By Ansley Brackin
Hartwell First UMC has always had a great attendance record during their three worship services, but they wanted to form a deeper connection between congregants across all services.
Small Group Ministry Coordinator, Marci Garringer, discovered that members who went to different services didn’t know each other, and that only older adults attended Sunday School classes. She and her pastor, Allen Stewart decided to open up a new opportunity in the form of small groups, first to only the contemporary service. Through that service alone, Garringer already began to notice new relationships forming.
The first year required much trial and error to determine the best adaptations for their congregation. A six week study, they found, was the best noncommittal length to offer each season. Garringer believes it is because they “can see the end in sight before they even start,” resulting in less pressure than committing to a year long study.
She also found that providing multiple scheduling options and topics invited a greater variety of people to participate, as some preferred to meet right after the service at the church and others found it more suitable to meet at someone’s house during the week.
This fall, the church invited every service to sign up for small groups who would all study Adam Hamilton’s Revival series. Thirteen groups were formed with a grand total of 172 people and leaders involved.
Due to the variety of time slots offered, each group is typically made up of a variety ages and worshipers from all services. Garringer believes this is what makes the groups so successful.
“The perspective of a 30 year old is different from an 80 year old,” she explains.
Though many groups have asked to stay the same throughout the year, every season they change things up and a different assortment of people are put together each time, providing opportunities for newcomers to join in without feeling out of the loop. Unlike Sunday School classes, the groups always result in everyone meeting someone new.
“People are more willing to sign up each time, because it’s new to the whole church. You’ll meet new people each time,” Garringer says.
The more congregants become comfortable with the small group format, the more they offer to lead and participate more, even those who have contributed very little participation in the past. The more casual setting provides a different kind of comfort and inclusive feeling.
The success of Hartwell First UMC’s small groups does not mean, however, that other groups like Sunday School, Circle K or United Methodist Men and Women will go away. Garringer still feels it is important to maintain those programs as long as there are people receiving sustenance from them.
The church plans on providing a lighter series in the spring. Several worshippers have offered to teach groups photography, cooking, gardening and more, providing active opportunities.
Garringer suggests this small group method to any church wishing to strengthen its congregational connection and bridge gaps between services and age groups. However, she strongly recommends committing to in-depth research and an openness to trial and error to best suit the needs of the congregation.
She was in constant discussion with church members far in advance, and provided surveys in order to study the congregation’s age range, interests, and how involved worshippers were before joining the small groups.
She also suggests starting out with experienced group leaders and common topics while nailing down the schedule and other details.
Some churches, like Hartwell, may find that summer is an impractical season to have a small group. They also discovered that a shorter 4 week session is most efficient in the spring.
Each small group season ends with several small changes of improvement, Garringer says, as well as a request for participant feedback.
Contact Marci Garringer to learn more about Hartwell UMC’s small group program. Also, contact Phil Schroeder for the best resources on starting a new method of fellowship.