Make More Disciples by Making Less

As a small group leader, how many people do you think you can effectively lead, shepherd, and disciple? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? Let me ask this question another way: If you are to bear much fruit, fruit that will last . . . if you are to see true transformation of people’s lives . . . if you are to see people develop into leaders so that you are multiplying your leadership . . . into how many people can you invest your life? 

The World’s Greatest Small Group Leader formed a small team that would eventually change the world. But first, Jesus called two sets of brothers: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Three of these, Peter, James, and John, became Jesus’ inner circle, his Core Team. Jesus poured his life into these three men, investing into them and modeling a life surrendered to the Father for them. He took these three away with him to pray and heal, as well as when he was transfigured.[I] While Jesus did not ignore the other nine apostles or his other followers, he intentionally discipled these three and developed them into leaders. 

Jesus knew something vital about leadership, discipleship, and shepherding. No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people. Leading, discipling, and shepherding are based on close relationships in which the leader invests into the life of those he or she is leading. 

"No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people." Click To Tweet

For years, many churches have assumed that small groups or Sunday school classes or discipleship programs make disciples. Just get people into one of these, and voila, you’ve made disciples. But it doesn’t work that way. Small groups and other forms are simply the context or environment in which disciples can be produced. Disciples are made life on life. As Leroy Eims said, “It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual, personal attention. It takes hours of prayer for them. It takes patience and understanding to teach them how to get into the Word of God for themselves, how to feed and nourish their souls, and by the power of the Holy Spirit how to apply the Word to their lives. And it takes being an example to them of all of the above.”

Read that quote again. Study it. Reflect on it. Can you do those things by yourself with 10 or 12 people? How about five or six?

I’ve said it before: We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can’t mass-produce disciples!

The foundation of disciple-making is a one-on-one relationship. Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus. I think most people can make this kind of investment with at most two or three people at once. In the best circumstances, these two to three should be people within your small group. It does not make a lot of sense to be in one group for discipleship, another for fellowship, another for Bible study, and yet another where you serve together. That leads to burnout for everyone (and yet I’ve seen plenty of churches organized this way). 

"Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus." Click To Tweet

The small group is where you do life together, serve together in missional community, and discuss and apply the Bible together. It’s also a warm and welcoming place where you can invite friends who do not know Christ yet, where they can see the love portrayed in your community life and meet the One who makes it happen.

Within that larger small group, discipleship happens one-on-one or with two or three who may meet regularly for more intense Bible study, memorization, and personal application; prayer; confession; and accountability . . . or it may be a less formal relationship in which they meet regularly for coffee, talk on the phone and text one another, or whatever works best for those involved. It’s always intentional, but it doesn’t have to be “formal.”

In these subgroups, the two or three people are close confidants whom you trust. The relationships are more authentic and intentional than in the larger small group.

I’ve described in much more detail how this works in a healthy small group in my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership: How to Gather a Core Team and Lead from the Second Chair, and also in Chapter 3 of Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (both published by TOUCH Publications, www.touchusa.org). The foundation of the process is that the designated leader of the group must share leadership (that is, shepherding and discipling roles) with several others in the group. Each person on the core team takes responsibility for discipling one to three others. 

I’ve found that those whom have been discipled this way often turn around and disciple others, reproducing themselves again and again.

Jesus demonstrated a simple model we can use to make more and stronger followers, a model that can, and should, reproduce more disciples, more groups, and even more churches, just as Jesus intended.

"We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can't mass-produce disciples!" Click To Tweet

This post is adapted, in part, from Chapter 2 of The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.

[i]While it seems that Andrew was not included as much in Jesus’ inner circle as the other three, he was included at least once when the two sets of brothers pulled Jesus aside privately to ask him some questions (Mark 13:4). Interestingly, when the Gospel writers listed the Twelve, Matthew and Luke list the brothers together: Peter and Andrew, then James and John. But Mark separates the sets of brothers, placing Andrew fourth on the list behind Peter, James, and John. In the listing of the eleven apostles in Acts 1:13, Luke places them in this order: Peter, John, James, and then Andrew. Is there any significance to this? We can only surmise, but the order of names in a list was usually very significant in Jewish culture.

