Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How To Make Small Group Announcements Without Boring People to Death

Have you ever been an attendee at a small group or any regular group gathering and found yourself automatically spacing out when announcements are being made?  Am I the only one?  I don't know what it is about announcements that can quickly infect even the most committed person with the boredom bug.  Perhaps it's because announcements are usually made at the very beginning of a gathering when people are still settling in.  Maybe it has to do with leaders not prepping very well for announcements.  It could also have to do with the fact that most of us have too many little bits of random information floating through our heads.  Whatever the reason, announcements can be dry and dull or actually engaging and community building.  Here are some thoughts on how to do announcements well.        

1)     The leader must prep to give announcements.  Do not do announcements off the top of your head.  This communicates to your group that what you have to say is random and unimportant.  Even if you just write them out on a sticky note or a pad of paper, it will be helpful for you to think through what you want to say to your group and why.  This will also remind you to gather all of the relevant details that go along with any announcement such as dates and times.    This will also help you to not forget certain important announcements.  

2)     Announcements should be relevant to your group.  People do not need more information about more events.  It will help your small group to know why your announcement is being made in this group context.  For example, "This Sunday morning, our church is having a special Service and Simplicity day.  This will be a time where we will have various activities having to do with gratefulness and simplifying our lives.  I wanted to let you know that our group will be helping out with receiving stuff at the Goodwill truck from 10-11am.  Please let me know if you can join us."

3)   A personal or emotional connection can be helpful.  Knowing why a leader is excited about something helps me to be more intrigued about something that is being announced.  Therefore, saying something like, "I am really excited about the Christmas Eve service because I really like having a spiritual focus of worship before spending time with my family on Christmas day.  It will be at Foothill Covenant Church at 5pm" is better than "The Christmas Eve service is happening at Foothill Covenant Church at 5pm.  You should come."  

4)     Do not rely on announcements to invite people to things, especially something that is happening outside of the normal schedule, such as a conference or a service opportunity.  Knowing about something and feeling invited to participate in something are two very different things.  If there is something special coming up, you might want to mention that you (or someone) will be following up with them personally or give people a practical way to respond (like a sign up sheet).  

Do you have any other thoughts or ideas about how to make small group announcements engaging, memorable and helpful for people?  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Three More Small Group Friendly Recipes

Due to popular demand, I am posting a few more recipes that are great for small groups and quick to prep.  All of these recipes can be done in a crock pot.  I have personally made each of these for small groups and have found them easy and popular.  What are your favorite recipes for small group gatherings?  

Original Taco Soup
--2 cans of kidney beans
--1 cans of pinto beans
--1 can black beans
--1 can of corn or some frozen corn
--1 large can of diced tomatoes
--1 can tomato sauce
--1 and 1/2 cup water
--1 can tomatoes and chilies (or separate can of chilies)
--1 packet taco seasoning
--1 packet ranch dressing mix
--1 lb browned ground turkey or hamburger
--shredded cheese, tortilla chips and sour cream for embellishment

The Directions:

--brown meat
--drain fat and add to crock pot stoneware insert
--sprinkle seasoning packets on top of meat
--drain and rinse the beans and add
--add the ENTIRE contents of the corn and tomato cans

cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5. I think the longer you cook soup, the better, so if you have the time, opt for cooking on low. Stir well, and serve with a handful of shredded cheese, tortilla chips and a dollop of sour cream.

Cranberry Chicken
1 bottle french dressing (8oz)
1 can whole cranberries
1 package onion soup mix (Lipton makes this in soup aisle)
6 or so chicken thighs (boneless, skinless)

Stir it all together in crock pot and cook on low for about 3 hours or until chicken is cooked through. Serve over rice.

(I doubled this recipe and cooked it for 5 hours to serve 15)

Soy Sauce and Beer Chicken Drumsticks

1 can of beer
1/2 c of soy sauce
3 tbsp of vinegar
2 tbsp of sugar
A few thick slices of ginger
Half a chopped yellow onion (cubes)
Chicken drumsticks or better yet Chicken wings

Dump into a large pot. Boil for 1-2 hours until the sauce thickens. OR cook on high for 4 hours in a crock pot. 

