I wish someone had written this article for me “back in the day.” My first step into becoming a group leader took place right after I got married. My new bride and I were recruited to teach a group of eighth grade girls. I had no clue how to be an effective leader at that point in my life, but I had the job of leading those girls, and as I remember, we had a bunch of them!
As I reflect back on that experience, and as I have spoken with hundreds of group leaders across the country, I’ve come up with a “top 10 list” of things that brand new group leaders should consider. I’d have been a better teacher if someone had shared these with me in 1987. Yes, I just dated myself. If I could tell my younger self only 10 things, here they are in no particular order.
- Teaching is not telling. Learning is not listening. I remember telling my wife something really dumb after accepting the group leader position with those eighth grade girls: “Charles (my pastor) has his 45 minutes, now I have mine.” Yikes. Because no one told me differently, I thought my job was to prepare a lesson and do all the talking. After all, I’m the one who studied and prepared, and I had a lot of important things to tell those girls. Wrong. I would have been a much better teacher if I had learned to more fully engage them in the Bible study. Little did I know that there are 8 learning approaches. I learned to incorporate those in time, but boy do I feel bad for that first group of girls. I was a “talking head” and I’m sure they were bored to tears.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. Yes, leading a group is important. Yes, it’s a serious thing to be responsible for the spiritual growth of a group of people. But don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Laugh at yourself. Realize that if the group is laughing at you, that’s OK. You really only have an audience of one—the Lord. Don’t worry what others think about you, your teaching, or a host of other things. Seek to please the Lord in all you do, and if you trip up, know that gravity is going to still work, and the sun will rise tomorrow. The world won’t end, so loosen up.
- If you have to choose between being a great teacher or a great shepherd, choose shepherd. My son entered the 12th grade when our family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He began his last year of high school at a strange new school, and he had to find new friends. One place I hoped that would happen was our new church. He only had 5 other young men in his Sunday School class, but when he began missing on Sundays (he visited other churches with Christian guys he met on his football team) his teacher never contacted him. Not once. Not in twelve months. Although this man was a good teacher, I’m sure, he was a lousy shepherd. My son learned all too quickly that he didn’t matter to his 12th grade teacher, and it soured him on the church. The old saying is true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
- The person with the biggest group doesn’t win. As a new group leader, I thought the goal was to have the biggest group. And we did. It was great. Everyone wanted to be in the groups my wife and I taught. We learned how to teach, we had fun with the students outside of Sunday School, and we hung out. No one ever told me that having the biggest group wasn’t the goal. What I should have been told was that the goal was to grow my group to the point I could start a new one. Another teacher could have then come along to shepherd and teach half my group.
- Your group exists for people far from God. One thing I learned about group life: if you aren’t careful, your group will turn inward pretty quickly. It takes strong leadership to constantly remind your group members that the group exists to reach new people. After a group has been together 18 months, it naturally begins to close. Reaching new people gets hard. You must consistently help your group see the many people in your community that might go to your church and attend your group if they were aware, invited, and cared for.
- Work hard to include new people in the group. People will not assimilate themselves. You have to work hard to help new people fit in, and your group members are the key. This is why it’s so important to become great at inclusion. It is possible to be a member of a group, but never really belong to the group. That’s a terrible feeling, and one reason people drift away and are never seen again.
- Your group isn’t your group. Read Amos 3:12. It contains a prophecy about Israel, and it is couched in shepherding terms. Part of this verse gives us insight into the life of a shepherd. “As the shepherd snatches an ear or a piece of a leg from the lion’s mouth…” tells us that shepherds protect their sheep. Nothing new there, right? Well, read the verse again; the sheep had already become lunch for the lion. Why would a shepherd risk life and limb for an animal that was already dead? The answer is, “Because the shepherd is not the owner of the sheep.” The true owner has temporarily given the shepherd responsibility for his sheep. If the shepherd goes out with 100 sheep, he’d better come back with 100, or have a good explanation (hence the reason he was so concerned about grabbing a piece of the sheep from the lion—it served as proof that he hadn’t stolen the sheep to begin his own flock). All this to say, as a group leader, the people in your group aren’t yours—you’re the stewarding shepherd. The “owner,” God, has given you temporary responsibility to care for His sheep—His people. Never use the words “my group” or “my classroom.” Everything belongs to God, not you. I needed to hear that as a new group leader.
- You should hold onto your group members with a loose grip. Because of #7 above, I must let people go if my group gets too large. The goal is to see people discipled, and that happens best in the context of smaller groups. Larger groups are fun to teach, and they can be a sign that you’re doing something right, but when the pastor asks you to divide your group so that greater care can be given to the members, do it! They aren’t “your” people anyway, right? Right.
- You should spend more time in prayer. Spending time with your group members is commendable. Spending time studying your lesson is also important. Doing ministry together as a group is important. But the most important thing you can do is to spend time in prayer. Pray for your pastor, pray for your group members, pray that the Lord protects you from the fiery darts of the evil one.
- Don’t do anything stupid to lose your position of leadership. In today’s world, someone is always watching. Always. Be mindful of the places you go, the things you look at online, and the words you use in social media. Everything you do is a potential skeleton in the closet years from now, and you don’t want to do anything that disqualifies you from serving the Lord. Too many ministers have learned this the hard way, and lifetimes of schooling, experience, and wisdom have all been erased instantly by a misspoken word, a lapse in moral or financial judgment, or some other reason. Finish the race you’ve begun. Don’t disqualify yourself. The church needs godly men and women now more than ever. Be strong. Be smart. Be one of the ones the Lord commends when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”