Spiritual Practices for Small Group (and other) Leaders
By Scott Hughes
Spiritual practices are essential to enable small-group leaders to be effective guides and facilitators of small groups. By deliberately engaging in spiritual practices that open us to God’s Spirit, we are putting ourselves in the best posture to grow in God’s grace. To use an old analogy, there was a time when, in order to receive a television channel signal, it required facing the television’s antenna in a particular direction. When we read Scripture, pray, fast, and practice other means of grace we are positioning ourselves for Christian maturity and giving ourselves the opportunity to have a greater impact as small-group leaders.
United Methodists draw on John Wesley's guidance to the early Methodist class meetings as beneficial advice for faithful living today. That guidance is also helpful advice for small-group leaders. To help participants be disciplined in Christian living, Wesley gave the groups three overarching rules, referred to as the Three General Rules. The General Rules are: Do no harm; do good; and attend to the ordinances of God.
Small-group leaders might want to adapt these rules to reflect on how their words, actions, or inactions align with the General Rules: “Am I doing harm by allowing a participant to dominate the discussion? Am I doing harm by talking too much? Am I doing harm by getting what I need from the group instead of making sure the group is getting what it needs from our time together? Is offering answers the best good I can do for the class, or is there a way I can empower others to offer their wisdom and insight? Who might need to take more leadership as a way to encourage others to do good? Am I availing myself of the ordinances of God or means of grace as regularly as I need to?”
Small-Group Leaders and the Means of Grace
What exactly are the means of grace, and how can they help small-group leaders? Glad you asked! Means of grace are time-tested practices or habits that develop our relationship with God. Means in this context can be thought of as average or common. These practices are average or common ways that Christians throughout the centuries have encountered God's grace. Means of grace can be divided into two categories that roughly align with the Great Commandment to love God (acts of piety) and love our neighbor as ourselves (acts of mercy). Acts of piety focus on our love for God. They include searching the Scripture, practicing individual and corporate prayer, the Lord's Supper, fasting, and participating in holy conferencing.
Practices that build our love for others have been referred to as works of mercy. They, too, are means of encountering God’s grace. Works of mercy include feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, welcoming strangers, and advocating for others. When we act with, on behalf of, or for others, we become better trained at encountering God's presence through others. These practices are not ways that we earn God's love; instead, through these means, we grow in our capacity to love as God loves—for all those God loves. Although these practices do not require extraordinary efforts, they do require intentionality. And small-group leaders should be intentional about habitually practicing the means of grace so that they will grow spiritually and become more aware of boundary issues that will inevitably happen when leading others.
When we act with, on behalf of, or for others, we become better trained at encountering God's presence through others.
To be specific about how means of grace can help small-group leaders be more mindful and constantly growing in grace, let’s look at how searching the Scriptures, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting can be beneficial.
Reading Scripture devotionally and with others has been a primary way we encounter God. Scripture is much more than an ancient document. It is God's living Word that invites us into a drama where God is at work in the world and inviting us to play important roles in building the kingdom of God. So, when we read Scripture, we not only learn about the mighty acts of God done for the people of God and particularly through Jesus Christ, we also learn about us. We learn about our nature and our potential as the people of God called to embody God's presence in the world. In particular for small group leaders, we also learn about our fallibility and our tendency to misuse power, as well as our ability to positively influence others as guides on the faith journey.
Small-group leaders should read Scripture not merely for information. It is important to read Scripture for personal devotional purposes and in large chunks so that we can grasp the larger story of Scripture. Being a small-group leader is not about being the person in the room with the most Scripture knowledge. When small-group leaders facilitate well, there will be times when we don’t have all the answers or when participants challenge our interpretation of a participant passage. Instead of a debate or an opportunity for being defensive, it is an opportune time to model listening and discernment within the group.
Additionally, as time allows, leaders should read along with Christians from generations past who can challenge our culturally limited ways of thinking. Ultimately, we read to be drawn into the story and to begin to live out the story in all our relationships. Specifically, we search for God, the author of this story, as we read.
A second means of grace is prayer. Prayer has been said to be simply talking with God. Another definition of prayer is intentionally being in the presence of God (words are not always necessary). Another way to think of prayer has to do with breathing. Just as God has breathed in us (Genesis 2), when we pray, we are returning God's very breath back in gratitude to God.
