What Do You Need To Fix?

I have a friend who recently announced that it was time for changes in their small group ministry.  They went on to say, everything except the semester system and free market model are “up in the air.” Continuing, “I think it’s healthy to re-examine everything you do regularly, but it didn’t take us long to acknowledge that these things are not broken and work well in our given environment. They are the two best things about our small group ministry.”


What do you think about that statement?  Logical?  Seems like the thing to do?  Would you do that?  Are you in the camp that says, “re-examine everything you do regularly and keep the best things?”

Here’s what the statement generated in me.  First, a three part disclaimer.

  • First, it is essential that you clarify what a win is for your small group ministry.
  • Second, since there is no problem-free solution to anything and every solution has a set of problems that go with it, all you can do is choose the set of problems you’d rather have.
  • Last, I’m not a huge fan of either the semester system or the free market model.  Not that either concept is wrong.  Just that I personally prefer the problems that go with another solution.  Based on what I’ve determined a win is and the set of problems that accompany those ideas…I prefer a different model.

Disclaimer out of the way, my immediate thought on reading my friend’s statement was that the “assumptions that a team has held the longest or the most deeply are the most likely to be its undoing.”  This chilling line is from a really helpful article over at HBR called When Growth Stalls by Matthew S. Olson, Derek van Bever,  Seth Verry.

This line and the study were at least partially behind North Point’s decision to abandon both a weekly version of Kidstuff (their very cool program for kids and their parents) and 7:22 (their very well attended weeknight Singles’ worship experience).  Both programs were very good, maybe not the best things they were doing, but very good.  Well attended.  Huge fan base.  Discarded.  Why?  Because when North Point went back to examine the underlying assumptions that drove their commitment to those ideas…they realized that a change was needed.

I’ve been fascinated by their process, going back to Andy Stanley’s 2008 Drive talk called Random Thoughts on Leadership.  Think about the willingness to ditch two programs that were so effective.  Amazing.  Ditching things that were working…but not in line with their current assumptions.  I’ve written about it here, here and here.  To top it off, the idea fit neatly alongside the Peter Drucker notion of purposeful abandonment.  It’s not enough to get rid of what’s broken.  True innovation comes when everything is on the table.

What does this all have to do with us?  With you?  With me?  When we evaluate our small group ministries, what are the design elements that need to be closely examined?  Is the strategy that we’re using really the right one?  Or is it based on assumptions that are out of line with current realities?  Out of line with ‘changes in the external environment.”

What does this have to do with all of us?  For starters, we should probably all be putting everything on the table.  As Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel said to Gordon Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do?  Why shouldn’t we walk out, come back in and do it ourselves?”

What do you need to evaluate?  What do you need to change?  What do you need to fix?  The things that aren’t working?  As Andy Stanley has said, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.”  Like what you’re getting?  Keep it.  Want the best results?  Question the design.

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

Better Group Life Through Technology

What technologies are you using in your small group ministry?  Website page?  Blog?   Facebook?  Twitter?  Data management system (like Churchteams or GroupsInteractive)?

Or are you doing the things according the the KJV?  You know…the old fashioned way.  Printed catalogs?  Phone trees?  Sign up forms?

The times are achangin’ you know.  Today your leaders can download session 2 from the blog, interact with each other, let you know the DVDs are defective.  They can meet up with their coach via tokbox or google’s video chat.  You can update everyone via Facebook or Twitter with a text message from your phone.

So what technologies are you using in your small group ministry?  Take 2 minutes and answer our two question survey.  Click here to take the survey.  I’ll put up the results in an upcoming post.

What Part Does Your Senior Pastor Play?

If you want to become a church of groups…what part does your senior pastor play? More to the point, does your pastor need to lead a group in order for group life to become a deeply held value in your church?

[quote]Although I’ve written a 4 part series on The Role of the Senior Pastor, I want to clarify something and then propose an alternative principle.  First, a clarification.  In my recent list of the top 10 axiomatic beliefs of group life I identified the idea that your pastor needs to lead a group, as an axiomatic belief that needs to be debugged.  Note the distinction I’m making.  In my mind, you’re never going to have real impact without the express engagement of your senior pastor…but leading a group is not a requirement.  Being part of a group…certainly.

