Group Life and Incorporation

Group Life and Incorporation
W. James Cowell

Group life can take many forms. Sometimes groups are an integral part of a denomination and are suggested for every congregation. In The United Methodist Church, United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, and covenant discipleship groups are all organizations that enhance group life.

In larger congregations, there may be more than one “circle” (smaller grouping) making up the United Methodist Women’s unit. In a small membership congregation, the United Methodist Women may be a single small group. The United Methodist Women may sponsor such activities as a “Body and Soul” class (aerobic exercise coupled with Bible study) with nursery provided, in addition to more traditional groups.

The United Methodist Youth Fellowship may also be one small group or the fellowship may be divided into two or more groupings, i.e., junior high and senior high or a separate group for each grade, seven through twelve.

The music program is often the place where persons are first involved in the life of a congregation. It is a good idea for a choir director to contact every first-time visitor inquiring about musical skills. In A 1 congregation in Utah, the choir director presents “Rock of the Month” awards to chancel choir members with perfect attendance at practice and participation in Sunday worship services. Numerous persons join the choir before they join the church!

It is not unusual for large membership congregations to have fifteen to twenty-five musical groupings ranging from children’s choirs, youth choirs, handbell, guitar, brass ensembles, and specialized vocal groups, in addition to the chancel or adult choir. The larger the congregation, the more music becomes an organizing principle of congregational life, part of the “glue” holding the congregation together.

Support groups that meet various social or psychological needs also assist persons in becoming part of a community of faith. Alcoholics Anonymous and “Divorce Recovery” groups help persons with particular needs. “Growing through Grief” seminars may be the initial point of contact for some persons. “M.O.M.’s” (Mothers of Munch-kins) provides mothers of young children with a support network and programs related to issues facing parents and children today.

“Shepherding” groups, or “neigborhood” or “zone” groups as they are sometimes called, are in use in numerous congregations. A shepherding plan usually involves dividing a congregation’s membership into clusters of eight to ten families with a caregiving person or “undershepherd” overseeing each cluster. The duster of families may be structured around geographical proximity or around other commonalities, such as age, marital status, etc.

It is appropriate that congregations see their task as that of shepherding new people into the fold of the church. Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd in the New Testament. John 10:11-16 states:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

The Gospel of Matthew contains words of Jesus that stress the shepherding function of caring for every single person: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:12-14). A shepherding plan is one way to keep people from straying from the church!

Any congregation contemplating a shepherding program should think carefully about the purpose of the proposed plan and the guidelines that will govern it. In a small membership congregation, with little turnover of members, such a plan may be simple to manage. In a large membership congregation, with a thousand or more members and a high turnover rate, such a plan may demand fifteen to twenty hours of volunteer coordination each week, or a paid staff person who is responsible for pastoral care.

It should be stated from the outset that no shepherding plan works perfectly. Generally, dividing a congregation into geographical groups by zip codes and neighborhoods seems a perfectly obvious way to begin. However, adjustments will need to be made. For instance, one cluster group may turn out to be comprised primarily of inactive members, or couples, or shut-ins, or some other criterion which will make it difficult for some members to feel included.

The primary focus of a shepherding plan should be dearly stated. Will the groups be primarily fellowship-oriented, with each group being urged to get together once a month or once a quarter? Will the group’s primary purpose be caregiving, providing meals, babysitting, and moral support during crises? Should such groups serve a “mentoring” function, actually guiding persons in their spiritual development? Should some other purpose be primary?

The key to the focus of groups within a congregation has to do with high or low expectations. When fellowship is the primary focus, little is expected of group leaders or undershepherds. Periodically opening one’s home for refreshments or a meal or arranging for someone else in the duster to do so may be the responsibility of the leader. Providing a congenial environment for sharing is certainly important but not as demanding of a leader as other group functions.
If, on the other hand, caregiving is a major focus of neighborhood groups, some training in lay pastoral care is advisable. When a person is called upon to be supportive of a person or family at the time of a death, job loss, divorce, or other crisis, additional skills are needed that would not be needed in a simple fellowship gathering.

Examples of Shepherding Plans
Shepherding plans will vary from congregation to congregation especially in regard to the size of the congregation. Carlton United Methodist Church, a small congregation in Waterport, New York, adopted a shepherding plan that induced the following definitions and duties:

What is Shepherding?
Shepherding consists of assigning small groups of households in our congregation (no more than three to five) to people who have agreed together to serve as Shepherds to these small groups. The shepherd is responsible for regular contact, support, nd referral for these households. (A shepherd is defined as “a caring Christian who tends a small portion of the congregation through communication, regular contact, support, and referral.”)

