A debate runs among small-group pastors and senior pastors about whether to keep small-group attendance. While it can be difficult at times to get highly relational small-group leaders to accomplish the highly administrative task of keeping group attendance, there are many benefits, especially as you coach leaders.
Be Aware of Major Shifts
Groups who typically have 80 percent or more of their group members in a meeting on a regular basis are in their sweet spot. Even if the attendance occasionally dips below 50 percent, there's not much to worry about. On the other hand, there are two situations where you or your small-group coaches need to intervene.
Groups with Too Many Members
Warm, welcoming groups can't help but grow. Members keep inviting their friends, and in a matter of weeks, the group can grow well beyond what's comfortable for a group meeting (or even the average-sized home). Rather than putting a cap on how many new people the group can invite, it's time for a conversation: What's next?
If the group is sub-grouping into smaller groups of eight or less, discussion can continue and everybody can get a word in. Sub-grouping paves the way for potential new groups. But I would not recommend using words like "birth," "split," "multiply," or "divide." These are heard as code for "the small-group pastor is only concerned about his or her own success and doesn't care about people." While small-group pastors know that's simply not true, the reality is that's how people will hear us.
The best way to get a group to multiply or birth is to allow the size of the group to become a problem for the group. When group members feel the pain of an oversized group, they will be motivated to relocate some of the sub-groups to another house. Coach them toward this decision. Don't dictate, but guide them into something they will feel good about down the road.
Groups with Rapid Decline
For most small-group leaders, especially new group leaders, a significant decline in attendance often feels like personal failure—even though it's not. If a group started with 14 and is now sitting in a cavernous living room with 4 people, leaders assume it's their fault. They begin to wonder if they're cut out for the role. But we know better than that.
Group leaders need to know 100 percent attendance is not necessarily the goal. What we're striving for is letting God work in the group. Sometimes God can't do what he wants when 14 people are there, but he can when there are only four. When attendance drops, leaders need to be reassured.
But if attendance drops and stays low, that's a whole other issue. What's going on in the group that might be keeping people away? Are the meetings going too long? Is the leader unprepared? Is someone dominating the discussion and turning this into a personal support group? Not only is it time to coach the leader, it's also time to conduct some "exit interviews" with group members who have left the group. The goal is to gain insight into what's going on in the group.
Identify Potential Trouble Spots
If a group fails to report attendance, it either means the group leader is not a detail-driven, task-oriented person or the group is facing trouble they'd rather not report. If the group leader is simply not task-driven, have the leader designate someone else in the group to submit the reports.
Regardless of the reason, if a group leader has gone silent, the group coach needs to investigate. Maybe the group has stopped meeting. Maybe attendance has dropped and the leader is embarrassed to report. If leaders miss one week of reporting, it's probably no big deal. But missing multiple weeks should put leaders on your hot list for follow up.
Learn about Groups Going Underground
If groups aren't reporting their attendance and leaders aren't in contact with their coach, the group may have failed or gone underground. Both of these require follow up. There are obvious advantages to keeping your groups connected to the church and your ministry structure.
Failure to take attendance is certainly only one indicator that a group may have "gone rogue." This is not the time to evoke a strict, controlling approach to group oversight. Remember that group coaching is built on relationship. Encourage the small-group coach to work on a personal relationship with the leader. In time, this will bring the group and the leader back into the fold.
Practical Solutions to Collecting Attendance Reports
Collecting attendance from off-campus groups can be a little tricky. Paper forms are probably not the solution, especially if they need to be mailed or dropped off at the church. Digital solutions are far superior. You can use a survey tool like Surveymonkey.com to send a simple survey to your group leaders asking them to list their members by name or to just give a total for the week, add any prayer requests, and ask questions about group life.
A far superior solution is an online database such as Churchteams.com which sends a report reminder after each group meeting. Leaders just need to click a link, fill out their report, click "save," and then they're done. Churchteams.com saves all of the data online and sends out analytics at the end of each month identifying potential trouble spots.
However you decide to collect attendance reports, there are many benefits to having a clear idea of the attendance in your small groups. Consider how you can collect attendance and make the most of those reports today.
—Allen White; adapted from his blog AllenWhite.org. Used with the author's permission.