Factotum #7: What is a leader?

Leadership is one of the pressing issues of today, and not only in the church. Time magazine recently had a special on the ‘leaders of tomorrow’, highlighting the need to prepare for the future or face a world that has little direction and little security.

But it is harder than ever to agree upon what a leader should be like. How much authority and responsibility should a small number of people be given? Should leaders be intellectuals, business people, visionaries, celebrities, or some combination of all of these? How do we train people for leadership, and whom do we train? Does gender affect leadership?

Confusion about how to answer questions such as these is as rife in the church as in the world at large. People talk about a crisis of leadership and shelves of books are devoted to the subject. What should Christian leaders be like? What should they do? What shouldn’t they do?

This Factotum looks at leadership in small groups—often the powerhouse of the local church. The material comes from a manual on small group leadership, Growth Groups, written by Colin Marshall and available from Matthias Media.

The myth of the leaderless group

Why should we have leaders of Christian groups? Why not let the groups run themselves?

There is a popular view in Christian small groups that a designated leader is unnecessary and a positive disadvantage. In these ‘leaderless’ groups, all members are expected to provide leadership in different ways. There seems to be a contemporary fear that designated leadership stifles the gifts of the group members, and that the responsibility for running the group is too much for one person. It is thought that members will have a greater sense of group ownership and motivation in a leaderless group because they can shape its destiny.

These are legitimate concerns, but there are two realities to recognize at the outset. Firstly, there is no such thing as a group without a leader. The leaderless group is a myth. Any form of human society or grouping will generate its own leadership is none is designated. Even with a recognized leader, the group will often produce an alternative—it’s known as a coup! If there is no appointed leader, someone or several people will lead in some way, perhaps quite unobtrusively, perhaps overtly. Someone will fill the vacuum and set the directions and policies of the group. In Christian small groups, where we have specific Christian aims, it is negligent not to appoint suitable leaders.

Secondly, leaderless groups are unstable. They tend to lack consistency
in direction and program and are more likely to self-destruct because
of a loss of motivation and unresolved tensions.

The rise of the dictator

The opposite problem can also occur, with highly authoritarian small group leaders. We have seen them in some house churches and breakaway small groups. Often, these groups commence because of a strong leader who has strong reactions to the status quo. The group develops intense loyalty to this leader and his vision and, in the end, his leadership is not tested by Scripture. Some of these leaders become guru figures who require that members obey their every command.


  1. Think of small groups in which you have been a member. How was the group led? What sort of leadership issues arose in the group?
  2. In what ways do you think Christian small group leadership might differ from that of other small groups?

Leading Christian groups

Two principles

So how should leadership be carried out in our small groups? There are a number of different aspects to leading a small group, but a major part is the leading of Bible study and discussion. We will focus upon this activity as we examine two basic principles involved in Christian leadership. At first glance, the two principles appear to be contradictory.

1. Control: the leader is a teacher, not just a facilitator

In studying the Bible, we are dealing with the truth of God’s Word. We are not just airing opinions; rather, we are seeking to understand God’s revelation of himself. Each part of the Bible can be rightly interpreted and our discussion should aim to clarify its meaning so we can respond to God’s word. There are right answers, and the leader will have worked out where the discussion should end up. At the end of the night the group should be saying, “God has spoken to us by his word. What should we do?” rather than, “We sure had a fiery discussion tonight!”

The leader is not just a chairperson or facilitator. The goal is not just to create a non-judgemental, open environment with freewheeling debate. The leader is a Bible teacher, responsible for the conclusions drawn by the group.

2. Freedom: control inhibits discussion

What kills a discussion? One sure way is to create the sense that the group has to come up with the right answer. They can’t really say what they like—they might be corrected. The process of discussion seems controlled and everyone becomes inhibited. Any actions that communicate evaluation, control, strategy or superiority reduce spontaneity and openness in discussion. For example, these are sure-fire conversation stoppers: saying an answer is wrong, refusing to discuss an issue, or saying, “It’s different in the Hebrew text”.

Notice the tension between these two principles. On the one hand we want discussion to go somewhere; on the other, we can’t afford to completely control discussion.

We have come to the basic dilemma in leading Bible discussions. The discussion method we have inherited is influenced by today’s popular world view, which says that no one is wrong and everyone is at least a little bit right—there is truth in what everyone thinks. Discussions work well in this non-defensive, accepting climate where there is no particular predetermined answer or end point to which things are heading and the whole exercise is open-ended.

So, how do we run energetic, stimulating discussions on the Bible, and yet steer the group to clear conclusions about what God has revealed? The trick is to achieve a balance of freedom and control. For ideas about how to find this balance, you’ll have to buy the small groups manual in September!

Facilitating leadership

The quality of any group is determined largely by the quality of its leaders. The careful selection, training and supervision of leaders takes time and effort but pays great dividends. Someone within the church has to give priority to raising up and encouraging leaders. In most churches, this person needs to be the pastor.

There are enormous advantages to the pastor selecting and training the leaders. He should not see this work as a distraction but rather as the heart and soul of his work. By doing the selection and training himself, he ensures high ‘quality control’ (to borrow a commercial term) of the small groups. He will know the strengths and weaknesses of each leader. He has a personal relationship with each leader during the training process and they catch his vision for Christ and the church.

Pastors need to grasp the strategic importance of equipping godly, skilful teachers within the congregation. A pastor working on his own may be able to build up a congregation of 100 or even 150. Beyond that, it is difficult to have enough contact with the members for effective personal ministry. A team of small group leaders will add depth and quality to the work and facilitate expansion.

There is also a broader strategy. The leaders you train will be highly sort after lay leaders wherever they go. Your church can be a sending base for lay leaders all around the world.

How to train leaders

Like all ministry, leadership is caught not taught. It is not learnt in the classroom, hearing lectures on how to lead a group. Leadership is leamt on the job. It is a process of receiving instruction, observing good models, having a go at the task. Getting feedback, having another go and repeating the process.

Ministry is much more than skills. It arises out of who we are before God, what we understand of him, how we have responded to his gospel, how we view and treat other people and our priorities and passions. We bring to ministry all that we are—our beliefs, values, emotions, experiences and behaviour.

The best leadership training is, therefore, the apprenticeship model, where someone who is already leading takes on a potential leader and shows them the ropes. This approach to leadership training is more labour intensive than running a 10-week course for 100 people. But it imparts a whole way of living and thinking, rather than merely training technicians. It produces leaders who have the knowledge, skills and heart for the job.

If every small group leader sought to find one suitable person and train him or her in leadership each year that the group is running, in a very short time we would have hordes of people capable of starting their own small groups and extending the reach of the gospel. That is how the DIY church will grow. Training for leadership is never a waste of time.


  1. Is your church thinking carefully about raising up leaders?
  2. If you are leading a small group, do you know someone who could work with you as an apprentice leader?
  3. Bill has struck upon a method of Bible discussion which he feels gets everyone thinking. He plays devil’s advocate, deliberately making provocative, even heretical, statements about the passage the group has just read. When the group members challenge him, he counters until they are exasperated. He then explains to the group why what he was saying is actually wrong.
  4. How does this rate as a method of Bible discussion leadership? Does it deal with the tension between freedom and control? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

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