All Saints Anglican, Cochrane

By Elizabeth Short

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 this way,

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.

Welcoming Newcomers

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
[email protected]

Congregational News February 2006 Vol. 12 No. 2


Congregational Transformation

by Elizabeth Short

Congregational transformation can be an exciting time of growth. It also requires tremendous commitment and fortitude.

I am employed in a parish that is in the midst of transformation. I know that if true transformation is to take place …certain elements need to be in place:

Society has radically changed over the last twenty, even ten, years. Congregations can't follow old patterns and norms and expect to be relevant to this changed and changing society. Recognizing a need for change is only the beginning. There needs to be willingness to change and an understanding of the type of change required. It is not good enough to say, "We want our numbers to grow." It is better to ask, "What is the reason for our church in this place, at this time?" A parish should have a vision that people understand and are excited about.

In my parish transformation process, we read books, sought out consultants, and held meetings and focus groups. A vision and mission statement was produced and an extensive ministry plan put in place.

One thing that was obvious was that the building had become too small. In order to grow, space was required. It was decided to move to a larger building. The present building was given to a senior's care home for use as their chapel and a church was purchased. The congregation is meeting in a school gym while they await their new church. We have likened it to "wandering in the wilderness".

This in-between time is an important time of self-discovery:

We are constantly reminded of our mission statement - we read it, pray it, and print it. We look at our ministry plan regularly and "check-in" as to how we are progressing. We have consultants we use constantly. We are always reading and learning. Although we are moving to a new facility, that is not the main goal, but rather a step along the way to reach our goals.

Leadership is Key

Leadership is key through all this. The person "at the helm" must be passionate, knowledgeable and have the ability to lead others, allow others to lead, and infect others with his/her passion. Her/his primary goal is to serve Christ first. Our priest is constantly "mining for gold". He gets to know people, discovers their gifts and talents and then gives them the opportunity to share these gifts and talents in the life of the parish. He is building up a core of leadership that is excited about the parish, its potential and its vision.

Many people are excited and enthusiastic about this place. There have been others who have resisted change. They have seen their old ways of matriarchs and patriarchs disappearing and they have feared a loss of identity and control. They haven't wanted to grow. They liked the small, social group they had in the old church.

In this situation the leadership must remain faithful to the vision. As we have persisted in moving towards our vision in this parish, we are finding that most of the people who were resisting change and at times trying to sabotage it are now "coming aboard". In the end they don't wish to be left behind. As they begin to integrate into the emerging parish they are greeted with love and acceptance.

A good leader models good leadership. A good leader is in the trenches, serving. A church leader is a servant of Christ and is faithful to that calling. A church leader is constantly listening to and connecting with God.

An Exciting Place to Be

A parish that has shared ministry, vision, and leadership is one that is enabling itself to grow and transform. It is an exciting and fulfilling place to be. People are given a variety of opportunities to discover who they are and want to become. They begin to understand what it is that makes them a unique and special gift to the community they wish to serve. They encourage others to use their gifts and talents. Bill Easum speaks of "permission giving" leaders:

Today's leaders focus on permission giving rather than control or managing. They are both individualistic and collaborative. They network individuals and teams through a shared vision of a preferred future. They facilitate ministry in others. … Their passion is to develop other leaders who will develop other leaders.

People hunger for community and intimacy. Many are looking for moments to find peace and a chance for reflection. As a parish grows, it must seek ways to engage people in ways that allow them to feel accepted, part of things, known.

Elizabeth Short is a member of the staff at All Saints Anglican Church, Cochrane, Alberta. You can contact her at [email protected]

Congregational News April 2006 Vol. 12 No. 3

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