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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!

5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Could Do Right Now

Ready to take things up a notch?  There are at least 5 things every small group pastor could do right now that would shift their ministry onto a new trajectory.  And there really are no exceptions.  Every small group pastor (or reasonable facsimile thereof) could do these things.

Every small group pastor could…

Develop preferred future language for their small group coaches. leaders, and members.  Have you developed the language that will help you envision what your ministry will look like in your preferred future?  You may not realize this, but shared language is actually a prerequisite to any kind of teamwork or collaboration.  Want to build a thriving small group ministry?  You cannot do it alone.  It takes a team.  And you can’t go anywhere significant without a shared language that describes where you want to go.  See also, Start with the End in Mind and Creating Your “Refined” Preferred Future.

Thoroughly evaluate their percentage connected numbers.  Spending sufficient time gathering the numbers that will yield an accurate understanding of your percentage connected is so important.  You’ll never talk about look at your crowd the same way again.  You’ll never accept delays or the pursuit of problem-free the same way again.  Basically, once you’ve discovered your true percentage connected…you’ll be very motivated to connect unconnected people.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected? and What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?

Diagnose their coaching structure.  Do you have the right people in the role of coach?  Do you have enough of the right people?  Do you have some in the role who are really coaches in name only?  This is an important thing to do.  The coaches in your system play an important role in whether a new group sustains and also help determine what happens in the lives of group members.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure and Diagnosis: The Coaches in Your System.

Meet with their senior pastor.  I realize I’ve just tripped a booby trap for some, but this is a very important activity that could set in motion a powerful chain reaction.  Sure, it might require a preliminary step (having coffee with your supervisor and convincing them to set up coffee or lunch), but it will be worth the effort.  Sitting with your senior pastor and sharing your heart for unconnected people and making disciples may be the thing that sets in motion a series of amazing next steps.  See also, Note to Senior Pastors: Authentic Community Begins with You.

Lay the foundation for an annual calendar approach.  You may not be able to get very far beyond initial planning, but to pull out a calendar and begin pencilling in any existing sermon planning, major congregational emphases, holiday schedules, and the optimum group launch seasons will help you begin to see when it might pay to collaborate.  See also, How to Build an Annual GroupLife Calendar and When Is the Best Time to Launch a Church-Wide Campaign?

Need a bonus suggestion?  Spend some time with my Signature 10 Point Checklist.

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


Top 10 Posts of September, 2014

Miss a day?  Here are my top 10 posts for September, 2014.  It was a great month!  4,492 unique users.  82 countries.  47 languages.  Thanks for coming by!

  1. This Is Why We Need Community
  2. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader
  3. Skill Training: Top 10 Ways to Find New Group Members
  4. New to Small Group Ministry? Start Here
  5. How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection
  6. How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure
  7. 5 Ways Senior Pastors Can Affirm the Value of Small Group Leaders
  8. Need a Funny Video to Promote Small Groups? Check Out The Bible Study
  9. 5 Compromises that Derail Small Group Ministry
  10. Don’t Miss the New Beth Moore Study: Children of the Day: 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Don’t Miss This Study: Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry

OverwhelmedHad an opportunity this week to preview a new study from Perry Noble.  Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry is a six week, DVD-driven study on a topic that is dead center for many, many people.  Noble, the founding and senior pastor of NewSpring Church, “a growing, vibrant church with multiple locations all over the state of South Carolina,” is a gifted communicator and teacher, convicted about speaking the truth as plainly as possible.

Overwhelmed is a DVD-driven study, featuring the dynamic teaching of Perry Noble.  At 20 to 23 minutes in length, these sessions will hold everyone’s attention.  Clipped from a weekend message series at NewSpring, there is never a dull moment.  Powerful personal examples and great visuals will captivate your members.

The Bible study book is well designed and includes everything your members need for a powerful experience.  Each of the six sessions includes three components to help every member get the most out of the meeting:

  1. Start includes questions to get the study started and introduce the video
  2. Watch features a video viewing guide to make it easier to to take notes
  3. Respond is a great set of discussion questions that will help your group respond to the Bible and Perry Noble’s teaching.

Also included in every session are three components designed to help your members understand and apply concepts before the next session:

  1. Closer Look is designed to help members assess their personal situation.
  2. Personal Study is designed to help members understand what God has to say to them.
  3. Next Steps is designed to help members apply what they’ve learned.