Now to the alternative principle.  You’re never going to truly get traction on the idea that people need to take a step out of their comfort zone (rolling into their parking spot, strolling into the auditorium, sitting and listening for 75 minutes, and then rolling out of the parking lot in time for the next opportunity to consume) unless it is modeled by the most visible person in the organization.  All the announcements in the world won’t persuade the unconnected to try something that seems as risky and inconvenient as group life.  What will persuade them?  The express engagement of your senior pastor.

Admittedly, for many of us it is out of our control.  Few of us are the senior pastors of our churches.  Most of us are on a staff or we’re key volunteers charged with giving leadership to the small group ministry.  That said, let me point out a few important ideas that may serve as conversation points with your pastor:

  • When you survey the church landscape you’ll discover that where there is a high percentage of group involvement there will also be a high level of senior pastor engagement.  The best example is Saddleback, where Rick Warren is a relentless advocate of the importance of group life.  Other high profile pastors to look at would be Bill Hybels, Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley.  Listening to their messages will provide a glimpse into how engaged they are personally with the process of encouraging people to take the risky and somewhat inconvenient baby step of trying a small group for themselves.
  • At the same time you can look at many other high profile pastors and find only infrequent reference to the importance of community in the process of life-change.  The gulf between the two sets of pastors and the accompanying percentage of small group participation is unmistakable.
  • Back to Saddleback, another element of the prominent role that must be played by the senior pastor is as chief spokesperson.  Note that the chief spokesperson is not Steve Gladen.  Although Gladen plays the part of small group pastor at Saddleback, Rick Warren is the one doing the talking.  When they’re preparing to launch groups through a campaign (like Life’s Healing Choices) the charge is visibly led by Rick Warren.  Behind the scenes, Gladen and his team are doing the planning and preparation, but the very visible front man is Warren.  Grandstanding?  No.  Smart.  The masses do not know who Gladen is.  They know Rick Warren and the largest number will follow him.  The same is true in your church.
  • Another important note concerns how frequently group life is mentioned by the senior pastor.  Again, at Saddleback it truly is a constant, every week, all-the-time part of the conversation.  While there are seasons during the year when group life references reach a fevered peak, it has been my observation that you can’t be there on the weekend without hearing about its importance.  Actually…it was my wife’s observation.  We’d been attending Saddleback for about 4 or 5 months and were moving slowly along with the crowd exiting the auditorium.  She said, “I see now why it is so different here.  I see now how Saddleback has more adults in groups than they do at their weekend services.  It is because they never stop talking about it.  Rick Warren never stops talking about it.  He never moves on.  And he’s the one doing the talking.  He’s relentless about the importance of groups.”

That’s the part that your senior pastor must play…if you want to be a church where nobody stands alone.

Top 10 Axiomatic Beliefs of Group Life

axiomatic lockWhen you think of group life, of small group ministry, what are your axiomatic beliefs?  Remember that an axiom is an established rule or principle or self-evident truth.  We all have them stored away in our brains.  The key is that not all of them are true…and not all of them are the kind that will always be true.

Consider this line from Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management:

All of us are held hostage by our axiomatic beliefs.  We are jailbirds incarcerated within the fortress of dogma and precedent.  And yet, for the most part, we are oblivious to our own captivity (p. 126, The Future of Management).”

This got me thinking; wondering what are the axiomatic beliefs of group life?  Here’s my attempt at a top ten.  Not all of them are true.  None of these are mine.  You look them over and then use the comment section to add to the list.

  1. The senior pastor needs to lead a group.
  2. Good groups grow and birth.
  3. The optimum environment for life-change is a small group.
  4. Elders or deacons are a good source for group leaders or coaches.
  5. The longer a group is together the more deeply connected the members become.
  6. Good groups practice the open chair.
  7. The “career path” of a leader is member, apprentice leader, leader, coach.
  8. Once a group gets to about 12 members, it’s pregnant and needs to start preparing to birth.
  9. The semester idea offers more “jump in” opportunities and offers the assurance that it’s only a 13 week commitment.
  10. Sermon-based curriculum makes your group stickier.

Here’s the thing about axiomatic beliefs.  If you want to break through to a better way of helping people connect, grow spiritually, and impact their world…you’re going to have to debug your thinking and begin proactively developing paths that lead from where you are to where you want to be.

