Troy Palermo on Lessons Learned from a Church with 85% Small Group Participation



Troy_Palermo_podcastHey, everybody, and welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Thanks so much for joining us today as we talk with Troy Palermo from Life Point Church in Ohio.

If you don’t know Life Point Church, you should. It started just over 10 years ago and is now made up of about 2,000 people. A more contemporary church with a lot of young families, they currently have two campuses and are working to launch a third. What makes them different from other churches is that 85% of their church—about 1800 people—are involved in small groups throughout the week.

Troy talks with us today about how they’ve developed their small groups at Life Point and how you can use their ideas in your own church.

  • Develop core values. // Life Point Church wraps their vision around five core values: gospel identity, reaching priorities, authentic community, spiritual intimacy, and personal ministry. Everything in the church, from Sunday services to their small groups, is built on these values. Small groups help reinforce these core values by focusing on at least one of them each time people get together and meet over the course of a trimester. “What we’ve found is that it’s kind of simplified things for our leaders,” Troy explains. “It helps them measure success.” Giving leaders a structured platform for discussion has made it easy for group leaders to set an agenda, yet the structure is broad enough that leaders can have autonomy and lead out of their unique gifting and style in their groups.
  • Tap into the natural rhythm of the culture. // As Life Point has developed their small group system, they’ve really learned to pay attention to the natural rhythms in their culture. Troy notes, “there are times when our folks are more dialed into what’s going on and then there are seasons where maybe there’s a little bit more distraction.” As a result Life Point has structured the opening and closing of groups around three different trimesters with a 3-4 week break between them. Generally the trimesters run from January to April (breaking around Easter), May to August, and then the fall to the holidays, with a longer break around Thanksgiving and Christmas. As Troy explains, “What we’ve found is that the majority of our people who are new to our church usually get connected to groups during those breaks.”
  • Give groups both freedom and support as they serve together. // As small groups are encouraged to live out Life Point’s five values, this includes serving their communities. Troy says that groups are encouraged to serve together once or twice a term, and Life Point encourages family participation as well, so parents are modeling this serving to their children. Life Point’s Director of Missions does a great job of coming alongside the church’s group leaders to provide resources or ideas for serving. Or if a group is already passionate about serving in a particular capacity, Troy says: “We give them freedom as long as it’s a biblically-based thing to connect to.”
  • Encourage group leaders to make connections. // It’s true that the way most people get involved in small groups is through personal invitations. It feels less intimidating to go into a new situation if you know at least one person there. So at Life Point, they encourage their group leaders to serve on the hospitality team. This strategy might mean that they’re at the front door, greeting members and guests, or even working at the information center for the church. Serving intentionally in these capacities allows them to form connections with the people around them and personally invite guests to their next meeting.

You can learn more about Life Point Church at their website LifePointOhio.com.

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Episode Highlights

00:39 // Rich introduces Troy Palermo and welcomes him to the show.

01:16 // Troy give us a brief outline of what to expect from LifePoint Church.

01:56 // Troy shares the church’s attendance figures with us.

02:33 // Troy talks us through the church’s five core values.

06 :05 // Troy talks about the structure of their small groups.

09:49 // Troy talks about their small groups and the community work they do.

11:35 // Troy talks about how they get people interested and connected to small groups.

15:11 // Troy highlights the benefits of using group members’ gifts and passions.

16:23 // Troy talks about leadership development.

18:07 // Troy talks about family ministry within LifePoint.

20:40 // Troy talks about the activities they provide for kids.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Asana

Ministries Following // Cedar Creek in Harrisburg, Rock City Church in Columbus

Influential Book // Start With Why by Simon Sinek

Inspiring Leader // Jim Cymbala

What does he do for fun // Fishing

Contact // lifepointohio.com

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Thank you so much for listening in today, happy Thursday. We know that you’ve got a lot going on in your church, you’re probably busy as we get ready for this weekend and we’re honored that you would take some time out, pop us in your earbuds as we say here, and just listen to today’s conversation.

Today I’m excited to have Troy Palermo from LifePoint church in Ohio. If you don’t know this church you really should and I’m hoping you’ll lean in and listen today, because we’ve got some great content, some really helpful content for churches. Troy welcome to the show.

