August 31, 2009
Wounded leaders need time and care before returning to battle.
Because of a chronic illness I have been experiencing over the past several years, I've been thinking a lot about what small-group leaders need as they go through crisis situations in their own life. I used to be of the mindset that continuing to lead your small group, even during a personal crisis, was the best way to get through the crisis. "Bring your struggle to the community" and then press on! I learned the hard way that I was only half right.
During my illness, I definitely could not survive without my community. But as for leadership, I have hit times when I simply could not press on as normal. I did not have energy to do the hard relational work. I struggled to be adequately prepared. I simply did not have the energy to take the initiative.
This experience is teaching me that we need to take the rehabilitation of wounded small group leaders seriously.
I have appreciated the insight of Stephen Ministries, who provide training and resources for small groups to help care for their members and leaders. Here’s a quote from one of their staff:
"You do not send wounded soldiers back into battle without providing appropriate care and sufficient time to recuperate.
Life is tough. The members of your congregation experience emotional and spiritual bumps and bruises from time to time—and sometimes more drastic injuries—as they serve their King and engage in his mission. Sometimes the wounds are inflicted by an enemy; at other times they are self-inflicted. Either way, wounded soldiers need time and proper care to recuperate and heal before again being pressed into service. Christian care is essential for helping God’s people return to wholeness so they can once again engage in God’s mission.
What happens if people do not receive the care they need when they are suffering? What if their needs are ignored or unnoticed or—worse yet—trivialized by others wielding hollow platitudes? Hurting Christians who do not receive appropriate, compassionate care from your congregation quickly lose sight of any potential value they may have had for your congregation’s mission. Some will become disillusioned and seek healing elsewhere; others will lose faith in the church as a whole and disassociate from your congregation. Another major research finding is that a person is much more likely to become inactive or drop out of church if his or her needs for care during a crisis go unmet. Even if hurting people stay in your congregation, their loyalty and devotion are likely to wane.
On the other hand, hurting Christians who receive appropriate and compassionate care from their congregation are much more likely to return to health and re-engage in the mission of the church. Quite often, after receiving care during a time of crisis, they rebound with a newfound passion for serving God and the church."
I have seen the reality of this in my own life. So, as summer draws to a close, make sure you and your small-group leaders have had the needed care and refreshment they need to get back into the battle.
August 28, 2009
Just one more week until we can resume our study together
Sorry, this image was the closing thing I could find to a horse "champing at the bit." (If that confuses you, you'll have to check the newsletter to find out more.) Anyway, we are on the cusp of a new session of Dot Com(unity), and I just wanted to quickly cover a few points and reminders to help everyone get ready.
What Is Dot Com(unity)
If this is your first experience with Dot Com(unity), you can learn about its origins and main purpose by clicking here. To summarize, Dot Com(unity) is what I call a co-learning experience. The goal is to get small groups from across the country (and the world) all studying the same material at the same time.
Our blog then provides a place for the leaders of those small groups to join together as a support network. You can ask questions about doctrinal issues, whether a particular icebreaker works well, how to handle a problem that has come up, and so on. It's like having a whole network of coaches who are all studying the same thing as you and can provide you with encouragement and support.
What Are We Studying?
We'll be focusing on the SmallGroups.com Bible study called Use Your Spiritual Gifts. This is a great course because it will not only help your group members identify their spiritual gifts (the material includes a gifts inventory/assessment), but it also addresses key issues like identifying our specific calling and dealing with the shame that often hinders and suppresses our gifts.
Why Do I Have to Pay?
This is our third session of Dot Com(unity), but this is the first time we have required participants to pay for the featured Bible study. I'm sure that many of you are wondering why that is so, and that's a fair question. The answer is that we have to generate a certain level of revenue in order to remain in operation.
