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Facilitating more thinking on small groups

Facilitating more thinking on small groups

Last week’s post on the nature of small group leading prompted some excellent responses and questions that are worth addressing.

The first question was asked by a couple of different people. In summary: What are the implications of this ‘tour guide’ approach for complementarian leadership in small groups?  How does ‘tour guide’ leading work in mixed groups with male and female leaders?

Some big issues here! I’ll outline the assumptions I’m operating with, and then offer some wisdom in application.

I’m assuming a complementarian approach to teaching—one which affirms both the partnership of men and women together in church and ministry life, and the differences in their roles and responsibilities. In other words:

  • There are many contexts and relationships in which men and women teach and edify and encourage each other without much distinction (e.g. the instruction for the whole congregation to teach and admonish one another in Col 3:16; or the time when both Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and explained the word of God more accurately to him in Acts 18:26).

  • There are some contexts and relationships in which men have a particular role and responsibility to teach in a way that women don’t (e.g. 1 Tim 2:11-12).

  • This authoritative teaching is related to responsibility. Because a group of suitably qualified men are given the responsibility to guard and oversee and pastor a congregation, then they are the ones given the responsibility of teaching—that is, of guarding, explaining and expounding the whole framework of gospel doctrine in that congregation. Their particular teaching role is a key part of how they exercise pastoral responsibility.

Where do small groups fit into this? The nature and occasion of the small group matters in answering that question. I could imagine coming up with different answers for:

  • all-female groups and all-male groups (obviously enough)

  • temporary breakout groups from a larger group or gathering

  • a mixed youth group Bible study led by 16 year olds

  • a group of uni students at a conference

  • a regular mixed adult small group at a church.

I guess it’s really this last one that the question is being asked about. Is the tour guide of a mixed adult small group a sort of ‘teacher’ and a sort of ‘pastor’?

Well yes, but of a small-t and small-p variety. (I think that was the point of my article). The tour guide aims to lead his group to the main points of a passage but it’s a more circuitous and less predictable journey. We arrive there (God willing) and discover those truths together, but the leader is not authoritatively teaching or hammering them home as an elder or pastor would when addressing the whole congregation.

This means that mixed adult small groups should express complementarian principles in a small-c kind of way. The male leader of the group should still take final responsibility for what’s happening in the group, and for the faithfulness with which the group strives to get to the destination. But he doesn’t have a responsibility for the life and doctrine of the people in the group in the same way that congregational elders and overseers do. He is the tour guide of a discussion, not someone delivering an authoritative lesson.

As we noted last time, this still means that he needs to have a good idea of where he’s going—what the ‘destination’ is in the passage. However, it also means that he can (and should) encourage all members of the group, men and women, to contribute to the journey—to ask questions, make suggestions, offer insights and in effect ‘lead the discussion’ in various directions at various points along the way.

What does this mean for mixed leadership in practical terms? I’m loathe to get too detailed, but it could look something like this:

  • Let’s start by saying that the male leader can and should involve other group members in leading aspects of the small group time—whether that’s the prayer time, the discussion of applications, a background discussion into the OT context, an exercise in nutting out the difficult logic of a dense paragraph, the drawing together of the main points, and so on. Remember: the small group is an opportunity for mutual learning and growth—it’s the scene for one-another edification through the word in a Colossians 3:16 sort of way. Having different group members (men and women) taking the lead at various points in the discussion is healthy for small groups.

  • If this means that, on different occasions, a female co-leader does some more detailed preparation, and leads the group for much of their exegetical tour of the passage, that doesn’t mean she has taken over final responsibility for the group and its exploration of the word. The male leader remains responsible, and this can be made clear in the way things are framed and done. He’s the one who leads the discussion most often, and models what we’re doing together as a group. Even when he’s making room for others to lead, he’s the one who introduces the discussion, keeps an eye on it as it proceeds, steps in with a course correction occasionally, and affirms where it lands at the end. (This means that the male leader of the group needs to do some preparation on the passage every week, so that he has a sense of where things should be heading, even if he is not the most active ‘tour guide’ on this particular week.)

  • In other words, I don’t think of it as male and female co-leaders taking it in turns to ‘be the leader’. The male leader has ongoing final responsibility for the group. But a male leader who encourages and makes room for all the men and women in the group to contribute, each in their own way, is being a good complementarian. Complementarianism is about complementary difference—about partnership as well as leadership.

  • So I don’t have a problem with female members of a mixed small groups becoming the main active tour guide of a Bible discussion at different points, provided that it’s within the framework of male leadership of the group.

I have good and wise friends who manage these relational dynamics differently from me in their various contexts. But the principle is this: rejoice in the different ways God has made us, and the different responsibilities he assigns; and rejoice too in the freedom and benefits of working together as men and women.

The other helpful piece of feedback came in a nice chat with Andrew Heard, who suggested that it’s good to recognize different levels of small group leadership. We’d love every leader to be the experienced, wise, skilled, mini-pastor, tour guide and disciple-maker. But the reality is that the number of leaders who are the ‘full package’ is always limited in a church—and certainly to begin with. We need to allow, he suggests, some leaders to start as ‘facilitators’ with plenty of hand-holding and pre-prepared material, and to accept that not everyone will rise to the top level of what a small group leader can be. We need to beware of setting the bar too high at the outset, and making the perfect the enemy of the good.

In a follow-up email, Andrew noted that this is also related to how we think of the growth and support of small group leaders over time. He writes:

[Starting with leaders more at the facilitator end] also builds in the ability to grow the small group network (we can bring in more leaders), and enables a more intentional leadership pathway.

And this tends to force church leaders to be more deliberate in running their small group network. They can’t just appoint leaders and step away—something I think most of our reformed churches have done. We’re very often running small group ministries with no accountability, training or pastoral support. We’ve got the small group leaders in place (tick box) and we let them go, often for years.

These are accurate and wise insights it seems to me. Putting my ‘tour guide’ perspective on it, we should appoint and train beginner ‘tour guides’, and acknowledge they will need lots more help and resources at the outset. And then we need to provide ongoing training and support for leaders as they grow in their tour guide skills over time. It's not set and forget. I think Andrew is right to say that many of our churches—even churches who pride themselves on being Bible-centred—are weak in this area. Many groups are underperforming and ‘stuck’, and this is directly related to a lack of ongoing training and growth and support for leaders.

However, given that we should think of small group leadership as a continual process of development and growth—with lots of training and support along the way—I think the basic task of the leader remains the same, whether it’s done at a very basic beginner level, or at higher levels by more experienced and skilled leaders. It’s essentially twofold:

  1. a Bible related task: to read and think in advance (with whatever supplied helps and resources are necessary) so as to have an idea what the main message of the passage is—and to seek to nudge and guide your group discussion in that direction as best you can. Some may follow a printed map pretty closely, and only get to the point of seeing the landmark destination in the distance. Experienced guides will freewheel it and get right up close. But I think the task and goal is the same.

  2. a people-related task: to pray for the people in the group, to care about them and to do whatever you can to love them. Again, some will be better at this than others. And God willing we can all grow in this godly character over time.

Once again, thanks to all who got in touch. Keep it coming.


I’m off on holidays for a little while, so there’s a Payneless couple of weeks coming up, which I’m sure you’ll cope with.

After the holiday, I’m travelling to the US for two weeks (starting Apr 22), and will send through some ‘letters from America’ while I’m on the road.

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