Troy – Thanks, I’m glad to be here with you guys.

Rich – You guys started just over 10 years ago, a church of about 2 thousand people today. A great church. Why don’t you give us a sense of what would people experience if they were to come on a weekend?

Troy – Yeah, we have a couple of services here at the campus that I work primarily out of. We have a second campus and are planning to launch a third here at Easter.

Rich – Nice.

Troy – Pretty typical. Probably what a lot of you guys are doing out there. It’s more contemporary worship music, worship through music and then our Pastor or one of our teachers will give a message.

Lots of young families, so that’s been pretty cool to connect with younger families here in the community.

Rich – Now one of the things that makes you not typical is what’s happening here on the small groups side. So if I understand right, your weekend attendance is about 2 thousand, but then you have about 15 hundred people in small groups, is that true?

Troy – Yeah this past term, in the fall, our attendance was about 1850 or so at that time.

Rich – Wow.

Troy – We had around 1650 in groups.

Rich – That’s incredible.

Troy – Yeah, we try to keep at 85% or higher weekend to group ratio. So that’s been our goal since the beginning.

Rich – Well I’d love to lean in on that and learn a bit more about what you’re learning on that front. I’d love to hear, when you think about moving people, I think a lot of churches struggle with this, I know my church struggles with this, I’ve got my notepad out here and going to be taking notes today, moving people from kind of the large crowd, out of rows, into circles, into small groups. What are you leaning on that front and how is it that you are seeing that happen at your church?

Troy – Well I think a couple of things, for us we really try to empower our leaders and give them sort of a real central focus. It’s one of those things where you can do a lot of good things in the church world, but you can’t do everything and you can’t do everything well.

So what we wrap our vision for good around is, five core values for our sin. Those are gospel identity, reaching priorities, authentic community, spiritual intimacy, personal ministry, which really covers the group dynamic with one another, the relationship with God as individuals, evangelism, missions, those kinds of things.

So what we’ve asked our groups to do is to focus on those things each time they get together. What we said is, “Focus on at least one of those every time you get together and focus on all of those at last one time over a…”, we use a trimester system, “over a trimester system.” What we found is, it’s kind of simplified it for our leaders, helped them to know how to measure success and it’s made it homogenous enough that it’s made entry into groups easy, yet there’s enough autonomy for our leaders that they can kind of lead out of how they’re gifted, how they’re shaped, that kind of thing. So it’s been healthy there.

Rich – How is it that you’re reinforcing those DNA? What does that look like from a communication point of view, like how do you keep those top of mind for folks?

Troy – For our leaders, obviously things get lost if we don’t have that, kind of in front of us all the time. So we do that primarily through coaches. Really on the weekends, those are our five core values for our weekend services as well. So our Pastor’s talking about those pretty often.

We just ask our people, “Hey, incorporate those things at three levels. At the level of our corporate time together, at the level of your group and at the level of your personal life, as you’re out in the community, your job and those kind of things.”

So that’s kind of our we’ve kept it in front of them, and then we’ve tried to tap into what kind of is the natural rhythm in our culture here. It’s probably true for most of you guys out there, it seems like there are times when our folks are more dialed into what’s going on and then there are seasons where maybe there’s a little bit more distraction. So we try to just tap into that rhythm a little bit and what we’ve done with our groups is we’ve build three different trimester systems here.

Rich – Okay.

Troy – So our groups will meet together, starting in January, we’ll go usually through April and try to break around Easter. They’ll be 12 to 14 weeks together, we’ll do a 3 or 4 week break, then they’ll do through May to August, a 3 or 4 week break and then to the holidays and we’ll do a little longer break over Christmas and Thanksgiving.

What we’ve found is that the majority of our people, who are new to our church, usually get connected to groups during those breaks.

Rich – Okay.

Troy – It’s a pretty natural time for people to check out, we call them life groups, to check out a life group environment.

Rich – Now, is there commitment for a group, are they kind of staying just for one trimester, or are they committed to multiple trimesters and are you kind of onboarding everybody at the same time? What does that look like, how do you work that rhythm out?