SmallGroups.com is part of the Christianity Today International family of websites, which means we are part of a not-for-profit company. We exist to support and equip the Kingdom of God, not to make financial profits. And yet, we do have several expenses, including paying the authors of our Bible studies, not to mention the editors, designers, maintaining the website, and so on. So we have to generate enough revenue to cover those expenses.
That's why we charge for our premium products, like Bible studies. Please note, however, that we are including a 50% discount for the Use Your Spiritual Gifts study featured in this Dot Com(unity) session. Just use the coupon code DC0909. And yes, we will always provide a discount for our Dot Com(unity) studies.
Also, let me just throw in a quick pitch for a membership to SmallGroups.com. If your church purchases a SmallGroups.com membership, it can provide free access to SmallGroups.com for all of its small-group leaders. That means your church can provide you (and your fellow group leaders) with unlimited access to Bible Studies and training resources just by signing up—you wouldn't have to pay anything extra. Just a thought to keep in mind. (And if you can't convince your church to take the plunge, we also have individual memberships.)
Okay, if you have any other questions or items to discuss before we get started next week, just let me know. I'm looking forward to it!
August 24, 2009
Why your group won’t thrive if community is your goal
I was reading the new issue of Rev magazine recently. The issue is titled, “Moving Small Groups Out of their Box.” Several articles focus on the nuts and bolts of taking your small group to the people rather than asking people to your small group.
One insightful reminder for me was that in small groups, the idea of "community" should not be our goal, but only a by product of missionally oriented relationships. When we make community our goal, we drift towards an inward-focus—usually to the exclusion of people outside the group. In fact, what many churches make the focus of small-group ministry (community) can actually become the thing that stifles it!
When I chat with people about the process of becoming a more externally focused house church (or small group), they often ask how they can measure their progress in loving and ministering to those outside the walls of their church (or group). A practical way of thinking about this was proposed by Eric Swanson in Leadership Network Advance. He boils external focus down into two measurements:
--How often do you engage with people outside your group?
--How deep do you go with them when you engage them?
Here’s an excerpt from Eric's article:
“We have identified two primary variables for tracking the effectiveness of externally focused people and congregations that change a community and grow one's own soul: Depth of engagement and frequency of engagement…As helpful as (giving) money and (volunteering for) projects can be, lives are most likely to be changed when people engage with people. People feel their worth only when they are affirmed by other people. Good deeds can be done from afar, but good news can only be shared up close. Love is a shared experience…As we engage with other people, God may use us to change the ending of their story.”
To get some ideas of how you might engage people, try checking out the newest SmallGroups.com training download: “Planning a Group Service Project.” Remember, engaging in relationships with frequency and depth is vitally important, but developing those relationships both with brothers and sisters in Christ and with the lost world is what produces true community.
August 19, 2009
Looking at what happens in a sermon-based small group
If you didn't see it in the newsletter this week, SmallGroups.com is participating in a blog tour for Larry Osborne's recent book Sticky Church. The book covers the sermon-based small-group system Larry set up at North Coast Church over the years.
I've agreed to review chapter 11 of the book here; it's called "Flies on the Wall: What happens when a sermon-based small group meets." If you want to check out the blog posts for the rest of the chapters in the book, click here.
I've always liked the idea of sermon-based groups from an organizational standpoint. It seems like a great way to get the whole church on the same page not only about the weekly sermon, but about the value of small groups, as well. On the other hand, I've also been curious about the experience of the individual group leaders in such a church. Does such a system make leading a group easier or harder? More rewarding or more boring? That's why I was excited to review this particular chapter.
My opinion has always been that I would be stifled as the leader of a sermon-based small group. I love the creativity of crafting a lesson that approaches a Bible passage or topic in a new way. I enjoy being spontaneous and using different activities and games to supplement the teaching time. Most of all, I get a real kick out of leading people in meaningful discussions. Could those things survive in a sermon-based group?