Beer tenderizes the chicken and helps flavors to sink in. Serve over rice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Have an Excellent First Five Minutes of a Small Group Meeting

You may have read various studies or reports which find that people often make their first impressions of other people within the first 7 seconds to two minutes.  A whole industry has risen up around that concept coaching people how to do "power poses" and "strategic small talk".  All that is well and good if you want to "win friends and influence people" in the business world.

However, there may also be some wisdom in making the best of "the first few minutes" in the realm of small group ministry.  Most small groups are gatherings of people who do not know each other well yet.  Helping people to feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed is a huge goal of small group ministry.  Therefore, it's good to ask "What can we learn from those who have done some thinking about first impressions and strategic use of the first few minutes of a gathering?"  I've done some reading and reflection on just that topic!

The First Five Minutes of Arriving at a Gathering

1.     People need to feel welcome from the moment that they walk in the door.  Being greeted by a host (whether that person lives at the place where you are gathering or is just playing a host role) can be the first step in helping a person to feel at ease in coming to a group meeting.  If I am hosting a small group, I make sure that I am completely finished with any house prep and I avoid getting into any other conversations so that I am free to welcome people at the door.  The host should not be getting people drinks at this point.  You (or some other designated greeter) should be free to focus on welcoming people to the gathering.
       Being welcomed by an actual person who greets you with your name and says something along the lines of "So glad you could make it!" can make a world of difference to a person who might be feeling some nervousness about coming to an event.  If you are a hugger, then hug.  If you are a hand shaker, then shake the person's hand.  Whatever your style, I find that a smile and moment of eye contact are absolutely essential.

2.    Give new people something to do when they arrive.  It's often better to set out drinks or snacks for people to get themselves rather than to have the hosts disappear to the kitchen to get drinks for them, leaving them with nothing to do.  If you are having name tags, that can be a nice thing for people to give themselves to in those first awkward two minutes.  If chatting with people is the thing to do, then make a few quick introductions and make sure that there are people available to chat,  Some people will be served by being invited to help with something practical, like finishing setting up or arranging chairs.

3.     Try to start relatively on time.  It's the leader's job to be aware of the time so that participants don't have to.  Even if everyone is not there, you should honor people's time by getting started right around when you said that you would.  If you have social time built into your time, people should know that and come expecting that.

The First Five Minutes of the Actual Meeting

1.     If people are chatting before your meeting starts, give people a 1-2 minute warning before you actually start.  It will help people to wrap up their conversations and mentally prepare for gathering together as a group.

2.       If you are leading the meeting, once the group is gathered, take a second to look around the room and appreciate who is there before you start talking.  Remind yourself that the meeting is about the people who God has brought more than it is about the things that you want to talk about.  Having an attitude of gratitude for the people in the room will be reflected in your tone as you lead the group.

3.      Any group that does not know each other really well benefits from a brief round of introductions and an ice breaker.  Do not leave the ice breaker activity or question to the last minute.  Ice breakers actually matter a lot.  Think about the balance between light-heartedness and intimacy that you want as people introduce themselves and answer the ice-breaker question.  There is a difference between "What is your favorite ice cream?" and "Who was your hero growing up?" in terms of self-revelation and actually getting to know people.  It takes some thought to not go too inappropriately deep during introductions but also not be wasting everyone's time with random bits of information that don't help to build community.

4.     I find that a quick prayer helps to settle everyone and to make people more aware of God's presence.  It's okay to have a moment of quiet before the prayer.  Center yourself so that you are not just "speaking out a prayer of transition" but actually taking some time to talk to God and tell Him what you are wanting from Him.

I hope this has been helpful.  Please let me know if you have other ideas about how to have a great start to your small group meeting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Plan a Small Group Retreat

This is a guest post by Eddie Chung, who has been co-leading a small group in our church for several years. 

​This year, as we did last year, we had a summer weekend retreat for our small group. I love having these retreats.  Nothing accelerates relational development quite like these extended getaways. They bear fruit for a long time thereafter as our whole small group seems to operate off of this advanced jump off point throughout the year as we share, pray and welcome others into our group.

