Part of my job is to encourage the development of small groups. Successes,
failures, opportunities and insights guide me along the way, as does an awareness
of the needs, passions, and gifts of others. As a result, the value of small
groups has become more and more apparent.
Back in 1981 Dr. Paul Yonggi Cho wrote a book entitled, Successful Home Cell Groups. He said:
People are hungry for the Word of God and for the assurance that God considers them more than mere numbers. Yet while they are hearing words of encouragement from the pulpit, they are experiencing in church much the same thing as in secular life. They are merely spectators.
This still can hold true in 2006. We can do liturgy well, and we need inspired preaching, but we also need to provide opportunities for people to connect with other people - to know and be known on a level that goes beyond fulfilling the needs of the organization.
Clair Woodbury and Joyce Madsen say, "We want to be part of a community
where we are accepted, not for some function we can perform, but as whole persons."
There are many definitions of what a small group is. Bill Easum and Tom Bandy
have a detailed definition that is helpful:
A cell is any group or team in the church. Each group gathers around a leader, and shares a common enthusiasm or affinity. The affinity can be any interest, lifestyle, task, hobby, burden, issue, or concern that passionately bonds people together around a common topic or purpose. Each person who participates in the cell is motivated not only by the shared affinity, but also by a readiness to go deeper into relationships with the others and with God.
In a small group, people can pursue what they are passionate about and connect
on a deeper level with others. People are valued for themselves and not for
what they can do for the organization.
It is important to have guidelines for small groups and a good understanding of why and what they are. Groups whose ethos is contrary to the vision, mission, and core values of a parish will be a potentially destructive force within the parish, with an ability to cause confusion, conflict, and lack of common purpose and unity.
A group should have the freedom to choose topics, express opinions, and explore
their spirituality in their way. What holds the groups together and provides
stability within the parish is shared vision, values, and beliefs.
In our parish we have established a few "rules" for small groups, once they are established. One that we use the P.A.L.S. model of group interaction from Tom Bandy's book Kicking Habits. P.A.L.S. stands for Prayer, Action, Learning, and Sharing.
Groups do not necessarily go on forever. It is not a failure when a group ends. Sometimes a group will find that there are some within the group who wish to go in a different direction from the rest of the members. It is a sign that people are growing and changing. It is an indication that it may be time to begin another group.
Small Group Leaders
In our parish
the ideal is that each small group has a leader and an apprentice. Bill Donahue
and Russ Robinson (Building a Church of Small Groups) define small group leaders
A simple acrostic - Affections, Reputation, Expectations - describes the essential
characteristics for small group leadership. Affections are those things we love
most. Reputation, what other people say about someone, matters. People suited
for small group leadership will share your church's expectations for service.
The role of apprentice is an important one. It allows a person to gradually
move into the role of leader. The leader-apprentice team allows for the leader
to have someone with whom he or she can discuss how things are going in the
group. If a group becomes too large and needs to divide, the apprentice can
take on the leadership of one of the groups.
Building up leaders of small groups is a challenge, and one of the responsibilities
of my job. Sometimes leaders present themselves with the desire and passion
to lead a small group. Other times people express the desire to be part of a
small group, but require a leader. As I get to know people in the parish, I
discover their gifts and passions and work to encourage them in leadership.
I am going to launch a small group in January. I will act as leader until the
end of June. I have asked people to prayerfully consider becoming an apprentice
with me, with the idea of taking on the leadership of the group in September.
I am hoping to model leadership in such a way that it shows how such a role
does not have to be onerous, but that the leader also has an opportunity for
personal growth and satisfaction.
It is helpful to bring the leaders together for training, sharing and mutual
support. I don't think this parish is unique when I say that bringing a group
of busy leaders together at one time is a major challenge! I continue to make
efforts to make these gatherings happen because I know the people involved appreciate
them, when they're able to make it. However, I have also looked at other ways
to keep them connected to me and each other. E-mail is one method. I will send
out a quotation or thought and ask for comments. I speak and meet individually
with small group leaders and encourage them to meet informally among themselves.
There was a group in the parish that was disbanded. It was apparent that there
was a lack of commitment and that people were wanting to go in different directions.
It was important for me to meet with the leader of this group to discuss the
dynamics of the group and her decision to discontinue. I wanted to encourage
her in that she was making the right decision and also to emphasize that she
had not failed in her role as leader. It was a useful learning exercise for
the leader and for me. Because the needs of individuals in the group were listened
to, we now have started two new groups. The concerns of commitment and group
dynamics were attended to and in the one new group that has started up, the
expectations of the group have been made clear from the start.
This kind of debriefing is important in a parish that is serious about transformation. We must constantly be learning from what has gone before in order to move ahead. We must be cognizant of both individual and community needs.
Small groups are a wonderful way to welcome newcomers and help them feel accepted.
In my parish situation, many of our small group members are the newcomers. Newcomers
are seekers. They are looking for community and a way to explore their faith.
It can be difficult for a newcomer to become part of an established group. A group that has been meeting for any length of time has reached a level of knowledge of each other that would leave someone feeling on the outside of the group dynamic.
In our parish, we make an effort to get to know newcomers as soon as possible.
We attempt to find out who they are, why they have come, what they are looking
for, and what interests them. Through this process, new groups can begin. We
also have periodic "Newcomers Lunches". This is another potential
way to begin a small group.
One important thing I have realized during my time in this position is that
the development of small groups has an affect on the parish that reaches beyond
the people directly involved. For example, in my parish I have established a
small group for separated and divorced women. There are several women who are
separated/divorced who are not members of the group, but very much appreciate
the fact that such a group exists. Sometimes the church has been viewed as being
exclusionary to "people like them", and the existence of this group
makes them feel included and accepted.
Another example of this "ripple effect" is that those who are in
small groups and connecting on more significant and intimate levels, bring that
excitement and passion into the congregation and to parish gatherings. They
greet each other warmly and wish to share their feelings of acceptance with
others. They feel good about their parish and encourage other members to become
more involved, as well as talking about it to their friends and families.
The small group is a way to connect people to the parish. When they feel good
about the group and what it means to them, they also begin to feel good about
the parish and seek ways to be involved and helpful. Their attendance at worship
increases as they have a desire to be with and within the community. People
sometimes connect with a small group first and then find their way into the
larger community. It is easier to walk through the door when one is not being
met by an entire group of strangers.
Small groups are also a way of ministering to the wider community. Membership
in the congregation is not a prerequisite to membership in a small group. In
one of our groups we have a member who is an active participant of another congregation
and another group has a member who is presently not attending any church.
Healthy small groups are a reflection of the parish. As people in the small groups are transformed, so is the parish.
Elizabeth Short is a member of the staff at All Saints Anglican Church, Cochrane,
Alberta. You can contact her at
Congregational News February 2006 Vol. 12 No. 2
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