Developing Healthy Small Group Leaders

small-groupsSmall groups are reflections of their leaders. That can be an absolutely terrifying thought if you’re a leader. I possess all kinds of flaws and foibles, and even outright sin struggles, that I certainly don’t want to see duplicated in my Small Group. There is a degree, however, to which leader shape and influence the culture of a small group if not the individuals themselves. That is why it is so import that we equip and empower the right people to be small group leaders. There is more that should be expected of small group leader than that they be believers with outgoing personalities. Healthy small group leaders view themselves as gospel coaches.

The term gospel coach is an official term developed by Scott Thomas and Tom Wood in their book by the same name. Their book focuses on “shepherding leaders,” but the principles they outline are applicable to anyone in a discipling relationship. As I think about my small group leaders and their role in our groups I see some ways in which Thomas’ and Wood’s language of gospel coach is fitting. In what follows I am making some slight modifications and applications to their description. Thomas and Wood utilize the following char to describe the “Qualities of a Gospel Coach.” It’s a helpful starting place for thinking about the specific role of small group leaders.

Shepherding Roles Qualities of a Gospel Coach
Know the sheep
  1.       Relating personally
Feed the sheep
  1.       Nourishing with truth
  2.       Inspiring toward Jesus
  3.       Equipping in needs
Lead the sheep
  1.       Investing sacrificially
  2.       Overseeing every aspect of
    a person’s life.
  3.       Guiding with Spirit-
    empowered discernment
Protect the sheep
  1.       Displaying compassion
  2.       Comforting with hope in
    the gospel
  3. Fighting for their good

What I love about this list of qualities is that it doesn’t focus merely on communicating information. Discipleship is frequently reduced to the dissemination of information, but there is a much larger relational component to discipleship that this list represents. Phrases like “relating,” “investing,” “overseeing,” “comforting,” communicate this reality. I want, above all, for my small group leaders to see themselves as spiritual friends for those they help shepherd. Far too many small group ministries present leaders as mere facilitators, or as Bible Study leaders. We want friends who help sharpen friends, that’s where the real growth in godliness happens. So what does it look like to be a healthy small group leader? I have summarized Thomas’ and Wood’s list with three characteristics.

Healthy Small Group Leaders are first and foremost driven by love. If love is not what drives my small group leaders then their group will become empty, frustrating, and quickly unhealthy. The apostle Paul stresses that above all the religious duties that we might engage in believers must do so from a place of “love.” To the Corinthians he writes:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

To be able to speak in tongues, declare prophecies, understand all mysteries and knowledge, but to do so without love is to be nothing. It is to be as a clanging cymbal. It’s to be loud, obnoxious, and useless. Leaders need more than knowledge, they need love. Francis Chan keenly observes:

Fulfilling Jesus’s command to make disciples is about more than having the right theology or well-developed teaching points. Remember that if you “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” yet don’t have love, you are nothing. Earlier in the same letter, Paul said, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:2-3). It’s not about what you know – or what you think you know – it’s about love. (Multiply, 44)

Knowledge is not unimportant. I want mature leaders who can handle the Scriptures well. But no leader knows everything. If all I focus on is the Biblical content component of a leader I will miss what is so fundamentally essential to building disciples: love. I want my leaders to care about the people in their group. To be burdened for them. To pray for them and feel a sense of kinship and responsibility for them. This is why we have shifted away from book studies in our small groups and instead focus on sermon questions. It represents a shift away from “teaching people” towards “loving them.” Developing love for your small group won’t happen over night, but I want to encourage my leaders to continue to strive for love, pray for it, ask God for help, and cultivate it through “relating personally” with the people in their groups. Without love the whole small group enterprise will become useless.

Healthy small group leaders will also understand their role as disciple makers. It is not the pastors job to do the ministry of the church. This modern phenomenon is a departure from the Biblical mandate that pastors equip the whole church for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). I want leaders of small groups who see themselves as disciple-makers. If a small group leader sees themselves simply as a facilitator, a Bible study leader, they won’t be ready to do some of the more difficult work required of a small group leader. They won’t be ready to own this small group as their responsibility. In some ways, the difference is represented by Jesus as those who are true shepherds and those who are simply hired hands. Jesus says:

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:11-12)

Disciple-makers represent the characteristics of a gospel coach. They “invest sacrificially” in the people in their group. They “fight for their good.” They “nourish with truth.” Hired servants abandon people when it gets messy and complicated. They don’t mind be a “small group leader” if that means hosting a meeting a couple of times a month, but if it means being responsible for the spiritual well-being of those in their group, if it means being a real shepherd, then they won’t do it. I want leaders who understand themselves rightly as disciple-makers and are ready to put in the time and energy it takes to do it. If you’re not a disciple-maker you’re just a “hired servant.”

Finally, healthy small group leaders view themselves as both shepherds and sheep. I am quite comfortable with reluctant leaders. It’s not that I want people to serve in ministry who aren’t sold on its value or vision, but I do want people who are aware of their shortcomings and struggles. Leaders do not lead because they are the best and brightest. They don’t lead because they are above everyone else. They lead because they are compelled by love and by the gospel to serve the church with truth. Leaders, then, need to be honest about their own struggles but willing to work through them with the group. Thomas and Wood write:

A gospel coach is first and foremost a believer who recognizes that they, too, are laboring for the King alongside others who are also in need of God’s grace and mercy. They are simultaneously a shepherd and a sheep. Often, coaches must fight as wounded soldiers, aware of their own painful circumstances but continuing to fight and stand up for the sake of others and finish the mission they have been given. (114).

Small group leaders are imperfect, struggling Christians. It is this awareness and admission that makes them potentially great leaders. If healthy small groups are also communities of repentance then that means I want leaders who will help facilitate that by being honest about their own struggles. Broken leaders are good leaders because they more readily point people beyond themselves to the gospel and demonstrate how to find hope and healing in Christ.

There is so much more that could be said about healthy small group leaders. I love the gospel coach approach of Thomas and Wood because it focuses on the relational aspect. As our small groups make the shift this year, I hope to see more and more disciple-making happening through spiritual friendships. If you’re a small group leader, friends, don’t just be a Bible study host, be a gospel coach.

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