Cell Leadership Development

By Joel Comiskey

This article appeared in C&MA Cell-Net #36

What is the core concept in the cell church? Community? Evangelism? Church growth? Steve Irvin and I debated this idea over dinner one night in my home. We batted around a few commonly held assumptions about the main theme of the cell church. Then I sprang on Steve a growing conviction of my own heart. “I believe that the essence of the cell church is preparing leaders who are sent out to reap the harvest. The cell church is a leadership strategy,” I told him.

As I’ve studied, practiced, and reflected on the cell church over the last few years, I’ve concluded that the cell church is all about developing and releasing leaders to reap the harvest. The perfect environment for leaders to begin and thrive is the cell group.

The Leader-Driven Church

Rick Warren’s best selling book The Purpose Driven Church provides important principles for the church at large. I’d like someone to write a book for the cell church called The Leadership-Driven Church. Raising-up a continual flow of healthy multiplying cell leaders is the heart of the cell church. Cells are leader breeders. Cells breed new leaders. If you catch the awesome power of raising up an army of leaders through the cell strategy, you’ll succeed.

Some cell churches do better than others in producing and sustaining the leadership flow in their churches. Some transitioning cell churches start out well, but as soon as the already prepared saints are taken, their cell church begins to sink. Such churches fail to understand how to develop and supervise new leaders. It’s a leadership strategy.

What are some of the key Biblical principles behind leadership development in the cell church?

Christ’s Choice of the Twelve

It’s surprising that Jesus did not choose key, prominent men to form part of His twelve. None of Christ’s disciples occupied important positions in the synagogue, nor did any of them belong to the Levitical priesthood. Rather, they were common laboring men, having no professional training, no academic degrees, and no source of inherited wealth. Most were raised in the poor part of the country. They were impulsive, temperamental, and easily offended. Jesus broke through the barriers that separated the clean and unclean, the obedient and sinful. He summoned the fisherman as well as the tax collector and zealot. Jesus saw hidden potential in them. He detected a teachable spirit, honesty, and a willingness to learn. They possessed a hunger for God, a sincerity to look beyond the religious hypocrisy of their day, and they were looking for someone to lead them to salvation. In calling the despised to Himself, in sitting down to a meal with publicans, in initiating the restoration of a Samaritan woman, Jesus demonstrated that even these people were welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Look at the Heart

Most of the leadership problems can be solved if you are willing to develop the lay people within your own congregation. True, this will require that you open your heart to a broader spectrum of lay people in your church.

A study of three hundred highly successful people such as Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Einstein, revealed that one-fourth had handicaps, such as blindness, deafness, or crippled limbs. Three-fourths had either been born in poverty, come from broken homes, or from exceedingly tense or disturbed situations.

Sometimes we fail to see emerging leadership because we are looking for the wrong things. We often look for those who mesh with our personality but pass over those who follow a different drummer.

Samuel misjudged the Lord’s choice for the second king of Israel because he focused on height and stature: “Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.’ But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:6-7).

Jesse was just as surprised that his older children were not elected. He had not even considered inviting shepherd boy David to the ceremony. But even though David was a “ruddy” young boy, “. . . the LORD said, ‘Rise and anoint him; he is the one!’” (1 Samuel 16:11-12)

God tends to use the “ruddy, young boys” that are fully committed to him. Our tendency is to hang educational nooses around budding leaders. Yet, the harvest is so plentiful and the laborers are so few that God would have us look at all leadership possibilities around us.

Characteristics of Leaders

What kind of characteristics should the perfect leader possess? Don’t worry too much if you get as many answers as those attending your group. Most authors do the same. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find an exact definition of leadership. The study of leadership is broad and varied. The numerous definitions of leadership provide validity to this quote by Bennis and Nanus: “. . . leadership is the most studied and least understood topic of any in the social sciences. . . .Leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen.” These experts in the field of leadership go on to say:

Literally thousands of empirical investigations of leaders have been conducted in the last seventy-five years alone, but no clear and unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders, and perhaps more important, what distinguishes effective leaders from ineffective leaders and effective organizations from ineffective organizations.

If you’re contemplating future leadership, be encouraged. God uses all kinds of leaders. There is no such thing as the perfect leader. Nor is there one mold labeled leadership. God wants to use you in your uniqueness. Leadership has many personalities. Although the Bible doesn’t promote one “personality type” for great leadership, it does give us the characteristics of effective leadership. The following provides clues to Biblical leadership.