Larry said a couple of things that eased my fears on this issue. For one, North Coast gives its leaders the freedom to digress. Larry writes: "Since the process of sharing, study, and prayer is more important than any specific content we might provide, I don't care that much if a group deviates, as long as it's led of the Spirit or in response to the needs of the group." That sounds healthy, to me.
Larry also emphasizes that the study material needs to cover different texts and materials than those covered in the Sunday sermon. Otherwise, people get bored because they are hearing everything twice. Amen.
But other aspects of North Coast's sermon-based group system would give me the heebie-jeebies as a group leader. Specifically, the curriculum is produced by the church and includes pre-written homework questions. Even worse, Larry encourages group leaders to have their members read their written answers out loud during the discussion time.
Yikes! I can't imagine being able to sit through that.
To be fair, Larry notes that the practice of spontaneous questions and answers usually favors the people in your group who are extroverts or enjoy "shooting from the hip" with their answers. And that's true.
But for my taste, the answer is not to make everything scripted. Training leaders in facilitation skills (how to properly direct a discussion) and offering times of silence for everyone to think of answers to different questions would be much better.
What do you think? Does the idea of being given pre-written homework and discussion ideas sound appealing to you? Would it make things easier? Or would it only drive you crazy? Let us know!
August 14, 2009
These winning captions are mouthfuls of fun...
All right, folks, it's time to announce the winners of our first ever Small-Groups Caption Contest. But before I do, let me just say thanks to everyone who contributed. This was very, very fun!
Now for the runner ups. Several entries demonstrated a lot of skill and knowledge of our website, and several were pretty funny, too. But I liked the following the best. We'll reward each entrant with a free download to SmallGroups.com in appreciate for their efforts.
Here they are:
- "Evereyone, I'd like you to meet my friend Goose. He's excited to get a taste of our small group so be sure to extend him the right hand of fellowship."
(I'm a sucker for a good pun.)
- "Wraslin' gaters... it's easy as pie!"
(Several of you used the "easy as pie" phrase, which proves that at least a few people do read the newsletter. But Zach was the first.)
- "Sam gets Jessica a purse, some assembly required."
Now for the winner!
Tom Benton is the winner of a one-year subscription to SmallGroups.com. Here's what he wrote: "Featured download: new method now available for making your small group smaller!"
That just tickled me for some reason. :) Congrats Tom, and thank you again to everyone who participated.
August 13, 2009
Why sharing meals together is a big deal
We've done polls at www.SmallGroups.com in the past about various topics. One poll question we previously asked was, "When was the last time your whole small group ate a meal together?" I was a little surprised, but excited, about the results. A majority of those who responded said their small group has shared a meal together in the last month! Granted, our polling methods are not scientific, but I was delighted to see these results.
Perhaps groups tend to share meals together more around holidays or before and after seasonal breaks, but I suspect there is a trend toward groups “breaking bread” more frequently together. I believe this is important for several reasons:
1) Eating meals together was clearly a practice of the early church. And from what we read in Acts 2:42-47, it was part of the core practices that propelled the growth of the early church.
2) "Breaking bread" in the early church seems to have been part of the regular "Lord’s Supper" practice of the early believers, rather than the more ceremonial version we commonly practice today. Participating in this meal as a community obviously brought a profound sense of the Lord’s presence to the group. There's no reason this aspect of sharing a meal together couldn’t have the same impact today.
3) Having a meal together maximizes your time together for sharing and relationships. Rather than trying to rush and get supper in before group, why not go a little earlier to group and share that meal time together. The same is true of breakfast or lunch.
4) Meals allow the whole intergenerational family to share time together. Rather than trying to make arrangements for what to do with the kids during group, meals are great times to incorporate everyone in the family into the group. My own kids feel very connected to our group partly because of the meal we all share together.
5) My experience has been that sharing a meal together whenever the group meets has significantly increased the community and spiritual health of small groups. I led groups for years where we only had a short snack time. When we switched to sharing simple meals together that everyone helped prepare, our sense of unity and spiritual growth greatly accelerated.
