In his book Building Small Groups, the Australian church consultant John Mallison argues that twelve is the upper limit for a small group in which members are able to participate meaningfully. Beyond that number, he says that the group tends to be dominated by a few aggressive members.
He bases his argument on a simple equation which expresses the number of relationships possible among people in various sized groups: viz. R = N (N-1)! In this equation the number of relationships (R) equals the number of persons in the group (N), multiplied by one less than the number of persons in the group (N-1).
Or to put it another way, as shown in the diagram below, when four people are involved in dialogue there is a pattern of twelve interpersonal relationships, or in terms of the equation: 4 people, multiplied by 3 [one less than the number of people present] = 12 relationships.
The number of relationships increases steeply as only a few extra are added to a group:
For a group of 6 (6 x 5) 30 relationships
For a group of 8 (8 x 7) 56 relationships
For a group of 10 (10 x9) 90 relationships
For a group of 12 (12 x 11) 132 relationships
For a group of 15 (15 x 14) 210 relationships
For a group of 20 (20 x 19) 380 relationships
The larger the group, the less possibility there is for people to operate meaningfully with one another.
Mallison was, of course, writing about groups that come together to pray, study and share. However, I believe that the same principle applies to task groups that come together to pray, reflect and plan. If a task group has too many people in it, the group becomes a meeting, rather than a team.
Here at Chelmsford we are big on teams. We have task groups covering every aspect of our church’s mission and ministry. Four task teams reflect the church’s key purposes: viz. evangelism, pastoral care, nurture and prayer, and social action. Three task teams have a focus on particular ages: children and families, youth, and seniors. A further four ‘hub ministry’ teams support the church’s mission such as communications, facilities and fabric, finance, and the management of the church centre. All of these task groups are relatively small – with none having more than seven members, and therefore none involving more than 42 relationships (7 x 6)!
Our largest team by far is our ‘leadership team’. This consists of 12 deacons and 4 ministers, and therefore involves 240 relationships! Although a very useful size when it comes to allocating tasks, the reality is that it can be a cumbersome size for brain-storming and decision-making. Time is needed for every voice to be heard.
Fortunately, the leadership does not have to deal with the detail of church life. There is a sub-committee of the leadership team, entitled the personnel, support and management group. Made up of the senior deacon, the church treasurer, the leader of the church centre management team, and the senior minister, it is in this meeting of four people (12 relationships) where the ‘nuts and bolts’ of church life are sorted out.
But when it comes to ‘dreaming dreams and seeing visions’ the key group is what we term ‘the ministry team’. It is made up of six people: the four ministers plus our children’s and families’ worker and our seniors outreach worker. At our weekly meetings on a Monday morning we are also blessed with the presence of our senior deacon and our pastoral deacon, both of whom are retired. This is a much more manageable meeting: with eight people present, there are only 56 relationships taking place. In such a relatively small group, it is so much easier to share ideas and to work out strategies. True, the ministry team is accountable to the leadership team, but the reality is that in many ways this is the true leadership team!