Note: this article is excerpted from Small Group Vital Signs.
One of the fundamental differences between good and great small groups is the spiritual vitality of the leaders. While imperfect, healthy leaders have a soft heart that God can use to accomplish his will. They are highly committed first to God and then to the group. Jim Collins calls his initial good-to-great principle "Level 5 Leadership: a blend of extreme personal humility with an unwavering resolve for the company." Healthy small-group leaders also have a sense of personal humility and an ambition for God's kingdom. "Level 5" small-group leaders have the following attributes:
Healthy small-group leaders have been transformed.
One of your high calls as a small-group leader is to build an environment where spiritual transformation is experienced. This usually happens when the leader has first experienced transformation. The apostle Peter is a model of a transformed leader. Compare his attitudes and actions—and more importantly, his faith—between the Gospels and Acts. Peter, like the rest of the apostles, was an unschooled, ordinary man whose life had been transformed by being with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Forty-three days before the events in Acts 4, he and his buddies were anything but bold—falling asleep on Jesus when asked to pray, running away from him in his hours of crisis, and denying they even knew him. They were still self-absorbed, worried, and protective of their lives.
Just 42 days after Jesus' death, their faith was bold and courageous enough to stand up to the same religious leaders who were responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. What happened in between to bring about this transformation? It was a process that Jesus began three years earlier, but that came to fruition with the power of the resurrection (John 20), the power of reconciliation (John 21), and finally the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Then Jesus used these transformed leaders to build a great, world-transforming church. He can do the same through you when you spend time with him and allow him to transform your life!
Healthy small-group leaders live surrendered to God.
One thing the apostles learned from Jesus was how to live and lead in surrender to God's will. Jesus instructed the apostles in Acts 1 to do one simple thing: wait. Their natural inclination would have been to jump into action, attempting to accomplish Jesus' vision under their own power. But they obeyed and waited in Jerusalem by praying and being patient for God to move. Once they received the promised Spirit, they carried out Jesus' mission in complete reliance upon and surrender to God (see 4:19-31 for one example) and in great power, I might add!
Great small-group leaders turn to Christ for everything: who will be invited to join the group, the group's purpose, and the biblical content the group will apply during meetings. To do this, great group leaders pray and then wait before making decisions. This requires humility and self-control over one's emotional urge to act as quickly as possible. Great group leaders know if they surrender their leadership to Christ they will accomplish far more than they can do in their own power.
Healthy small-group leaders are committed to their calling.
God first calls people to lead, then he gifts them to lead, and last, he empowers them to lead. I never twist people's arms to lead a small group at our church. But I do pray regularly for God to send us new leaders (see Matthew 9:36-38), and I often ask people if they sense God nudging them to lead a group. I believe God will send us the leaders he needs to lead groups at our church—and he does!
The leadership God has entrusted to you is a precious gift of grace (Ephesians 3:7) you should never take for granted. Accept it willingly, develop it, and multiply it by the mighty working of his power. Be a good steward of his gift to you!
Healthy small-group leaders are friends.
Jesus called his group members "friends." But perhaps that word meant more to Jesus than we think: "Greater love has no one than this," Jesus said, "to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). Real friendship is sacrificial.
A healthy group is comprised of genuine friends. A healthy leader considers the members of the group as his or her friends, not as students, participants, or "people who show up to our meetings." As the leader, you invest into those friendships. A group member from our church wrote:
Joe and I have been in small group with Gary for about five years now. I wasn't sure about joining a "Bible study," but this group is so much more. The friendships we have formed are everlasting. Our small group, with Gary as our leader, not only studies the Bible, but we hold each other up; we encourage each other in good and bad times; we have moments where we laugh and sometimes cry; we love each other no matter what; and we know in our hearts that Jesus Christ is always with us. Gary keeps us focused, and he is one of the best friends Joe and I could ever have!
Wouldn't you want someone in your group to say the same about you? Become their friend!
Healthy small-group leaders are friends with non-Christ-followers.
