Becoming an effective home group leader does not require you to be an exceptionally gifted person. You don’t need advanced level skills in group dynamics, a post-doctorate degree in theology, the wisdom of Solomon or the patience of Job – though a little of the latter two might definitely be an advantage! What you do need is a love for God, a love for people, and an understanding of the basic skills and inputs needed to make Homes Groups work. In this session we will be looking at some of the most important of these.
What your group needs to thrive
Home Groups operate within a very wide range of contexts, expectations and people types. Depending on which of these are at play in your particular gathering, the leadership needed for it to thrive and multiply will vary accordingly. Having said that, there are five common inputs that every healthy group needs: envisioning, teaching, pastoring, mission and equipping.
Casting the vision for what Christian community can be is one of the great joys for those of us in church leadership. God’s plan to bring us all together from across every culture and divide and form us into brothers and sisters in the body of Christ is nothing short of amazing. To be part of such a community, lead by the Spirit and guided by the Word of God, where we genuinely care for and support one another, where we stir up and challenge one another, where we rejoice together in life’s joys and mourn together in life’s sorrows, is surely one of the greatest privileges we will ever have. As visions go, that for Christian community is as good as it gets. But it is also one that needs renewed on a regular basis. Our vision leaks. We forget what God wants to do amongst us. Whilst God’s work is always remarkable in it accomplishment, the journey to that end is almost always far more ordinary and far more demanding than any of us imagine. Work, family life, parenting, single hood, finances, relationships, and all the other things we face in daily life, are challenging. Getting to know people beyond the surface, and continuing to love them once we do, is equally challenging. To keep going through hard times, to hang in there with awkward people during difficult seasons, we need to be reminded of what we are doing together and what God has to say about it in his Word. At least once a month, therefore, you will need to find a way of recasting the vision for what your group is about. This is something you can do in a whole variety of ways. Simply injecting your enthusiasm over coffee time, taking a moment to celebrate a small win, modeling genuine vulnerability or naming and encouraging God-given growth in a person are but a few. Your continued vision for what your group can be, and your creative sharing of that vision, will greatly help the others to maintain their own.
A second key area in healthy groups is that of teaching. Every group needs a vibrant and challenging dynamic of learning if its members are to grow in the path of discipleship. This requires good material, proper preparation, good leading and practical application. (More on this in session 7) Most of all it requires someone in your group (preferably more than one) who has a clear spiritual gift of teaching. People with a teaching gift, whether leading a bible study or not, somehow have the ability to keep a discussion focused in the right direction and make sure that group members allow the scriptures to read them just as much as they read the scriptures. These teachers are also vital in developing the teaching gifts of others. Just as faith is something that is more caught than taught so it is with learning how to help people apply their faith to everyday life. Good teachers raise up more good teachers and any group without such input will always struggle to fulfill its potential.
One of the most important questions we need an answer to in our home group life is: “Do the people here care about me?” If the answer to that is an absolute “yes” then we will be able to cope with a lot of things in our group’s life that are less than perfect. If the answer is “no” then it will make little difference how good every thing else is. If we do not feel loved and cared for, we will never do more than go through the motions whilst a part of it. Being able to share and pray together, being able to open up about our struggles and find support in them, growing to trust that our group members are willing to walk with us through whatever comes along in our lives is a crucial part of our community experience. Every group therefore needs people who have a pastoral heart for others and often these people need much encouragement if they are to exercise their gifting in the way your group needs. As the leader, you need to model such pastoral care and do your utmost to make supporting and carrying each others burdens a core value in all of your members.
The third key element in any healthy Home Group is that of mission. Community life brings people closer together and rightly builds a sense of deep intimacy. However, any group that allows that intimacy to turn it in on itself is doomed to a slow but certain failure. Our calling is to be those who having received God’s sacrificial love, are now sacrificial ourselves in bringing that love to others. We are to go into all the world and make disciples. We are to seek and save that which is lost. The constant missional focus of the life and ministry of Jesus permits no other approach in our own. As we will unpack in a later session there may be times when our groups need to be temporarily closed to allow trust to be built amongst its members but from your very first meeting it is vital to sow the seeds for your group to be a missional one. Do all you can to encourage your members to invite others to the group and to find ways in which your little community can bring good news to your community and beyond. Once your group has become established, service projects, fundraising efforts for overseas groups, volunteering for local community project, evangelistic endeavours and every other missional idea you can come up with should be a regular part of your Home Group’s calendar. Like every other healthy organic entity, one of the fruits of your group’s well being should be that it grows in size as well as as depth and eventually multiplies into two groups. As its leader, you will be key in ensuring your group fulfills this missional aspect.
