Below you’ll find the show notes for episode 71, Secret Sister Programs: Challenges, Solutions, and Alternatives, from the Women’s Ministry Toolbox Podcast.
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I’m continuing the series on Hot Topics and Hot Takes with a hot take on secret sister programs.
If you’ve read my book, Rethinking Women’s Ministry, you may recall I shared about my failure to properly press pause on the secret sister program in the church I served in. You’ll find the story in the chapter titled, Making Changes and Managing Sacred Cows. My concerns with secret sister programs are not off the cuff. This is something I’ve spent years thinking about…
Before I get to some of my concerns and some ideas for how we can improve secret sister programs, let’s start by looking at what is a secret sister program and what’s its purpose.
What is a secret sister program?
Generally speaking, secret sister programs invite women to secretly encourage another woman in their church. Usually, one person assigns the sisters and keeps the list a secret for the duration of the program. Typically, these programs are scheduled for a year, sometimes less, with a celebration and reveal party at the end of the program. Women may send cards, pray for their secret sisters, and often give them small gifts. Many churches ask women to fill out a form about their favorite things so they can be surprised with things they’ll enjoy. The purpose given is often building relationships and community.
I admire the heart behind secret sister programs. Leaders see them as a way for women in their church to love one another. They may pray for one another and encourage one another. This all sounds great, right? Why would I have wanted to pause our secret sister program?
What are some of the challenges with secret sister programs?
Here are 7 issues I want to highlight.
- The biggest problem with secret sister programs is not everyone completes the program. You may be doing a great job of loving your secret sister, but the woman assigned to you might not. Instead of feeling loved, you’re feeling left out. This happens more than you may think. Some of your women will never tell you when it does.
- There’s no on-ramp for new women. Whether the program lasts 6 months or a year, women who may want to join in can’t and they end up feeling excluded. Instead of unity, you’ve created a clique.
- Hiding your identity doesn’t build community.
- Finances often keep women from participating.
- It often serves a small subset of your target audience. In our case at that church, all of the participants in our secret sister program were 50 and up. We knew we needed to make changes to reach younger women.
- Secret sister programs usually only include women in the church. It’s inward-focused, not outward-focused.
- Reveal parties exclude women who didn’t participate. Even if you open it up to everyone, those who didn’t participate find it awkward to attend. Reveal parties may also have a big impact on your women’s ministry budget. In our specific case, a small number of participants had a budget of $300 for their reveal party, while other events and activities that were open to all women in the church had a much smaller budget if any budget at all.
Are there solutions for each one of these issues – absolutely!
Before I dive into some solutions, I want to offer some questions your team may want to use to assess the effectiveness and purpose of your secret sister program.
3 Questions to Use to Assess Your Secret Sister Program
- How does this activity align with your ministry mission statement? We’ve talked before about how your mission statement should be used as a plumb line in making decisions that best serve your women. If the response is, it builds community and relationships, I’d want them to explain how. As I mentioned, hiding your identity is an odd way to build relationships and community.
- How does this activity point women to God and the Word? Maybe your group encourages women to pray for one another, to share scripture, and to give gifts that are spiritual in nature. That’s good if that happens, but is there a better way?
- How is God glorified? Secret sister programs can easily become about the gifts. Women compare what they have and haven’t gotten with others in the program. We have to ask, what are we pointing women to?
So perhaps, you’re beginning to consider the idea that your secret sister program needs to be tweaked just a bit. What can you do to make it better?
Solutions and Alternatives to Secret Sister Programs
- First, clarify your goal. If it’s encouragement, maybe you invite women to sign up to be prayer partners once a quarter. If it’s growing in relationship with one another, maybe a mentoring program would be a better option.
- Consider one-time events that bless participants. Some churches host Galentine Events and Christmas events that invite (but do not require) women to bring a $5 or $10 gift for a gift exchange. Check out this post on How to Host a Gift Exchange and 28 Gift Exchange Theme Ideas – many of which point women to Christ.
- If your heart’s desire is for women to grow in their relationship with one another while growing in their relationship with God discipleship groups could provide a better path toward achieving that goal. You’ll find many additional posts on discipleship on the Women’s Ministry Toolbox blog.
- If your desire is less Bible study or more relational, maybe Sister Six groups, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or Making Room Groups provide a better framework for building relationships among the women in your church.
- Cultivate a community that organically encourages one another. What if you regularly encouraged women to reach out to those they know need some encouragement – widows, single moms, moms with newborns, college students, women on the church’s prayer list, those with chronic illnesses, homebound, the missionaries your church supports, and any others that would be blessed by an encouraging text, card, or care package. What if 2-3 times per year you gathered together to send care packages to different groups such as college students, military personnel, and missionaries? The focus of your ministry year could be on loving one another well.
In some ways, a secret sister program isn’t big enough! Its reach is limited to those who participate in a specific season.
It’s not a bad idea, but there are many better ideas that would reach a larger group of women in your church and community.
As I type this post, I’m wearing a t-shirt from Sola Gratia Co. that says, “We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.
Our love doesn’t win souls or save souls, only Christ’s love does. We miss the mark when we make it about us.
You may also want to read:
How to Host a Gift Exchange
28 Gift Exchange Ideas
Rethinking Women’s Ministry: Biblical, Practical Tools for Cultivating a Christ-Focused Community
Rethinking Fellowship: A Handbook for Hosting Meaningful Women’s Ministry Event