By Michael C. Mack
What’s God going to do in and through your small group in 2014? Now is the time to prayerfully ask that question, set some goals, and make some plans for next year and beyond.
Perhaps you need to confront the brutal facts of your current reality, as author Jim Collins put it in Good to Great, “When you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of your situation, the right decisions often become self-
That’s what we did at Northeast Christian Church several years ago. We wanted to determine if our small groups were healthy, but we wanted more than just qualitative measures; we wanted to know the facts of our current reality.
So Murphy Belding and I, along with our small group ministry team, developed a list of what we called the seven “vital signs” of a healthy group. Then we surveyed all our groups to see how they were doing. Later, we followed up the results with training, coaching, and encouragement for our leaders. Eventually, I shared these vital signs and our process in Small Group Vital Signs (TOUCH publications: www.touchusa.org).
The lowest scores on our survey were in the area of goals and plans. Only 44 percent of our groups said they had goals, and had specific strategies to accomplish them. Even fewer, 37 percent, said they had a written covenant or action plan. This was no big surprise. What did surprise us was the substantial effect this had on the groups’ overall health.
We found a direct correlation between goals and plans and the health of groups in all other areas. The groups that had goals and plans were more Christ-centered and mission-minded, were actively making disciples and building community, and were reproducing. The groups that didn’t have goals and plans were unhealthy in all these areas.
Because our findings were so clear on the vitality of groups having goals and plans, we spent two main breakout sessions teaching leaders how to develop them. I described part of that process in my August 19, 2012, column (christianstandard.com/2012/08/whats-the-point-of-your-small-group/) and more completely in Chapter 4 of Small Group Vital Signs. A free Small Group Goal-Setting User’s Guide is available for download on my website (www.smallgroupleadership.com/Healthy_Small_Groups.html). Use this guide in a small group meeting early in the year to develop Christ-centered, God-sized goals and plans for your group.
Why Planning Is So Vital
Mountain biking has taught me a lot about being proactive rather than reactive. An important skill in mountain biking is to look down the trail, past what’s right in front of you. When you look 5 to 25 feet down the trail (depending on the type of trail), you can identify potential hazards and challenges before you reach them and create a plan of action. Take it from me, constantly looking just a foot or two ahead of your front tire results in a jerky, stumbling ride and some painful falls.
In mountain biking and in leading a small group (or anything, for that matter), you want to make decisions before you actually get there (wherever “there” is at the time). Know where you are going, not just where you are at the moment. Many groups live in reactive mode; their plan never extends beyond what they are going to do next week. (Some groups don’t even plan that far ahead!)
In a healthy group, the members take time early and often to look down the trail. They are prepared and they don’t freak out at little challenges along the way. They grow, reach out, serve, and develop new leaders. They excitedly look ahead to “what’s next?” This is what you want in your group!
But Is Goal Setting Unspiritual?
I’ve heard some Christians question the idea of setting goals and making plans. Doing so, they say, is of human origin and independent of the Holy Spirit’s power. I agree that we should not simply make our own plans, but instead should be receptive to God-centered, God-sized plans (see Psalm 33:10, 11; Proverbs 16:3; 19:21; and Galatians 3:3). Jesus was a planner. When he called his followers, he told them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” (King James Version). This little statement contains both Jesus’ goal and his three-year plan for his disciples:
GOAL: for them to become fishers of men
PLAN (method for accomplishing the goal): to follow him
The early church as described in Acts also had goals and plans, which Jesus gave them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
GOAL: for the gospel to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and eventually the whole earth
PLAN: to be his witnesses as empowered by his Spirit
Jesus lived a proactive life according to his Father’s design. He lived each day remembering the goal he was sent to accomplish. He lived according to the plans of his Father. He even warned those who wanted to follow him to carefully consider the costs. He told them to look down the trail first to be sure they were making the right choice. (See Luke 14:28-33.) Jesus illustrated how foolish it would be to go into something without wise planning—like laying a foundation without being able to finish the job or going to war without considering whether you have the troops to win.
To develop God-focused plans and goals, begin by discussing these questions with your group:
• What is God doing, and how can our small group join him?
• What adjustments do we need to make in our group to fulfill God’s purposes for us?
• What does God want to accomplish in and through our small group this year?
• What has he been saying to us as a group that we must carefully obey?
When our coaches and I worked with some of our unhealthy groups, we found that the process of developing written goals and plans helped those groups become healthy, and surprisingly, it didn’t take long to see changes. Get your group on the path of Christ’s purposes, and you too will see him work powerfully in and through your group in 2014.
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing). He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).
Lead the (Relational) Way
Scott Boren, a friend and fellow small group ministry leader, recently wrote an article titled, “No More New Small Group Strategies Please!”* His basic premise is that those of us who lead small group ministries tend to focus more on the “what” than the “whom.” Our strategies are important, but they should never become what we’re really all about as leaders.
It’s typical for church leaders to ask questions such as, “What percentage of our church members (or average adult weekend attendance) are we aiming at having involved in small groups? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent? One hundred percent?”
Those kinds of questions lead us astray, Boren says. “It causes us to focus on outcomes, the what,” he says, “and when we do this, we turn our focus away from what actually makes small groups effective. Ultimately it reveals we are more in love with the idea of some form of relationality than we are in actually loving people. We love the idea of becoming a certain kind of church more than actually loving the people in the church.”
It’s so easy to idealize specific structures, systems, and strategies. We can idealize, says Boren, getting 100 percent of our people in groups or making all our groups missional. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those goals, of course, but they push us to focus on results rather than relating. Many ministry leaders work so much on “the ministry”—meaning the systems and structures—that little if any time is left for building relationships.
“The way we lead people is the way people will follow,” says Boren. “If we lead in a programmatic way, then people will follow in a programmatic way. If you lead in a relational way, people will be much more likely to follow you into that way.”
First Corinthians 13 comes to my mind; allow me to paraphrase and rewrite verses 8 and 13: “Where there are programs, they will fail; where there are man-made institutions, they will cease; where there are strategies and plans of human design, they will pass away. But authentic community (love) never fails.”
This may be a paradigm change for many, but I think Boren is right: “Lead the way you want others to live.” Lead with love.
*Find the article at Scott Boren’s blog: http://scottboren.blogspot.com/2013/08/no-more-new-small-group-strategies.html.