"They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." Acts 2:46-47
August 11, 2009
A good lesson from a horrible side dish
Whenever I order a barbeque sandwich in North Carolina, I'm asked if I want cole slaw on it. The first time this was asked of me, I was a little grossed out. "Do people really like that?!" I asked. The response was, "Sure Howerton, a lot of people prefer cole slaw on their barbeque sandwich. It's a North Carolina thing."
I thought to myself, That's just wrong!
But it's not wrong to slap one of the most despised conglomerations on the planet on a sandwich—it's just a preference. These confused connoisseurs of fine cuisine probably grew up eating their sandwiches covered with cole slaw. So they prefer it with the stuff, rather than without it. The practice may make me cringe when they eat it in my presence, but there's nothing wrong with them having it.
In a similar way, there are a lot of things that cause some followers of Jesus to cringe—things that are simply preferences, not things that are wrong. These preferences have been established in many ways:
• Families instill customs
• Denominations create different sets of belief
• Peers can steer people a certain way
• A person's history may cause them to think differently.
Small-group leader and small-group member: be careful that you don't question a fellow follower of Jesus when they involve themselves in various activities. That is, unless the Bible specifically points out the wrongness of those activities.
Labeling preference as "wrong" or "right" damages us. It ties, gags, and jails those who have journeyed to the source of freedom. If you feel you have a weakness in this area, read Romans 14 to get a grip on God's view of "preference" and "wrong."
And by the way—I have recently learned to relish cole slaw on my barbeque sandwiches!
August 9, 2009
The final session of this study takes us to a great place to be.
It's hard for me to believe, but the last week of our second Dot Com(unity) session has arrived. And I think it's rather appropriate that our study material for this week covers the topic of joy. I've had fun this summer!
And on the subject of having fun, this week's study material definitely includes the article with the funnest title: Yabba-ka-Doodles! You'll have to read more if you want to figure out what that one is about. :)
Teaching Point One contains a good lesson for small-group leaders. You may have already heard that joy is separate from happiness, and that joy is a permanent state of being while happiness is a temporary emotion. If you're like me, you've heard those ideas about a thousand times—which means you may gloss over the point and move on to other, "deeper" issues with your group.
But tread carefully here. Just because you have a good handle on a principle or idea doesn't mean that all of your group members feel the same way. There may be someone in your discussion this week that would greatly benefit from learning about true joy and how it is separate from happiness.
So take the time to mention the topic, maybe ask a few questions, and see if anyone wants to go deeper. If not, you can move on with a clear conscience.
When you do move on, I think the second teaching point is a good place to camp for a while. I especially like the inclusion of Hebrews 12:2: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
How did enduring the cross produce joy in Jesus? What does that mean? This is a great place to dig into Scripture for a few moments and really pull out some interesting ideas.
Are there any other passages about joy that could be addressed in this time? Any other verses that we should be aware of as we prepare for our studies?
The third teaching point gives you a great opportunity to apply not only the principles in this study, but in our entire 10-week course. We've been studying a course called "Essentials in Knowing God," and I don't think anyone would argue with me that the more we get to know our Father and Savior, the more joyful we should become.
So take a moment with your group and ask the question: Am I being transformed toward the person that God created me to be? Can I see that by an increase in joy in my life over the past months? Years? (Not an increase in happiness, necessarily. But joy.)
Then take a look toward the future. What do you think you would be doing if you were a more joyful person? Specifically, what activities would you engage in—smiling more, smelling roses, giving more hugs, serving the poor, etc. What's stopping you from doing those activities now?
August 7, 2009
Small-group leaders, pastors, or both?
Dale Galloway, former pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland states "No church with more than 50 members can be effective in pastoral care without enlisting and enabling the lay people to do daily work of pastoral care." That begs the question: What do people really need in the way of pastoral care?
