[I wrote this article nine years ago. I came across it this evening and thought it would be a great blog entry as most folks haven't read all the back issues of Cell Group Journal. If you like it, feel free to copy and paste it in an email for your leaders, and feel free to change it to work better for your leaders!]
Let me begin with a confession. I am the most qualified person to write this article. I am guilty of every mistake covered here. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife! She doesn’t like to say bad things about me but will be brutally honest if necessary. The mistakes I have made through the years help me see gaps in my spiritual walk and skills as a leader. Instead of trampling my self-esteem with guilt, I use mistakes as learning experiences. If I don’t repeat them, I have learned something more valuable than any training class can offer. I see my primary task as a leader to help my group reach the lost and raise up leaders, expanding the works of God’s people. When this doesn’t happen consistently, I know I’m making mistakes that will kill my group. This may sound overly dramatic to you, but it’s painfully true. Small groups die all the time and it’s usually due to one or more of the reasons discussed below.
A few weeks ago, I asked five hundred small group leaders three questions. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a small group leader? How did you correct the problem or avoid making it a second time? What have you learned from the experience, or how has it changed your leadership style? Those who answered were very honest, and it took guts. Everyone likes to toot their own horn, but few will reveal their failures. Up front I’d like to thank those leaders who made this article possible. You are a blessing to the body of Christ! As you read these common mistakes submitted by real small group leaders, you will probably see areas in which your ministry needs improvement. This list is by no means complete, but it touches on key issues that will make or break your ministry as a small group leader.
“I operated passively without goals.”
Leaders who “follow their nose” never gain any ground in reaching the lost or developing leaders. They wander aimlessly without a plan of action to storm the gates of Hell and set captives free. As I visit with successful small group leaders around the world, they all have common goals of reaching X number of people for Christ by a certain date and raising up enough leaders to pastor the new believers in new groups. This drives the leader to invest time with his members, unsaved friends and relatives attached to the group. The responsibility of meeting the goal is not completely shouldered by the leader, but he or she owns the goal and sets the example for the rest of the group.
These leaders are also accountable to their church leadership. Each week, they eagerly meet with their pastor or coach to find ways to meet or exceed the stated goal. If you want to succeed as a leader, set realistic growth goals. Submit your goals to your leadership so you can be held accountable. Then get to work meeting those goals, removing all obstacles that get in your way. Remember, run as to win the prize.
“I released an untrained apprentice.”
Years ago, I watched a small group leader multiply his group and give half his members to his apprentice. As the weeks passed, I watched the new leader struggle as she lost member after member. They didn’t feel loved by her, and she didn’t know how to love them with servanthood. The leader’s mistake stemmed from not giving the responsibility of the original group to her months before the multiplication date. Although she facilitated the meeting a dozen times, she had very little servanthood experience. What she lacked was the daily interaction between a leader and members that refines the leader and builds a new team. If you’re not transferring an increasing amount of leadership responsibility to your apprentice, you’re setting them up for defeat. You’ll also wound group members you dearly love when they multiply off with this new leader. Give your apprentice the reigns of leadership a little at a time over the course of six months, and then back off and let them be the “senior leader.” Your role then will be one of a consultant, and if you’ve trained them well, you will experience some rest as they lead the members.
The best way to view your apprentice is to see and treat them like a real small group leader. Challenge them to serve the group members between meetings. Help them set up ministry visits to pray for members in their homes and join them. Spend an hour a week or more on your knees in prayer with them for the needs of the group, and you will release strong leaders. So little leadership development has to do with facilitating meetings. It's all about developing a servant's heart for others.
“I was leading as if I was the senior pastor.”