The final key element every group needs is that of equipping. Small groups are not only the best possible context for life change, they are the best possible environment in which people can discover and develop their spiritual gifts. As you grow together and become more and more familiar with one another’s abilities and personalities your group community is the perfect place to test and strengthen whatever ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ (I Cor 12:7) has given to your members. We’ll look more fully at this below.
Whatever the make up and goals of your Home Group, each of the above needs to be constantly encouraged and incorporated within your meetings. Your role is not to provide all of this input yourself (none of us could do that) but you can be the one who carries the flag for them and keeps your group aiming for real engagement in each. Our goals are only ever met when we know what they are.
Thinking about our Leadership Style
Leadership Style describes the way in which we go about helping our group to achieve its purposes. The four basic styles usually identified are: Autocratic (domineering or dictatorial in its decision making), Authoritarian (definite yet responsive to others opinions), Democratic (group-centred), and Laissez-faire (laid back, permissive and passive). No two leaders will have exactly the same “natural” style and no one style is always the “right” one. Rather, at different stages of your group’s life you will need to apply the leadership style that best matches your group’s situation. This approach is called situational leadership. Almost certainly, one style of leadership will come more naturally to you than the others, but you will need to use all four basic styles during the lifetime of your group. You will therefore need to work on developing the one(s) that are less naturally in your repertoire.
Figure 5 below shows these four basic styles, their general characteristics, and how they influence Home Group life. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Figure 5: Home Group Leadership Styles
Matching Leadership Style to Group Needs
For much of the time, leading your Home Group will be as easy a leadership role as you will ever have. First of all, God is present and he alone is the one who can awaken, deepen and mature the faith of your members. Secondly, most of those who come to your group do so because they genuinely want to. They want to grow and deepen in their relationship with God. They want to form real and lasting relationships with one another. They want you to succeed as a leader and they want their group to succeed for the good of them all. In addition, within every group there is already quite a bit of experience, relational intelligence and goodwill before you do or say a thing. Far from having to watch and control every second of your gathering, therefore, for most of the time all your group needs from you is a little nudge in the right direction and apart from that you can leave things to take care of themselves. Playing too central a role in your home group will actually hinder it in becoming the learning environment you desire it to be. Nonetheless, Home Groups are a dynamic reality and from time to time your group will need definite leadership from you. What exactly is needed varies and so does the leadership style that will best accomplish it.
- if a disagreement breaks out during a meeting and someone is harshly attacked or put down by someone else, you will need to step in and put a stop to it immediately (autocrat). Remind the members that they have covenanted to behave in a different way with one another.
- if someone has managed to get the group’s discussion completely side-tracked, then you will need to gently intervene and suggest that you need to get back to the main concern before you (authoritative).
- if it becomes apparent that the group is tired of the present format of your meetings, that will be a time to exercise democratic leadership and discuss with the members what other format you might try.
- if during the leading of the study you find yourself continually asking questions to which no one is offering any answers, rather than panic (which would be natural for most of us) you should introduce a little laissez-faire leadership for the good of the group. Repeat the question you want to have answered in a clear way. Then just sit silently, making only eye contact with your group, until someone offers a response. Don’t be afraid of the silence. It may well be that the others just need time to think through their answer. It may also be that they will never take responsibility for sharing their own thoughts until you force them to!
Right from the beginning, your basic aim as leader is to move your Home Group as quickly as possible towards shared decision making and involvement. However, during the initial period when group members are getting to know each other and discovering what group life is all about, and from time to time after that, you will need to take more of a definite lead in guiding where your group goes. Move steadily towards democratic leadership, in line with the group’s maturity, and only when necessary, and for no longer than needed, resort to using the other styles.