Interview: Leadership Expert Deborah Ike on Leading Healthy Small Groups

I recently met Deborah Ike, who works with church leaders to help them grow their churches and create a life with healthy margins. She is the author of two books, Volunteer Management Toolkit-Church Edition and Protect the Vision: A Practical Guide to Church Risk Management, both available on her website: Velocity Ministry Management. After reading this interview, go check out her site and ministry for church leaders.

Here’s our interview:

Michael Mack: I became familiar with and interested in your ministry through a tweet in which you mentioned burnout, which is also a favorite topic of mine. How did you first get interested in that topic?

Deborah Ike: I became interested in the issue from my own experience burning out and in talking with others who’ve had similar experiences. It breaks my heart to see people with incredible vision and love for Christ who lose their passion for ministry because they’ve been trying to do too much, too fast. After all, we are still human and have physical limitations. We need rest, sleep, and even play. Our culture focuses on quick results and we can get sucked into that mindset. Instead, we need to focus on staying in ministry for the long haul. That won’t happen if we burn ourselves out. I’ve learned many lessons the hard way and now help church leaders focus on what matters most so they can grow their church and lead a healthy life with more margin.

Michael: You write a lot about recruiting volunteers. What three best practices would you provide to small group ministry leaders about finding and asking people to lead a group?

Deborah: #1 – Clarify expectations about the role.

If you invite someone to lead a small group but only provide vague information about what that role looks like and what you expect a small group leader to do, you’ll have a tough time getting anyone to say yes. A potential small group leader needs to know what he/she is signing up to do. They’ll want to know things like, How often should we meet? Do you provide a study guide or any outlines for what to discuss at our meetings? How would people join the group? Where do we meet? What resources are available if a member of the group has a question or issue we don’t know how to address?

#2 – Look for people already leading.

You have leaders in your church—you may need to look a bit more closely. Who holds a leadership role at work? Who has served at various church events and did a great job? Ask around and listen for what names come up most often. Those are the people you should start talking to about leading a group.

#3 – Provide support.

When you talk with someone about leading a small group, make sure he/she knows you’ll be available to answer questions and/or provide direction as needed.

Michael: A healthy small group is a team that works together to carry out the mission God gave them. You write and speak on the topic of teamwork. What are a couple teamwork principles that small groups could use to grow in this area?

Deborah: Communication is key in any group setting. This includes learning the personalities and communication preferences of each team member. When we focus on communicating with each individual in a way he/she is best able to receive, we avoid potential conflict from misunderstandings and have more productive conversations overall.

Also, don’t be serious all the time. Yes, it’s great to have deep discussions about faith. However, it’s also really helpful to just have fun together, too. Make ice cream sundaes, go bowling, play a board game, etc. Those moments break the ice, help you see another aspect of each other’s personality, and will help your group grow closer together. People are more willing to engage in challenging topics when they trust and know the rest of the group. Having fun together is a great way to start building that trust.

Michael: What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind (and avoid burnout)?

Deborah: I’ve found exercise to be a great way to reduce stress. In fact, I have my best workouts after a challenging day! A tough workout releases endorphins, loosens up tense muscles, and makes me feel better overall.

Michael: Thanks, Deborah, for your great insights from a fresh perspective on leading healthy, growing small groups. And thanks for using your passion for God’s church!

QUESTION: What is the biggest takeaway for you as a leader from Deborah Ike’s interview? Please click the Comments box, below, to join the conversation!

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned … #3 – Burnout Is Universal

Robert Lay, holding up my book, The Pocket Guide
to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership,

translated into Portuguese

Brazilian leaders deal with burnout.

