Transform Your Ministry with the Three Box Approach

Note: This concept has tremendous application regardless of the ministry you lead.  Don’t be put off by what might seem to be a more corporate concept and strategy.  Take my word for it, if you’ll take a few minutes to grasp the idea you’ll never look at your ministry in the same way again.


In the 2013 Global Leadership Summit, Vijay Govindarajan* introduced what he refers to as the three box approach to manage organizational reinvention.  Now, you probably already understand the need for reinvention, so I won’t go into any real detail.  Suffice it to say, that if any of the following are true, you need to think about reinvention:

  • If your ministry impact is plateaued or in decline.
  • If your ministry impact is limited to a small percentage of the community in which you operate.
  • If there are ministry opportunities you are aware of but haven’t identified a way to capture.
  • If your budget only fuels yesterday’s winners.
  • Etc.

See where this goes?

When you begin to see the need for reinvention (or to be honest, whether you see it or not), here is a very basic overview:

The essence of the idea is that all activity in an organization fits in one of three boxes.  Keep in mind that activity means much more than the programs or ministries themselves.  Activity includes planning, preparation, execution and evaluation.

Here are the three boxes:

  • Box #1 is managing the present: You might think of these activities as intended to improve today’s current ministry winners.  They’re flourishing.  Everyone can see that good things are happening.  There is good reason to preserve these things along with the sense that it makes sense to invest energy in tweaking design for even greater impact.  The key word for this box preservation.
  • Box #2 is selectively forget the past: You might think of these activities as aimed at stopping underperforming ministries and outdated programs.  The key word for this box is destruction.
  • Box #3 is creating the future: You might think of these activities as those that prepare your ministry for the long term, the next phase or season.  The key word for this box is creation.  

According to Govindarajin, for organizations to endure, “they must get the forces of preservation (box 1), destruction (box 2), and creation (box 3) in the right balance.”  He goes on to write that while striking this balance is the leader’s most important task, most organizations “overwhelmingly favor box 1.”

How about your ministry?  Are you balancing the three boxes?  Or are almost all of your eggs in preserving the status quo?

Here’s your assignment:  I love this diagnostic exercise from The CEO’s Role in Business Model Reinvention.

  1. Write Box 1, Box 2 and Box 3 on individual post-its and use them as headings on a wall.
  2. Spend some time imagining ministry in 5, 10 or 20 years.  Incorporate as much of what you’re seeing in the changing culture, changing demographics, pace of life, economics, morality, etc.
  3. Now take individual post-its and write each of the important initiatives under way in your ministry.  Stick them on the wall under the appropriate heading (Box 1, Box 2 or Box 3) in light of the 5, 10, or 20 year horizon you’ve identified.

How’d you do?  Are you balancing the three boxes?  Or are you overweighted in preservation?

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

*Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business and the founding director of the Center for Global Leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  He is also the author of a number of books including The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge and Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution.

6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask

I’ve had the privilege of helping 6 senior pastors champion small groups and make the small group ask (That doesn’t include the hundreds of other senior pastors I’ve helped as a consultant and coach).

They’ve all been different.  No two have been completely alike.  And yet…they have shared certain characteristics and all of them have appreciated help with making the small group ask.

Here are 6 ways you can help your senior pastor make the small group ask:

  1. Get to know their sermon preparation rhythm.  How does their message come together?  How early do they begin to put it together?  When do they need input from you?
  2. Meet with your senior pastor well before the ask to explain how important their role is.  Most pastors will need more than one conversation about making the host ask or inspiring and challenging people to join a group.  An early meeting (two to three months ahead) will go a long way toward helping them prepare.
  3. Provide as much detail as they need.  Most of my senior pastors have asked for the bullet points I want them to hit.  Several have asked me to script what I’d like them to say.
  4. Ask about the possibility of seeing where in their message they’re planning to include the ask.  Not every senior pastor manuscripts their message.  Most at least develop an outline.  Very few go into the weekend with clarity on where they will make the ask.  If you can see it in advance, you can sometimes help them improve the location.
  5. Check in with your senior pastor just prior to the weekend for any final encouragement or questions.  Their schedules are often very predictable, and a last minute check-in can sometimes head off a misunderstanding or  lack of clarity.
  6. Listen to their sermon and meet with them immediately afterward for review and possible tweaks.  You need to have the right attitude, but most senior pastors are open to feedback because they want to be as clear and compelling as possible.

Bonus: This is a wash, rinse and repeat cycle.  In other words, just because you help your senior pastor this year doesn’t mean you won’t need to next year.