For newcomers, this experience is especially pronounced. Last year we had a newcomer to our small group that was still feeling his way around. During the retreat we had a time of sharing briefly about our life journeys and we learned about how this brother became Christian, the role of his family in his life, and some of the values that define him. When small group started a month later, he wasn't still feeling his way around, but treated himself (as did we) like a core member of the group who was making the group happen and not just there to observe. 

Even among the small group core, these retreats do so much to help us feel comfortable with each other. So much of our experience of each other can be relatively superficial (why is X always so late, how come J talks so little during small group etc.) but there are things that I discover about them in the course of long drives or intentional q+a times that I am not sure I would have ever learned about otherwise. 

There's a lot to planning these trips, but I would actually say that the effort/reward ratio is actually among the highest of the things we do to lead the group. Below I've included some tips about how you can plan your own small group trip next summer or even sometime this fall or spring:

1) If you are planning a summer trip, send out a doodle early (preferably April) and book a place as soon as possible. Summer weekends fill up fast and as much as possible, you want everyone to make it to the trip. The more popular vacation homes fill up soon, but more importantly you want the other small group members to protect that weekend and look forward to it. I would also highly highly recommend sharing one home together. 

2) Divide the responsibilities. There's a number of things to arrange (looking for housing, planning meals and shopping, planning fun activities, planning spiritual activities, arranging rides, managing finances, etc.) but it's manageable if divided up among the trip participants. 

3) Plan the bonding/get to know each other activities w/ more care. The small group retreat will still be great if food and games go awry, but creating space for bonding and also developing more intentional bonding activities are what really make these trips memorable. Some of the things our small group has done include passenger rotation on the long drives, pre-arranged get to know each other questions for the drives, evening show and tell times where each member shows/demonstrates something significant from their lives, sharing pictures and life journeys time, etc.

4) I have a number of spreadsheets related to our trips that may be of assistance too.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Great Books for Small Groups

Although not all small groups like to use books for the content/ learning piece of the small group gathering, I thought it would be useful to share a short list of books which I have found helpful in the past.  As always, please consider the personality make up and other contextual factors of your group as you select a book to read and discuss together.  Some groups have assigned books to read over the summer and gather at the end of the summer to discuss and share what they have learned.  

Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section if you'd like.  This list is meant to get the conversation started.

Topic:  Prayer and Spirituality

1.    Too Busy Not to Pray:  Slowing down to be with God by Bill Hybels.  Hybels is clear, personable and easy to learn from.  The later editions have questions for reflection and discussion in the back.

2.     Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster.   I have found it useful to even select a few chapters and highlight a few of the inward or outward spiritual disciplines that the small group may be especially interested in learning about and trying.

3.    Power to Pray: God's Immense Purposes for our Simple Prayers by Don Andresson.  The author is a Vineyard pastor from Massachusetts who has good scriptural teaching and an inspirational perspective on prayer.

Topic:  Parenting and Family

1.   Never Mind the Joneses: Building Core Christian Values in a Way that Fits your Family  by Philip Yancy.  This book talks about how to be thoughtful, creative, and intentional about how you lead your family into the deeper values of the Gospel.

2.  Motherhood:  A Spiritual Journey  by Ellyn Sanna  I re-read this book each time I was in an era of staying awake through the night to feed a new baby.  It was new and different each time.  I think I'll read it again now that I'm firmly in my life as a "if I don't get much sleep at night it's my own fault" parent.

Topic:  Being Missional and Outward Focused

1.   God's Relentless Pursuit:  Discovering His Heart for Humanity by Phil Strout.  This is a great book about entering into God's Mission.  The discussion/ reflection questions at the end are clear and helpful.

2.     Missional Small Groups:  Becoming a Community that Makes a Difference in the World by M. Scott Boren.  There are some great, practical ideas in this book.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Few Simple Small Group Meal Ideas

This is a guest post from church member Jennifer Rodriguez who has been helping to make small groups happen for many years.  She is especially skilled at feeding large groups of people quickly, happily and simply.  By the way, her chocolate chip cookies are to die for.  

