Leading a small group is tiring. It's frustrating. And it's time-consuming. I'll even admit there are days I want to quit—nights that I get done with my small group and want to scream at how unproductive we were, or how much ground we lost, or how disruptive a particular group member was.
But there are also days when I can't sleep after small group because I'm so excited about what God's doing in our group. There are days when I feel more alive than I've ever felt because I see the body of Christ working together in our small group—through an impassioned intercessory prayer, a plan to scrape together resources to meet a need, or a breakthrough moment that overcomes sin's power in a group member's life.
The truth is, if God didn't call us to gather in community, life would be a lot easier without groups. It's a lot easier to go to work, drive home, and stay home. It's a lot easier to choose the people you hang out with—and stop hanging out with the people who make you uncomfortable. It's a lot easier to live out the "one another" commands when it's just you and your dog at home.
Community is hard work. And if it weren't for God calling us to gather, I'd say let's all quit. Right now.
But it's clear that we're supposed to gather. Even Jesus spent time gathering with others. Carolyn Taketa writes,
When Jesus' ministry began, he called 12 disciples to be his primary relational and ministry community. Did Jesus need this motley crew to help him? Not really. But Jesus chose to love them, teach them, and pour himself into relationships with them, thereby creating the first "small group."
The apostles continued Jesus' model and formed a community of believers who loved God and loved one another. Despite incredible persecution and against all odds, this rag tag group of Jesus-followers launched small communities (i.e. church) that proclaimed the gospel and changed the world forever.
Small groups carry out the mission of the church, and you—you!—get to be part of it. While it's an incredible honor to work alongside God as we lead our groups, it doesn't always feel like that. So here are a few reminders for when things get tough in your small group:
1. Community is hard.
Gather a group of sinful people in a sinful world, and it's no wonder that our small groups are a mess. But God works through the mess to change our hearts and lives. Through community, we become more Christlike. We are supported in this difficult life, and we have someone to celebrate with when God shows up in amazing ways. Without small groups, I doubt I would have found my way back to God, and I can guarantee that I wouldn't be the person I am today. Through small groups I have overcome sin, worked on unhealthy patterns of relating, and had people call me out on bad decisions. I've also developed life-long friends, grown closer to my husband, and learned helpful parenting skills. Community is hard, but boy is it worth it.
2. For every step forward, you take (at least) one back.
I love to see progress—whether it's the progress bar on a survey, the percentage read on my Kindle books, or checking items off my grocery list. I don't think I'm alone. So when we see that for every step our group takes forward, we take two steps back, it's no wonder we get frustrated. How will we ever reach the goal?
But in life transformation, change isn't linear. We step forward, circle back, head out on a side trail, and then find ourselves at a dead end. Rather than get down on ourselves for this sporadic and hard-to-measure change, let's learn to embrace the journey. After all, we know we'll never reach perfection this side of heaven. So let's celebrate little milestones, and let's learn from each step (and misstep) along the way.
3. Not every meeting leaves you energized and hopeful.
Sometimes we leave group feeling fully alive, excited about what God is doing in and through our group. That kind of excitement can inspire us to keep going. It can make us feel proud of our group, confident in our leadership, and excited about what God has next. But there are plenty of meetings that won't make us feel that way.
It's not healthy to base our joy on what's happening in our small group. We must find our joy in God alone. When I find myself fluctuating emotionally from meeting to meeting, I know it's time to focus on my personal health as a leader. I need to take care of myself and invest deeply in my relationship with Christ so that I'm not depending on the group for my joy. When my joy is grounded in Christ alone, I can roll with the highs and lows of group life, celebrating the successes and working to overcome the struggles.
4. You mess up.
I'm incredibly grateful to a campus minister who told me one of the best things I could do for my group members was tell them, "I don't know." Whether we feel the pressure from our coaches and pastors, or we place the pressure on ourselves, we too often believe that we must be perfect leaders who know everything and can handle every situation with ease. If you're a new leader, I need to tell you something: You are going to mess up. More than once. Maybe even in a big way. I'm sorry, but it's true. (Thanks for nodding along, veteran leaders.)
But I want you to know that it's okay to mess up. Really! It's a good idea to do things to the best of our ability as leaders, learning as we go, and asking our coaches for help when we need it. But we must also remember that God is bigger than any mistake we could make as we lead our groups.
And God may just be trying to teach us something. Leading a group is a great way to focus on your own spiritual development. I have grown more as a leader than I've ever grown as a participant. When you lead, you have to figure it out. You have to go through the issues rather than simply ignore them. And all that learning to handle hard stuff changes you for the better. I've never depended on God more than when I'm responsible for a small group of people.
5. You feel overwhelmed.
It doesn't take long for new leader excitement to turn to new leader regret: There's no way I can handle this! We suddenly realize how hard leading a group can be, the spiritual struggles of our group members, and how little we know, and we feel overwhelmed.
The good news is that feeling overwhelmed can be a catalyst to do two really healthy things: lean on God and empower others. During a particularly hard time in my life, I took up running. Every day when I ran, I reached the end of my strength, and it taught me to lean on God instead of my own strength. This daily reminder was what I needed to recognize my limited abilities and remind myself to depend on God. When we feel in over our heads, we are forced to learn the life-changing lesson of leaning on God.
On a practical level, we can also learn to empower others to lead so we're not doing it all ourselves. Too many leaders are happy to do it all—organize meetings, pick the study, ask the questions, and lead the prayer time. Pretty soon, the group members form an unhealthy dependence on us for their growth. They know we'll do it all, so they never exercise their spiritual gifts or strengths. Don't let your group members depend on you like this. Instead, empower them to lead in ways that match their gifts and strengths. Your group members will feel ownership for the group, and they'll help you lead in important ways. Plus, you won't feel so overwhelmed with all the tasks of leading. Together, you can lead a thriving small group.
If you're leading a small group, my guess is that you've experienced God's power through groups before. More than likely, you've personally been changed by a small group: you've been held accountable, learned something new from God's Word, or connected with others in a deep, life-changing way. Now you have the incredible honor of facilitating a group where others can experience those same things. It's not easy, but it's worth it. It's not simple, but it's incredibly good. Learn to lean on God, and he will guide you every step of the way.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.