By: Christa Meland
For several years, Karen Boots had been wanting to start a small group ministry at her church, First UMC in Redwood Falls. But she wasn’t sure how to set it up and make it happen.
“I felt a call to help our church be more biblically literate and knew that small groups could play a good part in that,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to do to get going. I had been watching and praying for an opportunity.”
Last year, her prayer was answered. She and several others from her church attended the Southern Prairie District Day, which included a workshop on setting up small groups. It was led by Stacy Vanderwerf from Hilltop UMC in Mankato, which has had lots of success with its “Connect Groups” since starting them in 2014.
Boots and others from her church heeded the words of advice from the workshop—including a suggestion to read the book Activate—and they rolled out their own Connect Groups last fall. There were 11 groups in total, each of which fell into one of four categories: fellowship, mission and service, spiritual growth, and life groups (applying faith and biblical principles to different aspects of life, like marriage or fitness or raising kids). Boots noted that there were options for everyone—people who found a Bible study intimidating and those who really wanted to get into deep conversations about their faith.
Each group lasted for a fixed number of weeks and had six to 15 participants. Eighty-five people between the ages of 12 and 90 participated. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and five new Connect Groups are debuting this summer. The church is well on its way to reaching its goal to have 150 people participate by the end of this year—its 150th anniversary.
Boots herself led one of the inaugural Connect Groups. Called “Your Divine Design,” it focused on helping participants discover and deploy their spiritual gifts. One of the best parts, she said, was getting to know new people—individuals who she recognized and greeted in church but didn’t normally converse with on Sunday mornings.
“Through the Connect Groups, our circles are getting bigger and more interconnected,” she said. “If we can get new people who come in the doors to be able to try a group like this, how much more quickly they will get connected and want to be a part of everything. When people get connected to other people, it’s the relationships that bring them back into church the next week.”
The Connect Groups were a lay-led initiative at First UMC, but Rev. Randy Koppen supported the effort by preaching a series of sermons about small group ministries and by talking about the small group he’s part of.
“I know that Connect Groups are another place where people can become more connected with each other and more connected with how their faith can be lived out,” said Koppen. “As important as worship is, it’s not the only place where you grow. Small groups continue to invite participants to care for each other in ways that wouldn’t have happened through worship.”
Recruiting leaders for the Connect Groups wasn’t very difficult, said Boots. For the first round, she and other organizers sought out individuals who had led other types of efforts in the church. Leaders chose their own topics and resources, but organizers did offer a training session to give some advice on leading a small group, getting through hurdles, encouraging participation, and making the group a safe space where people could be vulnerable. All of the leaders were encouraged to infuse their Connect Groups with prayer.
“I think if we don’t live in authentic Christian community, we don’t ever grow in our faith,” said Boots. “The way you can interact with somebody else and share your struggles, share your questions, help each other to grow—there’s nothing that can replace that.”
Do you want to start small groups at your church? First UMC has made a variety of its resources available to other churches wanting to launch their own. View and download: Start-up process / Connect Groups brochure / Theme for promo campaign / Newsletter articles / Sign-up form / Covenant for group members / Participant evaluation / Leader evaluation
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church