Troy – Yeah that’s a great question. So for us, what we typically say to a person who’s checking out groups for the first time is, “Man, you can try as many groups as you’d like, until you find one that you feel like is a fit.” Because while they’re all structured the same, everybody’s personalities are different, you know, different leadership styles. So we just give them the opportunity to check them out and find one that they feel like is a fit.

But then, once they find one that’s a fit, we ask them to stick there, from term to term, because to do different from that is to not really invest in community longer term.

There are times when somebody comes and says, “Hey, my job schedule changed,” or, “This happened, I need to find a group that’s a little bit better with our schedule,” but for the most part, we ask people to stick from term to term.

But for our new people, we’ll typically put out a catalogue a couple of weeks before our term launch, that lists all of our groups, what area of town they’re in, what night they’re meeting on. So for a new person, they pick that up, they don’t necessarily know that a group has been together, for them it’s a bite-sized commitment of 12 weeks. I’ve actually had people say to me, “I was nervous about going to a group for the first time, but I saw it was only 12 weeks I thought, even if it’s horrible I can do anything for 12 weeks.”

Rich – True.

Troy – So it’s just taking down another one of those barriers for folks to kind of step in, to what is sometimes a little bit of a scary situation, if they don’t know people or if they are not connected to anyone in the group, in a personal relationship.

Rich – I think that’s a great principle just to drive there, for church leaders that are listening in, we know that the best thing for people is to be connected to relationships over an extended period of time. There is something about the longevity of that relationship, that we lean into each other, we get to know each other. But the reality of it is, if you were to say, “Hey, you’re going to find a group and you’re there, you’re there for two years.” They’re not going to do that, that’s hard for them to commit to that, but I like what you’re doing, saying, “Hey, let’s bit this off, 12 weeks, 14 weeks, it’s not forever, give it a try,” I think is a really practical way.

Now within those 12 weeks, is every week the same? Are you trying to live out all of five of those values every night? What does that look like?

Troy – The answer to that is no, they’re not the same every week. Practically what that looks like, over the course of a term, there’s going to be some sort of bible study, prayer, maybe a worship element for 8 to 10 weeks out of the term. But in order to focus on those core values more holistically, we would say to them, “Hey, we want you to take one, maybe two times a term, go out in the community and serve somewhere together as a group.” And we want to incorporate the family into that, so kids who are older, we want the kids serving with their parents and with their families.

We would say, for us it’s just spiritual for us to get together and go out to eat or bowling, because you kind of get to know a different side of people in that kind of environment, versus maybe just sitting in a living room.

I say to my leaders, “If you’ve got a group that’s doing bowling 10 weeks and bible study 2 weeks, that’s not what [Inaudible 00:09:14].”

Rich – Right.

Troy – But you know, just to kind of keep it healthy, keep it balanced. So that’s what it sort of practically looks like for us. I’ve seen that done in other places and none of this is really new with me, but just kind of contextualized it for our culture, where we are here in mid-Ohio.

Rich – Definitely, very cool. On the service piece of that, is that kind of, “Hey go and do something,” or are you providing some examples or right down to, “Here’s specific stuff you could do within your community,” what does that look like?

Troy – It’s either/or. If they have something that they’re already naturally kind of connected to, someone in their group is connected to, we give them the freedom, as long as it’s a biblically based thing, to go and connect there. Then at the same time, we also provide some connections for them if they don’t know where to start.

So our Director of Missions does a great job of kind of coming alongside of our group leaders and that and making connections on their behalf and then giving them some opportunities to step into those things.

Another thing that we’re really ramping up right now is, we’re working really hard to get out of groups connected with missions and particularly missionary internationally through a church planter or internationally. Kind of what we’ve said to them is, “Think of that person as if they’re a member of your group.”

So a couple of times a term, Skype them in, hear what God’s doing in their church or wherever they are on the field.

Rich – That’s cool.

Troy – Then our hope is that longer term, our groups will begin to do short term trips together, to go to the place that the person is that they’ve been Skyping with and talking with and we’re beginning to even set aside a little bit of budget money strategically, to kind of help with that. We feel like it feels great things here, the more feet that we get on foreign soil or even national soil in other places, just to kind of give a missional value. It just makes our church healthier, it makes our groups healthier. So it’s a big thing that we’re kind of working towards right now.

