Many of us who look for small-group leaders can echo the words of the Apostle Paul referring to contentment: I know how to live in abundance and how to live in suffering need. Of course, anyone who leads a small-group ministry knows more about need than abundance.
Leadership is both the growth engine and the speed bump to a thriving small-group ministry. Every successful small-group ministry rises and falls on the quality of the small-group leaders. No matter what model you choose, the consistency of the ministry is deeply dependent on who calls the meeting to order and how they lead.
How do you identify leaders, and how do you engage them in just the right spot? It's important to tackle four questions in identifying, recruiting, and engaging leaders:
What to Look For
I'm in my second decade of championing small groups and I boil it down to just a few characteristics that grab my attention. My radar is always scanning for these qualities:
Authentic. Real, genuine, faithful people are essential. Any sense of duplicity or untrustworthiness will crash a group. As the expression goes, "Speed of the leader, speed of the team," so the authenticity of the leader is the high water mark for the authenticity of the group. Look for real, honest people. The no-drama, no-nonsense people will strike the right tone.
Available. A potential leader has to have enough margin in life to lead a group. They have to participate fully in the group they lead. They have to have time to attend essential training and leader events. This doesn't mean you look for people who aren't involved or are sitting on the bench. It simply means you look for people who have enough space—or are able to create enough space—in their life to dedicate themselves to leading.
Busy. Look for active people who have a lot going on. There's an old adage: if you want something done give it to a busy person. Simply put, people who have a lot going on often have figured out systems of productivity. Avoid frantic, hurried people but keep your eye out for people who keep showing up, sleeves rolled up, ready to serve.
Coachable. When you talk with potential leaders do they seem hungry for more? Are they willing to listen and learn? Leading a group is a journey of personal growth, which means anyone who isn't coachable isn't going to make it. Know-it-alls are difficult to lead and make even worse leaders, so keep the antennae up for people who want to grow.
Relational. Who shows an interest in other people? Who is ready with a handshake and a smile? You don't have to grab every extrovert you see. In fact, many introverts make excellent group leaders. Listen and watch for the people who include and involve others.
What to Avoid
Not every leader is a small-group leader. Some people are great leaders in one setting but lousy at leading a gathering in a living room. Here are the felonious types to avoid:
Hobby Horse People. We all know them—and we still love them. But these one-trick-pony people just can't get off their favorite topic. Whether it's the impending end times, creation debates, politics, or just their overwhelming hobby, folks that are preoccupied with a topic or issue are best left to group participation. Otherwise they will swamp the group.
Weirdoes. There's just no nice way to put this, but while really strange people are certainly welcome in (most) groups, they probably won't be able to lead a group effectively. There are exceptions, but most of the time you can't gel a group around eccentric and strange people. We're all a little weird, but there is a cliff that professional weirdoes jumped off years ago that moves them too far into the continuum of oddness.
Heretics. I know this shouldn't need to be said, but if I had a nickel for every off-kilter amateur theologian who signed up to lead a group I'd have a lot of nickels. Save yourself the heartache and confirm that potential group leaders are aligned with your doctrinal priorities.
How to Recruit
Building a powerful small-group ministry takes intentionality. Passivity won't lead to a leadership boom. Here are several simple things that can help you identify leaders:
Ask. Beat the bushes and ask everyone you know and trust who they think would make a great small-group leader. Poll church leaders, send out e-mails, and talk to every person you know. Know the three of four characteristics you're looking for in a leader so you can quickly explain the kinds of people you're looking for. Then ask who they know that fulfills those requirements.
Apprentice. Whenever possible, encourage group leaders to have an apprentice—a leader in training. Then, when you need new leaders, you'll have a team of apprentices to recruit from.
Open Training. Regularly conduct small-group leader training events and publicize them for existing and future leaders. Every time I've conducted open training, new leaders show up.
Try Before You Buy. One of the best ways to recruit new leaders is to ask them to lead a six- to eight-week group. The short-term group gives a potential leader an opportunity to try on leadership while church leadership gets to try on the group leader to confirm a good fit.
Never Say No for Someone. We all know people who should lead, but we frequently talk ourselves out of asking them to lead. Maybe we think they're too busy or they won't be interested. Whatever the reason, we never ask and we answer for them. But many future leaders are just waiting to be asked. Don't talk yourself out of approaching someone you know could be a great leader.
How to Engage
Once you find leaders and equip them, how do you put them in just the right place? Most of the churches I've worked with have a variety of groups. From traditional, in-home groups to classes to service groups, there's a lot of variety, which means there's a need for different types of leaders.
Here are a few different types of groups and the kinds of leaders who fit best:
Short-Term Groups. I believe most new groups should start as short-term groups. It's the lowest risk to the leader, the group, and you as the church leader. If something goes wrong, hey, it was only for a few weeks! So new, untested leaders, as well as leaders you aren't sure about, are great in short-term groups. You can keep an eye on the leader and the group, and then determine next steps. Short-term groups are also ideal for the ultra-busy leader who might coach soccer in the fall but is available for a winter term.
Teaching Groups. Got a knowledgeable leader who has much wisdom to share? Have him or her serve as a living resource and teach a group. Not every group wants a teacher-leader, but don't assume no groups want that. Particularly in subject-specific areas, it's helpful to have a teacher lead a group.
Social Groups. We live in a relationally deprived culture full of broken relationships. Sometimes the best thing a group offers is a place to connect and recharge. If you have warm, loving, involver leaders, have them lead groups that are more social in nature.
While there is more that could be said, these strategies will move a group ministry further along the leadership identification and implementation continuum. By following these tips, you can better identify, recruit, and place a variety of leaders in your ministry.
—Bill Search is author of Simple Small Groups and the Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills Christian church in El Dorado Hills, California