Don't you love it when a plan comes together!? Perhaps you started a new small group and used a great new curriculum or group agenda to get it started. Everyone loved it. People grew. The group grew. Things went great…for a while. Then it came time for the group to choose the next study focus. How do you follow something that was so life-changing? Then suddenly, an unexpected issue surfaces. Someone in the group wants the group to talk about childcare. What starts as a simple discussion becomes a major issue. Childcare was not fully taken into account in the original group plan, so now, all of a sudden, that great original plan does not seem to be quite as great any more.
The same thing happens in small group ministries. Small groups get started in a church, and, at first, there is a vision, a plan, a program, or a campaign that gets things started. Typically, things start with anticipation and excitement, but then things happen, like unexpected rapid growth, or no growth, or conflict, or leadership problems, or sin. All of a sudden, our plans that seemed so great, now seem sort of inadequate and incomplete.
What do you do in these situations? For sure, you pray! It is the first thing, the last thing, and sometimes the only thing you can do. Pray.
The other thing you do, typically, is talk about it. You gather the key folks involved to identify issues and and come up with a new plan. If the small group is having an issue with childcare, you talk about it as a small group. If the small group ministry is having leadership development problems, you get the church leaders together to talk about it.
The challenge is, assuming you can identify the problem, how do you guide a discussion to help people arrive at some sort of collective solution? It is precisely in these meetings, in these discussions, that plans can get confusing and discussions can seem to go nowhere. You hope and pray plans come together, but sometimes they do not. Let me give you an example using the childcare issue mentioned above.
When Bob's small group started, the plan was for all small group members to arrange their own childcare away from the group's meeting location. Most of the initial members of this particular group have younger children so childcare is an important issue. Recently, the Smith's confessed, "Childcare expenses every week are starting to become a financial strain on us, and we were just wondering if the group would consider having all the children of the small group together at the same house with a couple of babysitters, so we could share childcare expenses and reduce the burden on individual families." This idea was quickly met with approval by another set of parents. However, the host family of the small group, the Jones', spoke up next and said, "This is not a good idea because our house is not set up to accommodate a bunch of kids. We don't have any spare rooms." Another group member quickly said, "We don't have enough room in our house either, and we need to think about the safety of these kids. We can't just have them meet any place with just any babysitter." At this point another group member, Mrs. Miller said, "Maybe we should see if we can meet at the church building; then there would be plenty of room for adults and kids." Someone quickly rebutted, "You know, I much prefer the atmosphere of a home over the church building for our small group gatherings. But, even though I don't want to meet at the church building, I have always thought the church should be helping pay for our childcare expenses since small groups are an official church activity." After a little more random discussion, Bob Davis, the leader of the group, said, "You know I've been thinking about it for a while, but haven't said anything. I have been thinking that we have way too many programs at church that separate parents from kids. Maybe small groups shouldn't be another one of those activities. What do you think about including our kids in our small group time—actually have them be part of our small group?" After this comment, a couple of muffled groans are heard around the room while one other family nods their heads in affirmation of what the leader has said. A couple of other random comments are made, and then someone says, "We've gone way past time, and I need to get home to relieve my babysitter!"
Have you ever experienced a discussion like this? Me too! Why do discussions like this one so often turn out this way—a plan does not come together? Whether it is a small group, or a group of church leaders, when you are discussing complex issues, staying on task and coming to a consensus are difficult tasks.
While I do not consider myself an expert on the topic of group decision making, I stumbled upon one technique that has helped me to navigate these discussions a little easier. To make these discussions somewhat easier, one thing you can do is to guide the group by focusing discussion in one of three main areas at a time. Those three areas are: values, strategies, and tactics.
Now, lest you think you have to become a corporate executive or military strategists to figure out what I am talking about, let me illustrate it another way. Your planning sessions will go much better if you focus your discussion on one of three altitudes, one at a time. Those altitudes are: the 10,000 foot level (values), the 500 foot level (strategies), and eye level (tactics).
There is no question that to do adequate planning you have to spend time flying at each of the three altitudes. The hard thing, for instance, about the childcare discussion above was that people were flying at all different altitudes at the same time. When you dive and climb through all the different altitudes at once, you become disoriented and it makes it hard to see anything clearly. The remedy is to start at one altitude, get the lay of the land, and then move to another altitude gradually.
