Note: This article has been excerpted from the Small Group Leader's Handbook (InterVarsity Press, 2009).
Leading a small group is a lot of fun, but it can also be grueling, confusing, and exhausting work. It is a dynamic activity that keeps us on our toes. Filled with risk, leadership trains us to live into God's presence and seek the leadership of Jesus.
Beware of Stagnation
As we get comfortable in leadership, our inclination to seek God or depend on Jesus might wane. The temptation will be to settle into the plateau and rest. We start looking around at others and comparing our performance to theirs. Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of this stage in leadership is stagnation.
This is why it is important to seek Jesus, pursue more training and participate as a follower in your church. It is a fabulous truth of Christian leadership that we have Jesus as our leader, who pours into us blessings, insight and encouragement. It is not his intent or purpose to use us up until he can find another willing victim. He is the Good Shepherd who is leading you and Ito good pasture while we are leading small groups.
This does not mean that leadership will always be easy or without incident. But if we continue to set our sights in Jesus, then he can use the unpleasant leadership experiences to shape our character and develop greater leadership skills.
Beware Thinking You've "Arrived"
In addition to not forsaking your relationship with Jesus, do not forsake ongoing leadership training. One of my assignments in campus ministry is to lead Bible discussions with up to 25 students. As the leader I am expected to both teach students an inductive method of Bible study and to guide the whole group through a good discussion in the Bible. It was a juggling act to help people learn how to ask good questions of the text as well as to monitor the discussion that would lead to group consensus and application. Whew!
During one of these times I asked a colleague of mine to sit in on the group for the express purpose of giving me some feedback on my teaching and discussion-leading skills. I sensed that I needed some help and I could not figure out on my own why some things in the group were not going as well or how to move the group forward toward deeper application.
After a little over an hour the group took a break and my friend and I sat down for me to hear my friend's assessment. After only one hour of watching me lead a group discussion, he had some 28 points of constructive criticism. We talked through all of his input, I asked for clarification where I did not understand, and I came up with a game plan for the next session. I experienced much success in leading the group to better group Bible study as well as application of the Scriptures. My leadership improved because of his feedback.
Whether informal or formal training, leaders need continuing instruction and feedback. It is easy to slack on training either if we feel comfortable in our leadership or if we are experiencing some insecurity. I read leadership books with friends and have attended a seminar on prayer ministry and group intercession. I have called my pastor to ask the meaning of a biblical phrase or to seek his interpretation of a passage. The goal is to nurture a learning posture our whole lives.
My co-leader and I met with someone in our training group as preparation for him to lead Bible study. He came to the meeting having studied the passage and developed a good set of discussion questions. As we were talking through the passage, it became obvious that we had divergent opinions about a few things. The more questions we asked, the more defensive the responses became until he said, "Who do you think you are?" Then it got really awkward. I took a breath, counted to ten and said, "We are trainers. You are in a training program. We are here to help you succeed in leading a small group for the first time." Part of being a leader is training.
As you take on the responsibility of leadership, do not forsake the necessity for input, evaluation, and training.
Beware of Isolation
One resource for helping me stay focused on Jesus and to receive instruction on my leadership is to stay connected to a Christian community. Even though I am involved in leadership, it is vital for my growth to be reminded that I am part of a community of believers. I stay connected through attendance, developing real relationships, and celebrating key moments in the community.
Interacting with people in my church from different generations and socioeconomic backgrounds reminds me that being a small group leader is part of the bigger thing happening among God's people. I can see how my leadership contribution helps expand the kingdom in the neighborhood or the city. The Christian community is also a place where I can participate as a follower of other leaders.
You have decided to lead a small group. You want to lead other people to good and safe pasture where they can receive and grow from God's Word. No training will perfectly prepare you for what actually happens when you lead a small group. However, if you set your sights on Jesus, focusing on the Good Shepherd instead of the surrounding circumstances, then you will receive from him what you need to lead.
You would be wise to seek ongoing instruction or specific help to strengthen your leadership, and it is important to stay connected to the community of believers who love you, will pray for you and celebrate with you. You can lead because anyone can lead; everyone who calls Jesus Lord is a partner in his mission and a beneficiary of his Spirit.