Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Importance of Preparation

Study guides are standard, books are great, and DVDs are a fresh way for groups to interact with Bible-based materials. Yet, whatever the type or quality of the resource, the biggest difference between a spiritually enriching study time and a painfully boring study time just might be you—the small group leader.

This weekend, we hosted our quarterly small group leadership training event called our Small Group Leader Symposium. We introduced our church’s recommended curriculum for the new ministry year. Lots of good stuff! Recommendations include some classics, some tried-and-true materials, and some brand new DVD resources.

We watched some of the new DVD-based studies together, and we talked about specific resources that have ministered to us personally. And then at the end of our time together, I challenged our leaders with the significance of their role in nurturing a rich study time. I emphasized four key ingredients for success—all focused on the importance of preparation.

1. Read and Re-Read
Unfortunately, most of us have participated in small groups where the leader had clearly not read the chapter or worked through the study guide. They didn’t really know what the chapter was about—much less the key points of the study. What was that experience like? My guess is it subtly communicated; “This wasn’t really worth the time”

As the leader, you’re not required to know every line in the chapter, but you ought to be the most well-read person in the room on the chapter or study. You need to know your way around the chapter, so when someone in your group raises a point of interest you can guide others there and speak to the topic clearly. This communicates value and importance of the material you’re studying.

2. Research
Assuming you’ve read and re-read the materials, consider other ways to add depth to your study time. Is there a video clip that supports the study material? Is there an object to use as a prop that could visually enhance the teaching? Is there a quote or another writing that could be brought in to help others gain a more full understanding? Do some research outside of the study guide and consider ways to further your groups’ growth.

3. Pick the Best Questions
Not all study questions are created equal! Most study guides have far more questions than any group can possibly work through in a one discussion time. As the leader, you know the issues your group is dealing with in life. Spend some preparation time selecting which questions work best for the individuals in your group. Pick the questions that seek to connect with people’s heart—not just their head.

The goal of study questions is not to get through them all—but instead to nurture rich and spiritually-enriching conversation. (Nobody is going to test you on the material.)

4. Take Notes As You Go
As a leader, take notes on how people are processing the study material. Is someone wrestling with a Biblical truth? Was someone challenged by a thought or idea presented in the material? Take note of this—literally. This gives you insight into the hearts of those with whom you’re doing life. This also gives you connection points for ministry opportunities between studies.

Leader preparation communicates value—both of the study materials and of the individual members of your group. Take time to prepare, a rich study time depends on it!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Grief & The Christian Community

I haven’t written a blog entry in awhile. A few weeks to be exact. I couldn’t. I’ve been grieving. Two weeks ago, my dad passed away. He was not in good health, but his death came as a shock.

I’ve been busy phoning family and friends, crying, working with the funeral director, helping my mom, making the necessary travel arrangements, coordinating the memorial service, praying, and missing my Dad. He was not only my father, he was my friend.

In the midst of the painful chaos, my Christian community showed up. They showed up in a big way! Phone calls, meals, prayers, texts, hugs, emails, monetary gifts, cards—just about every possible way that a person can receive support—my wife and I received it. In the midst of the pain of losing my Dad, my family felt a deep sense of peace and comfort and love. Not because of something that we had done, but because of the love of Jesus that others exhibited to us.

My father’s death is the second parental death that our small group has experienced in the past six months. We’re all in our late 30s and early 40s, so I suppose it’s time that we’re starting to run headlong into the mortality of those we love. Yet these things are never expected. Even though we must all die, there remains an unexpected sting of finality that you just can’t prepare for. It hits hard and it hurts.

In times of deep loss, pain, and sadness, Jesus is our source of comfort and strength. In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 11, Jesus gives us an amazing invitation. He says, “Come to me, all who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”(NLT)

Jesus invites us to come when we’re burdened, when we’re troubled, and when we’re deeply grieved. He invites us to come to Him. But he doesn’t just invite us. He follows up the invitation with a promise. He says, “I will give you rest.”

It is in that rest, the peace that comes from Jesus, where we can truly receive and be ministered to through the service of others. This is the place where the support of the family of faith—the small group—is so critical!

In Group’s Emergency Response Handbook for Small Group Leaders, they give a few key tips to minister to someone who who’s just suffered significant loss like I did. My family has been the recipients of three things the book suggests.

1. Support Your Friend – It’s important the small group keeps in touch during this time.
2. Meet Specific Immediate Needs – Pool the expertise in your small group to help with immediate needs.
3. Remember Long Term Needs – There are many things your small group can continue to do as your friend works through the grieving process.

As I’ve attempted to sort through my grief these past couple of weeks, I’ve seen the love of Christ exhibited in many unique ways through many different people. It has helped to grow my faith and strengthen my appreciation for my faith community.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Leading Tired

You ever get tired? I mean really, really worn out? The kind of tired that makes you want to run the other direction from any sort of decision making? Have you been there? Are you there right now?

