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Small groups: leadership training ground

Equipping Christian Leaders feature article: winter 2020

men jogging

By Mark Huffman, COO, Entrust

When you picture the ideal mature church leader, what comes to mind? Is your leader faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Or, is he faster than a speeding critic, more powerful than a church crisis, able to leap tall family disasters in a single bound? How can we best train the ideal mature “super” church leader?

open Bible with glasses

Don’t stop at doctrine

With the amount of time traditional leadership training methods spend on sound doctrine, one would think that if our doctrine is right, all is well. Not so! There is much more to a mature leader than sound doctrine, and much more to training mature leaders than ensuring that their doctrine is sound. A quick look at 1 Timothy 3:3-13 and Titus 1:5-9 shows us that the apostle Paul wanted leaders with much more than sound doctrine. In Paul’s two detailed descriptions of leadership traits, only one in each list clearly addresses doctrine (1 Timothy 3:2 “able to teach” and Titus 1:9). The other traits Paul lists address essential character and ministry skills. I believe these skills are best developed in small group settings.

Excellent training ground

Jesus and Paul modeled and taught how to train leaders. While their training ministry did include traditional lectures and large groups, much of their time was spent in various small groups, whether it was Jesus’ 12 disciples, Jesus’ inner group of Peter, James and John, or one of Paul’s traveling missionary bands. With these small groups, Jesus and Paul focused on sound doctrine … and more. Mature leaders can and must train future leaders in the context of small groups. And, like Jesus and Paul, they need to use their small groups to address five qualities in their leaders-in-training: the head, heart, hands, arms and feet.


2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” This is biblical knowledge, truth and doctrine. A mature leader must understand God’s word and must be able to apply it to life. The passing on of sound doctrine can and should happen by reading and through large group lecture and other methods. And, as theologian and pastor Richard Baxter adds, “Truth, ‘till it is warmly pressed in to the heart has not done its work, yet remains on the porch.” In small groups, through personal relationships, discussions and other interaction, truth and doctrine can be “warmly pressed in to the heart.”

However, if our focus is on the head alone, we can end up with a dinosaur leader, not a mature leader. A dinosaur leader has a big head (lots of doctrinal knowledge), but little hands and a small heart. Such a leader has much knowledge, but, with an unengaged and untrained heart, won’t be very effective in ministry.


The heart correlates to the character of the leader. Paul’s description of a mature leader in Titus 1 covers this well. Notice how most of the characteristics listed are heart/character issues:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:5-9)

In good small group discussion, a leader can expose and address the heart of the leader-in-training. Good questions and open discussions reveal the heart and character of the future leader. As Jesus said, “… For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt.12:34)


Mature leaders need strong hands, which represent ministry skills. James was clear on this. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) Our mature leaders need to be mature doers.

Training in small groups allows leaders to not only model ministry skills to future leaders, but to put those future leaders into leadership roles that are “safe,” under the careful eye of the existing leader. In small groups of known people, future leaders can gain experience and practice honing their ministry skills.

Jesus did this as he sent his disciples out to do ministry, carefully instructing them and debriefing them. Paul traveled with several of his future leaders, doing ministry together with them. Paul, too, ministered alongside some of his leaders-in-training before leaving them to serve in various cities. He stopped in to visit them as he passed back through their regions and sent letters addressing specific concerns they were encountering. Both Jesus and Paul modeled, then served with, then sent their leaders-in-training out to practice ministry skills.

two people shaking hands


The first job of a leader is to train more leaders. A mature leader must intentionally and consistently reach out his or her arms to include others in training. In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to teach others. According to 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul expects Christians to train others to at least two generations.

In small groups, leaders can model good leadership and provide a training ground where future leaders can practice training others. Most future leaders need to learn by doing. As they are carefully shown, instructed and given opportunity to train others in their small group, they will grow and mature as leaders of leaders.


The fifth level of a mature leader’s training needs to include accountability. Future leaders need to work with others and to be held accountable. Accountability helps hold the leader’s feet to the fire.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 tells us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Let’s not forget Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” All leaders need sharpening.

A small group is the perfect place for intentional sharpening through accountability. As a leader intentionally walks through life and ministry with a small group of future leaders, accountability can be modeled and practiced.

The perfect learning environment

As a small group learns and discusses doctrine (the head), applies and practices ministry skills (the hands), tests each other’s character in honest discussion and sharing (the heart), practices training each other (the arms) and walks through life holding each other accountable (the feet), they will grow and mature. Some members will emerge as mature leaders, others will discover and develop other gifts.

Think about that ideal, mature, “super” leader again for a moment. A super leader needs to be faster than a speeding critic, more powerful than a church crisis and able leap tall family disasters in a single bound. Small groups are the perfect, the only, environment where a future leader can be trained beyond the point of knowing sound doctrine. A small group is where a mature, super leader can be trained to have a strong head, heart, hands, arms and feet.

Personal application

  • Of the five qualities listed for leaders-in-training, where do you see each member of your small group, or each leader of your ministry team, needing growth?

  • What are some ways you could implement this kind of growth?

  • When will you begin to discuss this with your small group or team?

Next steps

  • Consider taking Facilitating Relational Learning at a time and location that works well for you. View our training calendar here.


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