Need a little more?  Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF GroupsHow to Make the HOST Ask: The 2012 Version and Why You Must Make the HOST Ask Several Weeks in a Row.

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

Quotebook: Hardwired to Connect

Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly is packed with great content that will have an impact on your work.  Here’s an early quote on being hardwired to connect:

“Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others.  It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”  Daring Greatly, p. 7

Win 2 FREE Registrations to re:group: North Point’s Groups Conference

re.groupThis contest is over! Watch for our next giveaway! Join Andy Stanley and the North Point Groups team for re:group, one of the very best small groups conferences I’ve ever attended!  October 21st and 22nd at Buckhead Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

You’ll be inspired and equipped with the nuts and bolts of building a small group culture for adults.  And they’ll do it in typical North Point fashion with main sessions, numerous breakouts, time for interaction, a few surprises, their most recent learnings–and lots of fun.

I’ve got 2 FREE registrations to give away! It’s a $300 value!  (Technically…it’s worth much, much more.  I came away with several killer ideas last year.  You’ll do the same this year).

You must do TWO (2) things.  And you have to do BOTH to win.

  1. Use the comment section to tell me why you’d like to win.  You can comment right here.
  2. Tweet or Facebook the following line: “RT @MarkCHowell: Win 2 Free Registrations to re:group, a $300 value“

The contest ends on Monday, August 19th, at noon (PT).  Thanks for playing!

Trying to Figure out How to Market Your Small Groups?

Trying to get the word out about small groups in your church that are open to new members?  I think there are some precautions that you need to think about as well as some steps you can take to make connecting easier.

Here are a few precautions you might want to keep in mind:

First, keep in mind that the larger your small group ministry is, the more difficult it becomes to serve as a match-maker.  What does that mean?  The more time you spend as a middle man, the less time you have to focus on the things that only you can do (recruiting and developing small group leaders, recruiting and developing coaches, working with you senior pastor, etc.)!  See also, Matchmaking: Making it Easy to find a Group.

Second, the least connected people in your congregation are the least likely people to show up at a stranger’s living room.  Never lose sight of that!  You know those people that have told you how hard it was to come to your church for the first time?  They are even more hesitant to find a group online or out of a catalog and show up.  See also, Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind.

Third, established small groups begin to form an almost impenetrable membrane at about 6 months.  Prospective members (who are not extremely extroverted, almost brazen), will have a very difficult time breaking in.  See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Start Hew Groups.

Fourth, the best way to add new members to existing groups is to train members of existing groups to personally invite unconnected people to join.  Skill Training: 10 Ways to Find New Members.

How to help your existing groups market themselves:

First, consider using an online small group finder like ChurchTeams.  Making open groups available 24/7 without a middleman is an important step.

Second, consider hosting a small group fair.  This can help provide an important face-to-face interaction between member and leader.  See also, Distinctives of the Three Types of Small Group Connecting Events.

Third, one upside of the semester strategy is using a catalog to promote available small groups two or three times a year.  See also, An Analysis of the Free-Market Small Group System and Semester Based Groups.

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

5 Non-Negotiables That Define True Small Group Ministry Success

What’s really a win in your small group ministry?  What are you really going to call success?  Have you ever actually declared a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal)?

I‘ve seen plenty of statements like:

  • We want to be a church of groups: helpful but really more of a philosophical aspiration.
  • We want to make disciples who make disciples: good concept and an important aspect of what a win would be, but also lacks some important ingredients.
  • We want to connect people in groups of 6 to 10 where they can grow in Christ, love one another, and further the work of the Kingdom: this is a version of Willow Creek’s small group ministry mission statement in the 90s.  Lots of carefully selected ingredients.  Still misses an important aspect in my opinion.

Here are the 5 non-negotiables that define true small group ministry success for me:

I’m beginning to form my own statement that incorporates the ingredients that must be there; the non-negotiables.  Here’s what I have so far:

To connect far beyond the average adult weekend worship attendance in an expanding network of groups where members are cared for and urged to grow; leaders are identified, recruited, developed and cared for; by coaches whose primary role is to care for and urge to grow small group leaders.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a very good wordsmith.  This statement has what I want in it but it probably too long.

