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Rethinking How We Train Small Group Leaders

I’ve been waiting to write this post for over six months. I needed some evidence to back up what I felt I needed to say. Even more, I had to make sure that I really believed this to be true since it goes against most common teaching on group leadership. In addition, I found that what I had discovered actually contradicted much that I have previously taught and written about group leadership. So be warned: the following might take some time to embrace. You might even bristle at it. It took me some time to see it clearly and I’m the one who had the “ahah” experience that caused me to see things differently.

Now to the point.

Through the years, I have trained hundreds, if not thousands of small group leaders. My first book was a basic training guide that has sold over 20,000 copies. I believe in quality training for group leaders. It’s crucial if we want them to have an impact and move beyond the minimal requirements that I introduced yesterday. Some of the best training resources and books have been developed this way:
     First, perform research on what effective small group leaders do to grow healthy groups.
     Second, identify key factors or habits that result in effective group leadership.
     Third, explain how the habits work.
     Fourth, suggest specific practical things that leaders can do to put the habit into motion.

I can pull quite a few resources off my shelf that take this approach. I’ve helped authors develop some of these resources. I won’t name any of them because I don’t want this to be viewed as a challenge to any specific list. Instead, I’m challenging the kind of list that these resources provide. Of course we need to train our leaders to develop good leadership habits, but I’ve had to question whether or not the lists provided actually fit the call to lead missional small groups.

Honestly, challenging these resources is difficult because the results are clear: when leaders practice these habits, groups are more healthy and they are much more likely to grow. I know of some resources that have extensive statistical evidence to support their lists. I’m not challenging that fact. By putting these habits into action, you will become a more effective leader. And while those who want to lead missional groups would benefit from resources like these, these habits are not quite the same as those of missional group leaders. Here are a few of the reasons I say this:

1. These habits (and those identified by other similar resources) focus on the efforts of the individual. They fail to tap into the greater mission of God. They tend to put the ministry of the leader under the microscope. Missional group leadership calls leads to develop habits that focus on what God is doing. While I know that if I were to sit and talk with these authors about this, they would agree. But I am just dealing with the language as it stands. By in large, small group leadership training resources focuses on the actions of leaders which assumes that the group success is under the control of the leader. They fail to embrace the mystery of life and the fact that it’s God’s mission in the world that shapes what ministry is really all about.

2. In most cases, these habits work best in what I call “connecting” groups. The groups are either designed to “close the back” door of a church or they invite friends to the group after they get saved through relationship evangelism. The point is usually to grow the group. They don’t really address the call to participate in God’s restoration plan for creation. These habits are clear, practical ways to improve one’s leadership of such groups. For that reason, when I consult with churches, I suggest two or three of these resources for this very purpose. In other words, I do see their value even though I want to go further than they do.

3. This third point was the one that caused me to question this the list of “habits a leader must have approach.” In my experience, I’ve found that these habits work best with those leaders who have a propensity to do those habits well. Those who have this propensity flourish. Those who do not work at it and try their best, but they struggle along the way. Honestly, I’m one of those people who struggles. I’m have to work very hard to lead a group well. I don’t like calling people on the phone. I struggle with follow-up and regular communication. I’ve done it, but it’s hard for me. On top of this, there has been a common teaching that anyone should be able to lead a group well if they only follow a certain set of habits. I’ve tried that approach and it did not work. I’ve worked with leaders and set them up for disappointment. Sadly, we were subliminally communicating that no one could live up to the ideal vision that we had for a good small group leader.

So I’ve searched for a different way of leading. A way of leading that invites leader to:
1. Focus on what God is doing and get their eyes off of their efforts.
2. Participate in God’s restoration project, not just the growth of their group.
3. Lead out of their strengths, rather than trying to fit into a preconceived mold of what an ideal leader should look like.

This is what has led me to identify the 9 Practices of Missional Small Group Leaders. Those posts are forthcoming.