Most group leaders feel a tremendous amount of pressure to ensure the members of their group make dramatic progress on their spiritual journeys during the life of the group. They set specific spiritual goals for each group member and try to orchestrate studies, discussions, and service projects to drive towards those goals. These leaders are constantly on the lookout for evidence of radical transformation among their group members. And when they don't see it, they feel like failures. Have you ever experienced this? I know I have. Here's the good news: if your group isn't generating jaw-dropping stories of amazing life-change, it's probably not a result of a leadership failure but your own misunderstanding of the leader's role in group members' spiritual growth.
Leaders aren't responsible for growing people spiritually. That's up to God and the individual. Leaders perform all kinds of tasks on behalf of the group, but most of those tasks fall into one of three big responsibilities. These are the primary things a leader can do to foster spiritual growth:
1. Cultivate Relationships To grow spiritually, people have to be connected relationally. We say that all the time, right? That's because it's true. And it's not just your group members' relationship with you that helps them (and you) grow. It's their relationships with one another. That's why a huge part of leading a group is clearing the cluttered path of life so that people can connect with one another. That path clearing doing things as simple as brewing coffee and creating a comfortable environment for people to let go of workday stress, to more complex stuff like helping to ease occasional relational tensions between group members or organizing opportunities for the group to get together outside of regular meeting times. The important thing is that you're intentional about casting a vision for your group members so they understand that the bonds that form within the group aren't a add-on to the real goal of spiritual growth; they're an essential part of that growth.
2. Promote Participation Life change doesn't happen when people learn information. It happens when people apply in their daily lives the information they learn. The more an adult feels like he or she owns the learning process, the more likely he or she is to apply the lessons learned. That's why promoting participation is so important in groups. Sharing tasks like facilitating discussions, hosting meetings, preparing snacks, leading prayer times, planning socials, and guiding the curriculum choice help group members feel greater ownership of the group. And group members who feel ownership are more likely to connect with one another relationally and participate more fully during discussion times.
3. Celebrate Change It's an odd truism that it's often difficult for people to recognize their own spiritual growth. A group leader is uniquely positioned to see group members' growth . . . and to point it out. Celebrating change — whether that means a simple verbal acknowledgement during a group meeting or a celebratory social between studies — demonstrates that the group really does value the change God is bringing about in each member's life. It also helps group members to stay focused on personal spiritual growth as the purpose of the group.
Operating with these three essential responsibilities as your guides doesn't means you shouldn't assess where your group members are on their spiritual journeys and define some "wins" that reflect where you'd like them to be. It just means that those wins should be short-term and incremental. Mapping out your plan for each group member over the entire life of the group is exceeding your mandate as a leader; it's getting into an area that is the responsibility of God and each individual group member.
A helpful exercise for defining some short-term goals for your group members is to ask yourselves three questions:
- Where is this person on his or her spiritual journey?
- What is a possible next step for this person on his or her spiritual journey?
- What can I do to help this person discover and take that next step?
In the next couple of posts, I'll talk about the role of the individual and the role of the group in spiritual growth.