Gregory Burbidge

The Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL has an annual weekly attendance of 24,000 people. It’s what is referred to as a “mega church.”

I remember details about this church opaquely from a history of modern Christianity class. It’s the organizational model they created I remember most.

Obviously 24,000 people don’t smoothly pull together into a tightly knit community, so the church creates small groups of people, hundreds of these small groups, around shared interests and age. The small groups are what keep things from unraveling at the seams.

The model of the small group is broadly used. I am fortunate enough to be a part of someone’s small group. Hesitant to commit to reading and discussing a book, a group of us art administrators participate in an article club.

Every five or six weeks, the small group of us get together for lunch to discuss an article that’s creating a splash in the arts world that we wouldn’t otherwise take the time to read in detail.

Because of this group, I get to read great articles like Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change and Irvine’s report on participatory arts and audience involvement.

This version of a small group provides a busy group of colleagues a chance to catch up with what are our peers are doing, and to talk about how changes in the field can impact our own work.

It provides a time to discuss shared program areas so we can leverage the work other organizations are doing rather than duplicate efforts, getting more out of our limited resources. Over a lunch hour, we find some resources to build on each other’s successes, to challenge each other to not be afraid to try something new, and provide support when we can.

Here’s another example of a small group.

For several years the Emerging Arts Leaders of Atlanta has focused on delivering programs that speak to as many people as possible all at once. We bring in a panel of marketing experts for the marketing folks, a panel of development folks for those of us who need little development in our lives. Emerging Arts Leaders panels or meetings are held about once a month, and at their best speak to some community issues and topics.

Because the EALA network is maturing, we have experienced the kind of good growing pains that I have been hearing about more now than ever before. Panel sessions do not provide enough of the right substance to engage older emerging leaders. The needs and situations are more complex for older Emerging Leaders who crave more opportunity to dialogue.

The Emerging Arts Leaders of Atlanta mentor program is a little more personal—the tiny version of a small group—where emerging leaders getting to spend some one on one time with established leaders. The program is an annual one though, leaving a long 11 months between programs that reach these people.

In thinking about all the programming we will be running over the next two years, I really hope to get to adopt many opportunities for meaningful interaction, and that is likely going to come through the development of small groups. We want a few more opportunities for lunches that three or four folks can have with a leaders in other fields for a kind of think-tank experience. We also want to encourage more frequent awkward small group conversations with established leaders, as well as some peer networking that moves away from the trading of business cards model to something more impactful.

The Willow Creek mega church probably only has one or two people write a sermon every Sunday, but I bet that it is not the sermon that keeps the community together. I imagine it is the small groups and little networks that require a small army of people to organize them.

I’d love to hear about some small groups out there in the arts service field, and about what models are replicable so we can start creating those opportunities for small groups within the mega arts picture in Atlanta.

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