Our small group meets late Sunday afternoon 4 - 6 pm.  Right after the meeting we eat dinner together.  To get a hot meal we have adopted a basic two meal rotation.

Our two basic meals are Spaghetti with Sauce (meat optional) and Potato Bar.  The cost for these meals is easily under $ 40 - estimating 10 adult servings for each meal.  The estimated food cost is divided equally amongst all the families.

In our situation one family always prepares the meal.  This decision was made because we have a person who really likes to cook as well as having several families with small children who enjoy getting a night off from cooking.

Spaghetti Set-up
Before the meeting I cook a large pot of  spaghetti & drain it under tap water.  The spaghetti rests on the counter in a cover bowl during the meeting.  Meanwhile I heat sauce in a crock pot.  When we do not have vegetarians we add meat.  If you have extra sauce it can easily be frozen & used later.

I also prepare a basic salad.  Once again it rest covered on the counter until meal time.  Just as we are eating I toss the salad with dressing.

We also have sliced French bread with butter – not heated or made fancy with garlic.

Potato bar Set-up
One hour before the meeting I cook potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil.   Once kinship starts I turn off the oven – the potatoes tend to stay hot if left in a closed oven.  If you need to transport them or take them out of the oven you can wrap them in a large towel & keep them in a plastic “ice-chest.”

At meal time for toppings I set out sour cream, chopped green onions, grated cheese & butter
In the crock pot I heat canned vegetarian chili.  (For my crock pot I have to fill it 2/3 full to heat something which means I often have left overs & so I freeze it for future use.)

During the potato bake time I also steam a head of broccoli – after cooking it I drain it & let is rest covered on the counter until meal time.

I also prepare a basic salad.  Once again it rest covered on the counter until meal time.  Just as we are eating I toss the salad with dressing.

Kid-snack time
We have several toddlers in our group.  And so as a group we decided that feeding the kids snacks was OK even if that meant they did not eat as much dinner that night.  We set out string cheese, baby carrots and pretzels as well as juice boxes for kids to “graze on” whenever they want to.  The cost for these items is added to the nightly food bill.

As you can see our meal plan involves preparation before the meeting & then letting food rest at room temperate during the meeting.   If someone really wants their food hot they can always use the microwave – otherwise we enjoy room temperature spaghetti with hot sauce or a warm potato with hot chili.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How to Stay Connected Over the Summer

"I miss school" my daughter told me with a sigh this morning.  She's totally enjoying her summer with it's requisite BBQ gatherings, swimming and other relaxing, fun times.  But I think she's feeling a little out of sorts at not having her regular routine and the regular relational connection that comes with it.  She misses her teacher and all of the students that she appreciates but doesn't know well enough to initiate a playdate with.

I think that the same can be true for our small group communities.  In our church, most of our small groups take a break or meet less regularly.  It's nice to downshift or take a rest from our regular meeting schedule (especially for the leaders and the hosts) but after a few weeks, I find that people can start feeling lonely and disconnected.  We miss each other.

How can we stay connected with our smaller "tribes" within our church when you are not meeting as regularly?

Here are a few suggestions:

1.     Initiate some short email connections.  Ask people if they would email out any quick prayer requests for this month or any encouraging things that have been going on.  You might want to kick it off by sharing a prayer request or a testimony yourself.

2.     Make something spontaneous happen.  We encourage our group members to just let people know if they are going out to ice cream or to a movie and invite whoever is available to come along.  Not everyone will be able to go but it's nice to have the opportunity.   Lunch after church is a great idea since people are there already anyhow.  You just have to let people know a restaurant and a time.

3.     Let people know now when things are going to start back up in the fall.  I find that it helps people to know that, even if they are less connected now, that regular routine of meeting will come back soon. People can put it into their calendar and look forward to an actual date to begin a more intensive time of community.

4.     Be thoughtful.  Take some time to think about what your small group members are doing or going through this summer.  What did people share about before you took a break for the summer?  Is someone going on an exciting vacation?  Is someone going through a difficult time at work?  Is someone's health an ongoing issue?  Ask people when you see them (or by other means of communication) about specific things in their lives.  It is a great blessing for people to know that you are thinking of them and remembering what they have shared about their summers.  This will help them (and you) to feel less disconnected.

