There are no problem-free small group systems, models or strategies. And there is an upside and a downside to everything.
Because of the popularity of both the sermon-based system and the free market system (two fairly common small group ministry systems) the semester system certainly has its advocates. Because of the inherent challenges of the semester system, it also has its detractors.
As I've done with sermon-based, free market, and other systems, I'll attempt a fair and balanced analysis of the semester system in this post.
What is the semester system?
Before I begin the analysis, what is the semester system?
Essentially, semester-based is a strategy designed to take advantage of three (sometimes two) well-timed opportunities to help people connect with a group. Typically the fall, winter and spring seasons with the summer off. Each semester is usually 10 to 12 weeks.
Like every strategy, semester-based has some real advantages. There are also some disadvantages that need to be acknowledged. As I’ve written in the past, there is no problem-free solution. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy:
What are the advantages of a semester based system?
- Semester provides a built in opportunity to promote group life three times a year. Generally those three times are just after school starts in the fall, January when people are naturally primed to want to turn over a new leaf, and about Easter (depending on when the holiday falls). For churches used to only talking about groups once a year, this alone will take the church in a whole new direction.
- Each semester offers an easy to spot on-ramp to small group participation. These on-ramps are often positioned as first or second steps out of the auditorium.
- Because each semester is 10 to 12 weeks long, it provides a relatively easy commitment for people who are being encouraged to try a group.
- Because the commitment is only for the semester, it allows an easy way out of a less-than-ideal match with the others in the group.
What are the disadvantages of a semester based system?
- A 10 to 12 week commitment seems short (especially in comparison to a year), but 6 week commitments have been found more palatable for second steps out of the auditorium. Lyman Coleman pointed out that 6 weeks is short enough to get my commitment and long enough to begin to establish connection. Important Note: It should be noted that the campaign-driven system takes advantage of a 6 week commitment in launching new groups with the understanding that if the new group is going well, it's easy to continue meeting.
- The easy off-ramp provided is another important disadvantage to note. While providing multiple on-ramps every year is a real advantage, providing an easy out after only 10 to 12 weeks sometimes brings an end to a group just as a genuine sense of connection begins.
- A major disadvantage is that the upside of three big time promotional periods a year comes with the downside of the work involved in recruiting new leaders or confirming continuing leaders, confirming new offerings (in the case of free-market), producing catalogs (print or web-based), etc. The horsepower required to pull this off should not be underestimated.
- The semester idea requires a promotional phase for each semester. Like anything else, if you want people to respond, you’ll need to narrow the focus on those weeks and allow the upcoming beginning of the new semester to be the priority. You can’t get traction if it is simply added to the list of the other events and activities being promoted.
There probably are other advantages and disadvantages to the semester-based strategy. These are just a few that are easily identified. I suggest that you pull together a team and have a no-holds-barred discussion. To prepare for the discussion, I suggest reading Activate, Sticky Church and Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century. Combined, you’ll pick up some very transferable ideas that will help you implement the strategy if you decide to adopt the semester-based concept.