Rest takes discipline. That might sound strange to some, but it requires intentionality to maintain a consistent rhythm of spiritual practices to rest well. We’re accustomed to thinking of Bible reading and prayer as spiritual practices, but “rest” does not usually make the list. It should. Sabbath is a critical piece to this, but if we’re not resting in other ways, we can inadvertently misuse this sacred time and miss the divine intent of it.
The importance of rest for small group leaders cannot be emphasized enough, especially in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and filled with unlimited distractions. For over 20-years, I’ve gotten to serve as a pastor. Twice I’ve “hit the wall.” In other words, I got so depleted that I wasn’t able to continue in the same way I had been until I took time to care in new ways for my own soul.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen to many church staff and volunteer leaders because the demands of ministry always outpace people’s ability to meet them, whether you’re shepherding a small group of people or a local church. Far too many of us learn the hard way. As my friend Lance Witt puts it: “You cannot live life at warp speed without warping your soul. When you run fast and hard and long, eventually you will drain your soul…Running on empty will eventually lead to cynicism, disillusionment, and burnout. You are not the exception.” (High Impact Teams) Your life and leadership will suffer in the blur of a hurried life.
Small group leaders are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of being influencers in the spiritual lives of the people circled up with them. In order to be spiritually healthy and effective, your soul needs rest. These five practices will help you to wisely prioritize your relationships and make deposits into your personal life so that your service as a small group leader can be sustainable and strong:
True rest necessitates the nurture of our most important relationships beginning with Christ and flowing outward to our family, friends and others the Lord has put in our lives. Our most central relationships influence all the others, so a shallow relationship with God or a struggling marriage will affect how one leads others at work or in ministry. Sadly, by neglecting their innermost relationships, leaders end up forsaking their souls.
Jesus Christ is the One who enables us to live inside-out with Him as our source rather than allowing the pressures of life to turn us inside-out. Your soul will only find rest in Jesus who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
You will find rest for your soul when you come under Jesus’ direction and learn from Him. True rest makes space for the Holy Spirit to do His refining and transformative work in your soul. As a result, you will be healthier, more joyful, and effective in your spiritual leadership. You owe it to God, yourself and loved ones, and the people whose spiritual growth you are influencing through your small group leadership.
Balance has always been elusive for me in ministry. Earlier on, I grew skeptical of it because I pictured it as being something that literally meant I was giving equal time and attention to multiple things but somehow not cheating anything. Life rarely allows this luxury. So when I heard balance applied to small groups, my instinctive reaction was “Nope – that’s just setting leaders up to fail.”
If we’re honest, we’re probably not doing all of the things we’ve learned that we should be doing in our groups. People connect and grow together regularly through some form of fellowship, Bible study and prayer in most groups. Far fewer develop a plan for building in other spiritual practices, different expressions of worship, and outreach to make a group experience well-rounded, or dare I say, “Balanced!”
Over time, however, “balance” for me became less about maintaining perfect equilibrium, and more about planning ahead on how you can incorporate activities that are commonly omitted from group life, but vital to the health of it. You need to have a plan to have balance.
The group leader is the person responsible for driving the process of developing a plan with the group about how they will be intentional about including spiritual practices that do not normally occur in their gatherings. I’ll share a few pointers on how group leaders can lay the groundwork for balance by planning ahead for it followed by practical ways members can pursue balanced group life together.
Laying the Groundwork for Balance
Balancing Group Life Together
This last point is a master key to balanced discipleship in your group. Maybe the Lord has a unique purpose for every group that is unique to it based on the supernatural composition of spiritual gifts represented in its group members. Maybe every group has its own divine palette of colors that can be mixed together to produce a one-of-a-kind work of art to the glory of God.
If this is so, it stands to reason that a group will experience “balance” as each member of it works in concert with one another to make his or her own special contribution to God’s mission in the world. Group leaders can catch a vision for unlocking balanced disciple-making when they tap into the spiritual growth goals and gifts the Lord has planted in their group members.
Training is not a one-time exercise with group leaders. It is one among many facets of how you provide ongoing care and development for your leaders. This is important to remember as you look ahead to the fall and consider how you want to equip your leaders to start and stay strong with their groups.