Over the next couple weeks I plan to unpack a few of these axiomatic beliefs, breaking them down, in the search for an underlying principle that will help all of us move to where we want to be.  If you’d like to be updated when I add to this series, you can sign up right here.

Image by SIV-Athens

Debug Your Thinking

When you think about your discipleship strategy or your connection strategy…how is it working?  Have you ever slowed down long enough to really examine your results?  To see if what you are trying to do is really happening?

On the wall in my office you’ll find a quote that is constantly on my mind as I work with churches to help them debug their thinking.  Here’s what it says:

Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.” Andy Stanley

When I’m talking with a church about the way things are working, I like to point out that the reality is that their design is producing the results they’re currently getting.  “Like what’s happening?  Keep doing it.  Don’t like it?  You’ll need to change the design!”  And for many churches that is what needs to happen…but getting started just never seems to happen.

Maybe that’s your church!  Maybe that’s your ministry.  You may be able to work through this process all on your own.  But maybe what you need is an outsider who can guide you and your team through a process of discovery.

3 Next Steps to Consider:

  1. Schedule a call to begin to assess your situation.
  2. Join a group of churches working through the debugging process together.
  3. Schedule an on-site consultation.

Debug Your Thinking – a Group Life Webinar

Thursday, September 3rd, 12:00 to 12:45 pm CDT

Click here to register

Trying to figure out why your small group ministry isn’t really delivering the results you’re looking for?  Resigned to the fact that in your church it just doesn’t work?  I want to suggest that there are probably some underlying assumptions that are keeping you from seeing things a different way.

One of the most important books I’ve read in the last decade has been Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management.  Particularly chapter 7 on escaping the shackles.  There are some ideas in that chapter that have come to shape my thinking about what is possible and what we could be doing in small group ministry.

I want to invite you to join me and the Willow Creek Association Group Life team for a conversation on how to apply Gary Hamel’s principles to your ministry.  I know you’ll find it helpful.  I believe you’ll leave with some next steps that will make a difference.  You can join the conversation from your home or office.  And…it’s free.

Thursday, September 3rd, 12:00 to 12:45 pm CDT.

Click here to register!

The Exponential Power of a Church-Wide Campaign

What is the most powerful way to impact your entire congregation?  Many believe that a church-wide campaign, what Rick Warren refers to as a spiritual growth emphasis,  is the most important spiritual innovation in the last 50 years…maybe the last century.  Why?  Read on.

Although there are very basic church-wide campaigns that simply offer a way of focusing the weekend message, more robust campaigns align everything that everybody is doing for the season.  Weekend sermons, small group curriculum, children’s Sunday School programming, student ministry programming, memory verses, newsletters, bulletin inserts, websites, everything is used to get everyone on the same page for six weeks.

(Need help?  Click here to find out about my Church-Wide Campaign Coaching program)

Alignment is the key.  Why is this important?  Church life without alignment is like a car out of alignment.  Instead of everything moving in the same direction, all four tires are trying to move in a slightly different direction.  Can it work?  Only roughly.  Put things in alignment…and experience the synergy of everyone and every ministry on the same page.  How do you get alignment?  There are four important keys to launching a church-wide campaign.

  • Choosing a campaign theme is the most important decision you’ll make.  Although the 40 Days of Purpose is the most familiar, there are a number of off-the-shelf campaigns available.  I’ve highlighted some of the best over the last several years. Take a look at Looking for a New Church-Wide Campaign, New Church-Wide Campaigns for 2009, The Latest in Church-Wide Campaigns for 2010 and New Church-Wide Campaigns for Fall 2010.  Additionally, with some work you can put together a home grown campaign.  A key question is, “Who are you trying to engage?”  The difference between what will engage the core or committed versus what will engage the crowd must be taken into consideration.  I’ve written about this right here.
  • Determining when to do your church-wide campaign is also very important.  Adequate preparation synchronized with a season that allows build up and follow through is essential.  For this reason, the fall ministry season is optimal in many ways.  Saddleback, masters of the campaign universe, launch most of their campaigns at the end of September, allowing a burst of promotion right after Labor Day to enlist end-of-the-summer new attendees.  With certain caveats pre and post Easter are other effective campaign launch windows.
  • The weekend series before and after the campaign play an important role in who will be engaged and who will stay engaged.  Opening the fall with a broadly appealing series gives you the ability to engage the crowd or community.  Following the campaign with a series that is immediately applicable to your newest attendees will help them remain engaged.
  • The strategy used to recruit small group leaders plays an important role in who will be in the groups.  Choosing a crowd-sensitive topic and recruiting HOSTS from the congregation beyond the usual suspects are essential ingredients in the recipe for an exponential campaign.  Decisions made about who can lead and how you’ll fill groups enable wider impact that reaches beyond the twice a month attendee and into the crowd and community.