When I was first asked to speak on the topic of leader burnout in Brazil, I was surprised. Because of all the wonderful things I’ve heard about the Brazilian church, cells, and the people, not to mention the more relaxed pace of life there, I assumed they did not deal with burnout like we do in North America. I was wrong.
In my first session I walked through some of the reasons that leaders tend to burn out and later I talked about the dangers signs of burnout, especially for cell leaders. In more than 25 years of small group ministry, I’ve witnessed leaders unfortunately burning out and then stepping out of leadership.
I told the story of Don, a group leader in our church several years ago. Don’s group started smoothly and seemed to go well the first several months. But within the first year, Don called me to tell me he was stepping down from leadership. When I met with Don to ask what happened, he described the time he spent …
  • preparing for the meeting
  • calling members
  • caring for some of the needy people in the group
  • reaching out to lost people
  • inviting people to the group
  • discipling two of the newer Christians
  • dealing with issues and conflicts
  • helping his wife clean the house before the meeting
  • and praying daily for cell members

Don also had a growing family with three young children, a demanding job, and many other responsibilities.

Does that sound familiar to you, leader? Unfortunately, Don is just an example of the legions of leaders who are burned out, burning out, about to quit, or have already quit.

If you are reading this and you have lost your passion and joy for your ministry, I hope God can fill you back up. It’s one of his specialties. I just want to encourage you: Don’t give up! The kingdom of God needs you! But first, God wants you to be healthy. “Do not become weary in doing good. Because at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
I wrote my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership (a small book with a big name!) because I believe the stakes are too high for leaders to burn out and quit. And I believe there are much better solutions. That book describes several ways to lead so that you won’t burn out. The subtitle of the book provides a clue: “How to gather a core team and lead from the second chair.”  But I’ve learned two things over the years about beating burnout:
  1. It’s not just about burnout. The same principles that will keep you from burning out will also make you much more effective as a leader. They will help your group to grow, bear fruit, and multiply.
  2. That first discovery led to the second: Leading your group (or anything else, for that matter) in a healthy way will have two huge effects: (a) you will be much less likely to burnout; and (b) your group will grow, bear fruit, and multiply. You see, writing the book about burnout led me to write my next book, Small Group Vital Signs.
I spoke at the Brazil conference about several of the vital signs of a healthy group and how these vital signs would help these leaders to not only avoid burnout but to be effective and productive in their ministry. So I spoke about the absolute vitality that your group be a Christ-centered community. If your primary focus is on anything else, you will tend toward burnout as a leader and your group will not grow, bear fruit, or multiply.
I spoke on the fact that a healthy group demands a healthy, overflowing leader. This is my favorite topic to talk about, and I found that the people in Brazil responded the most to this topic, both times I spoke about it. Leadership, I believe, is simple: you as a leader must be putting yourself in the position to RECEIVE from Jesus, the true Vine, and then you will naturally OVERFLOW into those you lead.
In my fourth session I talked about the vitality of a leader sharing leadership with 2-3 others in a core team. Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the major causes of burnout is when leaders try to do everything themselves, especially the responsibilities of shepherding and discipling group members.
In my last session, I spoke very personally about my own struggles with allowing my life to become upside-down and the huge toll that took on my relationship with God, marriage, family, and ministry. When we allow our ministry to become our priority, it can drown out our relationships with God, our spouses, our kids, and our friends. Burnout is often ultimately a result of living upside-down, allowing things other than God to be transcendent in our lives.
Leader burnout and ineffectiveness is a universal problem because we as humans tend toward living life and leading our own way rather than God’s way. It’s true in the USA and in Brazil and anywhere else in the world where people are less than perfect. But there are solutions.
Read the rest of the posts in this series on Brazil HERE

Trying Hard in the Spiritual Life: Rx for Burnout?

As Christ-following leaders–of small groups, ministries, churches, families, businesses, ourselves–we know that our relationship with God must come first. If we spend time with him, committed to walking with him, seeking him, and putting his kingdom first, he will take care of everything else and will overflow through us into the lives of those we lead.

We know that, don’t we? But how do we accomplish it?

Psalm 119:9-16 provides an answer, but I think the psalmist missed something. First, read his response:

How can a young person stay pure?
By obeying your word.
I have tried hard to find you—
don’t let me wander from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
I praise you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees.
I have recited aloud
all the regulations you have given us.
I have rejoiced in your laws
as much as in riches.
I will study your commandments
and reflect on your ways.
I will delight in your decrees
and not forget your word.