The fall is a primetime opportunity to invite people to start or join a group. However, before somebody can start their own group, they need to be vetted and trained. Don’t make this a complicated process because you want to make it easy for people to engage in your community life (as a leader or participant) any time of the year. At my church, we tell people they can begin the process of starting or joining a group 365 days of the year and we will come alongside of them to help.
How you train depends on who you’re training. For pre-existing leaders, it’s more about connecting with other leaders, celebrating Kingdom wins, and delivering targeted training with an inspirational element. For new leaders, the training component would be more intensive, ensuring everyone is equipped, clear, and excited about their next steps. Another whole article could be devoted to how you choose to identify, invite, interview (screen), and initiate new group leaders – all of which will influence how you train new leaders.
There are two general pathways: Initial orientation and ongoing equipping (leadership communities) and here are the suggested topics you could cover with each:
(Greater frequency, smaller gatherings)
(Less frequency, larger gatherings)
|· Why Groups? (biblical references & benefits)
· How Groups Support Your Church’s Vision (Dream) & Mission (Purpose)
· What’s a Group? (definition, types, etc.)
· Role & responsibilities of a Group Leader
· Group leadership (reporting) structure & how groups are organized at your church
· Leadership Investment Rhythms (how leadership & resources will help you)
· Best practices for well-rounded group life
· Guidance for your first gathering
· How your group can be missional & transformational
· Introduce to their coach/community leader
|· Welcome & prayer
· Connecting with other leaders (include food)
· Optional: Fun element (ice-breaker type game / mixer)
· Appreciation (share a life-change story)
· Inspiration (how your achieving your church’s vision)
· Value-adding skill development (determined by feedback from leaders)
· Sub-group by “coach-leader” relationship or affinity for more specific / relevant conversations
· Regroup for final announcements & next steps
A third option is “turbo groups.” This is a short-term group experience designed to build relationships and leadership among participants, each of whom start with the expectation they will launch out and lead their own group. (The list of topics covered under “Initial Orientation” can serve as an outline for a turbo group, an example of which is available through Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com HERE.) This can be a first step toward developing a core team that will ultimately serve the growing body of groups at your church.
Lastly, there are three keys to success to keep in mind as you’re planning your equipping experiences:
You might even have an annual gathering or retreat with all group leadership to celebrate what God has done, love on your leaders, and cast vision for the year ahead. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to this so find what works best for your church and stay with it for at least a year. Don’t change things too often on your leaders or your voice will begin to lose its potency.
One of things I’ve learned to stress with leaders, especially as they get started, is the importance of communicating with the person who looks after them (e.g. a “coach” or “community leader”) and staying connected with the larger community of leaders at your church. The foundation for this to happen consistently begins with monthly “connects” between coaches and their group leaders, which can happen in the way that’s most convenient for your leaders.
Satan loves to isolate leaders. Whereas God sets us apart for His work, the enemy strives to set us aside from God’s work. When leaders begin to withdraw from community themselves, the devil knows victory is within sight and their soul-care becomes a long, painful uphill battle. Conversely, when leaders are interconnected relationally and faithful to communicate with one another, it forms a shield wall the enemy struggles to penetrate.
Plan ahead and create predictable leadership equipping rhythms that provide on-ramps and touch-points to ensure everyone continues to run healthy and strong. This fall can serve as the entry-point for leaders to connect with one another and plug into a larger system for ongoing care and development of all of your leaders!
Spiritual leaders must take decisive action to be healthy in order to be prepared to confront the inevitable temptations, personal attacks, potential burnout and other hazards of the ministry. These ten recommendations are relevant for all small group leaders and coaches who want to be healthy and effective in ministry for the long-haul.
Contend for a daily devotional life. Not only will this secure your healthy growth, but it will ensure the healthy development of biblical community in your group (Psalm 119:105). A group’s life together will likely only go as deep as the life of its leader. If you do not already have an ongoing devotional life, start small and develop it incrementally. Here’s an interesting fact: Sheep feed on dew that collects on grass very early in the morning and the water these creatures slurp up at dawn satisfies them through the whole sun-scorching day (Psalm 5:3). Give God the first fruit of your time, and find your strength in Him (Psalm 119:114, 147).
