One of my privileges as a pastor is to help small group leaders thrive. Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought about this question: “What is the one piece of advice you’d give to a small group leader?” What’s your answer?
Here’s mine: Relax!
Of course, be faithful to the Scriptures, preach the gospel, love people. Yes. Yes. Yes. Do that! But underneath these leadership tasks, are you depending on God or yourself? For so many of us who have a history in the American church of leading small groups, we are conditioned to be pressured and create pressure. We think that the success or failure of our group stand or falls on us—the leader. If the group seems to do well over time, we are told, it is because we are a good leader. If the group eventually crumbles, we have an inward sense that we are to blame. We may not be able to put a finger on it and no one may say it explicitly, but deep down, we have a sense of personal failure and shame.
Most of this arises out of a good intention: we truly desire to lead well. We want to our groups to thrive. We want people to encounter Christ through his word in community by the power of the Holy Spirit. But it can quickly become very self-absorbed: we become prideful if the group succeeds; we despair if it fails.
The Apostle Paul had a drastically different approach to leadership. In 1 Corinthians 3, he address the problem of division in the church. The problem there was that the Corinthians felt a certain allegiance to some leaders and not others. This created strife and division. Our application comes in when Paul describes what leader in the church is and does:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building (vv. 5-7, 9).
Paul understood that leaders are servants. He’s saying that you can’t put too much stock in a leader’s ultimate significance because they are just workers on God’s team! And because of that, the health and growth of a group (in Corinth’s case a whole church) did not depend on the leaders. It depended on God. God is the one who grows a church or small group. It’s not personality or knowledge or curriculum or charisma or baked goods (and I’m all for baked goods) that nurture and grow a small group. It’s God.
And if that’s the case, then we can and must relax.
The gospel, not a small group leader, is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). And it’s the gospel that gives reason to rejoice and relax because it frees us from both pride in success (because I am more sinful than I could ever believe) and despair in failure (because I am more loved by God than I could ever hope). Because of this new gospel reality, we are free to be servants, not saviors, knowing that God is making things grow right in front of our eyes.
Of course, relaxing doesn’t mean we don’t put forth effort. We still evaluate our leadership calling, abilities, and passions as we seek to develop. And just because a group’s well-being doesn’t ultimately depend on us doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible if we are lazy or ungodly or foolish. We are. But Paul’s words are a grace-drenched rebuke meant to stir our hearts to relax and depend on God. Ultimately, we can’t make things grow. God does.
“Relax!” is something I’m learning over and over again through God’s word and personal experience. It’s a hard, but good, lesson. We aren’t that powerful or important! And truth be told, it’s strangely comforting to realize.