By Taylor Combs
If you’ve been a part of a local church in the last generation, chances are you’ve been involved in some sort of small group ministry. Or at least you’ve been invited (several times) to be a part of a group, or to even lead one.
While small groups/community groups/home groups/life groups/missional communities (or whatever your church calls them) aren’t essential to the Christian life, they usually prove to be a fantastic vehicle for community and mutual discipleship.
I’ve been involved in groups for years, and for the last six years have had the privilege of leading basically the same group (although it has evolved and shuffled and moved around through the years).
After having our first child and moving into a busy season professionally, we’ve decided to step away, which has brought an opportunity for reflection. The Lord has taught me much during these years of leading.
At times it has been fun and easy, at times awkward, at times painful and difficult. But through it all, God has taught me invaluable lessons about ministry.
So, here are nine things I learned from six years of leading a community group.
1. Sustained time in the Word with other believers is unbeatable.
In our six years, we’ve worked together through 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Daniel, 1 Thessalonians, Romans, Matthew, and Zechariah.
Yes, it took six years to get through seven books of the Bible. Is that a slow pace? Absolutely. But sanctification moves at a slow place. And to get anywhere close to a thorough understanding of a passage of Scripture takes time.
Evangelicals are, historically, people of the Word. But most of our study of Scripture is done individually. But for some reason when we come together in groups, we think our time needs to be topic-focused or driven by a shared life-stage.
I’ve found that nothing replaces this slow, plodding, methodical progression through books of the Bible with other saints—young and old, men and women, mature and new believers alike.
2. Every group gathers around something; we may as well make it Scripture.
As I alluded to above, most of our groups seem to gather around a shared life-stage or some topic of interest. Or, conversely, they gather around meals or prayer.
None of these things are bad in themselves, but are they best? The apostle Peter, in one of his better moments, noted that Jesus alone had “the words of life.” In Scripture, we have these words of life, our daily spiritual bread.
Let’s gather around them and feast together on every word that comes from the mouth of the Father.
3. Community is essential to discipleship.
In most of today’s churches, joining or leading a small group is the best way to get community. Is it convenient? Not always. Is it awkward? Sometimes. Will it require something from you? Absolutely.
But it’s not good for us to walk alone; indeed, we cannot. You need the people in your church, and the people in your church need you.
This community has sustained me through good times and bad, and I hope, through it, I’ve helped sustain others.
4. You’ll get pushback on your leadership style.
You cannot please everyone. The first three years of leading, I constantly made adjustments—asking more general questions to broaden the potential answers, then asking more specific answers for the sake of clarity.
Later, I asked higher-shelf questions to encourage hard thinking and vulnerability, then asked lower-shelf questions to create an open and welcoming environment.
Then I tried more teaching and talking with fewer questions, then more questions with less teaching and talking.
Perhaps this is why the first direct pushback I got about my leadership style hurt me so much—because that person had no idea how hard I tried to improve the environment and my own leading for years before she was even a part of the group!
My pastor gave me great counsel about this: “Maybe that person just needs to be in a different group where she meshes more with the leadership style.” I then suggested this group member join another group, and she did.
5. You must commit to what you believe works (but be open to feedback).
There’s a difference in humble leadership and non-leadership.
Humble leadership listens to feedback; non-leadership is held captive to the opinions of others and is too scared to make a choice.
Related to the last lesson I mentioned, you have to remind yourself: I am, under God, the leader of this group. My pastors and church have entrusted me with this task. The Holy Spirit is empowering me for this task.
And, if you lose some people along the way, that’s okay; you’ve been humble, courageous, and faithful.
6. God will sanctify you when you feel under-appreciated.
My pastors and church staff do a wonderful job thanking and celebrating those who serve in the various ministries of our church.
But, until the night I announced I was no longer leading our group, I never once, in six years, was thanked for leading.
Now, it’s embarrassing to even type that—because it means I know it, which means I’ve been looking for applause.
And I’d be terrified if I learned anybody in my group read this! My pride and sin are exposed by admitting it.
But I’m not alone. We all minister with mixed motives, and part of my motives have always been to be applauded and thanked. God, in His mercy, used this lack of expressed gratitude to sanctify me over these past six years.
If you minister for the applause or the gratitude, ministry will eventually become your god, and it’ll kill you.
7. Conflict may come, but it will shape you for the better.
The hardest season of ministry I’ve ever experienced came with the best of intentions.
In seeking to serve a close friend and member of our group, I jeopardized the friendship. A yearlong conflict, which never fully resolved, ensued.
The couple involved stopped attending our group, then left without telling us. It was gutting. But when you lead people for any amount of time, conflict is inevitable.
Again, be humble. Be willing to learn from mistakes and apologize if necessary.
Take the potentialities into consideration before acting. But eventually, with a humble, Spirit-filled confidence, do what you think is best.
Walk forward with courage; Jesus is with you.
8. Leading with someone different from you will sharpen you.
This is perhaps the best way to mitigate some of your less popular leadership tendencies.
I’m a good teacher, but not the best conversation facilitator; my co-leader hasn’t been to seminary or been trained to teach the Bible, but he’s a fantastic conversation facilitator and studies and leads through the text faithfully.
I’m a bit more serious; he’s a bit more lighthearted. I’m infamously incapable of asking a decent icebreaker; he does a great job opening our time together.
Over the years that we’ve led together, we’ve balanced each other out wonderfully, which has been a grace of God.
Our group probably couldn’t have weathered two of me as their leaders!
9. Friendship and mutual discipleship are worth the hard parts.
You may have read some of these lessons I’ve learned and think, I’m not sure group ministry—let alone leadership—is right for me. It sounds hard!
And you’d be right.
But group ministry is essential for friendship and mutual discipleship in local churches, and for group ministries to happen, someone has to lead the groups—a calling and a privilege that’s absolutely worth it.
Taylor is an associate publisher for B&H Publishing and is active in the teaching ministry at Grace Community Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.