Note: This article is excerpted from Creative Leader Training.
It seems like every time I ask someone to be a small-group leader I hear the same question: What kind of training will I get? They want to know they'll be given the tools they need to succeed. But training is tricky—even if you can lead a group as naturally as you brush your teeth, training others takes a different skill set.
I realized early on that I didn't really have that skill set. I could teach, communicate, and craft master strategies for changing the world through small-group ministry, but I knew nothing about training people. My initial approach was to mimic the way I had always been trained: classroom-based lecturing, PowerPoint presentation included. The deficiencies of my approach were soon evident and I started to incorporate other training models.
I tried turbo groups, one-on-one coaching, manuals, holding monthly training dinners, observing of leaders in group meetings, and apprenticing. I've learned that regardless of the training approach, there are three indispensable elements for training small-group leaders: information, imagination, and inspiration. My natural tendency early in my training experiences was to focus solely on information. If I could just get the right information to my leaders-in-training, they would be fully equipped to change the world through their small group. I have since learned two things: (1) my information—no matter how good—doesn't stick unless I help leaders imagine what it looks like to actually use the information, and (2) imagination and information require inspiration before they translate into action.
Information Enables Understanding
I learned the hard way that information is not the only element required to train small-group leaders. That does not mean, however, that information is unnecessary. In fact, we need to learn how to communicate information clearly and involve the trainees in the process.
Communicating Information Well
If information isn't communicated well, it will not be received well. This is a simple truth with significant implications for training. You can glean information from all the experts, from powerful stories of real experiences, and from the truth of Scripture, but it will be useless to your leaders if you don't communicate the information well.
My own advice for communicating important information to your leaders is this: be simple, creative, and repetitive. Select just a few key points, even if there is a lot of other supporting material. Then find creative ways to share those points such as handouts, videos, PowerPoint, case studies, activities, and discussion questions. If you find yourself talking most of the time, mix in other learning activities. And when you do, repeat, repeat, repeat your key points. If you want your communication to be clear, repeat it as much as possible. You don't have to say it exactly the same way each time, but you do have to say it a lot.
Drawing Out Information Well
Too often we communicate information at training events through one-way communication: we talk, everyone else passively listens. There are situations when one-way communication is the only or best option, but greater learning happens when a trainer involves the trainees. I like to think of this as drawing out information from the leaders—information they may not recognize they have.
Two practices help to drawing out information from those you wish to train: asking good questions and facilitating (or steering) the conversation toward clear conclusions. For instance, if you are training your small-group leaders on ways of creating community within a group, you can ask, "In your experience, what helps people connect in small groups? What makes them feel disconnected?" As the leaders answer your question, repeat back to them what they are saying so that they know you heard them. After several answers have been given, summarize what you are hearing and ask the group if the conclusions you have identified accurately reflect their thoughts on the matter. If necessary, you can then supplement their conclusions with other conclusions you feel are important to stress. For instance, they may have come up with social events and weekly e-mails but missed the role social media can play.
Besides helping the information "stick," this type of teaching affirms that the leaders are capable and spiritually gifted, and that their experiences matter.
Imagination Enables Envisioning
In my experience, information lies dormant until it is fused with imagination and inspiration. Without imagination, small-group leaders will not be able to envision how the information should impact their life, role, and group. The goal of imagination is to enable leaders to envision the way things could be.
I've often found that people don't often feel the freedom to use their imaginations. So the first step in encouraging imagination is often giving them "license" to imagine. When I train leaders, I want them to know they have license to imagine how the training, resources, and vision apply to their specific contexts. I want them to take the principles and use their imagination to decide how they best apply to their groups.
My experience has also taught me that I need to do more than simply encourage leaders to be imaginative—I need to develop their imagination. To help develop imagination I will often tell stories of how others have been imaginative. I also love to ask people to draw pictures of what the future could look like if they put their training into action. I then ask them to explain their picture to me and to any others who are present.
Drawing pictures has proven to be a powerful way to teach people how to use their imagination, but it is just one of many options. You might also use Play-Doh, sticky notes, or paper and scissors. What other methods can you use? What might it look like for you to encourage your leaders to use their imagination to envision the way things could be? You'll need to answer these questions if you want to help your leaders imagine what their groups could look like.
Inspiration Enables Transformation
Inspiration is the element that enables leaders to transform the way things are. Training that does not inspire will never lead to any meaningful development in the leader or change in the group. Inspiration provides the energy necessary for the conversion of information and imagination into action. Those responsible for training future leaders need to develop ways to spark and sustain inspiration in their leaders.
At the 2007 Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels said, "The single most powerful way to motivate the people around you is to live a motivated life in front of them." I think he is right. Nothing is more inspirational than an inspired person; nothing is more contagious than the life of an inspired leader. Good leaders can only effectively train other leaders if they maintain their own inspiration for the mission at hand. If you want to train small-group leaders, be passionate for the vision behind your ministry and inspired in the way you live your life.
Visions leak, fires fade, and energies wane—these are simply truths of life. Any training plan needs to take into account that inspiration must be sustained over the long haul. The charismatic, inspired leader may provide the spark that enables others to catch fire and transform the way things are, but you'll need a carefully crafted training plan to sustain the fire. You can keep the fire blazing by celebrating leaders' successes and ministry successes, telling stories of life change, and honestly recognizing failures, mistakes, and areas of improvement.
Don't Forget to Be Intentional
At a recent event in Dallas, I was training residents of the Forge Mission Training Network to live as Spirit-led leaders in their local contexts. Before I started the information portion of the training, I asked participants to create and act out short skits of what they thought Spirit-led leadership looked like.
The information portion began with sharing stories of how the Holy Spirit led people in Scripture. I employed creative means like discussion, videos, and a small-group study. In order to draw out information from them, I asked them to draw pictures, write phrases, and identify one biblical text that summarized the way the Spirit led people. We ended the session by sharing our imaginations with the larger group so that we could help one another develop our visions and make them a reality.
At the conclusion of the weekend I played one of the most inspiring videos I have ever seen. The video features one person standing against injustice and calling for God's people to wake up. I told the group that I saw each one of them as being that person. I went on to explain to them the sacrifice I was making to be in Dallas with them. It was just days before my wife was due to deliver our first child. I shared that I believe that as they explore how to live on mission for God and how to lead others to do the same, they are changing the world. How could I possibly skip a chance to be a part of that?
My training that weekend wasn't especially original, but I was intentional about including information, imagination, and inspiration. And I believe this method helped them to imagine the possibilities and implement a plan to make it happen.
—SCOTT NELSON is the Director of Theology for ForgeAmerica; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.
- Which of these three do you usually spend the most time on? The least?
- How much thought had you given to imagination in leader training prior to reading this article? Why is imagination a critical element of leader training?
- In what ways can you incorporate these three components into your next training event?