Case study: Small Groups in Palo Alto

The following is a guest cross post by the Rev. Daniel Harper.  Dan and I both love this model for sharing and reflecting on what is (and is not) working in our congregations.   If something is working in your congregation, consider sharing your story with readers of this blog.  Contact me if you’re interested in writing a guest post.  As always, thanks Dan!

About nine months ago, a men’s group in the congregation here in Palo Alto made a decision to expand their membership. They already had a solid program in place, so when they came to me for advice I gave them the standard ideas for growing small groups: share your enthusiasm and extend personal invitations to others to join the group; assume you’re going to have newcomers at every meeting and plan how you’re going to integrate them; plan from the beginning to split into two groups when you get to ten members; constantly train new leaders; start the new groups at different times from the old group (different day of the week, different time of day) to accommodate different schedules. They asked me if I cared whether all the participants were members of the congregation. Heck no, I said, this is an important ministry we offer to the community, why would we shut people out?

Within a few months, their attendance had grown enough that they had to split that first group. Since the first group met in the evening, they added a second group for those who preferred to meet during the daytime. Both groups have continued to grow, and the leaders of the two groups are already talking about splitting the evening group. They’re expecting that they’ll be ready to split the morning group within six months.

The evening group invited me to attend a recent meeting, which I did with pleasure — and I was frankly curious about this group that had become so popular that they’re ready to split yet again. After the meeting (about which I’ll tell you nothing, since they have a confidentiality agreement for their group), the leaders asked me for feedback. I told them they did everything right: The first few minutes when someone walks in are crucial, and their non-verbal communication was open and welcoming — they greeted people, walked towards them, met their eyes, shook hands with them. The program topic was really rich, and the group leaders managed to keep a good balance between an open discussion, while at the same time urging men to talk about their feelings for this difficult topic. We did a little bit of problem-solving around specific situations that came up during the meeting — during which, I kept reminding them that leading a small groups is a balancing act where you’re always adjusting; therefore the time to worry is when you don’t feel a little off balance.

They’re proceeding with plans for continued growth. Nothing is definite yet, although there is talk about having a couple of meetings a year when all the men’s groups that came from that original men’s group get together on a Saturday and socialize.

Now, since this is a case study, here are some questions for reflection:

  1. The Palo Alto congregation has about 275 members. How many men’s groups would you plan for? In other words, what do you think is the upper limit for growth?
  2. If men from other nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations started attending men’s groups at the Palo Alto congregation, do you see that as a problem? Why or why not?
  3. What percentage of non-Unitarian Universalist men do you think is allowable?
  4. What could be done to keep the men’s groups connected with the congregation?
  5. What can be done to maintain “quality control,” that is, to make sure the men’s groups that split off maintain the same high quality program as the original one?
  6. Is it a problem that these are men’s groups? What about women’s groups? What about mixed gender, or non-specific gender groups?

3 thoughts on “Case study: Small Groups in Palo Alto

  1. Church literature suggests that about 40 percent of congregants at a maximum are interested in so-called “groupy groups,” where people check in, talk, etc. I believe the most important factor is that each small group should have an externally focused outreach component.

    Some churches require membership in a small group, usually starting out with getting to know the church, then on to a deeper understanding of the faith, then on to service. These are not mutually exclusive, but members always know what the next step in the journey will be.

    1. I agree with you 100% on the outreach component.

      Failure to integrate this into the mission and vision for small groups is one of the leading factors in our Unitarian Universalist small group ministries failing. We need an outward focus – and this can vary – to balance the inward relational pull.

      Michael, thanks for your comment and also your recent article in the UU Small Group Ministry Network’s quarterly journal.

  2. Mike, good point about the outreach component. The two men’s groups here in Palo Alto are organizing a big district-wide men’s retreat this fall — they are also quite intentional about reaching out to men who need support in life transitions — so they do have some external focus. Both those things should have been in the case study, because I feel both those things have added to the energy they have.

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