The 10,000 foot level – Values
"…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone." Eph. 2:20
Before an airliner starts descending into its destination, you generally are flying at a high altitude. At high altitude, when you look down, it is hard to make out details. You can see major features like mountains and large rivers, but it is difficult to see details like houses and cars.
Likewise, values are closely held and worthwhile beliefs, principles, or standards which should be seen easily and remain relatively unchanged despite the details of the situation. Many times, it is good to start your discussion at this level because you can determine non-negotiables that will drive your strategy and tactical decisions (500 foot and eye level decisions).
To get a values discussion started, one idea would be to invite the small group to list any non-negotiables regarding the issue at hand. For instance, in the childcare discussion, two values-related issues that needed to be discussed were safety while under a babysitter's care and the importance of including children in the small group community. If those were the only two values issues that were brought up, the facilitator might ask a couple of clarifying questions like: Does our vision of community include some time with kids and adults together? What is our qualifications for any childcare provider outside of parents?
Values-level discussions very often focus on scriptural principles and on core beliefs. The key to keeping things at the values level is to guide the group by asking questions about the group's mission, vision, and core beliefs relative to the issue being discussed. When someone makes a comment that clearly seems to be more detail-oriented than values-oriented, make a note of it, but defer these comments until later in your discussion.
Once consensus is reached about specific values related to this topic, repeat them so everyone hears and agrees before moving on.
The 500 foot level – Strategies
"The plans of the righteous are just, …" Prov. 12:5
As the airliner makes its approach to land, a lot of details have come into view. Many things still look small, but you can clearly see roads and runways. Using navigational resources and landmarks, you can begin to map out your approach to the landing point.
It is at this level that you discuss and develop strategies that align with your values. A strategy is an approach to solving a problem or achieving an objective using resources available to make it work as effectively as possible.
In our childcare discussion example, once non-negotiable values were determined, the group facilitator could invite the group to share ideas about how childcare could be arranged. For instance, if the group determined the value of family discipleship should be part of the the small group's function, then one strategy would be to have childcare happen at the site of the small group gathering with parents involved in some aspects of childcare and the kids involved in some aspect of group life (specific involvement ideas should be saved for the "eye-level" tactics discussion).
On the other hand, if the value was on individual child safety, but if joint child/parent involvement in the group was not a high value, then one strategy might be to continue to leave childcare up to parents individually where known babysitters and a known home environment exist. This, of course, seems to go against the original reason the childcare situation was brought up in the first place (financial burden of individual childcare), but if the values are determined and strategy still makes sense, then details such as childcare expenses can be most effectively dealt with at the eye level (tactics) discussion.
It is important, at this point, to summarize the strategy for which the group has reached consensus on so everyone hears and agrees before moving on.
Eye level – Tactics
"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?" Luke 14:28
Once your airliner is ready touch down, the pilot performs a set of specific steps to insure a successful landing will happen: landing gear down, flaps up, nose up, etc.
Likewise, tactics are detailed maneuvers which achieve the objectives set by strategy. These, in turn, support the values. It is at this level that details are finally discussed and decisions made based on the unique circumstances of your situation and the chosen strategy.
In our childcare discussion example, let us say child safety and adult-only community time were high values. Strategies were then discussed, and it was decided to have parents be responsible for their own childcare. Now, the discussion could be open as to how to subsidize that childcare so the burden would not be too great for any one family. At this point, tactics such as starting a joint small group childcare fund or seeing if the larger church could help fund childcare are open for discussion.
If the values and strategy discussions had led to a strategy of doing childcare at the site of the small group gathering, then detailed tactics of location, logistics, and childcare expenses can be discussed more effectively.
Hopefully, at this point in the conversation, issues of values and strategy have been decided. If confusing comments emerge questioning the values or strategy previously selected, simply go back to your summarizing points for both the values and strategy discussions and ask: "Are these values and strategy the ones to which we agreed, or do we need to spend more time at one of these levels before moving on?"
The end result of facilitating the discussion using the approach of values, strategy and tactics (10,000 foot level, 500 foot level, eye level) may not make the discussion go quicker, but typically, a more effective process results and more ministry will be the fruit of the process.
Because, don't you just love it when a plan comes together!