The role of the small group leader is often mistaken to be more than should be. If you’re making this mistake, the indicators are clear. You are worn out because you have mistakenly taken on the whole load of pastoral care for each member. Your pastoral staff doesn’t know what’s going on with your members because they only hear about problems when it’s too late to be supportive. You’re riddled with guilt because you work a full-time job or raise a house full of kids and you just can’t be a full-time minister. Did that about cover how you feel right now? The best way to correct this mistake is to clearly understand your role. You are a faithful undershepherd, caring for someone else’s sheep. If they get sick or are attacked by wolves in the field, you help them to the best of your ability and get help. The sheep entrusted to you do not belong to you, so you are obligated to find the senior shepherd (your pastor) or the ranch hand (your coach) who is there to help.
This news should set you free! Your role is to encourage, minister to and love your members unconditionally. You’re a vital part of the care-giving system of your church, but not the whole system!
If you’ve been acting like the senior pastor, the best way to correct the problem is to ask your group and your pastoral staff to forgive you. Ask them to hold you accountable for a balanced ministry and take some of the load you’re leaving behind. Small group leadership should be a joy, not a burden.
“I pastored the wrong people.”
There are four kinds of Christians with whom you will come into contact in your small group: 1) your group members, 2) somebody else’s group members, 3) church friends who refuse to join your group and 4) other church’s members who show up at your meetings. The last three will not build your group and make it strong if you shepherd them. When a group member from another group approaches me with a complaint about their group or leader, I do not take ownership of the problem. Assisting a runaway is an offense punishable by law! I promptly see them home and I don’t let them wander off. If the issue can’t be worked it out in the group in which they are a member, he or she should visit with the coach or pastor above the group, not with other group leaders in the church.
When my church friends want the benefits of group life — counseling, ministry and support, just to name a few — but are unwilling to join a group, I am unable to give them much of my time either. If they want a deeper relationship with me, I invite them to join my group! This way, we can minister to one another and they can catch the vision for living in community. While I don’t come off as “high and mighty,” I do tell them what they’re missing by resisting the invitation to join a biblical community. It’s the best place to be in my Book (Acts 2 to be specific).
The same thing applies for believers who want to join my small group and maintain a church membership elsewhere. If they want the benefits of biblical community my group offers, they should be giving my church (and my group members) 110% of their time and energy. This includes attending our weekend services, daily involvement in my group member’s lives, reaching people for Christ the group has befriended, and discipling members or being discipled by a member of the group. The bottom line is that a person cannot have two simultaneous spiritual authorities. He or she will run back to the first church to evade conflict and will not easily accept a challenge when it's given.
“I made community the highest goal of my group.”
This mistake is tough. It seems so right when you’re doing it! When the group fizzles, no one understands why. Small groups that focus on community, fellowship and intimacy as the ultimate goal rarely see new believers in the group. God gave us community for a reason that transcends the “little corner of heaven” created in group life. If your group does not harness the power of biblical community to build the kingdom with new believers and new leaders, it will slowly die. The best way to avoid this mistake is to pray for the lost in every small group meeting.
Also, schedule a time to meet and hang out with your member’s lost friends and family. Make a personal goal to help your members help these loved ones find Christ and join your loving community. If you’re stuck in the community phase of group life, you must show your members this is what the victorious Christian life is all about! When your members catch a fire for reaching the lost, they will finally understand why community is so important and why it was created.
“I took shortcuts with equipping, discipleship and accountability”
Pairing up members for accountability or sponsorship is a pain. The members don’t really understand it and resist the self-discipline it demands. You may have even said to yourself, “Our church’s equipping pathway is comprehensive, but my members seem to be doing O.K. without it.”
Has this kind of thinking entered your mind? This mistake will come back to bite you, and it has huge gnarly teeth. One day you’ll think “why is my ministry as a small group leader so strained and going nowhere all at the same time?” Please, learn from the failure of others here! If you don’t pair up your people for accountability, guess who gets to meet each member to encourage them to grow spiritually before work each work morning? YOU. If your members don't get discipled through the use of your equipping track and a mentor or accountability partner, guess who will baby sit a bunch of immature believers through the never-ending small group cycle? You guessed it! YOU. But the results are really more impactual than your personal state of exhaustion.
