5 Habits of Highly Effective Small Group Leaders

5 Habits of Highly Effective Small Group Leaders

The boys basketball team from Hugo High School was on their way to the next round in the 2013 Oklahoma state playoffs.

There were only 2.9 seconds left in the game and they led the team from Millwood High School by one point: 37 to 36.

Even better, Hugo had possession of the ball. A quick inbound pass, a few dribbles, and the buzzer would sound. The game would be over. Cheerleaders would cheer, and the teams would shake hands and head to the locker room.

Trey Johnson, a junior at Hugo, received the pass. But what he did next shocked everyone in the gym.

Instead of dribbling until the buzzer sounded, he saw an opening on the court. He sprinted past defenders until he was looking at an open goal. He took the shot…and made it.


There was just one problem: he scored that shot in his own basket. That shot gave Millford the victory: 38 to 37.

That’s too bad for Trey Johnson. He scored the goal, but he scored it in the wrong basket. But here’s a question for you:

How many of your small group leaders are shooting at the wrong basket every single week?

You know who they are.

They think their role is to show up and get through the lesson you provide. They think their goal is to end on time and make sure no one breaks any of the furniture in the room.

And as long as they show up, get through the lesson, end on time, and make sure nothing gets broken, they feel like they’re doing a good job.

But they’re not. That’s the wrong goal.

The goal for your small group leaders is so much bigger and more important than those things. And you owe it to them to clarify the win. They need you to tell them which basket they should shoot at.

You need to keep telling them.
Keep showing them and keep reminding them what their goals really are.

So, what are their goals?

5 Goals for Small Group Leaders

In this post, I want to share five goals that I give to my small group leaders. We call them the Leader Essentials.

If a leader wants to help their students get the most out of their small group experience, these five things must be happening.

1. Stay Connected

Leading a small group requires the leader to pour out for students what God is pouring into him or her. That means the small group leader must have a consistent, vibrant relationship with God.

They must stay connected to the Source of Life if they want to be able to lead others in that direction. This is not negotiable.

That’s why Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit” (John 15:5 NLT).

When your leaders stay connected to Jesus, their efforts with students will produce fruit. If you have a leader who complains about students and has a bad attitude about everything you do, it’s a good bet that he or she isn’t staying connected to Jesus.

A leader’s connection with Jesus is the foundation for their connection with students.

2. Build Relationships

The biggest problems in small groups happen when the leader thinks he can just show up, teach, go home, and do it again next week. But that’s not how it works.

That creates problems because those students won’t listen to that person. Eventually, that person will get frustrated, blame the students, and quit.

Students want to know that the leader actually cares about them before they care what the leader has to say. Only after they’re convinced of that will they listen and engage at a deeper level.

This shouldn’t be hard to understand. Think about any meaningful relationship you have. The hallmark of those relationships is transparency. You feel free to say what you think and show how you really feel.

But transparency doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a by-product of trust that is built over time. That’s what you want for your students, and that’s what your students want from their small group leaders.

If a small group leader doesn’t make relationships a priority, they have a frustrating road ahead of them.

See: 20 Little Things That Make a Big Difference with Students

3. Encourage Participation

Too many small group leaders talk too much. That’s a problem because small are intended to get the students talking. Instead of talking, your small group leaders should be playing a different kind of game. They should try to see how little they can talk.

When they don’t fill the air with their own voices, it leaves room for students to talk.

This usually requires a shift in the leader’s view of their role. They are not teachers of information. They are facilitators of discussion.

Their goal isn’t to get through all of the material. Their goals is to get everyone to participate in a meaningful way.

That means they can’t let the same three students answer all the questions and dominate the discussion. They have to be willing to call on a quiet student by name and ask, “What do you think about that, Alex?”

When group leaders get group members to participate, the group will grow together.

4. Provide Care

Care is needed when a student stumbles into a challengeing time in their lfe.

Sometimes it’s their own fault: they cheated on a test, went too far with their boyfriend, or got a rejection letter from the college they wanted to attend.

Other times, it’s not their fault: a grandparent dies, their parents get divorced, or girlfriend breaks up with them.

Whatever the case, when students hit hard times they look to the people they know well. They talk to the people they trust. God often uses pivotal circumstances to grow a person’s faith, but it doesn’t happen automatically.

A pivotal circumstance has the potential to either strengthen or weaken a student’s faith.

Which way they will go can depend on the quality of care they receive in the midst of the challenge they’re facing. They need small group leaders to help them see God’s goodness in the midst of life’s challenges.

Because they’ve earned the right to be heard when times were good, small group leaders are able to provide care when times aren’t so good.

5. Focus on Life Change

Isn’t this the point of everything your church and ministry does? And yet, it easily slips into the background. It drifts out of focus.

Too often, our small group leaders get preoccupied with planning outings or minimizing behavior problems. And that’s good. Those things need to be done. But those things aren’t the point – the reason – the small group exists. Life change is the reason, the ultimate goal of the group.

The reason your ministry has small groups in the first place is to create an environment where God is able to work in the lives of students. The relationships, discussion, and care are all pointing in this direction.

Leaders who think life change are the leaders who eventually see life change happen in their group. Why? Because they’re praying about it. They’re talking about it. They’re planning for it.

In his book, The Soul Winner, Charles Spurgeon writes about a conversation he had with a new minister. The minister tells Spurgeon that he’s been preaching for several months, but still hasn’t seen a single convert to the faith.

What was Spurgeon’s reply?

He said, “And do you expect that the Lord is going to bless you and save souls every time you open your mouth?”

“No sir,” the new minister replied.

“Well then that is why you do not get souls saved,” Spurgeon told him.

Group leaders can’t be shy about expecting and encouraging students to take next steps in their relationship with Christ. Maybe that’s salvation. Maybe that’s baptism. Maybe that’s surrender.

Whatever it is, life change must remain the primary focus of the small group leader and the ultimate goal of the group.

Your Move

Don’t let your small group leaders shoot at the wrong basket! They are showing up, trying to make a difference. But they need you to keep the right goals in front of them week after week.

Again, the goals are:
• Stay Connected
• Build Relationships
• Encourage Participation
• Provide Care
• Focus on Life Change

I want to offer two steps that you can do right now to help your small group leaders:

Step 1: Download the cheat sheet

Get the bonus content: Small Group Leader Essentials

Step 2: Send it to your small group leaders.
Tell them that you want to make sure everyone is doing the best they can in these areas because the strength and quality of the ministry are directly affected by the strength and quality of the groups.

Small groups matter because they enable students to take steps toward God can that can change their lives today and forever.

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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