The Shepherd will agree to serve households which either have active membership or active involvement ties to the congregation. Households new to the congregation are also to be included.

Shepherding is done by mutual agreement among the Pastor, Shepherding Council, the Shepherd, and the household. Our interest is to obey the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit that we should love one another. Regular contact, support, and referral are specific ways of sharing our love.


Commitment of Self and Time!

There is no love without a commitment of self and time. The first commitment of self and time occurs during training. The Shepherd will gain in competence, in confidence, in commitment, and in enjoyment through training. While the church cannot provide the “final word” in communications skills and personal relations, for instance, the church can provide the initial training and can seek additional training with outside consultants in specific topics.

Shepherding aims to encourage people in positive growth in faith, and to respond to need.
Shepherds need to understand the purpose of the Shepherding ministry of the congregation and be in agreement with it. Shepherds need to be willing to give of their time to others to fulfill the purpose of the Shepherding ministry. Shepherds need to develop communication with other shepherds for sharing, support, and prayer for each other.


Three objectives: Regular Contact, Support, and Referral with a single goal: Sharing the love of Jesus Christ in an intentional way
Make regular contact with those you Shepherd
Communicate support to those you Shepherd, in every contact
Refer significant needs or joys to the Pastor
Make and follow definite plans for regular contact, support, and referral
Attend training session and refresher sessions
Attend support sessions as possible
Share your needs with the Pastor or Shepherding Coordinator


Sharing Christ’s presence and love
Making our newest members feel welcome
Loving and valuing our current members
Intentionally developing relationships of care and love
Offering planned, intentional support to everyone in the congregation
Sharing referrals, joys, concerns, and prayer needs
Increasing involvement in fellowship and ministry
Growing of pastoral (Shepherding) ministry in congregation.17
A brief litany for the consecrating of Shepherds is included in Appendix D, page 79.

Vine Life

Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta, one of the largest congregations (10,000 members) in that denomination is at the other end of the size spectrum. This congregation, under the leadership of Paul Walker, senior pastor, has developed a shepherding program called Vine Life.18 This incorporation/shepherding program seeks to help each person feel special in spite of the tremendous size of the congregation.

Vine Life is defined as “caring for another by giving one’s self in Christian love to a relationship in times of weakness and in times of strength.” The Vine Life ministry forms a network for the entire congregation. The goal of the program is for Mount Paran’s members to feel that someone in particular really cares for them. Members of the congregation are encouraged to show this care through openness, support, and expressions of love and concern on an intimate basis.

Vine Life is organized so that more than 400 volunteers are in contact by phone each month with seven to ten households. These volunteers are members of the congregation who are approached by the pastoral staff and asked to consider taking part in the ministry as Vine Life leaders. “Don’t say yes until you’ve thought about it; don’t say no until you’ve prayed about it,” prospective leaders are told. Because staff and members believe that God calls these leaders, there is neither anxiety to recruit nor pressure for a prospect to say “yes.” When God is leading, a “no” response is as valid as a “yes.” People must come into this ministry motivated by a call from God.

When searching for leaders, the pastoral staff looks for people who have qualities essential for caregiving empathy, warmth, genuineness, integrity, and patience. Leaders must also be willing to give their time to others and be good listeners.

The Vine Life program is overseen by a director. At Mount Paran the Vine Life director initially organized a pilot program which trained sixty to seventy congregational elders and care coordinators. For six months these leaders met regularly with the director for feedback, interaction, instruction, and discussion concerning the challenges of this ministry. After completing their training, the pilot group then helped train more leaders during a Saturday “equipping” seminar. Eventually 400-500 leaders were trained in the Vine Life ministry.
During training, each leader receives a Vine Life Ministry Manual and other support materials from the director’s office. Some of these materials include monthly report forms which leaders are required to file with the director’s office. Leaders file a “Report of First Contact” within one month after they are trained. After that, reports are filed the first day of each month. These reports provide the staff with needed information concerning the membership.

The Vine Life leader’s basic duties are defined by an acronym:

P Pray for each one regularly.
A Be available.
C Contact each one on a regular basis.
E Provide a Christian example.
The organizational simplicity of the Vine Life ministry is illustrated by the diagram on page 39.

