This is the second in a series of blog posts in which we are considering relationship between the church's practice of community and transformational small groups.
If community matters (and it does), leadership matters. Leaders can make or break a group. There's been a trend in the past few years for some churches to develop small groups that are intentionally "leaderless." These small groups are generally aimed at emphasizing connection, usually around some common interest. Some have some formation element in them; they may have a Bible study. But they are primarily all about connecting group members to each other.
It's not my intent here to tackle all of the issues related to this recent trend, but simply to note that such groups often struggle to accomplish their intended purpose.
Small groups most often thrive when there is intentional leadership, especially when the leader or leaders give their small groups clear and purposeful direction. Small groups will live up to their function and purpose when they are led by leaders who not only understand that function and purpose, but facilitate the life of the community in concert with the function and purpose.
Having not only a good leader, but having the right kind of leader can make or break a group. Leaders should be matched to the specific function of the group. Not all leaders whose strength is in biblical studies and spiritual formation will be strong connectors. Not all leaders who strength is in social dynamics and connecting people will be teach or lead Bible studies well.
Putting leaders who don't match up well with the function of the small group can wreck a small group. Unqualified and unprepared leaders can do a lot of damage to a small group (even if it is not readily apparent).
If the clearly articulated purpose of a church's small group ministry is connection, with an emphasis on building relationships and friendships in the community, then that church is going to need small group leaders who find conversation easy and natural. You don't want someone who prefers to be reclusive leading a group that is designed to foster engagement with people.
This doesn't mean the other functions, formation and mission, are ignored in the connection small group. A good leader, regardless of his strengths, will make sure that all of the group elements are present and occurring in the small group. That's part and parcel to a leader providing the kind of direction and care for his group that leads to being spiritually healthy.
Matching Leadership Gifts to the Needs of the Groups
Our research shows the skills or gift sets of small group leaders greatly impact the culture and emphasis of the groups those leaders are leading. Those whose gifts are in the realm of teaching will positively effect spiritual formation and evangelism in the lives of their small groups. Those who are skilled in transparency, relationships, and conflict resolution will lead groups that become proficient in connection. Those who have abilities and gifts in the area of evangelism will be matched with groups that desire the development of mission in their community.
We have found that most people who attend small groups are looking for the opportunity to share. And that expectation translates into the kind of group leader needed in small groups.
In one of our studies, we asked group attendees "which, if any, of the following describe the leader/facilitator of your small class or group?" Here's a chart with the results.
Notice that making people feel comfortable sharing is expected of anyone who is a small group leader. Being a good Bible teacher is not unimportant; it is simply not viewed as the most important trait of a good small group leader.
Churches that have an emphasis on spiritual formation in their small groups need to recognize this expectation. People engage in small groups because they want to be involved in something bigger than themselves. They are looking for community. Spiritual formation provides the depth and meaning they need, but the relational component in which the group fosters transparency and honest in relationships cannot be ignored. Thriving groups will be both formative and relational.
Built into the fabric of every small group should be the desire for and development of leadership. Leaders must multiply themselves into other leaders. Not only is this how community grows across the life of the church, this provides the kind of stability needed to sustain the life of the small groups.
Churches that value sustained growth, both numerically and spiritually, will spend time and effort multiplying its leadership. The more people are pursuing community through small groups, the more leaders are needed to facilitate that pursuit. There's always a need for new direction, new leadership, new energy. This won't happen if leadership is not duplicating itself. Discipling and multiplying leaders must be high priority of churches and church leaders who want to have thriving communities in their small groups.
For this to really work, the church should have a culture of multiplication. It's not just leadership. Multiply disciples, ministries, groups and churches. Multiply everything. In that kind of church environment, leaders will multiply leaders. Leaders won't get burned out, but will find the duplication of ministry and leadership constantly providing fresh energy and excitement. This breeds healthy communities in the small groups of the church.
Good leadership is important to the health of small groups. In order for leaders to develop leaders for small groups, leadership must be modeled for future leaders. It's not enough to hold a leadership class here and there or give future leaders opportunities to lead. Leadership must be modeled.
Every leader must model. This includes the senior or lead pastors. I've chosen to do this in my own church. I am a pastor, but I am also a small-group leader. Why? Because you can’t lead what you do not live.
If small groups are a priority in the life of the church, leading small groups must be a priority in the life of a leader. A church that sees small groups as valuable to the practice of biblical community will have leaders that live out that value in front of and among its people.
I find too many leaders would rather teach leadership than live leadership from within the community. But real leadership skills are developed and take shape when future leaders watch and learn leadership "on the job" from leaders who model. This means the leader will be vulnerable, to some extent. Transparent. Honest. Accessible. Trustworthy.
These are characteristics of a healthy small group practicing biblical community. These characteristics must be first manifest in the life of the leader who, in turn, brings others along with him or her.
If you’d like to explore more in depth about the role of small groups in the life of the church, my colleague Eric Geiger and I have published a helpful book, Transformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations. One entire chapter is dedicated to the subject of small group leaders.
What is the relationship between leadership and small groups in your church? How is your church multiplying itself? Feel free to weigh in and comment.