As I write this post, our growth group is taking a break. We’re not meeting this week. It’s the school holidays, between terms 1 and 2. Last week we had a social night, this week we won’t meet, and next week we’ll launch back into things again in term 2. Taking a break can be helpful. It’s not that people don’t want to meet. It’s more that a week off here and there, and changes now and again, helps keep things fresh. There are great benefits to be found in oscillating intensity and renewal. As Bruce Millar writes in Your Church in Rhythm, ‘Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.’ (p141)
God has designed our world with rhythm. We have four seasons each year, at least in my part of the world we do! The moon gives us monthly rhythms, a fact that matters to fishermen at least. God has given us a weekly pattern of work six, rest one. Our days are balanced by night and day. Such rhythms give light and shade to our lives. They reveal a time for this and a time for that. They show the value of variety. Our school system rides these rhythms, with its 4 terms a year, 10 weeks a term, 5 days a week, three sessions a day. Years are broken up with summer breaks, terms with 2 week holidays, weeks with weekends, days with recess and lunch breaks. We’d do well to learn from the wisdom of those around us and go with some of the natural flows.
We want our growth groups to remain fresh, interesting, varied, and engaging. We don’t want leaders burning out before their time. We want to prevent groups fraying at the edges because people are bored with the same old same old. We want to encourage strategies for group life that energise rather than drain. So what can we do?
NB. Most of the following suggestions first appeared in my post Why churches should stop small groups
Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.
Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!
This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and remain healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.
There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-11 weeks on and 1-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. It gives parents time to do things with their children during the holidays. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.
It can also be helpful to match these groups with the program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Larry Osborne, in Sticky Church, suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.
If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4-1 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.
Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.
It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?
People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!
I hope reflecting on these rhythms will help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our growth groups!