Overwhelmed is a very good study and it will impact many, many people in almost every group.  Perry Noble is one of the most dynamic communicators in America and his own personal experiences with this topic will grab your members attention from the opening moments.  The application elements that are built in to the Bible study book are really exceptional.  Some very good work has crafted an excellent experience.  I loved Overwhelmed and I think you will too.  I highly recommend this study.

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.”

Boyd Pelley on Churchteams

Boyd Pelley
​One of the most common questions in my conversations with small group pastors over the years has been, “How can I help unconnected find a group?”  Another very common question has been, “How can I keep a finger on the pulse of the groups in my system?”  My answer?  Churchteams.
Full disclosure, Churcteams has been a sponsor here at longer than anyone else.  But that’s not why I’ve recommended their service over the years.  And it’s not why I asked my friend Boyd Pelley, the co-founder of Churchteams to answer a few questions about their service.  I recommend Churchteams because it’s designed by people with deep understanding of what is needed and a real commitment to providing the best possible service.
MH: Recently, I asked Boyd to share the Churchteams story with my readers.  Here’s Boyd:

BP: People struggle for purpose and how to know God.  The church is their best hope.  But the church also struggles-with organizational clutter and systems. We help churches track people, connect them to church life and care for their kids, money and vision.  We do that by developing world-class software.

​MH: Sounds like more than just software for small groups.

BP: ​As you know, we began as a cloud-based, small group software.  In fact you and a bunch of our friends were very helpful in helping us think through what it should do and sharing it with churches.  We always realized churches would find it easier to manage people if all their data was in one place.  In 2007 it was time to take what we had learned about the best practices in ministry and best practices in technology and expand those to include the rest of church management; stuff like membership, assimilation, communication, event registration, children’s check-in and contributions.​

MH: Best practices in ministry?

​​BP: From an organizational perspective, churches get cluttered really easily.  As a church grows, it typically adds new ministries, each with their own way of staying organized.  Over time these develop into silos that compete for resources.  And clutter happens.  A few decades ago Carl George and others started helping the church realize that to grow beyond the limitations of these silos, churches had to get better at organizing.  The idea of becoming a church “of” groups was born.  That is, realizing that everything we do in church life is really a group whether we call it a small group, a class, a committee, a circle, a team, an event, a project or even a step in the process of assimilation.  This idea simplifies church structure allowing the church to grow way beyond former limits.  We designed Churchteams around this simple concept.  It’s part of what makes it so intuitive and user-friendly.

MH: Tell us about the best practices in technology.

BP: When you’re talking about best practices in technology, there are four key ideas.

  • First, move to the cloud.  Software designed for the cloud is so much better than the hassle of managing servers, updates, back-ups, access, etc..  Churchteams has always been cloud-based.  That’s home for us and our native language.
  • Second, make it social.  To me, social has come to mean the software needs to meet people where they are rather than asking people to come to it.  Basic ideas here include: email notifications with one click response for group leaders, no login event registrations making it easy for people to connect, use of email, texting and linking to social media.  ​
  • Third, make it  mobile.  In 2013 we changed our entire platform to what’s called “responsive design”.  This means the screen layout automatically adjusts to the device being used.  Apps are separate products and limited in scope.  Responsive platforms give you complete access to a fully integrated software on any device.
  • Fourth make it smart.  The next logical wave for technology is that it becomes responsible to both collect and report data.  We have seen the power of this with how we get group leaders to use the software and then with the group health summary that is automatically emailed to small group pastors each month.  They love seeing a 30,000 foot trend graph, a 5,000 foot health summary, and quick access to what’s really going at ground level for any particular group.

MH: What benefit does software built around groups have for churches?

BP:  There are many benefits to Churchteams, but two important benefits are:

  • It builds unity and alignment among staff.  The tools people use influence how they view and manage their environment. Because everything in Churchteams is organized as a group, it gets staff on the same page to see themselves as coaches and team leaders.
  • It simplifies things for volunteers in two ways.  They don’t have to create accounts and remember login information to use the software. They understand expectations as they serve in and out of different ministries  because every ministry is organized the same way.

Boyd Pelley is co-founder and President of Churchteams.  He served on church staffs for 18 years as Discipleship, Administrative and Family Pastor.  Initial development of the software was during the last 8 of these years.  Mark coached Boyd while he was a small groups pastor.  Married to Pam, they have two grown children.  For more information, go to

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