Small-Group Leadership Mentoring

What is shepherding, really?

It's recruiting time at our church. Because of growth, job transfers, and normal turnover, we're looking for a larger-than-usual crop of folks to step up and consider (or re-consider) serving in or training for small group leadership.

Our problem is that our current crop of leaders is stellar. One guy is a true Bible scholar, who once took a seminary course in "Rapid Hebrew Reading." (Need I say more?). Another is the prototypical "Dr. Feelgood"—warm, genuine, caring, and thoughtful (Does he have a clone? How does he keep up with so many people?). Others excel in other areas: Leading their groups in effective, fulfilling service; slowly and deliberately taking folks through basic discipleship; or stimulating great discussions.

The effect of such capable leadership has been that an insidious "mythology" of small group leadership has developed in our church. In essence, many qualified folks feel inadequate at even the thought of shepherding a few others in the faith.

And then, of course, there is that word…the "s" word—"Shepherding." It sounds so…so awesome…so biblical…so unattainable.

We're finding that a lot of our would-be leaders hear the "shepherd" word and immediately think, "Oh, yeah…The LORD is my shepherd…" or "Jesus is the Good Shepherd" or "Isn't 'shepherd' just a synonym for 'pastor'?"

Thinking this way, they reason, "Well, I'm pretty confident I'm not 'pastor' material—and I know I'm not in the Lord Jesus' league when it comes to caring for sheep! So…"

"Thanks, but no thanks," is the common reply.

This situation has forced us to do two things: One, to confront the myths associated with small group leadership; and, two, to develop a mentoring framework that models the idea of being a shepherd.

To help them buy into a more realistic (and, we believe, more biblical) small group leader job description, we've come up with a helpful acronym to guide our small group leader mentoring process. It's S-H-E-P-H-E-R-D (imagine that!).

Very simply put, we say a small group leader is, in simplest terms, a shepherd, meaning he or she…

Seeks to know and please God, and do His will in every area of life.

This qualification stems from the biblical principle that all fruitful ministry flows from a vital relationship with Jesus Christ (John 15). A perfect walk is not the requirement; but a consistent walk is.

Has a heart for people and a desire to see lives changed.

Do you want to see people meet Christ and grow in their faith? Then you qualify, even if your spiritual gift is not "pastoring." Where is it written that small group leadership is open to only one kind of Christian, or personality type, or gift? If you care deeply about the spiritual life and health of others, then you have what it takes be effective in helping build communities of faith where lives are changed.

Ensures that his/her group is guided by and rooted in God's Word.

God's Word is central to the goal of lifechange (2 Timothy 3:16,17). A leader may not be a trained theologian or an unusually gifted discussion leader, but he or she will see to it that the group is led (by some capable person) in the study and application of Biblical truth.

Prays faithfully for group members and the group process.

This is the trust factor. This is the recognition of the truth that unless God works, nothing eternally significant will happen (Ephesians 6:18-20). Our leaders are encouraged to set their watch alarms and pray. For example, one might set her alarm for three p.m. daily. When it goes off, she prays for three group members for three minutes. Later, she rejoices at how God has worked!

Helps group members discover and use their God-given abilities.

Small group leadership is not a one-man or one-woman show. Too many group leaders burn out because they're like the proverbial circus performer who's spinning plates with one hand, juggling balls with the other, and, all the while, riding a unicycle through a hoop of flames!

The key is getting everyone involved. When the body of Christ is working as it should in a small group setting (1 Corinthians 12), with every member using his or her gifts, guess what? Sometimes the shepherd is in the shadows, practically invisible!

Encourages his/her group to reach out (in ministry to others).

Because of a group's natural (and occasionally sinful) tendency to focus inward, a good small group shepherd will continually prod the group to think bigger, to look outward, and to act redemptively. Perhaps he or she will need to defer to someone in the group who has God-given abilities and passions in outreach?

Recognizes God-given limitations and does not allow what he/she cannot do interfere with what he/she can do.

Some leaders beat themselves playing the comparison game. "I wish I could teach like___. "If only I could counsel like ______."

Hey, guess what? God made you exactly like you are, to best do his will. Use what you've been given. Be creative. Trust. Be willing to delegate to others who have gifts you don't possess. As Abraham Lincoln once quipped, "It's amazing how much can be accomplished, when no one cares who gets the credit."

Develops (with elder, staff, and coach help!) new shepherds.

A huge role of any small group leader is helping to develop the next generation of leaders (2 Timothy 2:2). The goal is to work yourself out of a job! (Not really—you'll be needed next year to do the same thing… and the year after that, and the year after that…until the Lord returns). Remember, this won't happen inadvertently. We must intentional and proactive. If we don't plan to grow, we might as well prepare to die.

By passing on what you know and by giving your apprentice ample opportunities to spread his or her wings, it won't be long before you are pushing a new leader out of the nest. (NOTE: We switched metaphors there—from shepherds to birds—but you get the idea!)

In short, we mentor our potential and current small group leaders to be shepherds, nothing more. In the purest sense that just means normal folks who genuinely love God and want to see others love him too. The mentor's job is to contribute whatever he or she has been given, to get others to do the same, and to keep—with help from above and from the person being mentored—the whole crazy bunch between the ditches and headed toward the ultimate goal.

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