Semester Based Groups

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ActivateSemester-based groups is a strategy that has growing popularity due to books like Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups by Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas.  Essentially, semester-based is a strategy designed to take advantage of three well-timed opportunities to help people connect with a group.

Semester-based is also a strategy that is used in combination with other concepts (like sermon-based or free-market) to provide a more complete small group delivery system.

Like every strategy, semester-based groups 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:


  • It 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.
  • Because each semester is 10 to 13 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.


  • The key disadvantage is the easy off-ramp provided.  While providing multiple on-ramps every year is a great idea, I’ve found that I don’t need to work so hard to give people an out after only 10 to 13 weeks.
  • A 10 to 13 week commitment seems short (especially in comparison to a year), but I’ve found the idea of a 6 week commitment much more appealing.  Lyman Coleman pointed out that 6 weeks is short enough to get my commitment and long enough to begin to establish connection.
  • The upside of three big time promotional periods a year comes with the downside of the work involved in producing catalogs, recruiting leaders, defining new offerings, etc.
  • 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 quickly 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.

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  1. Ed Applegate on October 19, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Mark as you know, we run Activate at Crossroads. If people are interested in talking this through I’d be happy to talk to them. Just email me at

  2. Mark Howell on October 19, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Thanks Ed! You may get some takers.


  3. Danny Buzzard on October 19, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I love the discussion on philosophy and strategy. Surely, we’re not the only hybrid out there. Any thought to discussing how different models work together to mitigate risks or known problems? For example, we adhere to a semester system regarding leader training (3 big leader meetings a year) but our groups are open and not time bound. Most of the new individual groups we’re starting are niche-affinity-free market type groups brought up out of our body by the spirit working but we would also like to try some sermon based groups. Help me as I wrestle internally with my black and white in a totally gray world.

    thanks for what your doing.

  4. Mark Howell on October 19, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Hey Danny! Thanks for jumping in to the discussion! My intent as I work through this series is to begin to flesh out a way of thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of each system that will help individual congregations make decisions about what works best for them.


  5. Joe Donaldson on October 19, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Great article, Mark. I think you hit the pro’s and con’s dead-on. We’ve just launched our first sermon-based group semester and after 4 weeks are enjoying high participation and high retention. It will be interesting to compare with the ‘free-market’ semester launching in January.

  6. Mark Howell on October 19, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks Joe! Glad you found it helpful.