It's almost completely counterintuitive, but the best small group leaders tend to be reluctant leaders. The best coaches or community leaders are almost always reluctant leaders. See also, What Makes People Follow Reluctant Leaders.
My first real clue about this was back in a season when (like many small group ministries) I was using a multi-week small group leader training course to prepare potential leaders for their first group. The course attendees included men and women who had been hand-picked (we knew them and they seemed like they had the stuff). Not wanting to miss any potentially promising candidates, we also ran a blurb in the bulletin and usually had a number of sign-ups from there. So the course was a mix of the two types of candidates. Hand-picked and volunteers.
Do you know where this is going? Over time I began to realize that a fairly significant percentage of the volunteers had below-the-waterline motivations that weren't healthy (i.e., they wanted to be in authority, they had their own agenda or a certain curriculum they wanted to use).
The last straw happened during a short period when I was still running the small group leader training course but was also holding small group connections (which allow the group to choose their own leader). Can you guess what happened several times? That's right! The new group formed at the connection did not choose the volunteer candidate from the small group leader training course!
I probably connected the last dot during a short meeting with the leaders who had just been chosen at a small group connection. One of them said, "I came expecting to be in a small group and I ended up the leader. It feels like a bait-and-switch...just a little bit. I'm okay. But it caught me off guard."
Here's the gist of what I said back:
“Did you know that in the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, there's not a single story about someone volunteering to be the leader. None of the great stories are about volunteering to lead. All of the stories are about being chosen. The closest thing to a volunteer leader was Nehemiah, and that's really not what he did. They didn’t volunteer. Old Testament or New Testament. Chosen. Moses. Gideon. Abraham. James and John. Peter. Paul. Chosen. There aren’t any great stories where someone came up and said, “I’d like to volunteer to be a leader.” All of the great stories are about God choosing a leader. And the best story is about how David was chosen. Remember how it goes?
"Samuel is sent by God to anoint the next king of Israel and he goes to Jesse’s house. When he gets there Jesse automatically brings out his oldest son. Naturally. He did what was expected. I believe that in that moment the Holy Spirit whispered to Samuel, “That’s not him.” So Jesse brought out the next son. “That’s not him.” This went on until there was only one left. David. And when Jesse brought out David, Samuel heard, “That’s the one.”
"Interesting about Samuel, we learn about his ability to hear God much earlier, when he was a little boy living with Eli the priest. And so we know that Samuel can actually hear God speak. But I believe that as you were sharing your answers with the group today, they heard something deep in their heart about you. I don’t know what it was. But I believe they heard it and that’s why they pointed to you.”
Reluctant. The best leaders are almost always reluctant. Be cautious about approving leaders who don't have some reluctance. It's one thing to develop a strategy that encourages many to "do the study with a few friends." It's another thing entirely to approve a leader you're not sure of and send them members. Look for reluctance. Design your steps to make room for reluctance.
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Image by Fechi Fajardo