Jesus modeled discipleship for us as He developed and released his twelve. They left and did all kinds of cool miracles because of His work with them. No equipping books way back then, you say? Yes, you’re right. It was much harder without printed materials. You have it easy in the age of information in which we live!
Get busy pairing people up to work through your church's discipleship process or set your alarm for 5:00 a.m. There are no short cuts in discipleship and if you take them, your alarm clock and a death-warmed-over look in the mirror will remind you every morning.
“My sole focus was the weekly small group meetings.”
If you fail to create a seven-day-a-week relationship with your group members, your group will not grow because people aren't interested in another meeting. They want deep friendships where there’s impromptu meals, baseball games, prayer, ministry time and relaxing. Watching TV, surfing the net, or sitting at the kitchen table and watching a pot of coffee disappear will dynamically change group life. Your members will tell their friends how much fun group life is — as opposed to a good small group meeting — and your group will flourish.
If your group only sees each other at the weekly meeting and at the Sunday services, you’re not doing it right and it’s not a genuine “small group.”
If you’re making this mistake, don’t worry; it’s easy to fix. For example, invite a single person from your group over for dinner and tell them to bring over a load of laundry. When you fold laundry together, they’ll know you are interested in true Christian intimacy, not an attendance roster.
What you must do is to reserve time to be with your group members between meetings. If you don’t have the time to do this, make the time. Let go of things that are non-essential. Your golf game can suffer, your kids may not be in as many after school activities, and your new “open-door policy” at home will make for less private time, but this is your ministry and it deserves more than leftovers! Remember: group life must be a high priority in your life for it to work. God has called you to it and He wants to use your group to win souls and raise up leaders. It takes a sizeable time investment, but it’s worth it.
“I appointed myself as the Holy Man (or Holy Woman).”
Answering all the Bible questions and maintaining dominant spiritual authority will make you a very lonely person! No one will join you in leadership because they don’t measure up. People won’t get close to you because you can’t just be that special friend in a time of need . . . you have to fix the problem. It’s also stepping on God’s toes. If you’re making this mistake, ask your group members for forgiveness in your next meeting. Tell them you love them and you need help with a pride issue. That’s the root of this problem.
The way to avoid this mistake is to prayerfully ask yourself “How can God be glorified through someone else right now?” He will be faithful to show you how the whole body builds itself up by every supporting ligament. Even baby Christians can minister to others very effectively. The Holy Spirit operates at full strength in all who believe and give it away freely.
“I operated out of a vocational paradigm.”
If you see small group leadership as a job at the church, you’ll hate the position. Your role is one of a calling. A hired hand quits when the going gets tough. A called man or woman just sees the obstacles as new ways God will reveal His power. See the difference?
The way to avoid or recover from this mistake is to simply read the last mistake below. Drink at the well often, and you will never be thirsty. Prayer is the key here, and this will birth a calling in you, empowering you to do great things for God.
“I had no prayer life.”
The biggest mistake small group leaders make is to cut off the lifeline to God’s power and wisdom. It comes from above and it solves all the problems a leader faces. Jesus modeled a life of prayer for us. As I reflect on His integral part of the Trinity, I see why Jesus prayed so much while on earth. He was recently separated from His Father and the Holy Spirit and missed His family!
God created us in His image, and our spiritual nature thirsts for community with Him through prayer. If you don’t pray much, don’t expect much power in your ministry! Pray alone, with group members, family, friends, children, neighbors, co-workers, your boss, and total strangers when you feel led by the Spirit to do so. Prayer is powerful and the more you pray, the better your ministry will be!
There are only two kinds of mistakes...
Good mistakes are the ones you learn from; bad mistakes are the ones that you repeat or ignore. God has given you a unique opportunity to shake up Satan’s kingdom with the power of community. Your group was designed by God to storm the gates of Hell and set captives free. Don’t be afraid to make changes today in your ministry to see revival in your small group!