Ten steps to increasing community connection
Small groups have quickly become the cornerstone of Mishkan’s programming and have planted seeds of deep connection between hundreds of community members each year, with nearly zero supply costs.
When I tell you that our fast-growing 11-year-old Jewish spiritual community in Chicago already has 11 small group gatherings planned with 11 different members hosting (and no staff presence) with over 90 participants thus far, all in the first quarter of the year, I promise that it’s not too good to be true. Oh, and these events cost us $0 in supplies and only several hours a week of one staff person’s time.
If a global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t take human connection for granted. A challenge we grappled with was one that many organizations are facing right now: how can we grow our number of programs with limited staff time and resources? And in our particular situation, how do we host more events without a building? Our greatest resource is, and always has been, our members, who are looking for opportunities to lead, volunteer and get involved.
In 2021, after a few years of trying out different models for expanding lay-led connections, we put pen to paper and landed on a strategy that has already proven to be a sustainable model for deepening connections across our growing community. We launched Mishkan Small Groups, an opportunity for our members to own their spiritual journeys by designing small group experiences for others with shared interests or in a common life stage, all with valuable yet minimal staff support. Through empowering our members to create groups based on their needs, we are also able to celebrate and uplift more marginalized identities.
Take our recently formed disability and chronic illness small group, for example. During this year’s High Holidays, a young adult member asked to create a small group for folks that identified as chronically ill or disabled, a population that makes up about 15% of our community. After a brainstorming phone call between her and our staff, the wheels were set in motion for this group’s first event. For their gathering, a Shabbat dinner over Zoom, this brand new small group welcomed more than 20 people! They have now met three times with different hosts, have an active email chain, and are planning their next gathering.
The small group opportunities are endless, and this quarter alone Mishkan will offer: Shabbat dinner potlucks for our Queer small group, 20s/30s small-group and Mussar Jewish study group, a weekly virtual Sunday Torah study and an empty nesters Shabbat brunch club. In 2022, the first year executing on our refined small group strategy, we served 277 people, including 34 hosts, for a total of $100 in supplies. Our small group numbers will undoubtedly grow in 2023, and of course, these groups don’t entirely run themselves — there is a secret to our sauce.
Here are 10 steps to launching and successfully running small groups for your Jewish community:
- Get your staff on board. Is there a staff person who has the capacity to take this on? At Mishkan, our small groups oversight falls under one staff person’s purview but the rest of our team is involved in one way or another, from marketing to occasional clergy input to our religious school staff, who lets families know about opportunities they might be interested in. It helps to make sure your team is aligned with your purpose: to help foster deeper connections between your community members.
- Identify community needs (over time). Is there an underserved population within your community for whom developing or deepening a micro-community would be beneficial? Is there an obvious group leader who has brought a need to your attention, or who could be tapped to lead something if asked? In the absence of community need or interest, your small groups may fall flat – trust us, we know from experience.
- Consider your hosting model. Through a well-developed small group planning process, hosts can feel supported by the organization, while your organization can maintain a sense of quality-control from a distance. At Mishkan, our hosts know that it’s not up to them to lead their groups forever. We encourage a rotating-leadership model, borrowed with admiration from our friends at At the Well, meaning that just because you start a group or host one session does not mean you are expected to do so for each gathering. In fact, we establish most groups with a rotating-leader format because it allows more participants to feel invested, giving them a sense of ownership since they’ll have the opportunity to host or lead in future weeks. If you host today, you can sit back and enjoy the next gathering without formal responsibilities. You can be both a participant and also a leader within the same group, over time. The rotating model also helps to empower leaders that may have never stepped up in the first place.
- Develop a process. This step, of all the steps, is our holy grail in creating thriving small groups at Mishkan.If you want your small groups to be successful (read: repeatable) from the start, invest time in making systems that are as plug and play as possible. Create a step by step list and stick to it – no need to reinvent the wheel each time.
- Lead your hosts…to lead themselves. Through the process-setting stage, you will determine which materials will help you going forward. We recommend that you create a concise digital guide that you can share with a small group host as they are deciding if and how they might lead. This guide should help them define the “what” for their event — at Mishkan, we try to suggest there is a ritual anchor for the event connected to Shabbat or Havdalah or a Jewish holiday when possible. Lay out the process for them in a simple and digestible way, from ideation through supplies prep, tips & tricks for leading healthy conversations, event wrap-up, and suggestions for helping to find the next host before the event is finished. We always share our community norms document with hosts in advance, too. Remember, the idea is that these hosts become an extension of your organization while they are hosting, so make sure you’re on the same page and that everyone is clear on expectations.
- Determine structure. Will a group meet just once to start and see how that goes before planning more sessions, or is it a weekly or otherwise repeatable event on a schedule? Help your hosts think through their hopes for frequency, and also determine gaps in your organization’s programming calendar that these gatherings might fill.
- Gather information. Put together a simple intake form that lays out all the information you’ll need to gather or brainstorm in advance with the host to assure that it’ll be a great gathering. Think: capacity, target audience, hosts, marketing description suggestions, information to collect from attendees in advance like dietary restrictions when applicable, information to include in confirmation email that registrants might receive, accessibility information to collect or share. At Mishkan, we manage all of our programs including small groups forms using the project management software Asana – and we truly love it! — but use what’s readily at your disposal.
- Advertise wisely. Make sure your community knows about these opportunities, including that they are lay-led. Give folks enough advance notice to register, but not so far in advance that they forget to show up! At Mishkan, our rule of thumb is advertising for a small group 2-3 weeks before showtime, and to have the host send their own “looking forward to seeing you!” email to attendees a couple days prior to the event. Hint: provide a template for your hosts to follow in sending this email so that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
- Follow-up promptly. The event might be finished but your work is not complete! At Mishkan, we have two template emails that we use for small group follow-up: one to send the host the first business day following the event, thanking them, asking for feedback and any photos they took that we could use for future marketing or e-newsletters, and checking to see if they determined a next gathering idea/date/host; and the other to send participants thanking them for attending, and encouraging them to attend more community events by linking the community calendar and any specifically relevant programs they might keep an eye out for.
- Keep the momentum. If the host or attendees seemed excited by their event, work with them to get the next date on the calendar – and get to planning!
Small groups have quickly become the cornerstone of Mishkan’s programming and have planted seeds of deep connection between hundreds of community members each year, with nearly zero supply costs. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight – we invested a significant amount of time up front to develop the materials, infrastructure and systems to make this a successful effort. And we’re so glad that we did. With these kinds of sustainable community-building efforts, your community can join ours in continuing to grow in depth and breadth over time.
Rhonda Abrams is director of development & engagement at Mishkan Chicago.