Back when we were running a counseling center and training interns we had two interns who demonstrated to opposite ends of the spectrum. One trainee rarely saw anyone for more than three sessions. The other trainee was still seeing the same people coming more than once a week to group and individual therapy after several years. Both represented retention problems: one could not keep anyone, and the other seemed to make people feel more dependant the longer they came.
It was interesting that the intern who rarely saw people after three weeks considered that he had a high success rate. Most people were either cured in two visits, were not serious and should not be counted because they didn’t stay or were one of the few still there after 18 weeks. Often treatment programs report a high percentage of success by their “graduates”, but they do not count the 50 to 80% who drop out as a failure. However, if program has an 80% drop out rate together with a 75% success rate for graduates at the end of a year only 15 out of 100 people who start treatment will be sober.
While these figures are for recovery programs, it appears that most church small group programs do not even keep records of how many lives were changed and how long it lasted.
While it’s important for churches to consider how to retain members in their small group, we need to realize that neither those who drop out nor those who stay endlessly are reaching a good transformation!
Not all retention is good
Cults and even some recovery programs show a tendency to use small groups to support themselves. If the main motive for small groups is to maintain the larger group, there is a chance that people’s fears and needs will be exploited to maintain group participation.
One method groups use to hold on to people is give them a responsibility, sometimes an unethical responsibility, and use fear to get them to carry it out. One recovery group sent a member to the office where my wife worked each Monday selling tickets to a pancake breakfast. Upon examination it was discovered that the pancake breakfast was not even being held! The recovering addicts kept selling the tickets because they were convinced it was necessary for their recovery.
Another way that many people stay with a group is to “go on staff.” This provides an opportunity for them to continue to participate, even after their allotted time in the small group has ended.
I’ve heard five coercive stories that organizations tell convince members to stay.
- “This is the only way.” Groups have many possible goals from making money to playing on the team or being one of the elite that can be offered to group members. In some of the worst case God’s salvation is tied to group participation.
- “You will fail if you leave.” This message shows up more often in recovery groups but any group that is fear-based can give members the message that they will fail if they do not stay.
- “You will be special if you stay.” Some of these groups can be very expensive! Often the offer seems to be a path to becoming one of the insider or high status group members.
- “You are not ready – there is still something wrong with you.” Hurting people with fears about relationships may find themselves in groups where there is always another issue to face before having a joyful life. We have found that in most cases, a joyful life is one of the first things to seek and that healthy groups help members create ways to get on with life while they heal.
- “We are the only ones who understand you (and want, love or accept you).” People with poor people skills and lots of rejection and loss in their lives are vulnerable to being told they are special in this group but too broken to be loved elsewhere.
Unhealthy group retention can be fear based, and presents the group as the only resource capable of meeting the person’s needs. Groups have ways of making this prophesy seem to come true and create a strongly fearful loyalty in group members.
While these efforts can produce group retention among fearful people, they remind us that small groups are not there to keep people coming back. Small groups exist to help people achieve something they value. But the transformation we think we value happens very near the edge of our comfort zone most of the time.
Keeping people on the verge of not returning
It seems that the point of transformation is very close to the point of not returning. Push too hard and people leave unchanged. Do not push enough and people leave unchanged. Why doesn’t all this pushing lead to transformation? Because everyone in the group is in a different place.
Some groups can be pushed more than others. Groups who have the rich relational connection that comes from what we call “building joy” have a much wider range for pushing than groups where the joy is so low that people are unsure if they even want to return. When we look at our own lives we realize that these were the common conditions where we experienced the most growth. These included a resource-rich relational environment (such as a multigenerational community), the active presence of God, a place where both our strengths and weaknesses were used to in group activities. This combination is a powerfully transformative blend that promotes joyful life change.
In other words, the working mix that leads to life change starts with keeping joy levels high.
What we have learned developing the Life Model
Creating a program that would have at least a 90% retention rate was a BIG part of what Ed Khouri and I developed and tested for Connexus. Naturally, we worked on other things—transformation, blending weak and strong, relational brain skill training—but retention was the biggest thing we tracked. Connexus was designed and tested for good member retention, we have revised Joy Starts Here and THRIVE training to retain participants and provide transformation as well.
If your church is looking for a method to transform and mature people to be more like Jesus, consider:
- Using Connexus in your small groups or Sunday School
- Starting a Joy Starts Here book group with your friends
- Participate in a week of skills training at Thrive
An added benefit: you’ll have more mature people who are commited to the joyful community they experience in your church!