What’s the Right ROI for Your Small Group Ministry?

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Note: This post was inspired by comments made by Jud Wilhite, senior pastor of Central Christian Church, on a recent Carey Nieuwhof podcast. See the end of the article for more.

Does the return on your small group ministry investment cover its cost?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Or more to the point, have you ever been asked that question?

Here's the context for today's post:

On a recent Carey Nieuwhof podcast a well-known senior pastor talked through a set of current assumptions about ministry and culture that are shaping their ministry strategy going forward. One of their current assumptions is that attendees will give 2 to 4 live attendance opportunities in a month. Another of their assumptions is that their primary audience is people who are -3 to +2 on a scale of -5 to +5 (Think Engle Scale).

How did this shape their strategy going forward? It led them to summarize their strategy (in terms of what they're asking attendees to do) this way:

  1. Attend a weekend service.
  2. Invite a friend (and bring them) to the weekend service.
  3. Join a team (could be off-campus home groups or weekend serving teams).
  4. Give Generously (use financial resources to rescue others).

In this part of the interview the case was made that the return on investment in groups that meet in homes was "so much work with so little actual fruit" but participants in serving teams "are more active in their church attendance, give more faithfully financially, significantly more, and are generally more engaged in ministry. (than members of home groups)."

He went on to say they are "creating a lot of teams around serving opportunities that work towards the weekend. Continuing our groups ministry but acknowledging that we can't even afford to staff it at a level of what it needs to have 75% in groups."

Now, to be fair, things are often said in interviews that are part hyperbole and overstatement. And, the point is made several times that the season they are entering into is an experiment and they're not sure it will work.

We now return you to our regularly programmed post:

Another way of phrasing today's question might be, "What IS the right ROI for your small group ministry?" (Or, what fruit does your small group ministry need to bear for the cost of the ministry to be worth it?)

Maybe a definition is in order. Merriam-Webster defines ROI this way:

"Return on investment (ROI) measures the gain or loss generated on an investment relative to the amount of money invested."

How would you calculate the ROI for a small group ministry? It's a two step process.

First, you'd need to determine the current value of your small group ministry (probably by determining things like number of adults in groups, number of leaders being developed and discipled, accumulated life-change stories, etc.).

Second, you'd divide the current value by its cost (personnel budget + program budget).

Now, you may have already spotted the challenge. Current value is easier to determine when everything you're measuring is quantitative in nature. Counting the number of adults in groups and number of leaders being developed and discipled (probably being "cared for" by a coach) is quantitative.

The challenge is that measuring the current value of small group ministry is at least in part qualitative in nature. Accumulating life-change stories (impact of authentic community on members' lives, external impact of the group in terms of community outreach, etc.) requires the eyes and ears of a sociologist/anthropologist.

You may not ever really be asked to determine the ROI of your small group ministry. But, if you're like me you may be asked to defend its cost in broader terms than simply personnel budget + program budget. For example, when you ask your senior pastor to mention the upcoming small group connection three weeks in a row. Or when you insist that for 6 weeks in a row the only thing talked about is the upcoming church-wide campaign. Or when you insist that your campus pastors are also the small group pastor until they reach a certain size and are able to hire one.

Feel me yet?

As a result, if you're not seeing real life-change or collecting examples of life-change, it may be difficult to defend the ROI of your small group ministry.

And that should cause examination of the design of your small group ministry. Remember, "Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley)." And if you don't like the results you need to change the design.

If you're not seeing examples of life-change, you need to pay immediate attention to your design. In order for the optimal environment for life-change to actually be a small group certain things need to be true and the main thing that must be true is that it needs a life-changing leader who is doing TO and FOR (and WITH) their members. How does that happen? Whatever you want to happen in the lives of the members of your groups must happen in the life of their leader first. And that determines both the value of a small group coach and the primary role of the coach.

So, what's the right ROI for a small group ministry? Honestly, it's a challenge to calculate because of the qualitative data needed. If you're not collecting examples of life-change, you need to begin immediately. If you're not seeing real life-change in your groups you need to immediately assess the design of your small group ministry.

Two of my assumptions are that life-change happens best in circles (not in rows), and belonging is a higher motivation than becoming or impacting (all are important motivations but belonging must be met first). These are important to note because they cause me to (1) emphasize participation in a small group and (2) place joining a small group before serving on a ministry team in my engagement pathway.

Can you see it?


I hope you've hung in long enough to wrestle with a very challenging thought process. Here's what I hope you've come away with:

First, you and your church have a set of assumptions about ministry. They may be different than anything you've read here and that's okay. The point is they are yours and from time to time you need to evaluate your assumptions to see if they are actually true and worthy of basing ministry strategy upon.

Second, if you've determined that participating in a small group is an important part of your ministry strategy and philosophy, then the ROI of your small group ministry should demonstrate its value. Less than adequate ROI should prompt a careful look at your ministry's design.

Finally, every church, large or small, growing, flatlined or in decline, develops their own assumptions on the value of small group ministry. Assumptions change. Strategies change. Philosophies change. Models change. The mission of the Church and the value of people do not change. They are timeless.

Note: Carey Nieuwhof's interview of Jud Wilhite is a really good listen. Great conversation and packed with keen insight into the culture here in Las Vegas and Central's current effort to reach the post-Christian Las Vegas culture. Wilhite acknowledges their assumptions are driving the experiment.

Further Reading:

Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change

Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders

7 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Has a Bad Design

10 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Ministry Strategy

Andy Stanley on Creating a Culture That’s All About Circles

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