Aug 19, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Bill Willits & Libby Hempen on Small Group Ministry

In a recent interview on Church Pulse Weekly, Bill Willits and Libby Hempen (leaders at North Point Ministries) join Carey Nieuwhof to share about their experience leading small groups in a hybrid church context. Together, they discuss how to facilitate conversations amidst political tensions, leading groups ministry in a hybrid context and how shortened attention spans have shaped their curriculum choices.

On Digital / Hybrid Small Groups
Recent Barna Cities data found that four in five U.S. churchgoing adults (78%) agree that experiencing God in a church service in-person, alongside others is very important to them. At the same time, digital offerings continue to provide meaningful ways for individuals to connect with others, with 75 percent of churchgoers who had attended church digitally agreeing that they feel connected to their church community when they attend church online. 

Willits and Hempen elaborate on the successes and challenges they faced with small groups as they pivoted to primarily digital gatherings. Hempen notes, “Attention spans have changed and diminished… In groups, that means that the group duration time has shortened as well as their ability to connect in studies.” She adds, “We used to have twelve-week studies, but we’ve now reduced it down to about three to four weeks of studies to keep people connected.”

Willits says, “We’ve found out that leveraging platforms like Zoom, especially in the short term, can really work well […] There’s a great success rate, but there is a shelf life [because] people want to be with each other.”

One demographic that flourished during this shift to digital was older women’s groups. Hempen says, “Many of them were health compromised and couldn’t get out, so this was their only community that they were experiencing, and they latched on with both hands.” She credits this continual commitment to the additional activities they incorporated into their groups’ routines to encourage connection, noting, “One of my group leaders sent care packages to people throughout the week. They made sure they have outside check-ins, really did more of life together and built in some fun.”

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On Regaining the Art of Conversation
As Willits and Hempen consider how to cultivate a healthy small group culture, they have returned to the basics of human interaction. As Willits puts it, “We’re in an era where we’re having to train and retrain people on the art of connection, presence and meaningful relationship.”

He notes, “One of the things we’ve lost is the art of curiosity. People are feeling so maxed out that they don’t have in their minds the capacity for what a relationship requires.” He continues, “So much of the hurriedness of life is the great destroyer of relationships […] If you want to be an effective person who can connect with other people, then it will require a pace that you’re probably not doing right now.”

Hempen is also a strong believer in the art of listening as a pathway to relationship, saying, “Asking good questions is one of my favorite things we do to train our leaders. It teaches them to listen and ask good questions instead of trying to fix everything. When you can ask a good question, people lean in, feel cared for and want to be connected to you.” 

Willits connects the dots from the importance of listening to the importance of community, saying, “Community is not an optional value; it’s hopefully a way of life for people. Group is a human construct that we’re trying to connect people into so they can make those relationships and experience real community, but I hope community is a lifetime value to churches and church leaders forever. We need other people to help us grow.”

On Political Conversations
In a year marked with much political turmoil, small group leaders have had to rise to new levels to promote peaceful, healthy dialogue across differing viewpoints. 

Hempen offers simple tips for leaders looking to diffuse tense arguments or disagreements around politics. She encourages, “Be humble that you don’t necessarily have the right answer. Be teachable, realizing your way isn’t the only way. Be intentional with how you set up the group so that it can be safe. Finally, find common ground in the midst of all of that if [conversations] get escalated.”

Willits adds, “The secret sauce for [the Church] has been the quality of relationships we have with one another. We have to agree to disagree, or we need to agree to suspend the conversation on this and move on to something else.”

When leaders see someone lashing out, Willits suggests returning to a posture of curiosity to understand where their energy around particular issues comes from. “There’s always a story behind that emotion,” he notes, “so letting them share that story is an important part of the process.”

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About the Research
Cities Research: The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.

Featured image by C. Z. Shi on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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