Developing Every Member Ministry
In Romans 12:4 – 8 Paul makes it clear that when we give our lives to Him one of the things God gives us in turn is a Spiritual gift or gifts. Their purpose is for service and for the upbuilding and strengthening of the body of Christ (Romans 12.6. See also Ephesians 4.4-14 and I Corinthians. 12). No two people will have exactly the same gifting, or the same role, but all are equally called to discover and use their gifts for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Without the exercising of this gifting, not only do individuals miss out in the involvement God wants for their lives, but their church greatly suffers (1 Corinthians 12.14-29). The development of the gifts God has given the members of your Home Group is, therefore, one of the most important functions of your leadership. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4.12, these gifts are given “.. to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
However, although this concept of “body ministry” is a central aspect to the gospel and one of the church’s key values, it neither happens automatically nor easily. To see it developing amongst your members you must determine to resist two very common barriers – one usually self-erected, the other raised by your group. If not resisted either one will ruin the equipping potential of your Home Group.
The first is you yourself believing that you have to do everything for your group or it will not succeed. If you buy into this untruth you will inevitably act as an autocrat, a dictator, making all decisions and carrying out almost all of the functions necessary for your group’s life. Whilst some members may like this approach on your part, their spiritual and personal growth within in your Home Group’s life will be stifled if not snuffed out altogether. Furthermore, those members in your group who would like to develop the gifts God has given them will find your leadership inhibiting and frustrating and may well leave never to attend a Home Group again.
The second temptation is allowing your group to convince you that you need to do everything. This is similar yet different to the first. Here it’s not that you think you must do it all, but rather your group does. Your group will try to convince you that you have much better abilities than they have and for the good of the whole you ought to be the one who provides the majority of input. Again if you give into this error you will be headed for serious trouble. It will force you to have completely unrealistic expectations of yourself, far too low expectations of your group, and though you will undoubtedly try to rise to the occasion, will almost inevitably lead you and your group to plunge to the ground with a crash.
Dan Williams (Seven Myths About Small Groups, page 143) comments:
“There has been much popular literature lately about co-dependency, or the tendency for mutually destructive behaviours to attract one another. For example, those suffering from over-responsibility for the lives of others often end up enabling addictive behaviour like alcoholism. Or chronic victims end up with abusive marriage partners or with teenagers who persecute them. Likewise, whole groups can attract or enable authoritarian leaders or workaholic leaders in their midst. Group members who are not inclined to make decisions or take initiative end up with leaders who will do these things for them. The result is very bad for the group, and does nothing for the leader either. The behaviours are reinforced. The group becomes less capable of owning the direction or the work of the group and it grows ever more dependent on the leader, who in turn rises to the occasion.”
Avoiding the pitfalls
To avoid falling into the traps above:
I. Right from the very start of your group, you should set the tone regarding your limited knowledge and the necessity of your having limited duties. Explain to the group that you are undertaking a journey together, that each one of them must play their part if the group is to succeed. On no account come across as if you are an expert (even if you are one) or give your group any impression that all they have to do in your group is show up and watch you at work.
II. Seek volunteers for as many tasks as possible right from your first meeting. Using something like a Small Group Rota (See under Small Group Resources) can be a great help in this. Whatever your technique, the pattern of solo leadership must be disrupted from the very beginning, otherwise the group will get the wrong idea.
III. Seek constantly to further the development and use of the group members’ gifts through encouragement, opportunity and every thing else you can think of. Try not to do anything in your group that someone else can. The sooner you enable others to participate the sooner your group will become a place where the sort of equipping you long for will take place.
Although some will be ready for it much sooner than others, shared leadership is the goal of all groups. This does not simply mean each person taking a turn in leading the Bible study or in carrying out another group function week by week. It means that each person leads in the area(s) of their gifting. It means that all members are parts of the same body with each having a role, albeit a different role, to play. If their gifting is in administration, then they should be encouraged to take on the organising and arranging of group meetings and special events. If their gifting is in caring then they should be encouraged to develop the group’s pastoral contact during the week, phoning or visiting those who haven’t been for a while or who are sick or who have experienced a bereavement. If they are gifted in teaching, then that should be encouraged. Likewise if their gifting lies in prayer, worship, hospitality, etc.
The ultimate goal of any Home Group is to see its members grow to become mature in their faith and grow to serve wholeheartedly in their areas of their gifting. This does not mean that members should just be handed a task and let loose to do whatever they want. It means that having recognised a potential gift in them you then invite them to try out that gift with the clear understanding that they allow others to help them in their gift development. Particularly when members come forward claiming gifting for themselves always adopt an attitude of “gentle scepticism” (Dan Williams page 74) until they have actually demonstrated the confirmation of their gifting. Even then carefully watch over them, teaching, training, correcting or rebuking them as necessary until they become mature in the ministry that they carry out. Obviously you will not be gifted in all areas of ministry and therefore part of this process will be linking up your group members with others who can nurture their growth and development in the area(s) of their gifting.