Need more help?  Ready to plan a church-wide campaign that reaches beyond the usual suspects and into your community?  Setting up a series of coaching calls is easy, very affordable, and will pay for itself.  You’ll have clarity on your next steps or your money back.  I guarantee it.

Designing Your Small Group System

We had a great call today with my good friend Kent Odor, this week’s guest on the Small Group Fraternity. Definitely in the small group pioneer category, Kent has a long small group history and has had many great experiences along the way.  In today’s call there were a number of important insights.  Just wanted to share this one with all of you, because it will help you in the development of your small group system.

Kent talked about how every cell in a biological sense needs input, output and connection…and so does every soul.  He went on to explain that every soul needs input (3 types: from the front, in groups, and individual), output (serving), and connection that keeps them safe and growing.

I asked him to drill down a little further and he explained that they think of input as based on the 5 core values of the Cincinnati Vineyard.  Here are their 5 core values:  Servant Community (In community we serve together), Outward Focused (It’s all about someone else), Worship (What you were called for), Empowered Transformation (Redeemed to maturity through the Holy Spirit), Relevant (Just right for every moment).

Now here’s the cool part.  First, they’ve looked through the Serendipity Bible and identified 24 studies for each core value.  And, as Kent told us, “it gets better.”  The second thing they’re doing is, recognizing the four stages identified in Willow’s Reveal study (Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ, and Christ-Centered), each of the 24 studies for each core value is tagged according to the stage it is ideally suited for.

That’s some really good systems thinking and a great example of the kind of thing we’re getting with the Small Group Fraternity.

Learning How to Pray Together

If the greatest fear that people have is public speaking…it only makes sense that many people will be hesitant to pray out loud.  Here are some ideas that I’ve found very helpful:

  • Distribute index cards and pens and ask each person to write out a simple one sentence prayer request.  Swap cards and read them aloud.
  • Ask each person to fill in the blank and say one thing they’re thankful for:  “God, I’m thankful for my ______________,”
  • Pull a chair into the middle of the room and suggest that since Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20),” in tonight’s meeting let’s speak to him as if he was right in that chair.
  • Sentence prayers with no conjunctions (and).  One idea only.  For example, “God help me with __________.”  “God I’m thankful for _______________.”  “God be with Dean tonight in a way he can sense.”
  • Ground rule: You can only pray for a personal concern tonight.  Nothing for your sister’s husband’s co-worker’s daughter.
  • Ask your members to pair up or get in groups of three. I’ve written much more about this idea in The Power of a Spiritual Training Partner.

Have you got some ideas that have worked for you?  Use the comments to spread the word!


What’s the Best Way to Close a Meeting in Prayer?

Q: “What is the best way to close a group meeting in prayer?”

A: Great question!  There are several parts to my answer.  First, the entire meeting structure ought to vary according to the needs of the group’s members.  After all, new groups will be much less willing to share genuine needs.  Long-term groups may spend a much longer portion of their group time praying.

Second, if the intensity of a meeting ought to change over time, it makes sense that the way your group prays together ought to change over time.  The closing prayer at the very first meeting might be more of a blessing than anything else.  As the group begins to get to know each other you may find that what used to take 5 minutes now takes 30.  You may also find that without some intentionality the authenticity of your member’s prayer requests are stuck at a fairly superficial level.  This is the point when it will benefit everyone to take advantage of the idea of a spiritual partner.

Third, if the only person that can close is the official leader…you’ve missed a great opportunity.  As early as possible you’ll want to begin to help your members learn how to pray together.