Have you ever led a small group in which the following type of scenario took place?
You're excited because you invited a new person to your small group–perhaps a young co-worker or a student you met on campus–and this person is not a believer. He or she lives with their boyfriend or girlfriend and is very much immersed in the secular world, but you've had some promising conversations with them lately, and they're definitely curious.
The small group time goes smoothly–lots of interesting conversation, and the new person is welcomed by the group. You feel encouraged and exhilarated! Then comes the prayer request time. A member of the group begins to share about their dating relationship and confesses the need for prayer and accountability with sexual purity. They explain, "We just keep going too far and I feel convicted about it. We haven't had sex or anything (spoken with a worst-case-scenario kind of tone), but we are really struggling."
And with that comment, you immediately cringe. Unintentionally, the speaker just qualified their sin as being less severe as others. While the group member acknowledges that their sin is wrong, they've implied that it's nowhere near as bad as some people's–such as the new person sitting right next to you.
As a small group leader for college women, this happened to me many times. Numerous well-intentioned young ladies voiced their prayer requests in ways that not only condemned those struggling with "worse" sins, but made me feel a little unqualified to be their leader. While I commend these women for opening up, they simultaneously condemned every woman in the room who has ever done anything worse. To begin a confession with a tone that says, "I'm not as bad as that, but. . . " is a sure-fire way to stifle vulnerability in a small group.
These experiences have, however, had a significant impact on my leadership style. The way we talk about sin can either empower or condemn those around us. That said, I have spent the last several years learning to harness my identity as a sinner, seeing it as a kind of strength rather than hiding it as a weakness. By this I don't mean glamorizing my past mistakes or diving into details that no one wants to hear. But I'm not sweeping them under the rug either. In the service of a redeemer God, there is opportunity for grace in a history of brokenness.
What does this look like practically speaking? First, it means reframing the way we talk about sin, and that often involves swallowing our pride. There's a temptation to feel that because you are the small group leader, you must somehow be spiritually and morally ahead of the people you're leading. While this is true to an extent–you should not be leading if you're caught in the throes of unrepentant sin–it doesn't mean you must be without fault either. When we feel the need to stand over those we are leading, we have a tendency to cushion our confessions with disclaimers, watering down our past and present mistakes as much as possible. When I do this, the only person I help is me.
When I am honest about my past mistakes, I do so for the sake of inspiring hope, but I also do so to ensure that the glory goes to God and not me. While I have indeed fallen, God has picked me back up and clearly uses me now. My life is a story of redemption, yet I downplay the extent of God's power and grace in my life when I downplay my sin.
While it's certainly not necessary that I publicly berate myself to glorify God, when I pad my sins or explain them away, I present a picture of a God who only uses the spiritual cream of the crop. That is not the message I want my small group to receive. I want them to know that I am no one special. I'm not their small group leader because I am somehow a better Christian than they are. What God has done in me, He can certainly do in them, and they can see this truth most clearly in the context of my own weakness.
Sharing life lessons
In addition to harnessing my humanity for the sake of establishing common ground with my small group and empowering them to persevere, there is a second way that I have learned to lead out of my weaknesses. Each week as I prepare, I intentionally incorporate my doubts, confusions and shortcomings into the lesson plan.
For instance, if I am teaching through a difficult passage that I struggle to live out or that I want to disagree with, I am honest about it. If I struggle to believe it, if I doubt the truth or trustworthiness of anything in Scripture, I confess those doubts. Again, this requires that I swallow my pride and step out on a limb–there have been times when I was sure that I was alone in a particular doubt or struggle. But 9 times out of 10, I was not. Sometimes it took a minute or two for others to come forward–l have endured more than a few moments of awkward silence as I sat hoping that someone would relate!–but almost without fail I ended up voicing the fears and doubts that other Christians were too ashamed to admit. This is the work of a leader.
Returning to the opening scenario, I once responded to this situation by confessing my own struggles with sexual purity, echoing sentiments about how hard it can be. I recalled the mistakes I had made in the past, but instead of dwelling on the guilt I focused on what I learned from the experiences. The Christian life did not come easily to me, so I expressed my need for accountability, friendship and prayer. In admitting my weaknesses and then moving toward a note of hope, I wanted our visitor to witness a group of messed up sinners who would have been completely lost without the grace of God. It wasn't that we were naturally virtuous or stick-in-the-mud prudes, but we were all learning to run a race in a world full of obstacles–some of which we had tripped over more than once.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this regard, when we lay down our pride and our need to be admired, we protect our small group members from isolation and defeat. Paul instructed the Corinthians that "no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man," (1 Cor. 10:13) so we should be honest about this spiritual truth. By establishing common ground with one another, we are able to see the redemptive work in those around us, and then embrace that redemption for ourselves.
How about you? In what ways have you found strength in your leadership by harnessing your weaknesses?
Sharon Hodde Miller lives outside Chicago with her husband where she is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can read more of her writing at sheworships.com.