Confessions of a Small Group Leader

Lessons learned the hard way.
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My first experience in small-group ministry is now over—sooner than I expected. But I still believe in the concept. Even though I made so many mistakes, I intend to go out and try again. In fact, I'm already involved in a second small group, and I've taken steps to safeguard against the problems I'm about to describe.

The first group started after my Sunday school class complained that forty-five minutes wasn't enough time to do the text justice. I suggested we meet on some weeknight in addition to Sunday morning.

One couple volunteered their home, and before long, their living room was filled with young adults we never could have coaxed out of bed for Sunday school. More important, the teaching enjoyed an efficiency over tortilla chips and cola that somehow had hit snags coming over a pulpit or lectern. The church had given me a license to preach, but the small group gave me license to minister.

We made some serious blunders, however. What were they? Here are several.

Prone to Clone

Having never been a guru before, I had no idea how easy it is to abuse your position of prominence and clone others in your image.

Our group granted me the positions of Discussion Leader, Teacher, Information Clearinghouse, and Interpreter of Holy Writ—and I too readily accepted.

At first I praised the Lord for a group so responsive to my discipling, but I started hearing things that scared me. People began quoting me the way I quoted C. S. Lewis and C. H. Spurgeon. I heard not only my words, illustrations, anecdotes, mottoes, and doctrinal positions being repeated, but also my attitudes and prejudices. It wasn't so bad that they adopted my soteriology and even my eschatology, but they were assuming my personality! I wondered if Jim Jones started out this way.

What precautions should I have taken?

I should have insisted that others in the group lead the studies with gradually increasing frequency. I should have asked fewer questions with "right" answers. I should have gradually extricated myself and forced them to go on without me as their role model.

Resisting My Natural Bend

Allowing myself to become the long-term leader played against my natural strengths. I'm a starter, not a sustainer.

Our original plan was for me to start the group, leave it in the hands of whatever leadership God raised up, and move on to launch another group. But I was swayed from my better judgment.

Yes, we started a spin-off group for people who couldn't meet on Tuesdays, but it never really took off. Instead of leading that group myself, I delegated the missionary task to two young men I'd been meeting with one-on-one. They were good students, willing "missionaries," but the fact remains that I was the more gifted spark plug. The main group would have done fine under their leadership; the second group would have done better under mine.

Leading a Bible study over the long haul is like pastoring—you become a marriage counselor, demonologist, and psychotherapist. My living room became a refuge for the romantically disturbed. Since my gifts are more prophetic than pastoral, I was playing a role God hadn't intended me to play. I wound up tired, frustrated, impatient.

This wouldn't have happened if I'd stuck to my plan of starting but letting others sustain.

People We Didn't Expect

When word gets out that something significant is going on in so-and-so's living room, you'll attract two kinds of people who can spell trouble: (1) those with emotional or psychological problems who see your group as a crisis intervention center, and (2) offbeat theological nomads looking for a group to take over.

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