Talk with God and listen for His guidance each day. The more you cultivate a closeness with your Creator, the healthier you will be for your own well-being, your family, and everyone you influence in life. Be mindful of how He is always with you and will never leave you (Deuteronomy 31:8). This will help you to be more conscientious and inclined to communicate with God repeatedly throughout the day rather than it being a ritual that happens just once a day (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is key to having a growing relationship with the Lord, which is what God wants far more than anything else from us.
You and your group are a target of the enemy and prayer coverage is an absolute must. Ask a few trusted friends to pray for you and your family regularly, especially those you know are faithful to intercede in prayer for others. Make a point to give them an update and share specific things to pray about at the beginning, middle, and end of each season of your group’s life together. There’s no season in ministry where we don’t need someone to stand in the gap for us.
Take refuge in Jesus. When you feel like your energy level is beginning to wane, let your co-leader or a friend in your group know. If you’ve already met as a group for a few seasons, you might let your whole group know. Invite them to pray for you and carry responsibilities that have begun to be taxing on you. Don’t make the group “your ministry.” Ministry should be mutual and happening among all group participants. If it isn’t, instigate change! Get away at times, find rest, and be sure you’re regularly participating in the worship and teaching offered in your weekend (temple courts) service. Honoring the Sabbath each week is just the beginning.
Remembering what the Lord has done and is doing builds your faith and the faith of those around you. I need to continually remind myself of who God is and His promises to stay strong. For example, I can plant and water, but God is the one who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:5-7). I can use my gifts and abilities to build up the Church, but God is the one who is actually building it in such a way that hell itself won’t triumph over it (1 Cor 12:7; Mt 16:18). I also like to recall that God’s Word is fully inspired, living and active and does its work in people as they engage with it (2 Tim 3:16; Heb 4:12). Recognizing how God is already at work within your group is worshipful and helps to develop a more spiritually mature perspective in those around you.
If someone comes to you with a complaint about another, find out right away if they’ve spoken with the other person first (Matthew 18:15). If they haven’t, redirect them to talk with the person they’re having tension with. If the first condition has been met, do not entertain an accusation made about another individual unless it is brought to you by at least one other, independent source (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1b).
Be available to your group members, but lovingly draw boundaries when necessary. God wants you to be whole just as much as He does others and ultimately self-care is obedience to Him. It’s also okay to set time limits on phone conversations or one-on-one meetings you have with group members; just let them know at the outset of your conversation that you have up until a certain time that you’re able to connect with them.
Spiritual leaders must avoid every appearance of evil for their sake and for the sake of others (Romans 15:2; 1 Corinthians 10:24, 32-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:22). Wisdom is not putting yourself in a situation where you could stumble (1 Cor. 6:18; 2 Tim 2:22) so if someone of the opposite sex wants to meet outside your group time, let them know your spouse, co-leader or a trusted group member will join you too. It’s not about being religious or legalistic – it’s being prudent (Proverbs 27:12).
Empower others in your group to help carry the responsibilities that come with leading a group and identify a co-leader who can team up with you sooner than later. Give them small tasks to begin with that ideally align with areas or gifting or interest that they have.
You’ve undoubtedly heard it said before, and it’s absolutely true: You can’t please everyone! You will become depleted and discouraged if you try. If somebody is not happy with your leadership or the group, talk directly with them about it, pray together, and trust the Holy Spirit with the outcome. Release the person, letting them know it’s okay to agree to disagree and for them to go a different direction. Keep your coach informed of any challenges like this so they can support you and help mediate next steps. Your concern needs to be for the whole group so don’t let one person derail the vision God has given you for it.
Remember: You’re serving God on behalf of the group (not the other way around). The Lord wants to grow you through your experience as a group leader…not use you up and leave you on empty so be sure to take care of yourself! Your life and leadership will be stronger as a result.
You could say that a big part of a small group leader’s job is creating an environment where biblical community can flourish! This includes hospitality elements like greeting, seating, and food that help people to feel more ‘at home’, but it’s also about the way you pilot the group dynamics so that newcomers, or those who are exploring Christianity, feel included and accepted. We will now explore additional ways you can welcome newcomers/seekers with an emphasis on facilitating spiritual conversations.
