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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2011 Archives > March-April 2011 > SMALL GROUP MINISTRIES -- LEAD
Missional strategist Alan Hirsch (second from left) talks with young adults that the Rev. Michael and Carolyn Slaughter mentor weekly. (Bottom photo) One of Ginghamsburg Church's 260 cell groups gathers for its weekly time of study and sharing.
Missional strategist Alan Hirsch (second from left) talks with young adults that the Rev. Michael and Carolyn Slaughter mentor weekly. (Bottom photo) One of Ginghamsburg Church's 260 cell groups gathers for its weekly time of study and sharing.
GINGHAMSBURG - small grp overhead

Forming Disciples, Building Relationships: The Ministry of Small Groups

By Kami L. Rice

In Minnesota, a man has begun monthly visits with a prisoner. A family in Pennsylvania directly affected by lay-offs is being supported and lifted in prayer. Teens send disappointed texts when their small group in Tennessee has to be cancelled. A homeless shelter is opening in an Ohio town of 10,000 residents. Arkansas women share their spiritual journeys while knitting prayer shawls. And small-group ministries are helping write endless more stories like these.

Fifty-six-year-old Beverly Graham, a lifelong United Methodist and administrator for FaithSpring Church, a new congregation in Little Rock, Ark., learns much from being in a small group with people in her church from different backgrounds. Recently, one man described turning off his car radio a few blocks from work each morning so he could have some quiet time listening and praying to God.

"That was life-changing for me," says Graham. "My prayers have been a one-way conversation. I need to listen more. I think that's going to make a big difference in my prayer life." She may have read such ideas before, but hearing about it from this "regular guy" makes implementing the practice seem more possible than does hearing about it only from a pastor. "I look at that guy and say, ‘He's like me,'" she says.

Relating, serving, growing

Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, didn't always have 260 cell groups encompassing more than half of the 4,000 weekly worship attendees. When the Rev. Mike Slaughter arrived at the United Methodist church in 1979, only 70-80 people attended each week.

Toward vital congregations...

In November 2010, the United Methodist Council of Bishops called for making vital congregations the denomination's first priority for the next decade. Small-group ministries in local churches is the first of four ministry areas typical to "high-vitality congregations" Interpreter will feature this year. Watch for articles in coming issues on worship, lay leadership and pastoral effectiveness.

"For the church to grow, and for those already in it to be inspired to stay, I knew that people had to find significance for themselves within their Ginghamsburg experience through developing meaningful relationships and finding significant places of service," Slaughter, Ginghamsburg's lead pastor, says. "Thriving small groups help people accomplish both of these, and both are essential to spiritual growth. That was true in 1979, and it's still true in 2011."

Small groups that support discipleship can follow a range of models. They are usually most effective with 6-12 members. Kevin Applegate, Ginghamsburg's adult cell-group ministries director, says the focus is on life-changing Bible study and accountability leading to long-term discipleship.

While all Ginghamsburg groups start out using a curriculum based on the sermon, some groups intersperse that with non-sermon-based study. Groups are typically built around location, strong affinity (such as motorcycle group ministry), or ministry emphasis, which Ginghamsburg always pushes to be undergirded by small groups. Life stage may also be a commonality. "A mixed group makes a better group in the end," acknowledges Applegate, "but it's harder to start."

Clarifying expectations

Members deciding expectations together and writing a group covenant is a helpful process, Applegate says. Expectations that are not voiced and, therefore, are not met can sometimes be the downfall of a group. Ginghamsburg groups rewrite their covenants each year. This helps keep groups from getting so stuck on being relational that they stop pushing each other forward.

Covenants are also an integral part of the seven covenant discipleship groups at Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minn. Very structured, they are formed around the United Methodist "General Rule of Discipleship." Each week, each member describes his or her acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion as well as spiritual promptings received.

For member Tom Ihlenfeldt, the covenant and weekly accountability "really freed me to take an inventory of my life and where I spend my time and what's important. It makes me more cognizant of how I fit into the world I live in. I think twice about what I say and how I live with the people around me."

Each written covenant describes specifically what that group means by acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. An item cannot be included in the covenant unless all members are willing to be bound by it.

The covenants and questions provide "a really useful framework for shaping how we do ministry," says the Rev. Michelle Hargrave, Fairmount's pastor. "Instead of my preaching, ‘We should be doing this for justice,' I've now got 17-20 percent of the congregation asking questions about justice."

Making connections

West Grove (Pa.) United Methodist Church includes any group meeting for a specific purpose that also has spiritual growth, fellowship and mission in its small-group ministries. The softball team is a small group since the team prays and has devotions at their gatherings and is part of the church's house-building ministry.

The Rev. Wendy Hudson-Jacoby, lead pastor, says the softball team opens a way to involve spouses or others who weren't interested in church or growing in discipleship and to begin building relationships that help them eventually accept invitations to Sunday school classes and other small groups more focused on Bible study.

Hudson-Jacoby says discipleship includes readying people for a deepening relationship with God. "Because they've built relationships with people, they do more, and they're physically involved (in the life of the church). That's when the spiritual fruit starts to happen."

She says small groups also help close the church's back door. "If folks don't have a connection with others on a meaningful level, it's easier for them to wander away and nobody notices."

The depth of relationship, vulnerability and care that can be shared between small-group members can significantly affect spiritual growth.

"It's been a transformative experience to watch how people grow when they're able to be with the same people week after week and when they go through times of crisis and are able to have spiritual guides to help them," says Sheila Michel, director of small groups at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The covenant discipleship model guides those groups who use it less formally than do the Fairmount groups.

"I feel like I have a more personal relationship with God," Michel says of her own small-group experience. "Before I was faithful but in sort of a lackadaisical way.... (Now) when I am failing, the people in my group are able to express to me how I am failing in a way that is poignant and loving because they know my journey."

"Discipleship really only takes place in small-group community," says Applegate. "Bible study's easy for most people, but it's that hard question of ‘now what?' that makes the difference."

Meeting challenges

Challenges for churches seeking a vibrant small-group ministry can include finding leaders and helping people who have never experienced small groups want to try them, says Hudson-Jacoby.

As FaithSpring grows, Graham expects that a very organic small-group ministry will probably need more structure to manage increased numbers.

Applegate continually urges long-time groups to keep serving and pushing on each other's lives to avoid becoming stagnant.

Ministry to pastors, too

"Most churches stay small because their one pastor, who serves as both caregiver and teacher, can only pay attention to so many people at one time," says Slaughter. "A church will only grow when people in it learn how to start taking care of themselves—and others—through effective small-group ministry."

"One of the things people like about being in a group," Michel says, is that "they see themselves as (both) sheep and as shepherds, and they see there is so much more they can do or be for the rest of the sheep."

In the early 1990s, Slaughter says he and his wife Carolyn were experiencing significant issues within their marriage but were careful to maintain the façade that all was well. "However, the small couples group we were part of at the time saw through that false exterior and held us accountable for addressing the problems within our marriage," he explains.

"The group also provided the encouragement we needed as we went through the difficult healing process. This was critical to transforming our relationship."

Because members take turns facilitating Fairmount's groups, Hargrave does not always lead. This allows her to receive ministry. "It's wonderful as a pastor to be moved and challenged by the people of my church who are doing the work of discipleship."

Kami L. Rice is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

Resources for small-group ministries

General Board of Discipleship,, click on "Living the United Methodist Way," choose from the menu to the left.

Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability, David Lowes Watson, Abingdon Press,, (800) 672-1789.

Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition, Steve Harper,, (800) 972-0433.

Go BIG with Small Groups, Bill Easum, Abingdon. 

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