Ten Things Every Small Group Leader Should Know

March 7, 2012 — 15 Comments

Several months ago, I had the honor and privilege of sharing my thoughts to a group of small group leaders at our church.  I shared this list on the old jonstolpe.wordpress site, and it continues to be the most popular post.  I thought it might be a good idea to repost it here on the new site to hopefully spark some new conversation and thoughts about small group leadership.  So here are my notes:

I’m excited about this opportunity to share.  If you don’t know me or if you haven’t figured it out, I’m extremely passionate about small groups.  I truly believe they can provide a path for connection to others and to God.  I also believe that small groups play an important role in accountability and discipleship.  In no way is this list the Bible of small group leaders. It’s just my thoughts based on my involvement with small groups in various capacities for nearly 20 years. I’ve participated in groups. I’ve led groups. I’ve led group leaders. And I even had the privilege of leading a team of coaches.  (I was also brought up in a home where small groups were important and modeled by my parents.)  As I share my ideas, I’d encourage you to take a few notes.  So here goes:

1.  Small group leaders are important.  They play a big part in helping people find community, find God, and find growth.  If you are a small group leader, you need to know that what you do matters.

2.  Small group leaders set the tone.  Whether or not you consider yourself a Biblical scholar, your group members look to you as an example.  For this reason, it’s important that small group leaders continue to model growth.  They should be in the Word.  They should develop disciplines that model growth.  Small group leaders aren’t perfect, but they must find others who will hold them accountable to setting the tone.

3.  Small groups are not about small group leaders.  Small groups aren’t meant to showcase your incredible “holiness” or biblical knowledge.  Small groups aren’t meant to show off how great you are as a leader.  Small groups are about the group – about pointing people to God.

3A.  Small groups aren’t just about the groups either. Get out there and serve with your group. Find a way once a month or once every other month to get out there and serve together. Adopt a place that your group can focus on. There are many area nursing homes, soup kitchens, food and clothing pantries, etc. that would love to have the support of your group. Getting your group involved in this type of service gets your group focused on others and allows your group to practically put into motion what following Christ is all about.

4.  Small group leaders aren’t supposed to live on an island.  Leaders must find ways to stay strong and spiritually fervent.  They must also have a support team to provide guidance when small group life gets tough – and it usually will. (I wrote about this on my blog over a year ago.)

5.  Small group leaders must be invitational.  Intimacy and transparency in groups can be great, but it shouldn’t be an excuse not to invite others into the group.  I’m a big proponent of the “open chair” policy in small groups.  If you’re a small group leader, set the tone.  Make sure there is always an open chair in your group for new group members and guests.  Talk about it with your group.  Don’t let it be optional.

6.  Small group leaders aren’t perfect.  I think I said this before.  Group leaders must be honest with themselves.  They must learn to ask for help.  Maybe you stink at the administrative stuff, or maybe you’re a terrible host.  Look to those around you.  Get others to use their gifts to help the group and to help you as a leader.  Not only does this make you and the group better, but it engages others into the group experience.  People want to be asked to help.  They are often just waiting for you to ask them to get involved.

7.  Being a small group leader isn’t always easy.  Let’s face it, nobody likes to deal with EGRs (Extra Grace Required people).  But it can also be challenging when people in your group are going through difficult life circumstances.  People in your groups will get sick, they’ll have messed up relationships, and they’ll make mistakes that carry significant consequences.  You may be required to get involved with the mess.  Embrace it.  God may have placed you in leadership for such a time as this.

8.  Seek advice and wisdom from trusted advisers.  Your pastor, group life pastor and others who have been doing small group ministry for a while can be helpful.  They will know how to react.  They will know when to bring in assistance.  (I have also found a lot of great small group leader advice and resources on-line. Mention blogs – Because Relationships Matter by Kathy Guy, Heather Zempel, Life & Theology by Ben Reed, Mark Howell Live by Mark Howell, Simple Small Groups by Bill Search, Small Group Books.com by Ryan Knight, Small Group Pastors by the Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry by Randall Neighbor, and Will Johnston – of NCC.)

9.  Lean into the small group leader community.  Make it a priority to be here for each quarterly meeting.  Connect with each other outside this meeting.  Go to lunch or breakfast together.  When you see each other in and out of church, stop, ask, and share about your group.

