by Jim Sonnenburg
I oversee small groups for Saddleback’s Ministry to college students. Our leadership team has been reading through “Activate” by Searcy and Thomas. The book gave us these great ideas to improve the health of our community.
- Change the expectations of our small group community. Many times, I have told people that small groups are the place where you find your best friends, your accountability partner, etc. But imagine the expectations that are placed on people (leading and attending)? Instead, we are communicating that small groups are a place to make friends, apply the Bible to your life, pray together, serve together and share your story (the five purposes). If those things are happening in a small group, then we trust that the Holy Spirit is also working to bring about deep and meaningful friendships, where support and accountability happen.
-More adult involvement. Most of our ministry is peer-driven, including small groups. We have realized that our students need healthier adult influences in their lives. They need to see examples of healthy marriages, how to effectively raise kids, and good parenting. We have five new groups that are couples/young adults who are a few steps ahead of our students! We are really excited about these groups, and look to double that number early next year! (We still do peer-driven groups, but we want adult groups to be an integral part of our small group ministry, too).
-Groups grow best with rest! Our minds, bodies, and organizations grow best with rest. Why wouldn’t our small groups be more effective with rest as well? We have planned our small group calendar with three seasons (spring, summer, fall) with a 4-8 week break in between each season. In those breaks, we are allowing groups to still meet, but to do other activities besides their typical study. In other words, our college groups are coming more in line with the semester-based system; they now have a start and end date. Who signs up for a group, event, or class that has no end date? Church folks do, but not an unbeliever or new believer who doesn’t know the church culture.
-More groups start out open, and then close down for the semester. In our community, we encouraged our groups to remain open throughout the small group season. It began to be taxing on leaders and groups to always be open. Now, we are asking more groups to be open for the small group sign-up season, and then to immediately close their group for the rest of the semester. When the new semester comes along, they let us know how many of the group re-signed up to the group, and how many open spots they have for a couple new members (which will keep the group fresh).
-More staff participation! We noticed that we talk a lot about small groups, but no students could get involved in our current small groups (many of the staff were not in college groups, but in couples groups, adult groups, etc.). My wife and I started a college group, and more of our staff will be doing so soon!
-We have decentralized the leadership recruitment, but increased staff control of studies. We rely more on our leaders to recruit/develop future leaders. Yet at the same time, we have our leaders confirm with us what they are studying before they start the semester. This is also for their benefit, as we may have some great resources and ideas to pass along to them!
-Lastly, we are evaluating the process more. We now evaluate the sign-up process, the small group members’ experience, and the leaders’ performance as well as ours. This is going to bring about some nasty stuff, for sure. However, we need to address broken parts of our ministry so that we can be more effective!
I have mostly been a reactive leader my first years in ministry (I didn’t know any better/AND I was afraid to confront). Now that I am being more proactive and intentional with our small groups, I have never been MORE EXCITED with where we are headed. I pray our leaders aid you in your journey to foster Biblical communinty in your context.