In the areas where you are gifted, the pattern of Jesus and the most effective pattern to follow in training others is as follows:
You do – they watch
You do – they help
They do – you help
They do – you watch
They do – someone else watches.
Leadership by Service
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” Matthew 20.25-28
Sadly, in church leadership, many Christians give in to the former of the two temptations just discussed and imitate the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun rather than the teaching of Jesus. They give in to the belief that people always need strong, forceful leadership. They see their role as leaders as being to drive and control those under them until they reach the place that they want them to be. They see themselves as Father figures, in truth benevolent dictators, knowing what is best for others and therefore justified in imposing their will to achieve this. This was not the pattern that Jesus laid down for us. Indeed it is almost its complete opposite. In Christ, we are called to serve those under us not lord it over them. We are called to cherish those in our care not control them. We are called to regard others as better than ourselves, not the other way around. In short, we are called to a leadership pattern that was, and is, completely alien to the world around us. The problem is that often it is a pattern alien to the church as well!
By washing the disciples’ feet (John 13.1-17) Jesus gave us a powerful picture of his understanding of leadership. In dealing with the posturing for power amongst the twelve in Matt 20, he stated it again. In John 10 he repeats his point once more. Here Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd to describe his role as leader. He tells us that far from driving people where he wants them to be, he leads them. Far from controlling them, he allows them to choose whether or not to follow. “The Good Shepherd.. calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.. He goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10.3-4) Though this pattern is somewhat different to the practice in our land, Shepherds in Israel continue to use the exact same method today, two thousand years later. As was the case with our Lord, we too are called to lead by serving.
Leadership by Example
“Jesus was a compelling leader because of his example.” Not only his words but his very life was the good news he proclaimed. It was the secret to his discipling of the twelve. “He taught the importance of prayer, not by demanding that his disciples pray for one hour every morning, but by praying regularly himself. He taught servant leadership, not by giving a lecture on the history and theology of servanthood, but by washing the disciples’ feet,” (Jim & Carol Pleuddmann, Pilgrims in Progress, page 72). He modelled the life he was calling the others to embrace. He practised what he preached, to use modern slang, he walked his talk. He demonstrated in the ordinary, every day context of real life – in problems and joys alike – what it meant to place whole trust in God and walk in humble obedience to his word. Simply being with him had an enormous impact on the life of the disciples and they learned as much from watching him, if not more, than they did from listening to him.
The example of a godly life is still one the most powerful catalysts for changing the lives of others today. As a leader you will teach as much to your group when you are not speaking as you will when you are. Your life is the primary message you have to share. As Paul said to the believers in Corinth, so you must say to the believers in your Home Group, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (See too Phil 4.9.)
At first glance this is a daunting, if not terrifying responsibility and it is for this reason that so many feel inadequate to take up leadership positions. But one very important difference exists between the standard of leadership displayed in Jesus and the standard expected of those who would come after him, and here we can take heart. Whereas Jesus modelled absolute perfection in every area of his life, you and I are called only to model transformation. Jesus Christ lived the only perfect life this world will ever see. He alone was able to display perfection in his attitude to temptation, in his dealings with people, and in his facing of trials. Though by the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we are undoubtedly being transformed into the likeness of Jesus with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3.18) we will never fully be like him until his return. We will therefore be misleading our members, hindering both their and our spiritual growth, if we try to give the impression that we have reached this perfect standard already.
What we are called to show those under our care is an example not of having arrived but of being on the way. When others look at us all they need to see are people who are trying, in God’s strength, to live the life God calls them to live. They should learn from us what it means to increasingly rely on God’s strength in temptation, to increasingly treat others as Christ did, to increasingly hold fast to our faith when trials come. We will never match the perfect life of Christ and we will not help the members of our Home Groups by pretending that we do. Rather we will serve them best if we let them see that we are merely fellow pilgrims with them, struggling along just as they are, falling down and needing to get up again, having to rely on the Spirit’s power more and more, needing to repent of sin and be forgiven and doing our utmost to become the man or woman of God that he desires us to be. In truth, the only difference that may exist between us and them is that we are perhaps slightly further along the journey than are they.