Old Testament Principles

When I do cell training, I know that I need to share the following leadership requirements because God requires them. Several of these traits can be summarized in one phrase: dependence upon God. God is looking for leaders who have the right heart attitude. The following Biblical reference actually mention what God expects of a leaders:

  • Exodus 18:25
    • Virtuous
    • Delegates responsibility
  • Deuteronomy 17:15-20
    • Elected by God (v.15)
    • Committed believer (15)
    • Dependent on God (16-17)
    • An obedient student of the Bible (18,19)
    • Manifests humility (v. 20)
  • I Samuel 16:7
    • Has a heart dedicated to God
  • II Samuel 23:3 & Leviticus 25:43-53
    • Demonstrates reverence for God
    • Dependence on God

A godly Christian leader must desire God above all else. This quality of hungering and thirsting for God will guide all the other skills. Jesus says to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you (Mt. 6:33). The strongest disciples are those who long for the presence of God. The Holy Spirit will be hindered if the leader is spiritually indifferent. A person who is not allowing the Holy Spirit to work in his or her own life can hardly be a channel for His working in the group. The Holy Spirit is the great Leader, so we need him in our ministry to be effective. His will and glory above all else. “My food,” said Christ, “is to do the will of my Father and to finish His work” (John 4:34).

Spirituality is a prerequisite for effective cell leaders. I’m not referring here to a super spirituality, which characterizes certain high-minded people. We are all aware of those who use their “spirituality” to mask deep-seated pride. Rather, I’m talking about a humble dependence on God. I’m referring to a person who truly believes “that apart from Him, we can do nothing.”

Ray Prior, the president of the Borden Corporation, one of the largest business structures in America, was asked how he led such a large corporation. He answered, “Each morning when I wake up, I meet with the Lord and begin to listen to His voice. In that period of time, I ask Him to bring to my mind the needs of the key men who report directly to me. As I think about their weaknesses, I plan my day.” Let’s follow the example of Ray Prior, staying in tune moment by moment with Jesus Christ.

Jesus tells us that the Father is looking for such worshipers (John 4:24). Effective leaders understand that the most important preparation for the leader before the cell meeting begins is to wait in His presence. As the leader waits in the listening room, he or she will receive direct orders from God. Lesson preparation is important, but spiritual preparation comes first. More important than time spent pouring over the cell lesson is quality time with God. I agree with Icenogle when he says, “The hope for healthy Christian small groups lies in group leaders who ‘are willing to be led’ by the Spirit . .” Cell leaders must lead the group in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Overcoming the Obstacles

Anyone studying leadership in the Old Testament is obliged to take note of the life of Nehemiah. Notice some key principles from Nehemiah’s life:

  • Passion for the glory of God (1:4)
  • Dynamic life of prayer (1:5-11)
  • Willingness to fulfill his own prayer (1:11; 4:8,9)
  • Sacrificial life (2:1-7)
  • Wise plans (2:4-7)
  • Contagious vision ( 2:17, 18 & 4:1-14)
  • Just life (5:1-13)
  • Ministry of teaching (8:9, 18)
  • Hatred of sin (13:25)

Nehemiah possessed God’s passion, was willing to get involved, knew where to go, how to get it done, and was able to motivate people toward the fulfillment of his goal. His leadership transformed a depressed and oppressed group of God’s people into a lightning task force, capable of accomplishing God’s purpose.

Yet, if I could pinpoint the most important trait from the life of Nehemiah, it would be the ability to overcome obstacles. Trials and tribulations piled up against Nehemiah–to the point of trouncing him. Yet, we read how he overcame them time and time again. He was so consumed by his God-given task and vision that he never allowed obstacles and difficulties to deter him.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Nehemiah lived in the midst of adversity but he faced it, confronted, and triumphed over it. Cell leadership can learn from his example.

Miriam Richards is the leader of a young professional’s group. As a single mother, she has many personal obstacles to overcome—long work days and endless motherly responsibilities. Yet, she doesn’t allow the very real obstacles to stop her from effective cell leadership. She sees them as a stepping-stone. “Cell leadership has done wonders for me,” she told us during one leadership meeting. “Each week, I’m forced to depend upon God as I prepare. I’m dependent on Him to help me find solutions to the needs of my group.” Miriam leads a solid, growing group, in which two atheists regularly attend.

I’ve noticed that some cell leaders always have an excuse. You know what pastors, “No one in my neighborhood is open to the gospel.” “This cell ministry is hard, I just don’t have the time.”