Rich – Okay, very cool. Well let’s got back to the trimester thing. As you’re coming in, bringing people on, what are you learning about that process of actually getting people connected?

Troy – One of the things that I think we’ve found, and you guys have probably all found, is that invitation, personal invitation is the primary way that people get connected to groups. So it feels a whole lot less intimidating if they’re going with someone they know.

So one of the things that we try to encourage our leaders to do, as we’ve grown, our staff makes an effort to meet people and kind of invite people along, but as we’ve grown that’s become more difficult.

So we’ve encouraged our leaders to serve on our hospitality team, where people come in and they make a connection with them, they’re at the door or they’re at our Info Center. Because if someone’s going to look for a group, the first place they’re going to typically go is to an Info Center. Especially for some of our leaders who are more extroverted, outgoing, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to say, “Man, not only let me tell you about my group, but about a group, but why don’t you come to my group, come and check it out.”

Then the other thing I think we’ve discovered is that people tend to be creatures of habit, as we all know. So we said to our leaders, “Hey, as you sit in the same section on Sundays, get to know the people that are sitting around you and if you see a new person there, make a connection with them and invite them along into small group community. Maybe not in the first conversation, but over the course of a couple of weeks.”

Groups are pretty front and center here, so within a couple of three weeks they’ve probably heard something about groups, so it makes sense for them to make an invitation and that’s been super helpful for us.

Rich – What are some of those ways that you are… you said there, on the weekends you’re kind of raising the value of groups, people are hearing about it. What are some of those other ways, outside of the personal invitation, that’s normal for you to talk about?

Troy – I think one of the ways that’s been most beneficial for us is, all of our teachers do a great job of talking about their group. So it’s not out of the ordinary for our Lead Pastor to say, “Last week in our life group we were talking about this,” or, “The other day we went and served here as a group.” It just reinforces that value and the great thing is, I know it’s intentional on their part, but at the same time, it really is something that’s just kind of coming out of their life. It comes out naturally, it doesn’t feel forces, it’s just one more layer of putting that out there for people and maybe making them curious about what it would be like to connect in a group.

The other thing that I would say too is, we’ve been pretty strategic about not offering a lot of things that compete with groups.

Rich – That’s huge.

Troy – So when someone comes to us and says, “Hey, I’d like to start a ministry that does this,” or, “I’d like to do a ministry that does that,” we really try to push that back to the life group level. If somebody comes and says, “Hey, I want to start a food pantry,” for example, we say, “Hey we do that for groups. Here’s an organization in the community that’s already doing that and doing that well, why don’t you get your group connected with that organization and let’s support what they’re doing, rather than reinventing the wheel?” Man, that’s gone really well for us. I don’t know that it works everywhere, but it certainly works really well for us.

Rich – Very cool. Now what about the leadership of the individual groups. What are you asking of the leaders of those? Is it kind of the lone person on a hill, are you looking for them doing everything? What does that look like?

Troy – I think for us, one of the big values is shared delegation. So it’s this idea that a leader doesn’t have to do everything and a leader shouldn’t do everything, because we all know that a guy who carries it all on his shoulders, even though that’s easier in the moment at times, ends up tired over time and it’s just not the way the body of Christ was really designed to function.

Rich – Very true.

Troy – So what we’ve said to our leaders is, “Hey, we want you to delegate those core values, those things that we’re asking you to focus on, to members in your group, based around their spiritual gifts or their passions. So for example, if you’ve got someone who has the gift of administration, let them do all the administration for the group. If you have someone who has the gift of teaching, let them share in some of the facilitation. If you have someone who has a passion for evangelism, missions, let them be that guy who’s doing that reaching priority value for you.”

We’ve seen that groups who do that consistently, are healthier over the long haul than groups that don’t do that consistently.

Rich – Very cool, that’s cool. What about training, what do you do for training your life group leaders? What does that look like?

Troy – As with most, there’s a lot of on the job training. So there’s an orientation that I do with them, it’s about an hour and a half long, that kind of tells them the whole, why we do what we do, the biblical basis for why we do what we do, because a lot of people who come here, that have come from other churches, have been in churches. Some of them have great group structures and great group systems, so often times it’s more difficult to get buy in from that person because they’ve seen it work so well in another context and a different way.

