Judy is the Director of Small Groups at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church, and a Contributor in the area of Small Group Ministry. This interview was originally posted in our July 2016 Newsletter.
How long have you been Director of Small Groups at your church?
A. I started working at my church in 2002 and began working with Small Groups in 2006. I took 2 years off to take care of my husband before he died, and I’ve been back for 3 years now.
Q. How did you get involved in this ministry?
A. For 17 years, we had been members of another church, but left because of all of the drama that was taking place there. When we came to UALC, we just blended in for a year, staying anonymous while healing. Then, I went to a Renewal weekend retreat with a bunch of other women. I told them all that I didn’t need friends, especially women, because they’re too high maintenance. We still laugh about that.
During that time, my husband and I got into a small group and that was where our faith really began to grow. And because I had that experience, I was able to share with others. That is how is all began. I started as a volunteer working on the church’s data base and was eventually offered a part time position in that area. From there, I took a full time job as the Care Administrator, working with the pastor in charge of our Care Ministry. From there I stepped into the small group ministry.
This is an example of God’s sense of humor. My upbringing was such that I isolated a lot. Because of addictions in my home, we didn’t invite people over, we kept to ourselves. When I became an adult it was so much easier not to have friends and not to reach out; I became a loner. When this job came up, and I really felt I was being pushed toward it, it was such a God thing. I went from not wanting or having any friends to being in charge of small groups so I wasn’t really sure where to go with that.
This position opened up a whole new world for me. I knew nothing about small groups but I was the one who was chosen out of many interviewed because I had experience with the Care department and data base and knew people, the members and regular attenders. The other candidates were from outside our church. So, it’s an amazing thing that the Lord has placed me in this role.
Q. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the job?
A. Every time I turn around the job gets bigger. I’m responsible for discipleship and leadership development which is all part of small groups as well. But that’s part of what make it fun and exciting and, I have an amazing support team. I really couldn’t do this alone. When I get discouraged, I just sit down with them. First we start praying, then we start brainstorming before we know it, God has provided the direction we need.
Q. How is your ministry supported by your senior pastor?
A. He stresses to the congregation that we need to get outside ourselves and into the world, and live into our mission statement to be and to make disciples. And he has given me authority to do just that. I don’t have to go and ask him every time I want to turn around. I can just do it and give it a try. I’ve learned so much working for him.
Also, this fall, we’ll have a preaching series on community and connectedness, and it’ll be a real Small Group push from the pulpit. That’s what the Christian life is all about and it’s wonderful that he actively encourages people to disciple and be a discipled.
Q. What advice would your offer for Small Group Ministry leaders starting out?
A. It’s important to define your goals and guidelines for each group and to have solid leadership in place. Lead by example and don’t get discouraged–invite, invite, invite!
Q. What are your goals for your small groups?
A. I dream to have groups available for anyone who wants one. And for those people who don’t think they want to get in a group, I want to make it so appealing, that they do. In order for that to work, there need to be plenty of open groups available.
The reason this is a key goal is that we want everyone to have a connection with at least a handful of people, so when they walk in on Sunday morning, somebody knows who they are. We all need a place where we can mentor and where we can be mentored.
Q. Are all of your groups open to newcomers?
A. Yes, except some groups that have been in existence for years. All new groups are open and, for the most part, I really feel they should be. The exception would be recovery groups, but even those are open to anybody with the particular issue that group is dealing with. Sometimes there are stage of life groups that want to be closed for six months to a year as they delve into a certain issue together but I recommend that they always open back up.
Q. How do you continue to grow new groups?
A. As our leaders build relationships within their group, we ask them to look for someone who could be a leader at some point and lean into them a bit, so that we’re always nurturing and growing new leaders.
Another thing I’ve tried recently is offering small group leader training three to four times a year, scheduling them about six weeks before a new member class. So those new leaders attend a new member class and start their first group out of that class. This has been very successful so I’ll be sharing more about this in a future article.
Q. Do your leaders stay with one group indefinitely, or do they start a group and move on to start another one?
A. As groups gel and people get to really know each other, naturally, they oftentimes want to stay together. It’s difficult to get people to leave that group to start another one—this is an area that’s been a challenge. Sometimes, I don’t think the leaders (and even the members) of an established group realize how much the experience and the leadership skills they’ve learned along the way could benefit others. So now, I’m in the process of trying to convey to these folks the benefits of stepping away for a month or two. They can lend their experience to a new group, and then step back into their current group.
Q. What do your groups actually do?
A. Some are Bible study groups, some study specific topics, some are stage of life focused and some are recovery groups. They all have a component of learning and growing together. All group members disciple to and pray for each other. And members stay connected by reaching out when someone has not been around for a while, or helping group members through difficulties in their lives.
There’s also the expectation that groups will serve in the community in some way. Once every two months or so, they do something that’s outward focused…maybe help an elderly neighbor rake her yard or work at the food pantry or give blood together.
Q. Most individual ministry teams work closely together. Do you recommend that they intentionally incorporate some of your small group goals?
A. Absolutely! Most ministry teams—such as tech or worship teams or the communications team—all naturally function like a small group. Oftentimes, they minister to each other and pray for each other, with the additional connection of working together in their particular ministry. Adding a Bible study component and a service component would further cement the group and make it a true “small group”. I think this is happening spontaneously in many churches.
Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced?
A. One of the things that I found to be so frustrating was when I worked so hard to use all avenues available to make everyone aware of what’s available—the website, the bulletin, the newsletter, getting up in front of people–to tell them what’s going on, and people are still unaware of the small groups that are available and how they can plug into them.
Q. How did you overcome that?
A. I think this will always be a struggle. We just need to communicate the best we can. If someone is seeking a small group, we have information readily available in all of our communications formats. The rest, you just have to let go to God.
I was expressing my frustration on this once and a friend pointed out that the average worship attendance is once a month. That’s huge. It’s hard to connect with people when they aren’t there. So, in addition to all the regular communications methods, I have a more deliberate system of sending emails and my team and I try to have a presence in the lobby, to really grab people’s attention when they are there.
Q. What other advice do you have to offer small group leaders?
A. Well, it seems obvious but sometimes we get wrapped up in our everyday responsibilities…express your gratitude to your leaders. Thank them often, and have an annual appreciation dinner. Make sure they know they’re an important and valuable part of the ministry team, and that they contribute greatly to the entire church community.
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