According to a Gallup poll from about four years ago, there are six needs people have:
1. To believe life is meaningful and has purpose
2. To have a sense of community and deeper relationships
3. To be appreciated and respected
4. To be listened to and heard
5. To feel that one is growing in faith
6. To have practical help in developing a mature faith
In the traditional sense of pastoral care, perhaps we can also include a seventh item to the list: "To be cared for and served in a time of crisis or need."
Even with number seven, if you look at this list, it is easy to see how small groups provide a means of meeting these needs. If your small groups aren't meeting these needs and your church has over 50 people, then healthy "pastoral care" probably isn't happening.
But how do you get small groups to embrace pastoral care as part of their ministry? Seeing the small-group leader as pastor and the pastor as small-group leader requires a significant paradigm shift in the way "church" has been done in many cases, both for the staff pastors and for the congregation.
Interestingly, the successful shift to small-group based pastoral care is perhaps one of the most significant indicators of whether a small group ministry has become a sustainable ministry and a core value of any particular local church. However, knowing if you have arrived is difficult because the transition is not clearly defined in most churches. Most small group churches are somewhere in the process of this transition, some of which will never know if they have really arrived.
The solution? (Sorry, no "easy button" here.) Know what paradigm you are striving for, clearly draw the vision, define the key pastoral care activities, and add pastoral care as an important additional training preparation for all small-group leaders and small-group members. Along the way, make sure the plan is known and embraced widely around the congregation as a whole. Then you will know how to gauge progress and whether your small-group leaders are becoming pastors—and whether your pastors are becoming small-group leaders.
August 4, 2009
A reality check for small-group leaders
Now that summer is in full swing and I am spending a lot of time in our yard, I realized that I like my garden much more from inside the house than from the outside. Through the window, I can see the colorful flowers, green bushes, and lovely trees. But up close, it is another story altogether.
Our yard, which gets little attention during winter months, has serious weeds, overgrown plants, un-killable bamboo shoots, and crabgrass masquerading as real grass. So now I am faced with a choice: 1) go back inside, ignore, and pretend the ugly stuff doesn't exist; or 2) start pulling, pruning, and working hard toward the beautiful garden I know it can be.
I think our small groups present a similar challenge. Sometimes we prefer the illusion of having a nice, superficial, seemingly-smooth group more than the up-close reality of a messy, authentic, transformational community that God calls us to be. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial."
So, how will we know if we are living our false "dream" group or really experiencing God-breathed biblical community? Well, take a deep breath, spend some time with God, and be honest about what you see in the "garden" of your group.
To get started, ask yourself these questions:
--Am I, as the leader, actively living and providing an example of a Christ-centered life?
--How has God been growing individuals in your group? [If you cannot answer this question, ask everyone at your next gathering. Then pay attention to the answers which will help you discern next steps for each individual]
--Are there "weeds" (e.g., negative communication patterns, underlying unresolved issues, disruptive behaviors) that have been allowed to exist? [make a plan for confronting and changing the group dynamics]
--Is the group stagnating, distracted, lacking in focus or ownership? [brainstorm why and try something new or do something differently]
--What nutrients (e.g., service, meaningful prayer times, social hang-outs, transparency, scriptural application, accountability) do you need to add to the soil to create a healthier environment for growth in the future?
As you pray and think through these questions (either alone or with trusted core members of the group), remember that it is ultimately God who makes people and groups grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). So pray diligently with earnest hearts! Be open and available to His Spirit's leading in your group. Ask God to show you how to feed and lead the people whom He has entrusted into your care.
Then, relax and experience the joy of partnering with God as He transforms you and your group!
August 3, 2009
And how to make it healthy
One of my favorite quotes from John Maxwell is: "Everything rises and falls on leadership." Over the years, it has become increasingly apparent to me how vital the relationship is between a "Coach" (or "Community Leader") and the leaders in their care. The relationship is just as important for the coach as it is for the group leader—a lifeline within which there is a double-movement of encouragement and support. This relationship takes effort from both sides in order to be strong.
