4 Challenges to Small Group Leaders As We Start a New Ministry Year

I recently met with the small group leaders at our church and shared some thoughts about the upcoming ministry year. Some encouragements and some challenges. I thought it might be helpful for you to “listen in” on our conversation through this blog post. Maybe there is a ministry team or a leader or a whole department that would benefit from a similar conversation.

I’m so thankful for all of you. You are the engine that makes our church run. We do important stuff in the big room on Sunday, but the actual discipleship engine that propels our church forward runs through your living rooms. Lives are being changed, marriages are being healed, spiritual lives are being shaped all because of your investment of time.

Pastoring the people of our church is not something one person can do or even a small handful of people can do. It takes an army of pastors to pastor a church like Grace. I’m so thankful that you have stepped up- your role is an extension of my office and I’m so grateful that you have stepped up for another year of partnering with Christ to shape the lives of his children.

You’ve probably heard some form of the following sentences spoken at your group during the past six months:

  • “I just got a big promotion at work … how cool is that?”
  • “My wife doesn’t seem to truly hear anything I say.”
  • “My dad has another bout of cancer, I have to take care of him.”
  • “My best friend is addicted to pain killers. I’m not sure what to do.”
  • “I kid is going through sexual identity issues.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable praying out loud.”
  • “I can’t stand my boss.”
  • “We’re about to have a baby!”
  • “If you don’t agree with my political position, how can you even be a Christian?”
  • “I’m struggling with my weight again.”
  • “I don’t know how to read my bible.”
  • “I can’t forgive my sister.”
  • “My anxiety is through the roof, and I’ve been thinking about ending it all.”

Often these sentences are redirected by you the leader. You’ll say something like,

  • “What do you guys think?”
  • “What does God say about it?”
  • “Can we pray for you?”

Those conversations may seem somewhat normal, even mundane. But do you know what that whole interaction is called? … Discipleship. It’s spiritual growth, it’s community, it’s gospel friendship. We sometimes hear the word “discipleship,” and we picture some super-spiritual encounter, with candles lit and theology books open and hours of weeping and repentance. More often it looks like the conversations I just described.

Imagine Jesus’ little band of followers. Think about the kinds of things they talked about around the campfires each evening after a long day of ministry. I’ll bet they were more similar to your living room than you imagine. There’s Thomas doubting his salvation again! Wait, Peter flipped off a chariot driver at the intersection? James and John (sons of thunder) got in another fight at the biker bar, Martha is whining about Mary’s laziness for the third night in a row? These things would come up and Jesus would help them navigate through it all. They probably prayed together. They debriefed the parables he told that day and applied them to their situations. These communal circles provide the backdrop of the great commission. He said now go and make more disciples.

Groups are where the magic happens. Jesus didn’t say go and make services, or make sermons, or make music, or make new buildings, or children’s ministries; He said go and make disciples. And notice that the commands to the church in the New Testament always required other people. They assumed community. There are 59 “one anothers” in the New Testament. To obey them you need… well… one another! Paul says “love is patient.” You need others who are getting on your nerves to help you with your patience. He says, “Love does not envy.” Which means you need people around you with cooler stuff than you in order to practice conquering envy. You get the picture. The fruit of the spirit are basically just the character qualities of Christians which can’t be formed in you without community. Groups are the discipleship pods of the church.

A group leader is NOT a bible scholar. A group leader is NOT an expert on all things. A group leader is NOT a therapist (although it probably feels like it sometimes)! However, a group leader IS a shepherd. The work of a shepherd is to understand where the group needs to go, to guide and care for the group members, and to monitor and protect the health of the group. And a group leader IS an investor in people. A person intentional about building relationships and creating environments where group members experience authentic community and spiritual growth. I’m reminded of Paul’s final words to the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20:28-31:

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard!

These words are both thrilling and terrifying to any leader paying attention but this is our calling. And sometimes a calling comes with challenges. In light of these things, I want to issue you four simple challenges as you launch into this new year of leading your group.

Four Challenges to Group Leaders

1. Stay fired up in your own faith.
Years ago we did some surveys at Grace to find out where true spiritual growth was happening. We wanted to see where it was working so that we could reproduce it. Well we found out that discipleship was happening best in groups. But not just any groups, specifically in groups where the leader was fired up in his/her own faith. The greatest gift you can give to the members of your group is a growing, compelling, heart-pounding walk with Jesus. No creative lesson planning, social event scheduling, or delicious taco dip will ever replace the importance of your own thriving faith!
2. Share leadership of the group.
Leading a group is not a one-woman show. Part of your job is to let people in your group explore and use their spiritual gifts. Yes you are the leader, but it’s not the leader’s job to do everything. You should constantly be assessing, who’s the best person to lead the discussion? They should lead next time. Who has gifts of mercy and compassion? They should be in charge of checking up on group members during the week and coordinating meals when someone is sick or has a baby or moves into a new home. And the hospitality people are hosting the group in their homes, rolling out the red carpet. The intercessors are the ones making sure people are prayed for, making sure the missionaries our group adopted know that we’re lifting them up sending care packages. The fellowship people are planning the group outings – taking the kids to the park or coordinating tickets to the local baseball game. The evangelists are making sure that we are sharing God’s love with people outside the group who don’t know Jesus yet, or doing some community service together. This shared leadership assures that group members don’t come to group as a spectator, they come as active participants because everyone has a role to play.
3. Keep it spiritually charged.
The difference between a fantasy football league or a book club or coffee clache and an actual small group, is that in a small group there is always time spent in pursuing God’s presence. I get concerned when people say, “yeah, our group has become more of a social group. We love doing stuff together, going to ball games, having dinner at people’s houses.” That’s great! I’m glad you love each other. But if you’re going to be a true small group at our church, a portion of your time together needs to always be spent pursuing God’s presence. Be in the scriptures, in prayer, in worship, share testimonies. But true community is not just a social group. In Acts 2 the first church would meet and a result of their gathering was feeling a sense of “awe.” When you’re part of a group and God shows up, there’s a sense of awe and wonder.
4. Let group life overflow outside of group time.
Being a group leader is not a job with just a once-a-week or once-every-other-week obligation. Think about ways that your group can stay engaged outside fo the group meeting times. What does it look like daily? Maybe commit to praying for each group member every day. What about weekly? Once a week reach out to a different group member individually. Maybe it’s a simple text or a call or maybe it’s a cup of coffee. And then consider what it looks like monthly, quarterly, yearly. The truth is spiritual growth doesn’t happen in a straight line. It happens in fits and starts. And it usually happens through life experiences, high points and low points. And the problem is, we usually don’t know ahead of time when those highs and lows are coming. They catch us off guard. But I know this, people have a much better chance of growing closer to God through those experiences when they have a reliable safety net of loving and trusted friendships.

Here’s what I envision one year from now. I envision more and more people growing in their faith because of you. People walking through struggles in a healthy way because of you. I picture marriages restored, parents praying with their kids, people turning away from addictions, teenagers’ minds being renewed, people becoming generous and more kind because of you. Those things won’t happen automatically though. They will happen as more and more of you declare, I’m not just going to hold meetings, I’m not just going to just convene bible studies, I’m not going to just host prayer groups or dinner parties. I’m going to lean into my role as a shepherd to the people who have been entrusted to me. I appreciate you so much.