Good Neighbor Zone System

Another example of a shepherding progam is the “Good Neighbor Zone System” that is used at Grace United Methodist Church in Venice, Florida.19 The purpose of the Good Neighbor Zone System is to provide a ministry of Grace Church in which consecrated persons care for the needs of the people in their community. Members of Grace Church have sectioned the entire Venice area into twenty-nine geographic zones, each with a designated “Zone Leader.” Zones with a high population density have “Zone Helpers” to assist the Zone Leaders. These leaders and helpers, as the representatives of Grace Church, communicate with and care for the people who reside in their respective zones. They serve as the voice of welcome, witness, warm concern, sympathy, and Christian love to all members of the Grace Church family as that congregation goes about the work of strengthening and building up the congregation for its ministry in the community and the world.

In doing the work of representing and communicating between Grace Church and its members, leaders and helpers follow a set of guidelines. These guidelines outline the duties required of each zone leader and helper for the Good Neighbor Zone System to work effectively. The guidelines can be stated as follows:

1. Zone leaders and helpers are provided with a list of all Grace members who live in their geographic zone. Each zone worker has responsibility for seven to twelve households and is asked to contact each household once a month by phone or with a personal visit.

2. There are family conditions which may warrant extra care and concern and may require more than the minimum number of contacts. Possible situations are:

Serious illness. If a family member is seriously ill, home or hospital visits are recommended and are usually appreciated.

Shut-ins. Shut-ins have specific needs and may need special assistance in solving problems, e.g., arranging transportation to church.

Live-alones. Members of the congregation who live alone could benefit from information about interest groups in which they may find fellowship and enjoyment.

Bereaved. If there has been a death, zone leaders and helpers should contact the family immediately and offer to help where they are needed most by the family.

Disenchanted. If a member of the congregation has become disenchanted with the church, leaders or helpers should listen sensitively and without arguing.

In all of these situations, zone workers should be in communication with the pastors and staff.

3. Zone leaders are notified whenever a resident of their zone joins Grace Church. Leaders are asked to contact and welcome the new member prior to the Sunday on which he/she joins. Leaders are further encouraged to personally meet with the new member in the week following to make the new member aware that he/she is already part of a small concerned group.

4. Zone leaders and helpers should be aware when people move into their zone. Zone workers should welcome them with a visit. During the visit, information about the community, Grace Church, the zone worker’s own role in the congregation, and other helpful information can be shared with the new neighbors. A “General Information Sheet” and the “Church Information Folder” with a map inset are available for zone workers to give out.

5. Each zone worker receives “Zone Report” sheets so that a record of visits and phone calls can be kept and turned in during zone meetings. The pastors review the reports to obtain a “pulse reading” of general conditions in each zone and persons who require special pastoral attention. If there is a condition which requires immediate pastoral follow-up, workers are requested to notify the pastor or leave a message with the church secretary.

6. Zone workers are sources of information for people in their zones and are encouraged to read the church newsletter and bulletin each week.

7. Zone meetings are scheduled for 9:30 A.M. on the third Tuesday of January, March, May, July, September, and November. It is important that all zone workers attend the meetings for the ongoing sharing of information necessary for the effective functioning and updating of the Zone System.

8. Occasionally there is a need for quick contact with all members of the congregation, and zone workers may be asked to phone people with this information.
Zone leaders and helpers understand that while theirs is not an easy job, it is an important part of Grace Church’s web of Christian love and warm concern for the community. They have found that when Christians serve as good neighbors to those who have needs, the fruits of their service outnumber any worries and/or inconvenience they may encounter.

Classes and Class Leaders

Yet another approach to shepherding is that provided in an official program of The United Methodist Church, the “Class” and “Class Leader” program. The 1988 General Conference of The United Methodist Church passed the following legislation: Class Meetings A structure for the class meetings may be organized within the Council on Ministries or Administrative Council with the following responsibilities and programs:

1.Class meetings may be organized within the church by the Council on Ministries or Administrative Council by region, interest group, or age-level groups consisting of ten to fifteen families to each class (or as designed by the council) for the purpose of spiritual nurture, prayer support, growth in evangelism, and accountable discipleship.

2. Class leaders shall be elected by the charge conference to lead and coordinate the classes under the direct supervision of the pastor.

3. Classes shall meet regularly as designated by the council for the purpose of: Bible study and prayer; spiritual fellowship at homes; accountable discipleship through small groups; outreach and involvement of new members; care and support of the members.

