There is not one mold for an effective small group leader. Leaders can (and should!) come from the full spectrum of human experiences and still be successful as a group leader. However, certain leadership styles / traits tend to lend themselves to certain outcomes. For example, people who are gifted in teaching or lecturing will lead groups that focus on learning. People who are gifted in relationship-building will lead groups that focus on community. People who are gifted in evangelism will lead groups that focus on mission work and soul-winning. Make sense? All of those outcomes are good, but that illustrates the effect a leader can have on a small group.
Because we know what we want our small group Bible study ministry to accomplish, we can identify those qualities that most directly lead to it. Let's say this together:
Sunday School is the foundational strategy at First Baptist Church for leading people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and for building Great Commission Christians through Bible study groups that engage people in evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and worship.
In the book, Transformational Groups, the authors shared the results of a survey in which group members were asked to describe their group leader. Here are the results in order of decreasing importance:
Makes people feel comfortable sharing in the group
A good leader
A good Bible teacher
A good listener
Energetic and enthusiastic
Transparent in his or her own weaknesses and struggles
A personal friend
Skillful in handling conflict or problems in the group
Freely delegates responsibilities within the group
Now, I know all of you. I know that you would say that you do not possess all of those qualities (I can probably guess which ones you would say you don't possess!). But even the most pessimistic of you would acknowledge that you possess at least some of those qualities. That, then, becomes the foundation for your leadership.
Stop for a moment and brainstorm ways those individual qualities might be used toward fulfilling the mission of Sunday School.
But how do we know which of those qualities are actually the "most important"? Well, that survey I mentioned above also asked non-members what qualities they would want in a small group leader. Only 3 (!) attributes were selected by at least 40% of the respondents:
Makes people feel comfortable sharing in a group
A good Bible teacher
What can we take from that? Because an important part of Sunday School is connecting with non-Christians and non-church members, I would put those qualities high on the list for a leader who wants his/her group to help build the church. (And don't those 3 qualities make sense for what we're talking about?)
We can all work on those qualities within ourselves. Those are skills that can be developed and improved (and truly, every Christian should cultivate those skills).
How can I make people more comfortable in my group? Work on the skills that enable you to shape the conversation and attitude of the group -- cut off tangents that might make people unnecessarily uncomfortable; build a rapport with group members who can be cantankerous. Work on my willingness to build relationships with new people in the group.
How can I become a better Bible teacher? Spend more time learning the passage and letting it affect you; spend more time writing a "lesson plan" that guides you through the group time; spend more time identifying extra illustrations, applications, and outcomes in case the first batch you try doesn't work.
How can I become more trustworthy? Pay closer attention to the things I say to people. If I'm a gossip, this is not just about being a better group leader, this is about being a better follower of Jesus Christ!
There is another way we can look at these qualities.
If your skill is teaching, then we should focus on teaching the right things: spiritual formation and personal evangelism. Teach people how to do things that matter.
If your skill is relationship building, then we should focus on building community that contributes to the growth of the church. Connect with people around Jesus, and engage people in the life of the church.
If your skill is organization, then we should focus on missions; organize/enlist/delegate work that builds the church. Engage people in mission and service.
Let's invert that.
If you want to see spiritual growth in your group, then you need to focus on sound, biblical teaching. If that's not your strong suit, then enlist class members who might have that gift to lead a discussion focused on a particular spiritual discipline or doctrine.
If you want to see your group grow in their relationships with one another, then you need to focus on your approach to relationships, for example how you resolve conflicts or share personal stories. If you're not good at those things, then you need to enlist a class member who is to organize discussions and activities toward that end.
If you want to see your group become more missionally engaged, then you need to organize your group toward that end. If organization/delegation isn't your strong point, then you need to enlist a class member to help you.
Does that make sense? Eventually, we want to be competent in all of these qualities, but we have to start with where we are. Hopefully we can see that there is great value in any starting point!
Sometimes, all this takes is focus -- asking the right questions. At the most recent Georgia Baptist Spark Conference, Dallas White led a breakout on keeping small groups moving the right direction. He highlighted 10 areas:
To move from "consumption" to "contribution", we need our class members to ask themselves how they have been shaped to serve in the kingdom.
To move from "information" to "transformation", we need to make sure that our teaching is actually helping class members make life changes.
To move from "attendance" to "obedience", we need to make sure that we are not simply suggesting but trying to hold accountable.
To move from "single leader" to "shared leader", we need to have a structure that encourages the development of new leaders (that's a lot on me).
To move from "teaching" to "reaching", we need to help our class maintain a focus on the people around us who could be reached.
To move from "class" to "family", we need to ask ourselves how well we know our class members.
To move from "age-only" to "affinity options", we need to ask what common interests unite our groups. [Important note: Steve Parr, also of Georgia Baptists, believes that age-grading is still critical for an effective Sunday School.]
To move from "care groups" to "disciple groups", we need to make sure that we maintain our level of care even as we focus on growing new groups.
To move from "convenience" to "necessity", we need to make sure that we offer options that connect with everyone's schedule.
To move from "I pick" to "I'm positioned", we need to help our members think of their place in life as an opportunity to connect with people.
If you look closely at those, you will see that the qualities of teaching, leading, inspiring, delegating, organizing, connecting are uniquely suited to help some of those "movements". So, if you already possess those qualities, focus on those movements!
My job, then, as a leader of small group leaders, is to help you develop those qualities you think you need to become more effective. You'll find that the Holy Spirit and the Bible is a far better teacher than I am! But I'm here with advice.
Once we have any idea what the "new normal" is going to be, we will want to take another look at the next five years. There will be new opportunities for us to grow and make an impact, but we will have to be intentional about pursuing those opportunities. Our Grow in Groups team will be getting back to the work that had been interrupted by the pandemic, and we will be re-focused on that future.
In the meantime, if you want to work on your group leadership, please get in touch with me. The best way to build skills is through one-on-one coaching.