The unwritten and yet widely held belief in our land that Christian leaders, in particular Pastors, should not be having doubts and trials, failures and mistakes in their spiritual lives, and most certainly should not be owning up to them in public if they are, verges on heresy. The book of Hebrews makes it clear that God is able to sympathise with the weaknesses all of us have (including leaders) because of the suffering and temptations of Christ (e.g. Hebrews 4.15). The Apostle John goes as far as to say that “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1.8). How then can leaders in Christ’s church pretend that God does not need to have compassion on them, that they cannot sympathise with the weaknesses of others, that they do not continually have to repent of their sin? It’s impossible! The best that we can possibly do, and all that we are asked to do by God, is to model for those under our care pilgrimage and transformation in obedience to the Word of God and in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
As Doug Whallon (Good Things Come in Small Groups, p38) says, “good leadership unlocks a small group’s potential. Just as a good music conductor guides the orchestra into producing harmony and an [American] football quarter back co-ordinates the team with a specific play to score a touchdown, so the leader of a Home Group helps members to clarify their purpose and reach it.”
Week-to-Week Leadership Tasks
So far we have looked chiefly at leadership characteristics, the type of leadership and the type of person that can best lead others to growth and maturity. As we come to the end of this chapter let’s turn now to the four main week-to-week leadership tasks involved, at least initially, as your group continues week by week. (These are based on Robert Hestenes, Using the Bible in Small Groups, pages 37-40)
Task 1. Pray
Taking on the role of a Home Group leader carries much responsibility. Sometimes, maybe even often, we can feel out of our depth and lacking in the abilities necessary to be good leaders. In these moments the apostle Paul reminds us that in Christ we can do everything through him who gives us strength (Phil 4.13). But alongside this wonderful truth we need to hold another. It comes from John 15.5 where Jesus says, quite simply, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” In Christ, and with the resources he makes available to us, we can do anything God asks us to. Without reliance on Christ, and without his anointing on our lives, we can do nothing. This is why prayer is the first and primary task of your leadership. Prayer deepens and empowers both your own life and the lives of your Home Group members. As weekly routine you should spend time in prayer for:
- Wisdom as decisions concerning the group have to be made including the format and content of the next meeting.
- Your own life and role within the group
- Each member of your group, remembering them by name and being as specific as possible concerning their needs.
As you spend time in prayer, abide in God’s strength so that it will empower your ministry to the others and enable you to lead with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and direction.
Task 2. Prepare
There are three major elements of preparation for a Home Group Meeting:
1. Preparing the Meeting Place (see session 2)
2. Preparing the Programme.
How will the meeting begin? Which, if any, ice-breaker or sharing question(s) will you use? What will happen apart from the Bible study? How will you help build relationships? How will you develop the group’s prayer life (see session 6)? How much time will be given to each activity? How will the meeting end? If someone else is leading this week, how are they getting on?
3. Preparing the Study.
This is the most time consuming aspect of your preparations and will be dealt with in session 5. Eventually, it may well be that other members of your group will be able to lead this part of your meeting but initially at least you will need to set aside time for proper preparation yourself.
Task 3. Guide
During the meeting it is your responsibility to help the group move through its activities on time and in an ordered way. Even when others are leading the worship or study time, it is still up to you to ensure that too much time is not spent on one part of the meeting’s activities to the detriment of another. (Having said that, it will occasionally be the case that you will have to suspend a planned part of the evening’s activities because of, for example, something that has arisen during the group’s sharing time that requires more of the night to be given over to prayer and support.) During the Bible study in particular you will want to keep the discussion moving at a lively pace and ensure that the members don’t get bogged down in too much detail, controversy or unproductive debate.
Task 4. Care
Before, during, and after meetings, a good leader will show concern for the well-being of each of the group members. This involves sensitive listening and responding during the meetings and pastoral care-giving before and after them. This is the subject of session 7. As their leader you should try to keep in touch with your members as much as possible outside of your group setting, and encourage the others to do the same. Give them a call during the week and ask them how things are going. If someone misses a meeting, contact them and let them know that you missed them and hope everything is okay. When your group hasn’t met for a few weeks, for example, during the Christmas or summer break, give each member a call and make sure that they know the time and venue for the next meeting. As a home group leader you are on the front-line of your church’s pastoral care team. You have a unique opportunity to change the lives of those under your care as you follow the Lord’s leading for your group. It is major responsibility but it is also an amazing privilege and a great honour. After all, we are servant leaders of the servant Lord.