Small group leadership in the local church is a detail-intensive ministry. Lesson preparation and regular contact with group members are hard enough to squeeze into a busy leader's calendar. Add to these the scheduling of hosts and refreshments, information updates and attendance at training sessions, and it becomes one of the most demanding ministries in the church.
With all these elements to keep up with, it is easy to lose a spiritual focus. Whether we are a leader of one small group or lead the leaders of groups, administration can overshadow our true goal of discipleship. Here are some ways that I, as a small group leader, maintain a spiritual focus.
GROWTH ATMOSPHERE. A small group leader can provide a positive atmosphere for spiritual growth. Above all else, my goal as a small group leader is the spiritual success of the individuals God has placed under my spiritual care. I am willing to do whatever it takes for the members to find God's will for their lives and to help them move in an upward direction. As their shepherd, I am coming to God on my knees and saying, "God, please give me insight into each person's life in my group, so I can determine what exactly they need in order to move to the next spiritual level."
BIBLICAL FOUNDATION. Spiritual leadership means making the Bible the foundation of group life. We rightly think of small groups as a tremendous relational opportunity. But as vital as relationship building is in small groups, the Word of God is still the foundation. It should be obvious to any visitor to our group meeting, any random week, that the Bible is essential to us.
PERSONAL HOLINESS. The most important thing I can do to lead my flock spiritually is to be spiritual myself. I cannot lead people to a place I have not been (or maybe even am not willing to go).
My daily prayer is "Lord, how closely am I walking with you?" I have developed ten questions to ask myself on a regular basis in order to make sure I am knowing God more and more deeply:
- Holiness: Am I progressively moving away from sin?
- God's Word: Is God's Word food to me, and am I spending time in it?
- Worship: Am I worshipping regularly, both privately and corporately?
- Sharing Faith: Am I sharing my faith regularly?
- Stretching faith: Am I stretching my faith regularly, stepping out of my comfort zone to a place where I depend on God?
- Prayer: Am I daily talking and listening to God in prayer?
- Solitude: Have I been alone with God enough to hear his voice clearly?
- Serving: Am I serving with the abilities God has given me?
- Spiritual progress: Am I further along in my relationship with God than I was a year ago?
- Accountability: Have I made myself accountable to another trustworthy brother or sister for my spiritual maintenance and growth?
If I can answer "yes" to those ten, I can be fairly sure that I am putting myself in a place to know God more deeply with every year that passes. I can be confident that God can use my leadership to implant spiritual growth in my group members.
I have been to groups where people seem afraid to talk about spiritual things. Most people won't automatically gravitate toward spiritual concerns in a group discussion. They look to the leader to open the spiritual door and invite them in.
INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE. A spiritual leader knows his or her group members well. This takes time, building trust and expressing interest.
This knowledge begins with the little things. Do I have the birthdays of the people in my group on my calendar? Can I name their children? Do I know their struggles? Do I know how they best connect? Are they a studier? Are they a person for whom relationships are important? Are they oriented more toward feeling or thinking?
Jesus modeled a depth of care as He who "lays down his life for the sheep." When was the last time I made a sacrifice to see my group members grow in Christ…a sacrifice of time perhaps, doing a little extra preparation to give this week's lesson a creative edge? Or a sacrifice of energy to get them involved in a service project. A good leader knows the group members and chooses activities based on their spiritual needs.
VALLEY WALKING. A good leader walks with group members in their spiritual valleys. Romans twelve encourages us to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn." That implies a level of intimacy. It means we have taken the time to enter into the joys and pains of the life of another person, which is a vulnerable and risky business.
One evening our phone rang at midnight. On the other end was the husband of a couple in our small group. He said, "OK, you are our friend: we are about to hurt each other. Can you come over and mediate?" As I drove over, I remember having no idea what to do. Prayer seemed appropriate! So, I did lots of praying. When I got there, I put them in separate rooms and talked each one through the intensity of the moment. It worked. They calmed down, and an hour later, I left.
Why did they call me during such an intimate argument? Because of the relationship we had built. They knew I loved them unconditionally, and they trusted me with their spiritual lives. If I am truly spiritually shepherding the people in my group, I should regularly receive calls in the middle of the night when they are walking through the valley of family heartaches, death, depression, or loneliness.
A member experiencing a spiritual valley sometimes will shy away from the group he or she previously enjoyed fellowship with. A wise group leader will perceive when a member is experiencing shame or guilt. That leader will go to them, offer assurance, and even help heal relationships between them and members of the group that may be strained. "Blessed are the peacemakers." In Jesus' story from Luke 15, the shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one wanders off. He leaves the other ninety-nine and searches for that sheep until he finds it. That's the kind of shepherding that takes place in the valley.
GRACE MOTIVATED. Small group leaders are spiritual shepherds. Some people look at sheep and see dirt, smell manure, and perceive some of the dumbest animals God made. Others look at sheep and see gentle companions, valuable for their wool, and submissive in spirit.
How do I see the people under my care in this small group? Do I think of them as an imposition, interrupting my schedule, or am I available to them because I see the potential in every single one of them to reach God's design for their lives?
PRAYER AND DEPENDENCE. I will never experience any spiritual success if I attempt to lead my small group by my own power and wisdom. I must depend on God. I must pray daily and fervently for God to do his work among my group members. As I lead, I keep my eyes on Jesus. He went to the trouble of purchasing His people with His own blood. He will not refuse wisdom to those of us He has called to aid in the spiritual formation of his redeemed.