Learn to Shepherd Your Small Group

Move from being a small-group leader to truly caring for your people.

God's Word is rich in its discussion about shepherding. Moses, David, and Amos served as shepherds, and all were influenced by that role in their leadership. The title of shepherd is applied to God, Jesus, kings and other leaders, local church leaders, and ministers (not necessarily paid staff members).

What is a small group shepherd?

For you to fully understand your calling as your group's shepherd, I need to distinguish between your role as a shepherd of the flock under your care and Jesus' role as the Chief Shepherd. It's essential for you to understand that you are not the real shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, of your group. That role belongs exclusively to Jesus.

Your responsibility as a small group leader is primarily to shepherd the sheep that God puts into your care and to go out and bring more sheep into the fold. Therefore:

Do not view yourself merely as a Bible study teacher or the equivalent of a Sunday school teacher who presents lessons to the group.

Do not limit your role to that of a meeting facilitator who plans and conducts discussions.

Do not think of yourself as only a disc-jockey whose job is to put the DVD into the player and press play.

Small group pioneer Randall Neighbor put it this way: "The shepherd never says, 'I will tend the flock on Wednesday evenings from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.' No! The shepherd lives with the flock, sleeps in the fields with the flock, goes into treacherous situations to find a lost sheep, and carries the lambs in his arms. The shepherd is the first one to go into the 'valley of the shadow of death' in order to lead sheep to 'green pastures.'"

As a small group leader, you can divide your shepherding role into three vital relationships: connecting your group into authentic community with one another, discipling them to grow in their relationships with God, and encouraging them to make an impact by serving others.

#1—Establish relationships.

As a small group leader, one of your primary tasks—if you can call it that—is to build relationships with group members.

As you begin, always start with a core group. One of the essential values of leading a small group is Don't start alone! Meet together over meals, building your team by getting to know one another. Begin planning the group together, getting ownership and involvement. Divide group tasks based on individuals' spiritual gifts and interests. Then, as a team, begin inviting others to your new group.

You have probably figured out by now that the power of community increased the more people are together. Once-a-week or every-other-week meetings do not bring the kind of close-knit community you often see in the New Testament. But how do you make this happen, short of incarcerating your whole group?

It takes time together, spontaneous and planned. It may take proximity meeting—meeting with people where you live or work, for instance. It may take forming your group around people who have things in common. Instead of trying to find another brand-new group of friends, ask yourself, Who is already in my life?

A big part of your role as a leader is to 1) live this kind of interdependent life yourself, and 2) to do everything you can to help develop this kind of authentic, groundbreaking community! But as a shepherd, what can you do to make this happen?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

1. Pray regularly for, and with, the members of your group.

2. Keep in touch between meetings. Call, e-mail, visit.

3. Accept everyone, regardless of personality differences.

4. Deal with conflicts upfront. Don't try to wish them away or pretend they aren't there.

5. Stay positive. Group members tend to become negative—about other people, the church, you name it. Turn the tide as soon as you can.

6. Focus on people, not the program. As Ralph Neighbor says, "The people in your group are the agenda!"

#2—Guide them to grow spiritually.

As a small group shepherd, you are in the most strategic position in the church to effect real, lasting life change and spiritual growth. The church's best method for caring, shepherding, loving, and growing people is you! But you may be wondering, How do I make this happen?

First, as a shepherd leader, be concerned for where people are in their spiritual journeys. You need to know where people are in order to shepherd them to where they ought to be. Accept group members where they are on their spiritual journeys. Treat each person with grace, not judgment. At the same time, help group members grow. Encourage. Spur each other on. Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.

Second, model a disciple's lifestyle. Spiritual growth must be happening in your life as a leader. You are a model for what life change looks like to others.

Third, keep providing the context. Continue to draw the group into increasing levels of authentic community. Don't give up meeting together, and people will grow.

Fourth, assess where group members are on their spiritual journeys. A number of useful tools are available to help group members know where they are spiritually, and will help you develop a strategy for helping them grow. Here are a few options::

The Christian Life Profile, by Randy Frazee, which assesses spiritual growth along thirty core competencies.

• "Purpose Driven Spiritual Health Assessment and Spiritual Health Planner" (http://www.purposedriven.com).

Small Groups Assessment Pack from SmallGroups.com

Fifth, provide a process for growth to happen. Do application-oriented Bible study as a group. Don't just study the Bible. Do what it says! What do you study? The answer comes from knowing your group and what they need most to grow. Ask a small group coach or minister from your church for more help.

Sixth, be a spiritual parent to the group. Mentor some of the members one-on-one. Ask group members who are relatively strong in one spiritual area to disciple a person who would like to grow in the same area. This gets everyone involved in the spiritual growth process.

Spiritual parenting means that you don't see all the group members the same. You shepherd them individually, because they are at different places in their spiritual journeys. Some are infants, some are adolescents or teens, while others are maturing adults.

Finally, develop leaders. Continually identifying, developing, and deploying new leaders is a part of every group member's spiritual growth process.

#3—Guide them to where the Chief Shepherd wants them to go.

Here's a fact borne by years of experience: Group members do not always want to go where they need to go. They resist growing spiritually, being open to new people, stepping out to serve others, stepping up to become leaders, and sending out members to birth new groups. Group members sometimes prefer comfort to counting the cost.

Your role as a small group subordinate shepherd is to take group members to the places the Chief Shepherd commands. That may not always be easy or comfortable, but it's one of your most important responsibilities. I've seen many groups—even entire churches—cow-tow to members who prefer comfort rather than following God's commands. I've heard small group ministers say something like, "Well, our members won't open up their groups to new members or send out members to start new groups, so we've changed our methodology to make it work with what we can reasonably expect our groups to do."

May I implore you? Don't do this! Hold high the values that the Greatest Small Group Leader Ever (Jesus) gave us. His commission is to go and make disciples—so go and make disciples! And don't ever forget that your sheep have an enemy out there who is ready to deceive, diminish, and even devour them. As your group goes into the world, your job is to help guard them against attacks. Of course, you can do this on your own, but only with God's mighty power (1 Samuel 17:34–37).

The Greatest Small Group Leader Ever said, "I'm here to invite outsiders, not to coddle insiders" (Matthew 9:13, The Message). That's what he's put you here for, too.

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