It takes more than listening well and asking good questions to make a great small-group leader. Great small-group leaders seek to understand their group members. They want to know what makes each person tick. They are fully aware that discipleship requires a deeper level of connection than average relationships. In discipleship relationships, we need more than the CliffsNotes on our group members—we need a deep understanding of who they are. Instead, we must think of every person in our group as people with full stories, and we can approach getting to know them like getting to know a good book.
Just like a story, each of us is a mix of important factors. They interact to give depth and development to our lives. If you're like me, you learned the five elements of a story in middle school: setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. These are fantastic lenses through which we can understand the members of our group.
Think through the following five story elements for each person in your group and consider: What can I learn about him or her? How can I better lead them and serve him or her?
Where has this person lived? What is his or her heritage?
My first time volunteering in the church was to help lead a small group of middle-school boys. The director, knowing I was brand-new, paired me with the ministry's most experienced leader. I got to tag along and learn. Over time, this leader asked me to contribute, but it didn't always go smoothly. This first time I was asked to pray at the end of one of our sessions, I said, "Dear God, thank you for this conversation, and help us to do your will as a result. Goodbye."
Goodbye? Who says that at the end of a prayer? All the boys giggled. I laughed it off, but I wondered what they and the more experienced leader thought of my mistake. It's dangerously easy to make some assumptions in those moments, especially when we don't know the person's background.
If they had known my story they would know the church setting in which I grew up. I was very experienced in prayer, but they were memorized or read out loud. I had never been in a situation where I needed to pray out loud, coming up with the words on my own. Without seeing my prayer through the lens of my history, it could have been seen as a lack of a personal prayer life.
Do you fully understand the pasts of your group members? Do you know where they come from, their heritage, and their family life growing up? These are important factors in understanding them today.
Who has influenced this person's life? Who matters to him or her?
There are no great stories without great characters. Stories center on people because people matter to us. They are a major influence on our lives and can often be turning points in a story.
How tiresome would it be to have Abbott without Costello? Without Jack and Rose, The Titanic would shift from being a love story to a survival movie. If The Office focused only on Jim and never introduced the other characters it would be a show about selling paper. Stories without characters become incredibly dry, or vanish altogether.
The same is true if you look at an individual's life through the lens of story. Consider the narrative of Jacob's life in the book of Genesis. The writer spends an entire chapter just on Jacob's preparation to reunite with Esau. If you didn't know the history of these two brothers this would be confusing. Knowing their relationship, it becomes quite clear what Jacob means in his prayer in Genesis 32:11: "Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children."