It takes a changing life to change a life. —Joe Stowell
What does it take to be a life-changing group leader—one who experiences transformation and also catalyzes life change in others? Are there patterns, habits or practices to be embraced?
The goal of a transformational leader is a changed community of people. Most of us are familiar with this powerful passage in Acts 2:42–47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
While it’s tempting to view this passage as a specific strategy for leading groups, the more important takeaway is that these people clearly had been changed by God. They were acting differently toward one another and the world around them. That's the ultimate goal: a changed, loving, engaged, truthful, humble, powerful, and mission-minded community.
The Leader’s Challenge: Self-Leadership
Becoming an Acts 2 community requires Acts 20 leadership. Acts 2 is stimulating; Acts 20 is sobering. Consider this charge: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added). Watch over the flock—and watch over yourself!
Paul gave Timothy, who led the church in Ephesus, clear instructions to be this kind of leader. Timothy was a young emerging leader, and he faced overwhelming obstacles in a heresy-filled city and spiritually-confused church. On top of that, Timothy had a lot of self-doubt and far too few ministry resources.
Like many women and men in ministry, Timothy found himself pressed from every side. He needed to take care of himself if he was going to face the opposition without growing weary. So Paul wrote to him to encourage him to focus on the right things. To become Acts 20 leaders, we must focus on the same seven things Paul offered to Timothy:
1. Connect with Christ
1 Timothy 6:11
Paul wanted his protégé Timothy to move from being a timid teacher to a passionate leader pursuing Jesus fully. He called him to run from everything that would sidetrack him—envy, strife, malicious talk, endless controversies, and the temptation to do ministry for financial gain. Instead, he was to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” In other words, to pursue Christlikeness.
When I was a young Christian, one of my mentors impressed upon me the necessity to connect daily with Jesus. Specifically, he encouraged me to read from the Gospels each day. He believed that seeing Jesus teaching, performing miracles, loving people, and resisting the attacks of his enemies, brings us into closer connection with Christ.
2. Guard Your Heart
1 Timothy 4:12
Proverbs 4:23 reminds us to, “Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” Character is formed and shaped in the heart. Protecting the heart assures that it remains soft, open, malleable, and devoted to the things of Christ. A transformational leader knows that a wounded, hardened, or neglected heart is the breeding ground for unresolved anger, complacency, and indifference.
Leaders who won’t reveal their heart to their group and God lead only at 50 percent capacity. Without an open heart, their leadership may be strategic and practical, but never soul-filled and transformational.
You grow your heart when you open your heart to God and others, when relationships are real, and when courageous people offer the deepest parts of themselves to others.
3. Confirm Your Calling
2 Timothy 1:6–9
You have been challenged to tend to a little flock—and sometimes that’s really difficult. Leading a flock will require late-night phone calls and early morning prayers. Group members will disappoint us, and we’ll disappoint ourselves. To combat this, our motives for ministry must be pure, and our convictions clear.
When I was a youth pastor, I decided to visit Tim and Audrey who lived on a small farm not far from our church. But they were away with their mother for a few hours. Their dad was home, though, and asked me to help him around the farm until they returned. Growing up in a red brick row home in the city of Philadelphia, I knew nothing about helping on the farm, so I said “no thanks” to baling hay and milking. When he asked me to call in the sheep, though, I was excited.
“What do I say?” I asked. With a sly smile he replied, “I just say, ‘Hey sheep! Come on in!’”
“Hey sheep!” I started, but he interrupted.
“Not so soft. It’s windy and they’re far away. You have to really let it rip, preacher boy!”
I took a deep breath and with the loudest voice I could muster blared, “Hey sheep! C’mon in!”
The sheep never budged, and he burst out laughing. “Watch this,” he said. In his everyday neighborly tone, he simply spoke, “Hey sheep, c’mon in.” The sheep turned on a dime and headed toward us.