Ten spies came back with a report based on the reality of the situation. “There are giants in the land! There is no way we can win this war.” Joshua and Caleb saw two realities: the giants and the God who made them. They came back excited for the chance to see God’s mighty power at work. “Let’s go for it. Right now. This land is full of milk and honey and we serve a big God. He’s easily able to take us into the land and bring us the victory. Let’s go.”

Do you see obstacle or opportunity? Herb Miller gives this advice to leaders, “Never sidestep challenges. Grab every charging bull by the horns and slap him twice across the face. Remind him that God is in charge of you, . . .”

A cell leader will face moments of discouragement, loneliness, and pain. Conflicts often surface in a cell group due to personality differences, constant talkers, overly “spiritual ones,” late arrivers, poor communication, cultural differences, etc. A cell leader might even face direct criticism from members of the group. A common assumption that many cell leaders make is to consider all conflict as “bad” and to be avoided if possible. Yet, if conflict can lead to deeper consideration of the issues at hand, and if it challenges members to look at their own behaviors, then it’s beneficial to the group.

Nehemiah overcame the obstacles, but he also had his moments of intense discouragement. Thomas Edison once remarked, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Edison tried 10,000 times before he finally found the right materials for the incandescent light bulb. Every time he failed he gained valuable information about what didn’t work, bringing closer to the solution.

New Testament Principles

Several New Testament passages specifically deal with leadership characteristics. I’ve summarized these traits in the following list. Notice how these characteristics focus on godliness and servant hood.

  • Mark 10:42-45
    • Domination is the world’s leadership style
    • Servant hood is the leadership style of the disciple
    • Service through the cell ministry
  • Acts 6:3
    • A good testimony
    • Filled with the Spirit
    • Filled with wisdom
  • Romans 12:8
    • Diligence
  • Timothy 3:1-13 (Titus 1: 5-10)
    • Social qualities
    • A pure life (3:2,3)
    • A good reputation (3:7)
  • Moral qualities
    • Husband of one wife (3:2)
    • Not given to wine (3:3)
  • Mental qualities
    • Respectable (3:2)
    • Self-controlled (3:2)
    • Able to teach (3:2)
  • Personal qualities
    • Gentle (3:3)
    • Hospitable (3:2)
    • Not a lover of money (3:3)
  • Domestic qualities
    • House in order (3:2,4,5)

Godly Character

D.L. Moody once commented, “Character is what you are in the dark.” Most of the requirements in the New Testament involve character. Virtues such as honesty, faithfulness, and good judgment are synonymous with New Testament leadership. No amount of talent or giftedness can replace these characteristics. Bad character qualities will ultimately disqualify a person from leadership.

As a young Christian studying at college in Long Beach, California, I once tried to witness to a friend in Biology class. She politely listened and even nodded, but nothing more. One evening several months later, I was eating with friends in a nearby restaurant. To my surprise, this girl from college appeared as our waitress for the evening. We talked, ordered our food, ate, and then asked for the bill. Trying to please us (at the expense of her boss), she came back saying, “I’m not going to write on the bill all of the food that you ate.” God spoke to me immediately and I said to her, “I appreciate your gesture, but we’re Christians and God wants us to pay for what we ate.”

She was quite surprised and probably thought we were a bit weird, but the message was clear. Before leaving, I invited her to our church. The next Sunday she showed up at church and said to me, “When you didn’t accept my offer last week at the restaurant, then I knew that you were a Christian.” This girl heard me talk about Jesus previously at college, but she had to see Jesus played out in my character before believing. My actions, as opposed to my words, made the difference in her life.

People are watching our lives. They want to make sure that our actions correspond with our words before receiving the gospel message. They want to make sure that the leader they are going to follow is credible and honest. Godly character refers to Christ’s work in our actions, attitude, and daily Christian living.

Today we face a dearth of godly character. We’re inclined to cry out with the Psalmist, “Help, LORD, for the godly are no more” (Psalm 12:1). So many gifted Christians, who minister to multitudes, fall prey to their own moral weaknesses.

The words of Paul to Timothy are pertinent for this issue of character, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Paul knew that Timothy was surrounded with older critics who wanted nothing more than to see him fall. Ephesus, though one of the most prominent cities in the Roman world, was filled with idolatry, orgies, and magic. It was in Ephesus that “A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas” (Acts 19:19).