4. Class leaders may be members of the Council on Ministries or Administrative Counci1.

One of the most promising features of the Class Leader program is that it is founded upon the principles of “Covenant Discipleship.” Covenant discipleship groups are the training ground for those who become class leaders. In covenant discipleship groups, a small number of committed members learn to hold one another accountable to a “covenant” upon which all have agreed. (A sample covenant appears on the following page.) According to David Lowes Watson, the chief architect of this program, covenant discipleship groups provide the best training ground for those called to become class leaders: “These groups provide a context for developing leaders in discipleship, not because the members excel in their Christian living, nor yet because they have a closer relationship with Christ. They serve their congregations as role models in discipleship quite simply because they hold themselves accountable. ”

With leaders trained in this manner, a congregation can then be divided into classes groups of approximately twenty members whose basic care and general pastoral oversight are assigned to a specific leader. The class may choose to meet as a group on a regular basis, or it may prefer regular contact with the class leader on an individual basis. Class members may also belong to covenant discipleship groups, but this is a requirement only for the class leader. The complete description of this excellent program is available in the covenant discipleship trilogy by David Lowes Watson.

Knowing that Jesus Christ died that I might have eternal life, I herewith pledge myself to be his disciple, witnessing to his saving grace, and seeking to follow his teachings under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I faithfully pledge my time, my skills, my resources, and my strength, to search out God’s will for me, and to obey.

I will worship each Sunday unless prevented.
I will receive the sacrament of Holy Communion each week.
I will pray each day, privately, and with my family
or with friends.
I will read and study the scriptures each day.
I will return to Christ the first tenth of all I receive.
I will spend four hours each month to further the cause
of the disadvantaged in my community.
When I am aware of injustice to others, I will not remain silent.
I will obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit
to serve God and my neighbor.
I will heed the warnings of the Holy Spirit
not to sin against God and my neighbor.
I will prayerfully care for my body
and for the world in which I live.

I hereby make my commitment, trusting in the grace of God to give me the will and the strength to keep this covenant.

Date:___________________ Signed:__________________________________

Beyond the Congregation

Shepherding plans can also be used in creative ways to reach persons outside the local church membership; e.g., David Chavez, pastor in El Paso, Texas, surveyed the community around the congregation he was serving and discovered that most people would probably not affiliate with the established congregation for a number of reasons. He asked, “How can our congregation reach people in the community?” The answer was to develop “covenant evangelizing groups.”

Chavez found receptive people in each neighborhood or barrio who had the potential to be leaders and who were willing to invite other people into their homes for a weekly meeting. The home groups had an agenda of worship, Bible study, singing, and “fiesta time.” The purpose of the groups was to provide an evangelistic outreach, strengthen the family network, and provide psychological support for persons facing various problems.

Over the period of a year, fifty groups (averaging twenty persons per group) were formed in both Texas and Mexico. The groups met one hour each week during either day or evening hours. Chavez met with all the group leaders twice a week for Bible study, counseling, training in teaching methods, and teaching covenant group philosophy. One training session was more theoretical while another concentrated on more practical matters teaching methods, Bible study, and leadership training. Most of the home group leaders were women, although men and youth also served as leaders. Four laypersons served as supervisors of the other covenant leaders.
A typical one-hour weekly meeting looked like this:


Sing familiar songs (focused on a topic)

Testimony from participants of what God has been doing in their lives in the last three days

Leader analyzes/comments on the testimony and begins to focus on the needs of the group for that day

Meditation on the Bible followed by dialogue (Chavez gives the leaders an overview on the Bible text for the week in the training session. He makes suggestions to group leaders on how to deal with the biblical book or text, but the exact content varies from leader to leader.)

Period of prayer

Offering to help poor people (funneled through the established church to buy food)


According to Chavez, some covenant groups have the potential of becoming chartered congregations. A duster of groups might develop a common bond leading to the formation of an organized community of faith.

The key to such outreach is “walking the gospel.” Chavez comments: “Evangelism must get to the head, then to the heart, then to the feet. You must witness and walk the gospel with the people. You cannot sit and do explosive evangelism.”

Shepherding groups can strengthen fellowship and ministry in any congregation serious about moving beyond the single cell mentality!

The above article, Group Life and Incorporation was written by W. James Cowell. The article was excerpted from the book Incorporating New Members from the 5th chapter of this book.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.