Once a group has entered the second stage of spiritual growth and formation, leaders must have a different strategy. The Journeying Together stage, characterized by discovering the depth of our ongoing need for God and the unseen dynamics of our interior life, requires leaders to provide guidance and structure by focusing on three primary goals.
1. Cultivate a safe relational environment.
It's impossible for people to take the risky step of looking beneath the surface of their lives if they feel uneasy, threatened, or fearful of being judged. Most people will open up only if they are in an environment of relational trust and safety. Leaders need to create a caring community in which people carry one another to Jesus, much as the friends of the paralyzed man did in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
John Burke, pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, shares how he encourages his congregation to develop these types of relationships:
God loves to use ordinary people—just like you and me—to make each other healthy and whole as we run this race together. But it doesn't happen without giving lots of encouragement to each other—that's the soil in which God causes the growth. Without that kind of soil, people won't trust you to carry their mat, and you won't let them carry yours. Do a little self-assessment—how well do you do creating an encouraging environment for people close to you—one that helps them stay connected to God?
The most effective leaders establish an environment that invites vulnerability and authenticity. Instead of ignoring or, worse, shaming those who share their brokenness, failures, and wounds, they welcome and receive these vulnerable admissions with grace, hope, truth, and encouragement.
2. Cultivate a strong spiritual environment.
Leaders encourage awareness of God's presence—with us at all times and in all circumstances—by intentionally and routinely acknowledging God's activity in the midst of whatever else is going on. Though God may feel far-off when someone is overcome by anger, fear, despair, sadness, or confusion, leaders affirm that God remains near. We can imagine that the disciples on the road to Emmaus following Jesus' crucifixion knew what it was to experience anger, fear, despair, sadness, and confusion. They were lost in the discouragement and disillusionment of grief and dashed hopes. God was nowhere to be seen, at least from their limited perspective. They didn't discern that Jesus—the incarnate Son of God—was right there, walking with them the entire time.
As he promised, Jesus is always with us as well, hidden but very present as we make the journey together. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, people in our groups may find themselves in despair, murmuring the words "But we had hoped … " (Luke 24:21). Wise leaders help people recognize the presence of God, even in the midst of their discouragement and failed hopes.
How do we deliberately establish this kind of spiritual environment? It's not only through what we say; it is evidenced by our prayerful, quiet confidence in God as well. Sometimes the best thing we can do is listen, silently bathing in prayer our conversation and the desert dweller who is with us. What matters most is not the information a leader can impart, but the understanding, acceptance, and simple trust that God's active presence and grace are at work in the situation.
3. Guide through an appropriate curriculum.
You may be tempted to question the role of curriculum in this stage of growth and formation. But a strong curriculum can raise important ideas and encourage thoughtful reflection while still freeing the leader to discern, observe, and deeply listen to God and others. Excellent curriculum options exist. Some focus on learning core spiritual practices; others give insight on how to examine our past and embrace our story. The right curriculum can help facilitate the conversations that need to happen in this stage.
For guidance on leading groups in the first stage, Learning Together, or the third stage, Following Together, read STIR.