Small group leaders are the most strategic people in the life changing process. Really the goal in small group ministry should be to have small group leaders as "pastors" of the church.
This kind of church is not a natural thing. Church history runs against it. Bill Donahue and I have written about the idea of building churches of small groups. Moving from that vision to reality is a long-term process. It starts fundamentally in the minds of leaders, with their understanding of their purpose as a leader in the church.
And just what is their purpose, or role, really? Their role is to be the practical expression of the priesthood of all believers; they really do the pastoral ministry of the church. They need to be granted this authority and empowered to not just connect people into groups but also help people take their next step spiritually. That idea has to be built into the minds of small group leaders, as well as shared with the whole congregation, so that everyone is operating in accordance with the same vision. Vision casting is, of course, only the first step. It must be followed with leadership training and setting up a system of accountability.
It's nice to have a smaller laboratory to experiment with leaders "pastoring" a church. We have that kind of setting at my church, Meadowbrook. We're testing the waters, and finding that incredible things can happen in small groups as leaders see themselves as our pastors.
This is certainly true for me as a small group leader. Although I'm a pastor, the most amazing thing I'm experiencing these days is what's happening inside my small group. Although I speak around the country to conferences of 4,000 people, write books, and consult, every other Sunday night I'm sitting in my living room with my small group. In the last six months I've seen two lost people find Christ, two other guys who are truly seeking, and Christians who have been in hiding for decades going public with what's really true in their life. They feel safe in our group. They are actually starting to experience life change.
One of the things I hear from people who are passionate about small groups is, "Most of our people get it, but our senior pastor isn't on board yet. Can we do this if our senior pastor isn't on board?" I used to say, "Start underground, and then go public." But after the last eight or nine years of working on this stuff, I've changed my response. I think the chances of churches becoming transformational communities when the senior pastor does not understand it, does not vision cast, and does not model this way of doing ministry is very slim.
As a senior pastor, when I say follow me, I'm showing the way by what my wife and I are doing in our home. I think that's the kind of leadership that has to happen in churches for a small group movement to break through.
Russ Robinson is the senior pastor of Meadowbrook church in North Haledon, New Jersey, which is a suburb of New York City. He was the director of small groups at Willow Creek Community church for seven years, leading the transition from being a church with small groups to a church of small groups.