9A.  Be patient. It may take time for your small group to grow. I remember starting our first group at our church. We met at our house. The Stolpes and the Callahans. This was it week after week after week. Then we added the Santangelos. Then the Bonanis started coming. Suddenly our small living room was filling up. We switched over to the Callahans. Before we knew it, we had to split up into three different rooms. The group had grown so much. I have seen this trend again and again. Don’t give up! It may take a little while for your group to catch on. Remember that God is there when two or more gather in His name.

10.  Be passionate!  My list started with a reminder that what you do as a small group leader matters.  Realize this fact.  Think about it.  Believe it. Act like it!  You have a great honor and privilege to lead others in their journey towards Christ.  This is awesome stuff!  Be excited about what you are doing.  Spread the excitement to others!

That’s my top 10 (or 12) things that small group leaders should know. I’d love to hear your ideas and questions. Before that, I’d like to leave you with this. Thank you! Thank you for stepping up to serve. Thank you for getting out of your comfort zone. Thank you for leading. Thank you for leading when it’s fun and when it’s not. Thank you for making a difference. Thank you for caring enough to help others connect to others and to God.

So these were my notes.  I would add another point based on some of the discussion that followed our meeting.  We’ll call it number 7A:  You may need to be flexible.  Sometimes life happens, and you need to throw out your plans for the meeting to address concerns that need immediate attention.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What would you add to the list?  How have you seen these points in your small group experience?

Jon Stolpe


Christ-follower, husband, dad, engineer, manager, runner, blogger, sax player, group life fan, freelance writer, and the list goes on...
  • Good list, Jon. I just read yesterday about Victor Cruz, wide receiver for the Giants (as a Cowboy fan, it pains me to use this illustration), caught on the sideline during the Super Bowl. “It’s not about me. It’s the team. The team.” And the team is about playing the game (or living the gospel and sharing life together).

    When we lived in Russia, we had hoped to start a cell church. The key to growth in the cell church is corporate worship and active small groups. The image used was that of a bird with two healthy wings–one marked worship, the other small group. The balance of the two allowed flight to take place. That imagery has never left me. I believe the healthiest churches have life-in-Christ affirming worship and community-building small groups engaged in learning and outreach.

  • Mike Mack

    Great list, Jon. This covers many of the vital basics of leading a healthy group! I really like the good reminder in #7. I think # 8 & 9 are critical so that we have a supportive community to encourage and strengthen us as we lead.

    A couple I would add that are in my new book (Small Group Vital Signs from TOUCH): (1) a healthy group is Christ-centered, not leader-centered, group-member-need-centered, or curriculum-centered. Actually, I think this is the most vital one, because all the rest flow out of it. (2) A healthy group shares leadership with a core team. I think you get at this one in #3 & 4, but I think it’s vital to lift it up. (3) A healthy group is proactive and has goals and plans that are in some sort of written agreement or covenant. At our church, when we assessed all our leaders on these “vital signs of a healthy group,” we found that this one actually made the biggest difference in overall group health.

    •  Mike, thanks so much for sharing these thoughts here.  I noticed that your book just came out.  I’m looking forward to reading it (maybe it’ll even be reviewed here).

  • This is great stuff, Jon. Planning to share it with our group leaders. Thanks for reposting it!

    •  Thanks, Will.  Hope all is going well at NCC.

  • These are some insightful points. Every small group leader needs to have passion for God and the small group if they want to be effective.

    Have you read: Making Small Groups Work: What Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know by John Townsend? You might really enjoy it.

    •  Dan, Thanks for the resource tip.  I haven’t read this one yet.

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  • My favorite is “Small groups are not about small group leaders” (and not about the groups either). As I consult with churches and coach leaders, I find this is one of the biggest obstacles to healthy groups.

    • Mike, Thanks for the comment. More importantly, thanks for the role you have had (and continue to have) in helping CCV (Matt Silver and Alyssa Dourte) as we navigate groups ministry in the Philadelphia suburbs.

  • Matt Silver

    Jo_n I’ll be sending this out to our leaders! Thanks for posting! Mike, I love that you have been cheering Jon on for years! You posted a comment a couple years ago. Very cool to see the consistency. I respect you both very much!

    • Ma_tt, You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment here. Much respect your way as well.