The Small-Group Leader as Spiritual Guide

A step-by-step approach to guiding your group toward spiritual maturity

Perhaps the most exciting and intimidating role a small-group leader may play in the lives of small-group participants is that of "spiritual guide." The excitement lies in being midwife to another's insight and mentor to another's mission. The intimidation lies in the sheer terror that someone might actually listen to you, follow your advice, and stake their future on your perceptions. There is a fine line between authenticity and ego. Any sensible Christian will fear to cross it. Any faithful Christian must take the risk.

In my experience, there are three ways small-group leaders can be trained to be spiritual guides:


First, small-group leaders embed the core values, bedrock beliefs, biblical vision, and key mission that together form the DNA of the spiritual organism of which the small group is one cellular unit. "Embedding" means that the spiritual guide uses this DNA as the primary vehicle of accountability for small-group behavior.

Whenever the group meets, the leader asks, "In the time since we last gathered, has any person done anything—intentionally or unintentionally—in the midst of their lifestyle to contradict our shared values, beliefs, vision, or mission?" Given the sinful nature of human beings (including the spiritual guide), every person from time to time must confess this breach in predictable positive behavior. The leader gathers the group to heal, accept, and then covenant with each person to never do it again.

This act of accountability is like holding a compass before a group of explorers. It shows true north. More importantly, it cements the trust each explorer has in the other for mutual support amid the struggles of the journey. And most importantly, this absolute trust provides self-esteem in the heart of each small-group participant that helps them believe they are "winners" whether or not the group succeeds or fails in any particular team project.


Second, small-group leaders model the spiritual life. The spiritual life is a very specific habit of Christian behavior that goes beyond any particular tactic of Bible study, prayer, conversation, or service. It is not a skill that can be taught or a program that can be replicated.

The spiritual life is a circular movement from radical humility before the unpredictable and incomprehensible Holy, to brooding reflection on the implications of faithfulness, to compassionate outreach toward foreign micro-cultures. In turn, this process raises questions about self, relationships, and God that one never asked before, and it forces the Christian to stand naked once again before the unpredictable and incomprehensible Holy.

This cycle can be lived out through many tactics, across every professional occupation, through every cultural context, and in the midst of any personal lifestyle. It is what holds together the mobility and diversity of experience that is the norm of postmodern small-group participants in a thread of purpose—just as it was the continuity of integrity that allowed medieval monastics to alternately lead crusades and copy manuscripts by candlelight, or rule kingdoms and sit all alone in caves.


Finally, small-group leaders coach the faith formation of small-group participants. In my book Christian Chaos I briefly describe the "faith formation flow" that leaders nurture over the timeline of any small group:

  • From covenant to curiosity. Most small groups bond around a shared enthusiasm or affinity. The temptation is to simply enjoy that affinity with little motivation to discipline oneself to go deeper in the "why" and "whither" of our relationships and passions. The small-group leader guides the group by arousing curiosity. Point out anomalies and patterns in behavior and ideas. Cast glances at the motivations, assumptions, goals, and paradoxes of life. Opportunistically seize upon life struggles, gratuitous evil, and unexplainable grace to arouse a passion for insight and answers.

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