Prayer can take many forms. Often, our prayers are intercessions for others in need. At other times, our prayers are praises of joy for healing or release. Prayers can be quick thoughts murmured under our breath - called breath prayers. Many find the use of prewritten prayers or the Psalms as helpful guides for prayer that express thoughts and emotions. Some find it beneficial to repeat a phrase, such as "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner," to focus our scattered minds on the presence of God. Christians have also used images or beads to help focus on God's gracious presence.
There are many postures of prayer, and each can be helpful depending on and individual’s emotional state - standing in boldness, kneeling in submissiveness, or laying prostate in humility. Whichever form your prayer takes, praying by nature puts people in a position to be changed by God's grace. Because they are in positions of leadership, small-group leaders should be praying frequently for their own growth as well as for the growth of small-group participants. More seasoned small-group leaders should be familiar enough with different ways of praying to model examples for the group and to help participants experiment with new ways of praying.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, encouraged frequent Communion. The tradition of taking Communion only monthly began at a time when the ordained pastor could only visit the church only once a month as part of a circuit of churches. When the Lord’s Supper is practiced well, it offers a time of confession when we can be convicted of transgressions and ways that we have perhaps unintentionally harmed those we lead. More importantly, we are given assurance of God’s forgiveness and receive the healing grace of God through the body and blood of Christ. While the Lord's Supper is a means of encountering God's grace, and we should be eager to avail ourselves of this opportunity. However, Communion should not take place in our small groups without guidance and oversight from an ordained elder.
Fasting is probably the least practiced and most misunderstood of all the means of grace. Our first reaction to fasting is often negative. Perhaps we've seen fasting misused by those trying to gain attention or have had to fast for a less-than-desirable medical procedure. Fasting is mostly associated with fasting from food. While this can be a beneficial practice, fasting can include things other than food. We can fast from relationships or activities (hobbies, television, social media, etc.) that are hurting us and making it difficult for us to grow in our love for God. When we fast, we are placing our full reliance that our relationship with God is the sole source of true abundance and satisfaction for our souls. Fasting reminds us that we serve the creator, not the created. Practicing a fast from time to time can be a valuable way to grow in our relationship with God. The important part is not what you fast from or even how long you fast (Matthew 6), but rather, on putting yourselves in the best posture to hear from God. Small-group leaders can practice fasting in a number of ways. We can fast from being the first to speak, fast from having to have the last word, or fast from having all the answers.
Traits of Mature Small-Group Leaders
Too often, the idealized small-group leader is the person with the most theological and/or biblical knowledge. While having theological and biblical knowledge is helpful, the reality is that we’ll never know enough, and just acquiring knowledge will not guarantee Christian maturity. Perhaps a more appropriate vision would be that of a seasoned or mature disciple who is being shaped by his or her habits.
Some traits of mature Christians would include humility (being aware of what they know and don’t know; being aware of their gifts and their weaknesses), acknowledging their need for growth, and habitually practicing the spiritual disciplines. Mature disciples will not feel the need to convert everyone to their way of thinking. Mature disciples will allow participants to struggle with important convictions and will be able to point to specific doctrines. Mature disciples know their limitations and know when to refer a participant for help from others, such as marriage counselors, professional therapists, or pastors.
In one way, this should relieve some of the anxiety that most small-group leaders face – not having the right answers to every question or leading someone astray. First, small-group leaders should rely on the Holy Spirit as the ultimate teacher and guide. Secondly, small-group leaders should have the maturity to admit what they do not know or when they are not clear about an issue. They need to when to ask for help from the pastor.
Mature small-group leaders should be themselves. While it is important to build skills (active listening, asking appropriate questions), when we are practicing spiritual disciplines, we will more naturally be maturing disciples.
When we practice personal and corporate piety, when we join love of God and neighbor, these practices become a reinforcing or virtuous circle. As we learn to grow in our love for God, we grow in our compassion for ourselves and for others. As we learn to love our neighbors more, we encounter God, who is at work in the world. It is important for leaders of small groups (and other church leaders) to be constantly practicing the spiritual disciplines to be the maturing disciples we are called to be.
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.