In the past I've written more for coaches explaining how important it is for them to connect with their group leaders. However, one of the greatest challenges I've seen in churches does not have to do with the coaches contacting their group leaders as much as with group leaders rarely returning the courtesy, which over time emasculates the coach's purpose. One assumption from group leaders that feeds this is, "If there are no problems in my group, then there's no need for a connection with my coach." This is not true.
So how does each leader—group leader and coach alike—"fill the gap" of communication that seems to plague so many churches? The following list of practices is written to both coaches and group leaders. My hope is that at least one of these practices might refresh your own insight and action regarding this all-important relationship.
1. Take the time to build the relationship and get to know the coach/shepherd/mentor/pastor you are paired with. It's never too late to start, so reach out! Your group will reap the benefits.
2. Have a personal conversation about how to support each other. This is much better than a coach communicating the plan that all group leaders must subscribe to in the same way.
These questions go both ways:
--How can I best support you in your role?
--How often do you want to connect?
--What's your preferred method and time to connect?
--What encourages you? (Think "love languages".)
--What do you NOT want to do? (Submit reports, have long phone conversations, have to keep yet another regularly scheduled meeting, etc.)
--What brings life to you...and what drains it from you?
3. Agree to revisit how you have things set up with the understanding you can change things when desired—be flexible. Remember it's a relationship you're nurturing rather than a system you're maintaining.
4. Connect with your coach in a personable way at least twice a month.
5. If in-person meetings are challenging due to multiple campuses, distance, or scheduling, use freeconferencecall.com or tokbox.com for more frequent connections and reserve actual get-togethers for inspirational and celebratory purposes.
6. Learn birthdays, anniversaries, and those simple things that bring a smile to one's face—a Starbuck's coffee, a handwritten note, a dessert of some kind, etc. Then deliver on it!
The coach/leader relationship is primary. It is healthy when coaches and group leaders connect in unscripted ways, are real with each other, laugh with each other, want to communicate on a regular basis with one another, and dream together.
This list is intended to be a starting point to building a collegial relationship that is a source of life to both sides. Are there other ideas or practices that you have found helpful and would add to it?
August 2, 2009
There's more to following God than goodness and truth.
I can't believe we're in week 9 already of our summer Dot Com(unity) session! That means the study is almost over. And that means the summer is almost over!!! (If you live in a cold-weather town, like me, you understand my current angst.)
Oh well. We've had some really interesting study topics this summer, and another one has popped up this week: beauty. Here's a little humor to start things off—maybe even an icebreaking video for your group session?
Obviously, that's not the kind of "beauty" we're talking about this week. :)
This week's study material starts off with a great discussion question: Is beauty something that is absolute, or is it "in the eye of the beholder," as the saying goes? Even if you use some kind of activity or icebreaker, I think this is a great question to transition into the teaching/discussion time.
I also think that Teaching Point 2 could be a neat place to camp for several groups. When we think of the attributes of God, several words usually come to mind: Love, Wrath, All-knowing, Jealous, Patient, and so on. But I don't think it's common to think of God as "beautiful."
Would you agree? Either way it opens the door for a fascinating discussion on the nature of God and his role in creating the Earth, and people, in beautiful ways. Plus, it allows us to think about our appreciation of beauty. Is it worth our time to explore beautiful things instead of doing things that might be more "fruiful" to the Kingdom of God?
Like last week, I'm having a tough time identifying which of the teaching areas from the material have the best potential for impact. It really depends on your group members, I suppose.
So what do you think? Which of the teaching points below makes you most excited? Which do you think will be most exciting to your group?
1. God's creation is beautiful and meant for our enjoyment.
2. The splendor of creation is a reflection of its Creator, for God is beautiful.
3. Because we are created in the image of God, we share many of his attributes, including creativity.
4. In the Incarnation, God demonstrated that he had neither given up on the world of matter, nor on human beings, despite their sinfulness.