I confess; it’s been a very busy summer. At times the summer has felt too busy. Plenty of family stuff, on top of loads of ministry stuff, covered with extra-curricular projects, spiced with social activities. Good stuff. But the sort of stuff that makes a guy tired.

As I mentioned in my last post, our church was a host site for the annual Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I’ve now had a weekend to process much of what the faculty taught. Many things challenged me. A few things inspired me. Yet there was one theme that seemed to undergird everything—overcoming struggles.

Willow Creek senior pastor Bill Hybels set the course of the conference by talking about moving people from one place to another, from here to there. He spent a great deal of time on the large middle segment of time between where you were to where you’re going—from here to there. That’s where people lose sight of the goal, they get restless, and leaders get tired.

Later in the conference, Pastor Jeff Manion of Ada Bible Church in Michigan taught on living in The Land Between. His message was honest, real, and an inspiring exhortation for all of us to let God work in us amidst difficult times of transitions in our lives.

Manion taught from Numbers 11:10-23, which details the difficult time God’s chosen people had living in the midst of The Land Between. They had been taken out of Egypt en route to the Promised Land—but were delayed! They were hungry, frustrated, and tired. They complained. They wailed. They whined.

In the middle of His people’s grumbling, Manion reminded us that God is shouting, “I need you to trust me. I need you to trust me. I need you to trust me!”

Are you facing a tough time of transition? Are those you’re leading getting restless? Are you getting weary of the battle? Are you tired?

Let me give you three tips that I am currently working on/wrestling with in my own life and in my position of leadership.

1. Crush the Complaints
Navigating difficult transitions and living in the unknown are fertile areas for complaints. Keep them in check in your own heart. Crush them in your community. They’re a cancer—they don’t help!

Read Numbers 11:20-23 and see how God deals with complaining. He brings discipline! Most of us would rather avoid this. So instead of allowing complaints to grow, help each other be disciplined to avoid complaining.

2. Cry out to God in Prayer
God loves to answer the prayers of those who are dependant upon Him. Tell God you need Him. Ask for Him to lead you, as you lead others. God loves the humble requests of His people.

3. Trust God’s Sovereignty
Rest in the fact that God is sovereign over what you and/or your group are dealing with. This is not fatalism, rather trusting God to be who He says He is in His word. God knows. God cares. It’s our call as leaders to trust Him—and to help others do the same.

Friday, August 06, 2010

How’s Your Leadership?

Leadership has many shapes, many sizes. Some lead with a loud voice and a louder opinion. Others lead with a rah-rah sort of coach-like inspiration. Still others lead with quiet strength. Fact is; there’s no cookie-cutter approach to leadership.

I’m thinking about the topic of leadership because our church is hosting the annual Willow Creek Leadership Summit. The faculty of the Summit is a roster of prominent pastors, consultants, and international business leaders. Impressive folks who’ve been used by God to do impressive things—all of them!

As I sat through Day 1 of the Summit, I couldn’t help but ask the question; what are the similarities of leading an international ministry, a mega-church, or a successful business compared to leading a small group? All require someone to lead. All have huge God-given responsibilities. All have people who are looking to them for guidance.

Do you think it’s silly for me to even consider the comparison? I mean really, a church of 13,000 people is a whole lot different than a group of 13 adults. Why would I even go there? Why would I even attempt to think of similarities? Because I believe God requires the same thing of all leaders—service. It’s the one quality needed to lead a mega-church or a small group.

In the Gospel of Mark (10:42-46), Jesus speaks clearly of the requirements of a leader.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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.”
How’s your leadership? The more accurate question is; how well are you serving?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How Do You Say Goodbye?

How do you say goodbye to a person who means so much to your small group? Do you maintain a stiff upper lip, smack your friend on the back, and wish him the best? Do you go sappy and recite the words of your favorite Hallmark card? Or is there another way?

One of my small groups had to say our goodbyes to a friend and integral member yesterday. He’s a gracious, kind, intelligent, wise, and faithful friend to all of us. He’s deeply committed to following Jesus—that’s why he’s leaving our small group. God is calling him to a different ministry opportunity in a different location. So we were forced to say our goodbyes over a lunch meeting.

Was it hard? Absolutely! But we didn’t tighten our upper lips. We didn’t smack him on the back. We also didn’t get sappy. Instead, what we did was pray. We prayed for his transition. We prayed for his family. We prayed for his ministry. We prayed for God to provide a new community for him to be a part of in his new city.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but we were actually putting into practice something that Jesus advises his followers to do—pray.

In his book, Make Your Group Grow, Josh Hunt unpacks the wisdom of Jesus in Chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel.

“Jesus didn’t leave us in the dark as to how to do this,” Hunt writes. “The second half of Luke 10:2 tells us, ‘So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields’…
In the next verse, Jesus said an interesting thing. ‘Now go, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.’ Jesus told his disciples to pray, and then he told them to go. We should pray and go.”
Our friend is going. So we prayed.

How do you say goodbye?