I am often asked how I would differentiate a “small group” from a class, regularly scheduled event or interest group.
For our leadership trainings, we set the following criteria for groups that want to be included in our “SpiritGroups” program:
- Communion. Each group must include prayer and/or meditation as part of each group’s gathering.
- Connection. Each group is to include time, food and beverage for fellowship before, during or after their gathering.
- Compassion. Group members are to look out for each other, celebrate milestones and care for each other beyond the established gathering schedule.
- Community. Each group is to engage in service to the greater community.
- Challenge. Each group is to provide opportunities for members to set intentions for their own spiritual growth, and to provide timelines for checking in and providing accountability in the striving toward those goals.
With this infrastructure, community service becomes more than just a gathering of cans, coats or school supplies. Service is the application of what is being discussed on Sundays and through small group discussions.
Case Study: Unity of Arlington, Texas
Unity of Arlington launched their “SpiritGroups” program in January of 2015 with eight small groups. Each group was encouraged to participate in a community service project of their choice, either through the spiritual community or through their own initiative.
For many, the service aspect was one of the highlights of their small group experience.
Group leader Steve Morris has built a thriving group by spotlighting the community service component of his group:
“My SpiritGroup, the “B.E.S.T.” SpiritGroup, (“Beautiful Exotic Sunflower Tribe”) has done three service projects since we started in January. We decided that we wanted to be a group that was about fun, service and spiritual growth.
“When you set your intention, it sure does come true.
“In January, we collected needed items for the Arlington Humane Shelter (dog beds, toys, old sheets and towels, etc). They were so thankful for the items and we felt great about it.
“In February, we cleaned out a storage room in the church that was in desperate need. You could not even get into the room and we use it every Sunday. It was hard work but we got it done and it has been so helpful to the lay ministers and spiritual community.
“In March, we made over 150 Blessing Bags (pictured) so that members of the congregation could keep some in their cars and make a connection with someone in need, spreading some love and hope. Our SpiritGroup made an ongoing commitment to provide these for member of our ministry.
“I am proud, overwhelmed, and profoundly grateful for the people in my SpiritGroup and for the opportunity to grow and be in ministry with these people. I thank … Glenda Jones Thompson (SpiritGroups Program Leader) for providing the structure and getting SpiritGroups started at Unity of Arlington.”
Other SpiritGroups have had similar experiences.
SpiritGroup leader Velma Bartley shares, “Our group went to Cathedral of Hope in Dallas to feed the homeless. There are no words to describe the connection we felt with the people we served. I saw Spirit connecting us.”
A Denver group gathered on a Saturday morning to help an elderly couple do some much-needed home and garden maintenance. Another group hosted a benefit concert raising money for nature education programs for kids. Others came together as a group to contribute to existing service projects within their ministry. Regardless of the project, transformation was happening within the hearts of each group member.
Tips for Implementing Community Service into Your Small Group Ministry Programs
With all of the ministries we work with, community service is more than an activity that makes us feel good. It’s an important step toward fulfilling the spiritual community’s mission. Service is key to spiritual development and personal growth. By structuring your small groups in a way that culminates in a service project, all participants have an opportunity to develop necessary skills for spiritual leadership.
If you’d like to incorporate a service component into your small groups ministry, here are a few tips to help you succeed:
- Communicate that community service is expected of all your small groups. The group can decide if they would like to serve monthly, quarterly, or annually. They can also choose the size and scope of their projects. Set the expectation for small groups culture of your small groups from the beginning.
- Schedule time for service. Most of our small group curriculum can be completed in six weeks. We always factor in at least two additional weeks before our “recommitment period.” This allows time for the group to have one social and/or planning session, plus an additional week to serve together.
- Provide ongoing training. It’s important for your small group leaders to know that they are cultivating spiritual leadership skills in their groups when they participate in community service projects. Use ongoing training opportunities to remind your group leaders of their role in going beyond the “activity” of community service, and explore the deeper spiritual principles that are being expressed through the group’s commitment to serve.
- Celebrate successes! Our SpiritGroup program provides a private Facebook page where small group leaders from all of our participating ministries can connect and share highlights from their group experience. Encourage your small group leaders to take pictures and share their results with each other and with your congregation.
- Tally your impact… Maintain close relationships with all of your group leaders so you can compile an “impact report” that can be shared in your end-of-the-year giving letters. When you can quantify the number of projects that were initiated through your ministry as well as the number of people whose lives were impacted through these projects, you build excitement for service and demonstrate the importance of the spiritual community in the greater community.