The psalmist shares a number of ways to work at obeying God’s Word, but none of these will bear fruit over the long haul without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Trying harder, by your own human efforts alone, to be a good Christian or a good leader will lead you to burnout and ineffectiveness.
I know this is true for me. I can try hard to find God, meditate on and memorize Scripture, praise him through songs and prayer, recite his Word aloud, study the Bible, and even rejoice and delight in God’s Word, and then, five minutes later, I can sin in the most vile way. Trying hard to do the right things in the flesh won’t work long-term, because we have a powerful enemy who sees our efforts and will take us down. I cannot fight this fight in my flesh, as well-meaning as I am. It’s only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, these things are the right things to do, but my efforts and your efforts to do them are not enough.

Two Rocket Boosters That Will Propel Your Small Group to Accomplish Christ’s Mission

I’ve found two boosters that, when either is utilized separately, develops more authentic community, spiritual growth, accountability, a deeper prayer life, leader development, and multiplication. But when these two are used together, they turbocharge your group for carrying out Christ’s mission and bearing much fruit. 

Share Leadership with a Core Team

Never lead alone. Solo leadership leads to ineffectiveness, lack of fruit, and burnout. Sharing leadership accomplishes two things: 

  1. By including others in the leadership of the group, you are developing and readying them to eventually lead their own group.
  2. By sharing the shepherding and/or discipling of group members with others, you are developing natural relational ties that will lead to healthy group multiplication.

Like Jesus, whose core team consisted of Peter, James, and John, start your group with about three others into whom you will invest, whom you will shepherd and disciple, and with whom you will share these leadership roles. I speak specifically about how to do this and what it accomplishes in my little book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership. 

Subgroup

Break into smaller groups of 2-6 people (depending on your purpose for subgrouping) during different parts of your meetings. I’ve found the best times are during the application segment of your study and for prayer, but you can subgroup for just about any part of the meeting. Larger groups can subgroup for most of the meeting time (allowing the group to grow while staying small), coming together as a whole group before and after the official meeting for food and fellowship. When you subgroup, you … 

  1. provide core team members opportunities to lead 
  2. allow the group to grow larger while preparing for multiplication to happen naturally 
  3. build closer relationships among smaller groupings of group members (I’ve found that subgrouping couples groups by gender leads to much more authenticity, accountability, confession, and deeper prayer.) 
  4. help people get used to the idea of multiplying

I’ve seen groups grow larger by subgrouping and then adding more people … until one or more of the subgroups say, “Why don’t we just move down the street to my house?” Voila – multiplication. 


After I as a small groups pastor began to use these two strategies together (along with developing other vital signs of a healthy group), I no longer needed to tell groups they needed to multiply. No more arm twisting. No more bribing groups to reproduce. Groups multiplied naturally … because they had strategically been set up to do so. 

20 Questions to Ask at the End of Your Rope

If you’re at the end of your rope, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What is the other end of this rope tied to? 
  2. Where is this rope supposed to be taking me? 
  3. Is it tied to the right things, the right values?
  4. Am I sure I’m at the end of my rope or do I just feel that way? 
  5. Is it possible there’s still more rope beneath me, but I’m too afraid to look down?
  6. Why do I feel I’m at the end of my rope?
  7. Am I losing my grip because I’ve been working so hard at climbing under my own power?
  8. Who told me I’m supposed to climb this rope anyway? 
  9. Is it possible this rope-climbing activity is a waste of my precious time?
  10. Do I really feel safer holding onto this rope? 
  11. Is there something better in life than rope-climbing?
  12. How many people die, still clutching their ropes?
  13. What would happen if I let go of the rope I’m clinging to? 
  14. Who would catch me if I let go? 
  15. Haven’t I heard an encouraging voice: “Let go. Come to me you who are tired of climbing. I will catch you and hold you and give you rest”? 
  16. Do I trust that I will be caught and never let go?
  17. What will life be like if I’m not holding onto this rope?
  18. Do I trust my death grip on this rope more than the one who will catch me if I let go?
  19. Who will help me let go and encourage me in my catcher? 
  20. What will it take to let go, to release this and throw my hands up in surrender? 

Missional Groups Are Team Led! (Scott Boren tells why.)