Small-group leaders may or may not have the spiritual gift of evangelism, but they do intentionally seek out friendships with those who are not yet friends with God. These friendships are genuine and unconditional … no strings attached. Yes, they pray diligently for their friends and watch for opportunities to share their story and the gospel, but they don't leverage the relationship to force conversations about Christ. Rather, they allow God to use them to shine his light. They allow the overflow of God's love to pour out of their lives naturally.
Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). Why? Because he "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). Healthy leaders model this Christ-like attribute for the rest of the group. They model praying regularly for friends and neighbors who do not yet know Christ. They model inviting friends to the group. They team with other group members to pray for and reach out to seeking friends. They get out of their comfort zones to go into the world of non-Christians.
Healthy small-group leaders are shepherds.
Transformed, surrendered leaders invest relationally into and lovingly guide the group that God puts under their care. I believe being a shepherd is the main role of the small-group leader. All the other attributes describe how to do this one well. God's Word is rich in its discussion about shepherding. Here are just two passages that describe the shepherd-leader's role:
"He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young" (Isaiah 40:11, NLT). Great small group leaders invest relationally into the members of the group, and not just during group meetings!
"Be sure you know the condition of your flocks" (Proverbs 27:23). Do you know the spiritual condition of the people in your group? The biggest difference between a teacher, facilitator, or host and a shepherd-leader is that the former do not necessarily need to know their sheep or lead them spiritually. But that is precisely the role of the shepherd-leader.
As a small-group shepherd-leader, you are in the most strategic position in the church to effect real, lasting life change and spiritual growth. But how?
- As a shepherd-leader, be concerned for where people are in their spiritual journeys. Treat each person with grace, not judgment. At the same time, help group members grow.
- Personally assess where group members are on their spiritual journeys. Spend time with them outside of meetings, asking what they believe, their spiritual practices, and their goals. Observe how they are living in relation to the fruit of the Spirit.
- Model a disciple's lifestyle. You are a model for what life change looks like.
- Keep providing the culture. Continue to draw the group into increasing levels of authentic community. By meeting regularly, people will be in a place where they can grow.
- Provide a process for growth to happen. This takes application-oriented Bible study as a group, one-on-one mentoring, serving together, and leadership development.
You are not the Chief Shepherd of the flock. That title belongs to Christ Jesus. Yet he has entrusted—as an act of stewardship—a small group of his people to you for this season. Therefore, "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care" (1 Peter 5:2).
Healthy small-group leaders are servants first.
Jesus made this one very clear. You can't be a leader in his kingdom unless you first have the heart of a servant. This is an attitude that comes through surrender to Christ as he transforms you into a humble servant. Why do you want to lead? If it is because it is the best way for you to serve the group, then you are on the right track. If you desire leadership for any other reason, reconsider this role. Find another way to serve the group first.
Healthy small-group leaders are growing in competence.
While leading a healthy small group has more to do with heart than skills, there are still some core competencies that will help you lead a healthy group. Others have produced long lists of competencies for small-group leaders. I won't reproduce them here, but I do suggest you learn these competencies over time. On his blog, Ben Reed shared five skills good leaders usually have. Here are his five, and seven more of my own. Great small group leaders …
- Embrace the messiness of relationships
- Are quick to offer grace because they've been given so much grace
- Ask for help
- Look a lot like good pastors
- Are patient with group members who are difficult to love
- Pray regularly for group members
- Keep the group moving toward goals
- Practice authenticity/transparency
- Are quick to listen and slow to speak
- Ask great questions
- Lead as part of a team
Now here's the good news: you don't have to do all of these alone! In fact, healthy leaders share group roles with a core team and the rest of the group. Just don't forget: God did not make a mistake when he called you to be the shepherd-leader of the group he's put under your care. When you are healthy and growing spiritually, your group will also be healthy and growing. That's God's plan. So I encourage you to commit right now to this vital principle. Your group will not be healthy without you as a healthy leader!
—Excerpted from Small Group Vital Signs. Used with permission from TOUCH Publications.