11. Don’t over-accommodate. You can be sensitive to your group’s form without changing its Just be yourself and allow the group to be itself. For example, don’t hesitate to pray or worship in your group if newcomers / seekers are present. (Sometimes this is exactly what God uses to gather lost people to Himself – see Acts 2:46-47.) Just be natural about it and use everyday language as opposed to being churchy or religious in how you express things just because you happen to be in a Christian gathering. If somebody needs prayer, pray for them. If you are going to worship, just do it. Don’t attempt to explain it for seekers. They want to see things how they really are and would rather not have you disrupt the flow of what you do on their account.
12. Express solidarity with seekers through prayer. When your group prays together, thank God for everyone present and for how He is meeting every person right where they’re at in their spiritual journey. Then punctuate your prayer by asking the Lord to help each person encourage one another grow closer to Jesus. What you are doing is putting everyone on equal-footing and entrusting the power of spiritual influence to the Lord.
13. Find out what subjects your truth-searching guests have an enthusiasm or expertise in and talk about that! People like to talk about things they know about. Seekers will feel more empowered and comfortable talking about things of interest to them. If you listen with interest, you will show that you are interested in them as a person and they will not feel like a project.
14. In private, let seekers know how much you appreciated them coming and that you really hope you get to see them again. Unless they have a friend who brought them, make yourself available to talk anytime.
15. Most guests like to be acknowledged – they just don’t like to stand out or be spotlighted in front of a group…so don’t focus on them. If you keep things normal, the group will feel more natural and comfortable to newcomers.
16. Help seekers get to know others in your group. The more people your guests sense a possible connection with, the more likely it is they will want to return. Research has shown the possibility of a visitor joining a church is reduced by at least 50% with each passing week. This trend also holds true for small groups and can be inverted by the same proportion if guests experience the hope of developing healthy friendships. In other words, the likelihood of seekers returning increases by at least 50% if they experience a sense of belonging through their connection with others. This can be cultivated by highlighting things your truth-searching guests hold in common with other group members and timely follow-up.
17. Talk about how you would like for your group to make a difference in your community. Have that conversation spontaneously or just say you would like to talk about it next time. This allows you to revisit your group’s commitment to outreach and shows seekers that your group is…
18. Do not offer advice for how your seeking guests can grow. That might sound funny for those who like to be helpful. The reason is because some people on the receiving end of such good advice might interpret it as homework and think you will be checking-up with them at the next meeting or they might even jump to the conclusion that you’re judging them in some way. You might be surprised how this inhibits people from returning, especially if they did not act on your advice or experience the results they assume you want them to have.
19. Follow-up with guests before your next meeting. Let them know you hope to see them again. If a seeker came with somebody, encourage their friend to welcome them back. Sometimes group leaders hold off from following up in this way because they are afraid of being intrusive or coming across as pushy. Guests appreciate this act of kindness and it makes your group more inviting overall. If you do not risk the remote possibility of coming across as intrusive in your follow-up, seekers/newcomers may feel like they are
20. After a gathering where you had spiritual seekers visit your group, write down facts about them or prayer requests they shared. Find a way to revisit these things when you follow-up with them and naturally weave them into your conversation. This shows you were listening and that you care, which has a powerful effect in drawing guests into your group’s community life.
21. Last but not least, decide as a group to be “open” and ready to welcome spiritual seekers and always encourage personal evangelism. Small groups provide so many opportunities and so much encouragement for outreach. You want group members to have more than permission to invite their friends…let them know you WANT them to invite their friends. This attitude is one of the greatest contributing factors to a group making an evangelistic impact. If your group is in a season or study that is less conducive to having newcomers join in, just ask your small group ministry contact person to remove your group listing from your church’s communications for a time. However, it is always good for group members to know they are commissioned and encouraged to invite their seeking friends. Groups can and should always serve to encourage personal outreach.
Small groups enable people to apply biblical learning to life and believers are empowered to engage in mission through them. They are a vital extension of a church’s community life to the life of its surrounding community and present transformational opportunities for blending believers with those who have yet to believe.
Just know a group that has an open home, open hearts, and open hands is a group that is replete with life-giving possibilities. By following the recommendations above, you will create an environment where the hospitality of biblical community will receive and reach many truth-searchers for Christ!