Fishing for True Small-Group Leaders
Image: Ray Massey | Getty

Fishing for True Small-Group Leaders

Here's what it takes to reel in the kind of leader you really want.

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Recruiting New Small-Group Leaders.

The biggest problem churches face in recruiting small-group leaders is that they are confused about what they are looking for. It is as if they go fishing for trout using the tackle designed for walleye. They either don't catch anything at all, or they catch the wrong kind of fish. Their confusion is caused by their own lack of clarity about purpose.

Small-group leaders are found through eye contact, not pulpit appeals. They want to be part of something big, participate in an opportunity for their own personal growth, and make the world a better place. They are not looking for a job description, but a lifestyle expectation.

The Cast

So here you are, maverick church, standing alone in a very cold stream, casting a bold vision for life-changing small groups. Notice the repetitive movement. Be patient. Keep casting. If occasionally your line gets tangled in a tree or an ecclesiastical board meeting, don't lose your temper and don't be sidetracked. Keep on casting that vision of serious, profound, spiritual growth and maturity in Christ.

Since that actual "cast" will take the form of a one-to-one, eye-to-eye, conversation with potential leaders, you need a short list of people to approach. If your church uses spiritual gift assessments, look for people strong in the gifts of hospitality, evangelism, or counseling. However, inventories are often too generic to be effective. Use the characteristics below to put together a customized profile of your church's ideal small-group leader:

  • Deep, daily spirituality. The leader has a clearly focused faith that pervades both personal and professional life.
  • Intentional confidentiality. The leader invites immediate trust and gives reliable guarantees to preserve secrets.
  • Unswerving fidelity. The leader demonstrates loyalty in personal relationships with no hint of sexual exploitation, or flirtatious or abusive behavior.
  • Commitment to equality. The leader avoids stereotypes of race, gender, generation, or lifestyle. He or she encourages respect and treats others with fairness.
  • Personal humility. The leader is always eager to learn and grow. He or she does not fear ambiguity or paradox.
  • Self-directed, self-disciplined. The leader works hard toward clear goals, with an internalized motivation for excellence.
  • Habitual patience. The leader waits and prays for the work of the Holy Spirit and does not rush people or prematurely resolve differences.
  • Gentleness. The leader is kind and sympathetic; he or she recognizes and assists others to overcome obstacles.
  • Courageous perception. The leader sees the point in situations and faces contradiction; he or she identifies the crux of decision-making.
  • People focus. The leader prioritizes people above issues, dialogue above agendas, and growth above success.
  • Inclusive behavior. The leader is sensitive to silence, invites people to participate, and is alert to the fringes of groups.

Once you've got a customized profile of your ideal group leader, share it with others in worship, congregational gatherings, boardrooms, and any other gathering. Ask people to write down three names that come to mind when reflecting on that profile. (Make sure they do not give their own name.) Gather all the responses and look for the names that come up over and over again. You now have a short list.

The Hook

Once you have a short list, invite each person on the list to lunch. This is the "eye contact" part of the process. Wait for coffee and dessert, then ask these four questions:

  • Does the idea of growing people in Christ excite you? This is not an easy question to answer. Some people (even those gifted in hospitality, evangelism, or counseling) may actually get excited about implementing programs that are really about forcing people into accepted norms and dogmas. Other people (especially laypeople who imagine themselves to be "theologians") are actually excited about showing off their biblical knowledge. You are looking for neither. The small-group leader is excited about the idea of growing people and encouraging them to explore the fathomless mystery of Jesus Christ.
  • Do you use your gifts or hide them under a basket? Although you can refer to spiritual gifts inventories, most people on this short list will know what gifts you mean. They know they have gifts for mentoring. They know they instinctively protect confidentiality, love honesty, encourage awareness, and cherish small flames that just might burst into raging fires. But do they allow themselves to do it, or are they afraid of censure? Do they take risks, or do they prefer television? You want the ones who commit.
  • Are you willing to be trained and eager to grow yourself? The trouble with this question is that everybody will say yes, but few will really mean it. You want the ones who are serious.
  • Do you feel called at this time? Sometimes it's best to avoid the people who eagerly affirm their sense of calling. Look for the people that gasp, "Who, me?" It will often come as a shock that popular opinion has placed them on the short list. They may not feel particularly competent or credible, but this mixture of authenticity and humility is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Catch

This new breed of volunteer is not only willing to be trained, but demands to be trained. They simply will not lead a small group unless they are trained. This might seem simple, but it often becomes a struggle. Small-group leaders are not passive vessels to be filled with professional ideals and techniques. They debate. They challenge. They interact.

Small-group leaders are mentors. They are not just questioners, fellow seekers, or journeymen "on the way." Those people are small-group participants. In order to catch group leaders, you must be ready to wrestle them into becoming mentors. They must be confident enough to become evocateurs and provocateurs. They need to share spiritual victories, not just life struggles. If you cannot promise to train them as mentors, you will lose them as leaders.

The Release

Perhaps the most important part of recruiting small-group leaders is the promise to release them for purposeful initiative. Task-group leaders fundamentally desire to be kept on a leash. They want to be supervised. They want to be told what to do. It is safer, more secure, to just implement the curriculum. Small-group leaders are a different breed. They want to be free. So cut the line. Release the hook. Submerge them back into the water, and let them swim.

Yes, small-group leaders want to know the boundaries, and they need to know the fundamental vision and mission toward which they are committed to serve. Tactics, however, are up for grabs. Don't dictate. Don't prescribe. Don't impose this curriculum or that procedure. And for heaven's sake, don't' demand that they do fundraising for the institution. Small-group leaders must feel free to discern, design, implement, and evaluate mission in their own way. They don't want to file reports, ask permission, or achieve quotas. Trust them or dismiss them—but make up your mind.

The question seems so simple: How can a church recruit small-group leaders? The answer, however, has multiple layers. You can define the profile of small-group leadership. You can short list potential leaders. You can interview them, train them, and ultimately deploy them. Unfortunately, many churches discover that, at the end of the process, they really don't want them! Small-group leaders, unlike task-group leaders, are never "yes men" for the institution. They are always "yes and no" spokesmen who are ambivalent about the institution and passionate about maturity in Christ. The question you must ask is: Do we really want that kind of leader?


  1. What characteristics would make up our ideal small-group leader?
  2. What steps do I need to take in order to start meeting with potential group leaders for an "eye contact" session?
  3. Are we prepared to train group leaders that accept our call? How can we improve our training?

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Small Groups and Sunday School

Small Groups and Sunday School

Rick Howerton is a church consultant in the south-central region of Kentucky
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