By Joel Comiskey
Most literature on small group leadership focuses on the individual leader, as opposed to the team. In my own writing on small group leadership, I’ve mentioned team leadership in passing, but it definitely wasn’t my focus. I’ve grown wiser over the years. I now believe that the leadership team is absolutely essential to small group ministry. In fact, it’s one of the primary keys to small group health and growth.
The Scriptural Base
Jesus exemplified team ministry by sending his disciples in groups of two to start home groups. Scripture says, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. . . . When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.” (Luke 10:1,5).
The early church followed Christ’s example when starting house churches. The house church planting team of Aquila and Priscilla planted house churches in various parts of the Roman empire (Acts 18:26; Rom 16:3;1 Cor 16:19;2 Tim 4:19). Paul the apostle also depended on a team in his missionary endeavors (Acts 12:25; 13:1; 15:39). In fact, the norm in the early church was to have a team of leaders over the house churches. Paul, for example, told the leaders of the Ephesian church that the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” of the flock (Acts 20:28).
When writing to the church at Philippi, Paul greeted the congregation and, separately, the “overseers” (Phil. 1:1). When he wrote to Titus, Paul directed him to appoint elders, whom he also identified with the functions of “overseer” (Titus 1:5–7). Michael Green writing about early church leadership says,
Leadership was always plural: the word `presbyter’ from which we derive `priest’ is regularly used in the plural when describing Christian ministry in the New Testament. They were a leadership team, supporting and encouraging one another, and doubtless making up for each other’s deficiencies. This team leadership is very evident in the missionary journeys of the New Testament, and Acts 13:lff. is particularly interesting. It indicates not only a plural leadership in Antioch, consisting of five members, but diverse types of leadership: some were `prophets’ relying on charismatic gifts, while others were `teachers’ relying on study of the Scriptures (Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 25, Kindle Edition).
I find it much more liberating to tell future leaders that they will not be leading the group individually but will function in a team. Potential leaders feel more secure when knowing they won’t have to do everything themselves. New groups are also much healthier when led by a leadership team.
Okay, so you’re convinced. But how do we make this practical in 21st century small groups?
One person in charge
Even with the emphasis of plurality of NT leadership, there are indications in the New Testament that a point person led the house church teams (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:17).
I have coached churches who didn’t have a point person due to their Scriptural convictions about equality of team ministry. While I liked their team spirit, I discovered that when no one is in charge, it’s common for no one to take responsibility, which leads to lack of clarity and direction.
I believe it’s best to have one person guide the leadership team at the small group level and church level, although it’s essential that the point person lead the team with a servant attitude. Scripture is clear that those in charge need to lead in humility, rather than a controlling, dominating spirit. Jesus said the greatest in leadership would be the servant of all (Matthew 20:25-28; John 13: 13-17).
Extend the team
Too often in small group ministry, we’ve emphasized the co-leader or assistant leader. But why limit the team to two people? Why not have a team of three, like Jesus, or four or five, like the apostle Paul? Not only can small group responsibilities be distributed more widely on a larger team, but there’s more possibility of multiplication.
It seems to me that when we use the term “co-leader” or “assistant leader,” we are cutting ourselves off to additional team members. Why not just use the term “team member” and slowly add new potential leaders to the team.
With more on the leadership team, you will be assured that more people will actually attend faithfully each week (assuming that the team members are always there), and more people can help with leadership functions within the group (e.g., bringing refreshments, worship, prayer, lesson, evangelistic outreach, etc.).
How do you recruit future people? Go after the FAT people (Faithful, Available, Teachable). Encourage the FAT people to go to the next level and join the leadership team. Requirements for involvement on the leadership team differs from church to church. Most churches require that a potential team leader go through the church approved training to participate on a leadership team. Some churches require a certain amount of time in the church. Some Pentecostal churches require speaking in tongues to be in leadership positions. Others require tithing as a prerequisite to leadership.
The Bible is clear that the leader needs to be born again and have a good testimony toward outsiders. You don’t want to lift someone up who will later malign the church (1 Timothy 3). I think it’s also essential that team members walk in a certain amount of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). I’m not referring to perfection, because that won’t happen this side of heaven. I am referring to freedom from major sins, such as fornication, pornography, etc.
Focus on the giftedness of each team member
Team leadership functions should be distributed according to the giftedness of each member. If Joe has the gift of evangelism, he should be responsible to organize the small group outreach. If Nancy has the gift of mercy, she can help in the visitation of a hospitalized member or organize the visitation. If Jose has the gift of teaching, he can rotate in leading the small group lesson or in the taking a member through the church approved training. If Jeanie has the gift of apostleship, she should be spearheading the next multiplication. If Andrew has the gift of administration, he can be in charge of distributing small group responsibilities—who brings refreshments, leads worship, prayer, lesson, etc.
To learn more about the gifts of the Spirit I would recommend reading through the key Bible passages in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4. I would also encourage the leader and team to read books on the gifts of the Spirit (I’ve written two books on gifts in the small group). There are also a number spiritual gift tests available, and it would be a great idea to have the entire team take one of those gift tests–although I feel the best way to spot spiritual gifts is through relational observation and testing in the group.
Keys to communication
Once you’ve established who will be on the team, it’s essential to emphasize love and servanthood. The New Testament writers mention the “one-anothers” over 50xs. Effective teams must be willing to love one another, encourage one another, humble themselves before one another, forgive one another, etc.
It’s important to establish the rule that team members will talk directly to other team members, rather than gossiping—especially avoiding the subtle trap of gossiping in the name of praying for so and so. Absolute honesty and willing to walk through conflict—and actually growing through it—are important traits that make or break effective team ministry. Remember that even the great apostle Paul couldn’t handle one of his own team members and ended up leaving his team due to conflict (Acts 15:2). Team ministry can be intense, and therefore it’s essential to keep short accounts, allow love to cover a multitude of sins, and especially to develop friendship among team members. In fact, friendship is the glue that sustains the team overtime.
How can you do this? I recommend touching base by phone, texting, email, talking to each other at church, and personally meeting one another. How often? The more the better, but I would say at least once per month the team should meet together for fellowship and planning.
What should you cover in the group meeting? First, it’s a time to pray for one another and the small group. Second, talk about each member of the small group. What are their needs? Does John need a personal one-on-one meeting? Does Jane need more responsibility in the group? Who needs to be encouraged to go through the church-wide training? Third, assign responsibilities for the small group meeting.
No longer alone
I’m convinced that team leadership holds an important key to the future of small group ministry. In fact, I’m sensing a renewed emphasis in this area and a tiredness with the lone-ranger type leadership. Yes, there’s a price to pay with shared leadership and most likely conflict will occur. However, the rewards and fruitfulness of team leadership far outweighs the difficulties along the way. Team leadership also paves the way for fruitful, healthy small groups that don’t depend on one person. As Solomon once said long ago, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).