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.
  • From curiosity to Bible awareness. Most small-group participants exaggerate, even to themselves, the extent to which they know anything about Christian faith. They are merely opinionated. The more their curiosity is aroused, the more the consternation grows. The sheer volume of applied learning is overwhelming. It's not just information, but application. The small-group leader coaches participants to learn key Biblical stories, metaphors, verses, and ideas—then work them into the fabric of daily life.
  • From Bible awareness to trust. Ironically, greater Bible awareness all too easily plateaus the spiritual growth of small-group participants! A false confidence is created—a disguised egotism. It is revealed to the small-group leader as participants begin to compete with each other, showing off their database of learning or posturing about their faith. The leader guides the group to trust one another with their feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, or imperfection.
  • From trust to questioning. As the small-group leader creates an environment of trust that replaces "one-upmanship" with acceptance, participants finally penetrate the depths of their personal anxiety and spiritual yearning. They ask the real questions about life, death, good, evil, God, temptation, and so on that have haunted them from the beginning. Note that the spiritual guide does not necessarily answer their questions, but rather helps them to wrestle with their questions with integrity and hope.
  • From questioning to action. The goal of the small-group leader as spiritual guide is not to lead participants from questioning to certainty, but from questioning to risk. The answers are to be found in the activity of mission itself, rather than in passive introspection. Giving life away in radical charity and service helps participants live in the midst of mysteries without resignation. The spiritual guide inspires, instills, or enables the discovery of courage.
  • From action to holy discontent. As a small group nears the end of its covenant time together, the journey from finding new life to giving life away to others appropriately ends by leaving the maturing participants once again ill at ease. Questions answered only raise more questions. Beneficial service reveals an even larger human need. The more one knows, the more one discerns one's ignorance. The small-group leader as spiritual guide needs to fan this discontent. After all, the point of group life is growth, not personal satisfaction or group hugs. And the growth that is intended is the growth of God's mission, for which the personal growth of the individual is only a step along the way.
  • From discontent to covenant again. The small-group leader provides each participant with a sense of trajectory. "Try this." "Explore that." "Partner with these people." "Talk to those people." Remind participants that what really made all their growth possible was partnership with others. Spiritual guides are only temporary companions along the way, not gurus to whom small-group participants will return over and over again. That truly would cross the fine line between authenticity and ego. Hand off the role of spiritual leadership to others, and God will provide a new set of companions to mentor along the way.

In order to become a spiritual guide, the small-group leader must surrender to spiritual guidance. This mentor might be a pastor, staff person, volunteer, elder, or any number of leaders in or beyond the church. I have known the spiritual guides of spiritual guides to be 90 years old and 16 years old, male or female, and living some of the most unexpected lifestyles. Seek them out. Shadow their movements. Expect no less and no more of yourself than you expect and communicate to your small group.

Interested in learning more about caring for souls in a community context? Check out these great training downloads from Building Small Groups:

  • Becoming a Great Listener: If you lead a small group, you want to be effective in helping your members grow closer to each other and closer to God. If you coach small-group leaders, you want to be effective in supporting and equipping them for the task. But all of that can be short-circuited if you neglect the critical step of listening.
  • Go Deeper with God: Discover the art of contemplative prayer and how to listen for God's replies. Explore the concept of lectio divinia and how it applies to a better understanding of, and closer relationship to, God.

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