Here’s how I unpack the statement:

  • far beyond the average adult weekend worship attendance declares that our objective is not some or even most of our adult attendees.  Because most church’s weekend adult worship attendance is really only a percentage of all the adults who attend, shouldn’t our objective be to connect all the sheep?  Not just the average number who are in the room?  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected? and Life-Change at the Member Level.
  • in an expanding network of groups declares that the number of groups in our system must be growing.  If we want to connect far beyond the average weekend adult worship attendance, we’re going to need to start lots of new groups.  Adding new members to existing groups is not a strategy that leads to more people in groups.  See also, New Groups Lead to a Church OF Groups and 5 Keys to Starting New Groups. Lots of New Groups.
  • where members are cared for and urged to grow declares that the member experience isn’t just social.  The optimum environment for life-change is still a small group.  At the same time, a group will often be nothing more than a social club without intentionality.  None of us want that.  See also, Skill Training: Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change.
  • leaders are identified, recruited, developed and cared for declares the anticipation and expectation of growth and care.  The reality that whatever we want to happen in the lives of the members must be experienced first by the leader should never be forgotten or overlooked.  See also, The End in Mind for an Effective Coaching Structure and Life-Change at the Member Level.
  • by coaches whose primary role is to care for and urge to grow small group leaders declares how our leaders will be developed.  Again, if we truly want the members of our groups to be cared for and urged to grow…the leaders of our groups must have that experience first.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.

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

Determining the Minimum and the Recommended Dose

I was on a coaching call with several staff members from a church wrestling with a number of foundational grouplife issues.  A fairly common situation, they had been following the conversation here and were not sure what their next steps were…so they set up a call to pull a pair of fresh eyes into their predicament.  See also, Scheduling a Coaching Call.

Their first conviction

As we talked, two divergent convictions slowly came into focus.  First, they seemed genuinely concerned about the growing number of unconnected adults and saw off-campus small groups as a way they could reduce that number while building community.  They seemed to place a high value on the importance of life-on-life ministry; at one point quoting back to me that “a small group is the optimum environment for life-change.”

In the early minutes of the coaching call, I believed we could make quick progress in establishing a plan to move forward aggressively in connecting the unconnected people in their congregation and crowd.  Their senior pastor seemed eager to make it happen.  The other staff members seemed on board.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?

Bada bing, bada boom.  Forget about it.

A second conviction emerged

Not so fast my friend.  At this point in the conversation a second conviction emerged from the murky edges of their philosophy of ministry.  One of the voices on the call began talking about the importance of deeper Bible teaching in addition to attending the weekend worship service (as in an adult Bible fellowship or Sunday School class).  Soon all three of them seemed to be passionately extolling the virtues of sitting in rows at the feet of a gifted Bible teacher.

Unperturbed, I asked a series of diagnostic questions.

Preliminary diagnostic questions:

  1. What is your average weekend adult attendance?
  2. What was your attendance last Easter or Christmas Eve?
  3. What percentage of your adults are involved in an on-campus Bible study?

Their answers uncovered a significant finding.  Approximately 35% of their adult weekend attendance were involved in an on-campus Bible study.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected?

Follow-up diagnostic questions:

  1. Do your on-campus Bible studies have the ingredients that lead to life-change?  See also, Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change.
  2. What is the minimum required dose of activity and engagement?  In this case, I believed they needed to find conviction about the minimum required dose.
  3. What is the recommended dose of activity and engagement?  A slight variation in the question.  I believed their assumptions about how many currently unconnected adults would add another 75 to 90 minutes to their Sunday morning commitment and commit to an off-campus small group.

The call ended with an assignment to come to develop conviction on the minimum dose and the recommended dose.  Without conviction it would be unlikely that they could move forward.  Depending on the conviction they arrived at, they would choose between two divergent strategies.

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

Choosing What Not to Do

cone_slide8If you’ve been in on very much of this conversation, you are probably becoming very familiar with this diagram.  I use it for all kinds of discussions (you’ll see many of them right here), but I’m not sure we’ve ever talked about choosing what not to do.

Choosing what not to do is very near the heart of identifying your preferred future.  If you study the diagram for a moment, you’ll see that the preferred future is actually a subset of three areas:

  • The Probable Future: I think of this as a way of describing the way things will be in your ministry or organization if nothing changes.  You pick the timeline, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, it doesn’t matter.  The probable future is what things will look like if you’re doing the same things.  See also, Start with the End in Mind.
  • The Possible Future: This is actually all of the known or imagined possibilities for the future.  For example, you might have a meeting where you brainstorm as many possibilities for connecting people as you can.  See also, Where Do You Want to Go with Your Small Group Ministry?
  • The Adjacent Possible: This section isn’t labeled in the diagram, but if you look closely in the preferred future section, you’ll notice that it includes some of what is actually beyond the possible future.  See that?  The white space.  I think of the adjacent possible as the Ephesians 3:20-21 aspect of the preferred future.  See also, Grouplife Agnostics and the Adjacent Possible.