My friend Scott Boren is writing an excellent series of blogs on the 9 practices of missional small group leaders. (Go to his blog here.) Today he writes about Practice #3: Leading as a Team.

Scott tells his own personal journey that led to his conclusion that Core Team Leadership is so vital. He even refers to my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, which, of course, I appreciate.

I particularly like how Scott has made this very practical. The last paragraph of his blog says,

For most people, this view of team leadership and shared contribution by the entire group is different. They need a way to catch this idea without having it forced down their throat. For this purpose, I wrote a free five-week small group study guide called The Journey Together. (Click here to download it.)

 

Leadership Is Not a Solo Act

For several decades, small group leaders have been taught that leading is a solo act. I’ve seen (and even used) a model that pictures a small group leader sitting alone in the middle of a circle, surrounded by all the members of the group. That picture illustrates that the leader has been given the sole responsibility for finding, inviting, shepherding, calling, praying for, discipling, and ministering to the rest of the group—a group usually consisting of 8-12 people.

In 1991, Carl George introduced what he called the “Meta-Church” in his book Prepare Your Church for the Future. He said that a healthy group consists of people at various spiritual levels and is led by a “leadership nucleus.” This nucleus is comprised of the leader, apprentice, and a host.

For years, church leaders have understood the need for the leadership nucleus, but it didn’t solve many of the problems in small group leadership. Leaders still burned out. Many groups did not grow or multiply. For all the great structures, designs, and birthing protocols, a couple vital ingredients were still missing.

I’ve seen little evidence that these leadership nuclei were ever taught how to operate effectively as a team. That’s a major reason I wrote The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, and in that book I show specifically how these leadership nuclei (or what I call Core Teams) work together. But there’s something even bigger missing from George’s picture of a healthy group. Something vital and essential to spiritual leadership.

I think I’ll leave you hanging there for a day or two. I’ll blog on what’s missing here next time!

_____
This post is adapted from Chapter 1 of The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership (Touch Publications.)

No More Leader Burnout

Don’s small group started smoothly and seemed to go well the first several months. Within the first year, Don called me to tell me he was stepping down from group leadership. When I met with him to ask what happened, he told me about his increasingly frantic pace of life and the overwhelming amount of time and energy required to facilitate weekly small group meetings and keep up with the members of his group.

Joel Comiskey writes, “All cell leaders face the ‘tyranny of the urgent.’” He is absolutely right. Unfortunately, dealing with the urgent all the time leads to stress, frustration, discouragement, and eventual burnout. Don’s predicament as a leader is nothing new. As a small groups pastor, I see it all the time.

Christian counselor, author, and speaker John Townsend provides a cure to leadership burnout using the following mathematical structure:

RESPONSIBILITIES / RESOURCES ≤ 1

In the ideal world, he says, you as a leader should have an equal amount of (or more) resources compared to your number of responsibilities. When you become frustrated and burned out as a leader, on further inspection you will find that you have far more responsibilities than resources.

There are two ways to remedy small group leader burnout: reduce your responsibilities or increase your resources (or both). Don did what lots of leaders do—he chose to eliminate his responsibilities by abandoning the position. Don could have easily chosen to add resources had he known this option was available. Townsend suggests that one of the best resources to battle leader burnout is people. By adding people to the leadership role, the resources outweigh the responsibilities and small group leadership becomes fun and quite fulfilling.

Over the last several years I’ve invested a lot of time studying team building. And for a very good reason: I was not very good at it! Like many leaders, I thought I could and I even needed to do it all myself! Not only was I burning out as a leader, I was also keeping others from using their leadership gifting. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on about team building. I attended seminars, browsed web sites, and spent time with people who are great team-builders.

As I’ve grown as a team-builder myself, I’ve discovered that it’s really not difficult; in fact it’s made leadership more fun, encouraging, and rewarding. In my latest book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, I share what I’ve learned about turning a small group into a soul-winning, care-giving team.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll share portions from this book in this blog. I really believe that the principles in the book can transform your group. I’ve seen it work in our groups at Northeast. (I share a few of those stories in the book.)

By the way, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership is available in both a printed and digital format. Click here for more information.

_________
This post is adapted from the Introduction of The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.