The first year of marriage for my wife and me was the most difficult. We moved to a new city in a new state. We started new jobs. We changed schools. We switched churches. Everything in our lives was new. On top of that, we lived on next to nothing. Both seminary students, we worked side jobs to pay our bills.
As tough as our new life of changes and financial stress was, we had a much bigger problem that made our lives difficult: We had no idea how to communicate with one another.
I can distinctly remember one day in the car when our lack of communication skills made for a painful experience:
My wife: "You need to turn here, babe."
Me: "You sure? Because I thought we were supposed to go straight."
My wife: "Nope. I thought this through. You need to turn."
Me: "Let's just see where straight takes us."
My wife: "It'll take us 'lost.' Turn."
Me: "I'm driving, so I'm going straight."
My wife: "Then you're going the wrong way."
Me: "I just want to see if this is the right way."
My wife: (mumbles under her breath)
Me: "Who has the keys right now? Me? Good. Next time, when you have them, you can turn."
We had to learn to communicate. It simply wasn't coming naturally.
Why did we have to learn? Because we were married, we loved each other, and we knew that if we weren't actively headed in the same direction, we were headed in opposite directions. Even passive, nonexistent communication moves you somewhere.
Communication, or lack thereof, is never neutral when you are dealing with people. The question is whether you're headed in parallel directions, or beginning to veer off course from one another. An ever-so-slight move off course can have a huge impact down the road.
This is true for small groups, too. In effect, small groups are churches within a church, which means that a local congregation is a combination of multiple small groups, or multiple churches, coming together to worship. It's a beautiful thing. All those groups are filled with people, and how we communicate with them will determine the trajectory of the groups.
There's a danger in not communicating well to small groups. Without oversight and leadership, small groups become unhealthy pockets of church life. It's far too easy to get disconnected. They're meeting somewhere private, and they're led by lay leaders. They're talking about tough issues, and there isn't a guide to handle every situation that comes up. Without a coach checking in regularly with the group leader, a group can get really weird, really quickly.
Even if a group starts out strong, things can turn south. Andy Stanley says, "Vision leaks." Over time, without a constant drip of communication, leaders will lose the vision. The group will drift from the primary mission. Leaders will lose focus, and they'll find themselves off the intended course. Without clear, consistent communication, lots of weird things can happen.
You may be nodding your head in agreement, knowing from experience how quickly things can go sideways in a small group when communication has broken down. Leadership owes it to group leaders to give thorough, reasoned, compelling communication.
In order to do that, church leaders should use all means necessary to ensure delivery. Choosing the correct method for the information you're communicating is important, though. Before you put your next message together, read through the different methods below.
I send out weekly e-mails to all our leaders. These aren't individual, personalized emails. They're sent out en masse. There are a couple of important things to remember about e-mails:
- Keep it brief. Nobody reads long e-mails.
- Spam filters can work against you when you send out mass e-mails.
- Most people don't pay too much attention to mass e-mails, so make them short and to the point.
- Consider creating two-part e-mails. In the top half include the bullet points. In the bottom half, include an expanded version with more information for those who are willing to read more.
Phone calls are great when I want to ensure people get information in a timely manner. Some people simply don't check their e-mails very often. Or they only skim their messages. A few important things to remember about phone calls:
- It takes a lot of time to make calls. But it's worth the effort for some communication.
- Solicit volunteer help if you get overwhelmed with this. Phone calls are easy to delegate if you script out the information.
- Don't be frustrated if you end up leaving voicemails rather than actually talking to people. Still, more voicemails will be listened to than e-mails read.
If the information is important enough to send an e-mail or make a phone call, you should blast it out on social media, too. It's free! It's also one more channel to speak into the lives of group leaders who may be more likely to check their Facebook or Twitter feeds than their e-mail. A few important things to keep in mind about social media:
- Don't make it only information about events (dates, times, locations, etc.). use social media to share blogs and articles as well.
- Use hashtags so that no matter when a group leader jumps into the stream, they can track conversations back over time. Be consistent, though, by using the same hashtag.
- Some people love social media. Some people hate it. Some people are intentionally off the grid. Maximize social media, but don't depend on it.
An e-mail, phone call, or Facebook update doesn't even come close to the power of a sit-down meeting over a cup of coffee. The relational equity you build when you carve out time in your schedule is unparalleled. A few important things to remember about meetings:
- This is the most powerful form of communication. Use it wisely, and don't overdo it.
- Be mindful that you're meeting with someone who has a full-time job, a family, hobbies, and other responsibilities. Don't waste his or her time.
- You can accomplish more in an hour-long lunch meeting with a leader than you can in a dozen e-mails.
- Don't use these meetings to only talk about dates and times. Cast vision. Deepen your relationship. Let them know you care.
- These meetings are especially great for helping a group member think through specific issues within their group.
Gather leaders together in larger groups when you want to rally the troops, cast new vision, or train on important ministry-wide topics. A few things to remember about mid-sized gatherings:
- Some things work great in this setting (like casting vision) while other things don't (like deepening personal relationships).
- Keep in mind that you're taking up personal time of volunteer leaders, so make the content excellent.
- Be sure to give group leaders time and space to connect with one another, not just with the content you're sharing. This helps them feel connected and allows them to share stories of group life with one another.
- After these gatherings, send a follow-up e-mail to everyone—even those who didn't attend—recapping the content.
You may have grown frustrated that your leaders have drifted off course. But maybe the issue isn't them: it's your communication. Learn how to communicate the right message in the right way, and you'll get the right results.
—Ben Reed is the Small Group Pastor at Long Hollow Baptist Church; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.