Where does choosing what not to do come in?  According to Michael Porter, “choosing what not to do is the essence of strategy.”  Porter, often recognized as the father of modern strategy, has boiled down our discussion to its essence.

Calling out the preferred future is really a three step process:

  1. identifying the gold of what you are currently doing
  2. imagining all of the possibilities beyond what you are currently doing
  3. choosing what not to do trims out the extra that may very well be good but not great.

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

The Importance of Discipling People with Wisdom

geiger-headshotEver feel any responsibility for the spiritual development of the group members in your church?  I do.  And I bet you do too.  I had an opportunity this week to ask Eric Geiger a few questions about the importance of discipling people with wisdom, one of the key benefits of LifeWay’s new Bible Studies for Life curriculum.

What is the big idea behind “discipling people with wisdom”?

The apostle Paul said, “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Paul wanted to see maturity and development occur in the people he led, and according to this passage, this involved teaching with wisdom. The antithesis of  “teaching with wisdom” is a haphazard plan or no plan for developing people in our groups/classes.

As we design ongoing Bible studies from LifeWay (such as Bible Studies for Life), we long for the studies to provide church and group leaders with a wise plan to lead people toward greater maturity in Christ. We are concerned about the long-term lack of impact on people in our groups/classes if there is no plan.

Is there a biblical basis for a discipleship plan?

I believe there is. The apostle Paul described his ministry as skillful building in response to and empowered by God’s grace. He said, “According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10). In other words, the apostle Paul did not just “wing it.” He did not haphazardly plant churches or disciple people. With great intentionality, Paul faithfully served as a master builder. And likewise, he challenged us to “be careful how [we build].”

A wise builder has a set of blueprints, a plan, and a clear strategy for proactively attacking the building project. A wise builder would never come to the table with a dream of what could be built without a plan for executing it. In the same way, your ministry needs a blueprint. Your church must have a plan to disciple people with wisdom. Your church must be more than a random and disconnected array of programs, studies, and events.

What do you mean when you talk about a “wise discipleship plan”?

I know discipleship is much broader and deeper than information, so I want to be careful to emphasize that I am not suggesting a discipleship plan is equated to discipleship. Ultimately, discipleship is about transformation, not merely information or behavioral modification. I believe local churches exist to make disciples and that the totality of their mission must be to make disciples; thus, they need an overarching discipleship process that undergirds their church. But when I talk about a “wise discipleship plan” for groups or classes, I am talking about the plan for study. Educators would likely call a “plan” a “scope and sequence” of what is studied. Because community is only as strong as what it is built upon, church leaders are wise to give their groups a discipleship plan that over time exposes people to the whole counsel of God’s Word.

So each of our Bible study series (Bible Studies for Life, The Gospel Project, etc.) is developed in community with church leaders we respect, with educators, and with scholars so that we can lay our heads on our pillows at night really believing that we have a plan to develop and mature people over time—that we aren’t throwing a whole bunch of studies on the wall and hoping some of them stick.

What are some essential elements in a discipleship plan?

The most common and essential element in a wise discipleship study plan is the Word: the Living Word (Jesus) and the written Word. Studies must be rooted in Scripture, and over time, people must be exposed to the totality of the Word. Studies must also be focused on Jesus because only He transforms the heart.

The starting point for a discipleship plan may vary based on the group/class, but all studies must get people to the text and to Jesus. For example, with Bible Studies for Life we start with real life issues that people face everyday, and we want to bring the Scripture to bear on those issues. Over time we expose people to the whole counsel of the Word. With The Gospel Project, we start with a systematic plan to show people how all Scripture points to Jesus. With Explore the Bible (our next big launch for all ages), we start with a plan to walk people through all the books of the Bible. A pastor who has been to seminary would say one sounds like practical theology, one sounds like systematic theology, and one sounds like biblical theology. Three different approaches, but all must be centered on the Word.


Eric Geiger serves as one of the Vice Presidents at LifeWay Christian Resources, leading the Church Resources Division. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric has authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church.


Quotebook: Dallas Willard on Following Jesus

When I think about the objective of making disciples, I am reminded of Colossians 1:28: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”  For me, a big part of my objective is to present everyone fully mature in Christ.

What would that look like?  How do I know I am accomplishing my objective?  I love this Dallas Willard line.

“Disciples of Jesus are those who are with him, learning to be like him. That is, they are learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Renovation of the Heart, 241)

I think it’s interesting and instructive that Willard didn’t write about knowing what Jesus knew.  Instead, he talked about learning how to live; “learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.”