So I spend a lot of time in that just saying to them, “Hey, this is how we do groups here. This is why we do groups this way and if you’re going to lead here, we really ask that you lead in the context of our system.”

Then from there we do follow up with coaching and we do follow up with apprenticeship with other existing leaders.

Then one of the things that we’re actually in the process of right now is, we’ve been working through something that’s called Auxano, a leadership development track. So we’re heading into our last month of that and it’s really a leadership pathway that helps us to be more intentional about developing leaders. It’s been super helpful for us. We haven’t got it all figured out yet, but we feel like we’re on the front end of really taking that to another level.

Rich – Very cool. One thing that I know a lot of churches struggle with, I think our churches are similar in that there’s a lot of people with a lot of kids, what does that look like, how do we do that well? Do you struggle with, if mom and dad are out, what do they do with the kids, all that kind of stuff, what are you doing for the family side of the equation here?

Troy – Man, quite honestly in the past 20 years that I’ve been involved in groups, we’ve done just about everything. I think the thing that I’ve found that is not always the cleanest, it’s a little bit messy at times, but it seems to work the best for families most consistently, and for us it’s a real biblical value. We ask families to do group together.

So if a family comes to my group and they have children, they bring the kids along with them and what we’ll do is, during the fellowship time, welcome time, connection time, the kids will be in with us and then while we jump into the adult bible study, we’ll send the kids into a different part of the house to do something that we call Wildlife. It’s been intentionally named because it can get a little bit wild. But it’s a lot like BBS, you know, we put together a wildlife kit for our group leaders. There are crafts and things like that in that box and then they’ll go and we’ll try to give them a 20-minute lesson that somebody can pick up and lead for the kids and our parents take turn rotation through the leadership of that.

We’re not necessarily trying to recreate what they get on a Sunday morning, but we are saying, “Hey, if we’re going to have this season with kids, let’s invest in them in an age appropriate way, in their spiritual life,” and it’s the whole deal that kids don’t have a junior version of the Holy Spirit when they become a believer, they have the same version that you and I have. So we’ve been charged to invest in them, in a way that’s appropriate for their age, but also builds the kingdom in them.

Again, it’s not always perfect and I’m constantly looking out there for new ways and fresh ways to… I just bought, Joe Comiskey has a new book on kids in cell ministry that I haven’t read yet, but it can get, like I say, a little messy. But man, when you see kids who have been in that now for 10 years or so, they have grown up not knowing anything else and that value is just embedded deeply in there. That’s what we want, the DNA of who we are here.

Rich – That’s amazing.

Rich – Let’s just pull apart the wildlife thing a little bit, because I don’t know of it, when I read this, I don’t know a lot of churches that do that. That seems really great. Do you provide all the material up front? Is it basically like a 12 week campaign every time? Give us some of the details around that.

Troy – So for us, in the beginning especially, when we didn’t have the budget to do great things, and I know many of us are probably in that place, we would just pull different things. We’d use different resources that we’d find online or through different books out there.

Right now, what we’re currently doing is LifeWay writes a wildlife lesson for us each week. Some of our groups do a facilitation and LifeWay writes that for us and we also have them writing a wildlife lesson for us as well. Usually what they’ll do is they write that with a 12 week block in mind.

Rich – Okay.

Troy – So there’s an activity week to week, but man anything, walking a kid through the bible, even an old school, Sunday school book, or something like that works. Hey, you’re just trying to build biblical truth into their minds and hearts.

Rich – That’s fantastic, this has been great. I hope you’ve been taking notes as you’ve been listening in, because this has been just a lot of great insight into what’s happening there at your church.

Anything else you want to share before we pivot into the rest of the episode?

Troy – Yeah, the only other thing I would say about the kids’ thing is, I’ve had a number of people through the years say to me, “Man, we’re so grateful that you do groups the way you do, because we were somewhere before and we could never get connected to a group because we either couldn’t afford childcare on a weekly basis, or if we went and dropped out kids off at the church for someone to watch them, by the time we got back it was three hours, we were out on a school night and the fact that we can bring our children with us is a huge deal.”

So not that any of those other ways are wrong, but for us in our culture it seems like it works really well with kind of the rhythm of the family and just seems to take down one more barrier, one more reason why people don’t connect to a group.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.