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Small groups: leadership training ground

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Equipping Christian Leaders feature article: winter 2020

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?

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.