My son and I recently started playing a new video game. It does involve shooting—but I’ve made him promise he’ll stay a nice person. One option in the game is to have “AI friendlies” on your team: artificial intelligence soldiers who follow you around and shoot your enemies. I’m a very poor gamer, but no matter what foolish decisions I make, or how hopeless I am, those AIs cheerfully go along without complaint.
Sometimes we think our small group leaders should be like this. We expect them to faithfully go about their ministry no matter what—always there, always ready to serve, essentially emotionless reliable small-group-leading AIs. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that’s not the case. I oversee groups at our church and I can assure you that group leaders are real, fragile people. They have emotions. Many are easily discouraged. If they were friendlies in my video game they would very quickly drop their weapons and look for somewhere safe to hide.
This is why I want to persuade and equip you to encourage your small group leader. Spoiler alert: what follows may create feelings of guilt. Don’t be alarmed—a bit of guilt is okay. Paul says: “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10). So rather than feel guilty (or stopping reading), let those feelings spur you on to becoming an encouraging small group member.
But why encourage your leader? Is it really that important? Let me give you three reasons. Firstly, it’s a simple act of obedience. The Bible calls us to encourage each other (1 Thess 5:11), leaders included. The ideal is that they can do their ministry “with joy and not with groaning” (Heb 13:17).
Secondly, it’s an expression of love. God has loved us, particularly by sending Christ to die for us. Jesus has loved us and given us leaders as a gift (Eph 4:11). It’s right and good that we now love not only our friends but also the leaders God has put over us, with a patient, kind, polite, unresentful love (1 Cor 13:4-5). Encouraging your leaders is a simple way of loving them.
Thirdly (and pragmatically), there’s not so many leaders around that we can afford to burn through them each year. Ask any pastor if they have plenty of leaders. I can guarantee the answer will be “no” (spoken in a tone of mild panic). Group leaders don’t respawn. If they tap out due to discouragement there isn’t necessarily anyone lining up to take their place. We need to encourage the ones we have.
So how do you encourage your group leader? It’s actually not that complicated. The main three ways to do it are attendance, submission and spiritual transformation. Let’s take a look at these in turn.
Firstly, encourage your group leader by turning up to your group (and church). It’s simple: attend the group you’ve signed up to. I apologize for pulling out the faithful old Hebrews verse, but it’s a timeless command if ever there was one: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). The message is clear: keep meeting together! When group leaders prepare a study and people don’t come, they are unsurprisingly discouraged. It’s like preparing a meal for your family, calling out that it’s ready, and having nobody come and eat. The family members stay in their rooms, keep watching TV, or go shopping. The food sits on the table growing cold and you wonder why you bothered. This is how leaders feel when you don’t turn up.
In contrast, turning up to group, even if you’re tired and not in the mood, is a great encouragement to them. It communicates that you value their preparation, you care for your fellow group members, and you value what your leader is trying to do in shepherding this group. Your presence is a spiritual boost for them. If you’re really that tired, I personally would still feel encouraged even if you took a little nap during the study to get you through.
Secondly, encourage your group leaders by submitting to their leadership. In our individualistic culture this seems like a quaint or even dangerous idea, but it’s clearly taught in the Bible. The author of Hebrews writes: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17). Paul says to the Thessalonians: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12-13). God calls us to respect, honour and submit to our leaders.
In practice, submission means things like answering your small group leader’s calls or replying to their text messages (every time). It means following their lead in group time—contributing when they ask a question; praying when they invite prayer; being keen for the group social, group ministry or weekend away they initiate. Don’t be the group’s metaphorical handbrake, quietly but constantly slowing everything down. Submit and see what your group can do. You don’t need to treat them like they are infallible (leaders are very aware of their faults), but when leaders feel respected and people are following their lead they find it incredibly encouraging.
Thirdly, encourage your leaders by being spiritually transformed during your time in the group. Teachers and coaches stay in the job when they can look back over the year and see that their class or team has grown together in skills, character and teamwork. It’s rewarding, and it’s the same in small group (and all Christian) ministry.
When Paul heard of the Thessalonian’s faith and love he was encouraged and thanked God (1 Thess 3:6-9). Group leaders tend to agree to another year of serving when they’ve seen people changing and growing. So apply what you learn at Bible study. By the Holy Spirit’s power, work hard at growing in prayer, Bible reading, repentance of sin and the putting on of Christian virtues. Your leader will thank God for you and be encouraged to keep at it.
By now you might be feeling guilty about all those missed small groups, ignored text messages and areas of spiritual stagnation in your life. This is not a nice feeling. But don’t let guilt over past or present failings stop you from making changes. Encouragement can sprout quickly. For example, it only takes a couple of weeks of your full attendance to cheer a leader. And how about a quick thank-you text to your leader now?
Finally, of course, pray for your leaders. Paul regularly asks for prayer from his people (e.g. Rom 15:30-32; 2 Cor 1:11; Phil 1:19; Col 4:2-4; c.f. Heb 13:18). Your small group leader should be someone you pray for every week. For your convenience, here’s a biblically inspired prayer you could copy and paste into your prayer app or write into your prayer diary:
Thank you for my small group leader [name].
Please help them have a clear conscience, acting honourably in all things (Heb 13:18).
Help them to teach the word of God clearly in our small group (Col 4:2-4).
Give them safety, faithfulness and joy in their ministry (Rom 15:30-32).
Your small group leader is a wonderful gift from God but they are also a disciple of Jesus with emotions, doubts and a tendency to be discouraged—just like you. God has put you in their group not only for your benefit but that you might also encourage them, starting now.