5.    Finally, a little hunger for community can be a good thing.  It's great to say, "I miss seeing you" to a fellow small group member and to look forward to more regular connection together.

Do you have any other specific ideas about how to stay connected.  Please feel free to add your ideas and comments below.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How to Host a Small Group at Your Home

I love having small groups gather in my home.  In addition to forcing me to tidy up my house, we get to experience, close up, a kingdom value which is high on my list-- living life together.  One of the benefits of our church not having a building is that we are forced to go to one another's homes, which weaves us together in a deeper, more organic way than just meeting in a more neutral, less personal venue.

However, hosting small groups in one's home is not without costs and an excellent small group experience at a home necessitates some thoughtfulness and wisdom.  I thought it might be helpful to share a few tips and perspectives that I've gathered from people over the years on how to do a good job hosting a gathering in your home.

Before the meeting:

1.     On cleaning up your house:  It's natural for you to want to welcome your guests into a nice looking setting and, in general, clutter is not restful.  However, please keep in mind that you don't have to be Martha Stewart.  Vaccuum and put out chips if you want to but you should know that what people really want is simply a place to gather and focus on God and each other.  If they can do that, the rest is gravy.

2.    Consider the physical temperature.  One practical thing that you will want to think about is whether your gathering space will be too hot or too cold.  Remember that your house will be filled with people, and the collective body heat will raise the thermometer within 20 minutes of the meeting's starting time.

3.     Consider the spiritual temperature. Take a few minutes before people show up to sit down and get a sense of how you are doing as a host.  Frazzled?  Anxious?  Give those things to Jesus.  If you are having tension with your co-hosts (housemates, kids, spouse?), take a minute to express love, appreciation and a desire to reconcile or reconnect later.  Make sure that you take some time to pray that the Holy Spirit would fill the space of your home.

During the gathering:

4.     One of the most important things that you can do is to make sure that each person is welcomed warmly and personally as they walk through your door.  This might mean a hug or a handshake or a "so glad that you came!"  Studies show that the first 7 seconds that a person is in a new place or meets a new person makes a tremendous impact on their overall sense of comfortability in the long term.  Sharing a smile and making eye contact with each person who walks through your door is very important to helping someone to feel like they are wanted and welcome at a gathering.

5.     Let people help out.  There are usually a lot of dishes and moving of furniture etc. You will be a much better member of your group if you are not the only one taking care of the practical things around your house.  It's easy to wave people off at first and let them just chat while you do all of the clean up but this is neither healthy for a group nor is it very sustainable long term.  Group participants will take their cues from you regarding whether it's ok for them to help out with things that need to be done.  I find that it's helpful to create a culture of everyone pitching in from early on.  Don't just depend on people asking to pitch in, invite them to do so.  Show people where the paper plates are, how to take the trash out and how you like your dishes done.  You will not regret this!

After the gathering:

6.     If people are having a good time and staying past your bedtime, feel free to gently but directly tell them that you need to head toward bed and that you look forward to seeing them again soon.  People are much more served by direct communication when it comes to these boundaries rather than indirect irritation.

7.     If you are hosting the group on a regular basis, ask a trusted group member for any feedback on your hosting style.  Do your pets smell?  Are your kids distractingly loud?  Are you too much like Martha and not enough like Mary?  If you give people permission to give you feedback, you are more likely to get an honest answer and you are more likely to be a good, happy host.

8.     Take some time to ask yourself how it's going hosting.  What do you enjoy and what is burdensome to you?  Are there ways that you need to ask others to help out more?  Are there systems that need to be recreated so that it works better for you?  For example, someone who hosted a small group in her home each week realized that she really enjoyed hosting but it would help if the group met at someone else's place once a month so she could have a break.  You don't have to keep doing something just because it was set up this way.  Ask yourself and ask God how you can be thoughtful and creative about hospitality so that it continues to be a joy to serve.

Do you have any other thoughts that you would add?  Please feel free to comment.