inspire your senior pastor to talk about the life-changing qualities of a small group…you need to learn to be a better storyteller. And so do I.

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning. Contains graphic language … (Note: this talk is not available for download.)

Warning: There is a word you may not use often in the punch line of the opening joke. You will probably laugh out loud…but you may not want anyone to see you!

By the way, I first heard parts of this TED talk on TED Radio. You can check out that broadcast right here.

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Quotebook: Changing or Losing

change and losingSometimes I hear a great quote and can almost think of nothing else until I write down exactly what was said. This happened on Monday while sitting in on a staff meeting at a church where I am consulting. The staff was reading a book together and commenting one by one on what they had found most important or most powerful.

As usual, I had my notebook out and was jotting down key ideas as I heard them.

And then I heard this line:

“A person either hates losing enough to change or he hates changing enough to lose.”

I quickly wrote down the line (or as best I could remember it). I also began trying to see the title and the name of the book they were reading! Resolved: 13 Resolutions for Life by Orrin Woodward. I googled the part of the phrase I remembered along with the author’s name and there was the whole quote! Perfect.

I don’t know about you, but I believe this line reflects the real choice we make. Of course, you have to have clearly defined what you will call success or clarified the win, but once you do the line captures perfectly the choice:

“A person either hates losing enough to change or he hates changing enough to lose.”

Great line, don’t you think? By the way, I ordered the book yesterday and can’t wait to read it.

Image by Craig Sunter

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