Some doctrinal challenges may even come from within the small group, which are often comprised of members from different theological backgrounds, including people who may have unbiblical beliefs on one topic or another. The leader needs to be grounded firmly in the Word to both recognize and refute false doctrine, while also having the tact to keep such a debate from splitting a group.
In most cases, a small-group leader should not be a brand new believer (1 Tim. 3:6, 10). They may or may not have previous small-group leadership experience, and they don’t necessarily need to be “grizzled veterans of the faith,” but they should have some experience with living the Christian life before being placed in a position to lead others.
Strong knowledge of the Word and a life being transformed by the Holy Spirit are character qualities consistent with Christ living inside the believer, and imply a certain period of having been a disciple. No matter the desire, these traits won’t come overnight to new believers.
A new believer faces additional obstacles in leading a small group compared to someone who has been following Christ for a period of time. For instance, they may not recognize false teaching or destructive speech or behavior patterns within the group. They may not understand the importance of unity, or the priority of listening over speaking. Without these underpinnings, the leader may not be equipped to protect the group from the different difficulties they may face, bringing unintended harm to both the leader and the group.
Finally, Paul recommends a leader be tested first. In the world of small groups, the best way to accomplish this is through a good apprenticeship program—pairing potential leaders with experienced leaders to help prepare them. A potential who has never been in a good small group also needs the experience of being a member of such a group before attempting to lead one.
Works in Progress
We need to keep in mind that potential small-group leaders are—just like the rest of us—works in progress. No candidate is going to meet every possible qualification. We all have our weaknesses and blind spots. Beware the group leader candidate who doesn’t communicate any weaknesses or areas of sin—such a person is either not giving God room to search their heart and reveal sinfulness, or is lying to themselves and to God (Ps. 139:23–24; 1 John 1:8–10).
Identifying good small-group leaders is not an exercise in trying to find the perfect candidates. Instead, it’s a process of identifying believers with certain basic qualifications, and then creating an environment that encourages further growth. A key ingredient to the success of our small-group leaders—both current and future—is our ability to provide ongoing training, fellowship, accountability, and support.
That said, starting with leaders who meet the biblical standards we’ve discussed maximizes their chances for success in leading their groups, encourages both commitment and growth in small-group members, and keeps a small-group ministry on track for fruitfulness.
A Final Word—Pray!
We would be remiss not to conclude with the priority of prayer. Prior to choosing the apostles, Jesus spent an entire night in prayer. The Son of God—who knew men’s hearts better than anyone—spent a whole night communing with the Father over who would form the foundation of the church (Luke 6:12–16). Applications, interviews, and qualifications are important—but above all, seek and discern God’s will through prayer.