“You ever read the Bible at that seminary?” he asked. “Remember where it says, ‘My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me?’” I sheepishly nodded. “Don’t forget you are the shepherd to my kids and when you call them, I hope they recognize your voice.”
That day, I knew I had a call—not a job, not something I did to get ready for real ministry someday with adults, but a real ministry call. I was given a little flock to lead, and until God said move on, I was the one to guide them to Christ.
4. Honor Your Calling
2 Timothy 4:5
Some of us are great leaders, but we don't produce the results we expect. Maybe you’re frustrated because you know you have leadership gifts and abilities, but something seems to be wrong.
Often this means that we’re simply leading in the wrong place or leading the wrong people. Perhaps you’re leading adults when you should be guiding children, or you’re focused on leading a couples small group when you should be leading a task-focused ministry team.
Paul told Timothy to fulfill his own ministry—not anyone else’s. The same is true for you. Make every effort to determine where and how you should be using your gifts. You might have to take an assessment or ask close friends and ministry partners to truthfully assess your abilities. Whatever it takes, please do this. The church suffers when its leaders are improperly deployed in the wrong places. Find the place where your gifts and abilities are compatible with needs, and throw yourself fully into that ministry.
5. Develop Your Competence
2 Timothy 2:15
The former CEO of Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Richard Teerlink, once said, “If you empower dummies, you get dumb decisions faster!” Heart and passion are not sufficient for capable leaders to perform their duties, and empowering untrained people is not an effective strategy.
Timothy needed to develop his leadership skills. The same is true for small-group leaders. We can’t afford to be lax when it comes to shepherding people, leading discussions, and guiding prayer. We must avail ourselves to training, committing ourselves to developing our skills, so we can lead well.
6. Maintain Your Commitment
2 Timothy 4:2
Commitment is treated like a four-letter word in our culture. But Timothy was challenged to stay in the game whether it was “in season” or “out of season,” easy or hard, convenient or inconvenient. Leaders can only call others to finish the race when they themselves are running hard all the way to the tape.
Frank, a staff member at our church, modeled this perfectly. Once, Frank called a young couple who was leading and serving in our church to check in with them. When they got talking, he learned that though they’d been looking forward to a much-needed date that night, the babysitter for their young children had just canceled. Without hesitating, Frank rearranged his schedule and took care of their children that night.
Do you think they see Frank as a leader? Do you think they respect him? You better believe it! Their hearts were encouraged and their lives were changed by his simple commitment to their needs. That is what life-changing leaders do.
7. Recognize Your Capacity
1 Timothy 4:16
There’s one thing that can derail your leadership—even if you’ve focused on the six things above. Leading a group is a wearisome obligation, and you can quickly burn out if you’re not mindful.
Unfortunately, I see leader after leader running on empty because they have not paid attention to themselves. Self-care is the first job of a leader. And that requires a few things. First, be aware of your limits. You can’t do it all! Know what you do well, and say no to the other things in your life. As Jim Collins coaches, “You cannot add to your ‘Start’ list unless you have a ‘Stop’ list.” Decide what you can and cannot do, and stick to it!
Look at your emotional, physical, and spiritual gauges. Are they Full? Empty? Do what you need to do to replenish your energy, care for your soul, and mind your relationship with God. Do the transformational work on yourself in the power of the Spirit, and you will be able to better guide the transformational growth of others.
Your Changed Life with Change Other Lives
These seven areas will help you take an honest look at yourself as a leader so you can be an authentic, transformational force for change in others. Your weaknesses, fears, and insecurities are fertile ground for God to begin his transforming work. But it will take some focus and energy. Are you up for the challenge? If so, join biblical leaders like Moses, Deborah, Joshua, Lydia, Peter, Priscilla, James, and Phoebe. They, like us, started with a simple willingness to be changed, and God used them to change others.
—Dr. Bill Donahue is a Group Life Consultant, Leadership Coach, and Professor at Trinity International University. You can find more at drbilldonahue.com.