Paul’s advice to Timothy in the midst of temptation and corruption was, in effect, “silence your critics by your actions.” Be an example to the believers. . . in purity. The word purity (hagnos) is always used with a moral sense. It is not limited to sins of the flesh, but covers purity in motive as well as in acts. The age-old saying rings true: “Actions speak louder than words.” Cell leaders must maintain godly ethics and character at all times.

As a former missionary to Ecuador, I’d often here people saying, “In Ecuador lots of oil flows.” The oil mentioned in this phrase is the oil of bribery, not petroleum. The system in Ecuador flows smoothly when it’s greased with lots of bribes.

Daniel Santana was one of my most trusted cell leaders. This man was respected as a first class architect, but more importantly as a godly Christian leader. Daniel confessed to me that by refusing to offer bribes, he lost many, many contracts as an architect. Yet, because of his refusal to mess around with sin, he maintained a pure testimony in the midst of a corrupt society. Make sure that what you are in the dark is the same person that lives in the day.

Servant Leadership

One characteristic of leadership that is unique to the New Testament is the concept of servant hood. Jesus taught His disciples to aspire to serve rather than “lord over.” According to Jesus, the greatest leaders were the most diligent servants. He then uses Himself as a personal illustration: ” For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 10:42-45).

Jesus continually modeled this attitude with His small group to the point of washing their feet (John 13). Cell leaders must be willing to extend themselves as servants to the entire group. Steve Barker points out:

. . . a cell group requires lots of service. When a group starts, someone must decide on the who, when, where, why and how. This translates into placing phone calls, reserving rooms, arranging chairs, making coffee, offering rides, reminding people and finally, making introductions. Such nitty-gritty work is thankless but necessary. It’s the behind-the-scenes effort that often determines whether the initial small group meeting is a miserable failure or a promising beginning.

Although it’s always good to delegate, ultimately the cell leader is responsible for the activities in the group, the order of the meeting, where the group will meet, the refreshments, follow-up on the newcomers, etc. A servant heart is a necessary ingredient in effective cell ministry.

Leadership Requirements in Cell Churches Worldwide

The Bible gives clear guidelines for Christian leadership, but they are only guidelines. The specific application of Biblical leadership principles varies from church to church. How long, for example, should a person know Jesus before leading a cell group? Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:6 that a Bishop must not be “. . . a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” But what does the word “recent” mean? The Greek the word “recent” literally means “newly–planted,” but we still need more information for a precise application. Does a “recent convert” mean three weeks or three years? We also must remember that Paul was referring to the office of bishop, the highest office in the church. Is it correct to place the requirements of bishop on a cell leader today?

In the eight cell churches in my study the length of time a potential leader needs to be converted varied from three months to three years. The average length of knowing Jesus before leading a cell group was one year. It must be noted, however, that the International Charismatic Mission, which is the fastest growing cell church today, turns unbelievers into cell leaders in six months. These new believers still have fresh contact with their non-Christian oikos relationships and often become flaming evangelists.

Although the requirements varied from church to church, the core requirements of salvation, membership, water baptism, cell attendance, and completion of specific cell training applied in all the churches. The amount and content of the training, however, varied greatly from church to church.

What Will You Leave Behind?

John Wesley and George Whitefield were famous preachers. Each lived during the 18th century and belonged to the same holy club at Oxford University. Both desired to win a lost world for Jesus Christ and were eager to try new methods to do so. In fact, George Whitefield preached in the open air before John Wesley. Most believe that George Whitefield was a better preacher than Wesley. Benjamin Franklin once calculated that Whitefield could easily preach to a crowd of 30,000 people (without a microphone!) Whitefield probably even recorded more decisions than Wesley because of the huge crowds he attracted.

Yet, at the end of his life George Whitefield said this: “My brother Wesley acted wisely–the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class, and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand”

Whitefield’s labors died with himself, but Wesley’s fruit continued to grow, increase, and multiply. Wesley organized the movement and brought it under systematic management; Whitefield hoped that those who had been “awakened” would follow through on their initiative; Wesley left nothing to chance. Wesley raised up a movement that produced leaders, while Whitefield only could produce conversions.

We need to concentrate on converting church members into dynamic cell leaders who will produce new cell leaders. We need to view our congregation with leadership eyes and then make sure that you have a training track to prepare them. Start a movement and you won’t have to preside over a monument.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey’s book Leadership Explosion expounds on the best training tracks in worldwide cell churches. Cell Church Solutions dedicates one chapter to cell equipping. Reap the Harvest highlights equipping tracks also Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.