Sharpening the tools of the trade

swiss_army_knifeYou may have heard the story of two woodcutters working hard to fell trees. One woodcutter worked non-stop for eight hours and managed to fell twenty trees. The other took a break for fifteen minutes every hour and managed to fell forty trees in the same period. How do you explain the difference? You would think that the one who kept on working would have achieved more.

There are two reasons why the second woodcutter managed to fell more trees. Firstly, he spent ten minutes every hour getting some food and drink, resting, and stretching his muscles. Secondly, he spent five minutes every hour sharpening his saw. The former guy ended up dehydrated, exhausted, sore, and struggling to fell trees using a blunt saw. The second guy was regularly refreshed and at the end of the day his saw was just as sharp as when he began.

There are lessons here for growth group leaders. Too many people ‘used’ to be growth group leaders. They’re now tired, discouraged, burnt out, and disinterested in taking any more leadership responsibility. It’s hard enough getting some ex-leaders to agree to even be in a group, let alone to lead one. This is not good and it should be avoidable. How awesome would it be for Christian men and women to be just as keen in leading growth groups in their seventies as they were in their twenties. If we’re going to achieve this, then we need to help people through their thirties and forties!

Refreshment

God knows that we need refreshment. We’ve not been designed for perpetual motion. God made us to have activity and rest each day. God has made our week so we work six days and rest on the seventh. The sabbath reminds us to trust in our creative and redeeming God. The world won’t stop if we do! God knows we need regular refreshment and we need to discover this too.

Please read the paper on Rhythm in Growth Groups if you haven’t done so already.

Leaders should plan to take regular breaks from their leadership responsibilities. If the groups naturally break for school holidays, then take the opportunity to do something different. Take time off over the Christmas period before starting up in the new year. Share the leadership among suitable people in the group, so that you’re not left doing everything. If you just need time-out for a week now and again because everything has become too much, then ask someone to cover for you and take some time off.

I remember one week, years back when I was very stressed with ministry. I couldn’t face my group that night, so I rang my co-leader explained the situation, and went to the movies instead. The group understood!

We want leaders to be in this ministry for the long haul. For this reason we recommend a sabbatical from leadership about every six years. Take a year off and refresh. Don’t pile yourself up with more and more different things. Recharge so you can get back into it for another six years.

Some groups can be very stressful. Perhaps there’s a difficult member causing problems for everyone. Maybe tensions or broken relationships are taking their toll. These situations increase the need for leaders to be refreshed. We might need to ‘rescue’ leaders from such groups, help them work through issues, debrief, and take time out before starting up again.

Sharpening the leadership tools

There are a number of tools involved in leading growth groups. You can get an indication of the diversity by reading the different topics in this toolkit. You will benefit from regularly sharpening each one of them.

Refresher courses:
If you haven’t participated in a training course for leaders, then we recommend you do. Much of what we do in life and ministry we make up as we go along. It can be enormously helpful to engage with some theory, learn from experienced leaders, put what we are trying to do into some kind of plan or framework, and develop appropriate skills for leading others in Bible study, prayer, and ministry together.

If you can identify areas where you are lacking, then seek out courses that will help you focus on these areas. Instead of doing an entire course, you may benefit from joining in one or two modules, or meeting with a trainer to focus on a particular area.

Reading good books:
The world is full of books and not that many are worth reading. However, we recommend sharpening your saw by reading some good Christian books. You might like to consider books in three different areas:

  1. Small group leadership
  2. Biblical theology
  3. Christian living

You will find a list of helpful books related to leadership and leading Bible studies in the Growth Group Leaders BibliographyTalk with your mentor or pastor for further ideas about books and other helpful resources.

Feedback:
Receiving feedback is a gift. It will help you to know more about how others are receiving your leadership. Then you can respond with more of the good and less of the not-so-good. You can attract feedback from a variety of sources:

  1. Your co-leader
  2. Apprentice leaders
  3. Members of the group
  4. Your peers or mentor

The most natural place for feedback is from your co-leader. As you meet to review and plan your meetings, you can discuss what’s working and what’s not. They can give you feedback on your studies, how you handle people and difficult situations, group dynamics, leadership style and more. Ideally, this feedback is regular, friendly, and mutual.

You can invite apprentice leaders into the same conversations. This has the advantage of helping them tune into the strengths and weaknesses of your leadership, as they prepare for their own. Don’t be threatened—they can learn from your humility. They can suggest ideas and learn from yours.

You can also invite members of the group to provide feedback on different aspects of group life and your leadership. Consider, once a term, asking the members of your group to fill out a survey. If you catch up with people on-to-one you might invite them to share a couple of positives and a couple of areas they think the group could improve. Just be careful not to breed a critiquing spirit within the group. The first thing we should always challenge is the attitude of our own hearts.

You can also invite feedback from your mentor or other leaders. The weakness of this feedback is that people are not ‘seeing you in action’. The strength is that they will be better informed about what to comment on. If someone visits the group from time to time, the dynamic invariably changes because of the ‘outsider’, but it can still help people to offer valuable insights to your leadership. If you meet with a mentor or other leaders on a regular basis, it’s worthwhile sharing your reflections on how you are going, for their advice and comment.

Prayer and reflection:
Set aside time on a regular basis to pray about your leadership. God is the one who gifts you for this work and he will equip, sustain, and grow you. Ask God to make you more like Jesus, to give you a heart to serve, and a willingness to listen and learn. Don’t forget to thank God for the changes he brings in your heart and mind.

Focus your prayers on the group and on the lives of the people in the group. As you prioritise others in your prayers, so you will grow as a servant leader.

As you read Scripture and helpful Christian books on leading groups, take the time to jot some notes, discuss the points with your co-leader and others, and commit to praying about these matters.

Meeting with pastoral staff, mentors, and other leaders:
Many people struggle with isolation as leaders, so make the most of the opportunities available to meet with others.

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.  (Proverbs 27:17)

If your church offers a structure of supervision, mentoring, or coaching, don’t let the opportunities pass you by. Commit to meeting together regularly. Make a priority of participating in leaders meetings, team training, or whatever is happening to encourage leaders. If you feel like you’ve heard it all before, then share this with your overseers. They will appreciate the feedback. Maybe you don’t think you will learn anything from another meeting, but perhaps you can encourage other leaders in their ministry. As you do, so you will become a better leader.

If there is nothing arranged in your church for the support or training of leaders, then I suggest you speak to your pastor about getting this happening. If he is overwhelmed and can’t offer anything currently, then maybe ask if there is the possibility of meeting up with more experienced leaders for the time being. As a last resort, if your church is resistant to offering any support to you as a leader, then perhaps you could seek out support from mature Christians from another church or Christian organisation.

A complaint is a gift

complaintAs a church pastor, I can tell you there are few things more discouraging than complaints. We tend to feel under attack and immediately break into defence mode. “How dare they criticise my preaching!” “What would you know about the pressures of trying to organise and run a church?!” “They complain about us not being friendly, but they don’t make an effort!” “It’s not my fault!!!” Maybe we could do with a fresh perspective.

A complaint is a gift, written by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, is a helpful challenge to rethink complaints. I read the first edition of this book over a decade ago and found it liberating and empowering. Since this time the forum for complaints has gone ballistic. A tweet, facebook comment, or blog post can destroy a product or business. Word-of-mouth can go viral, quickly becoming ‘world-of-mouth’ in a matter of minutes – just witness the current Koni video. The second edition of this book (2007) takes account of these kind of changes, incorporates ‘complaints’ and feedback from the first edition, brings us up to date, and introduces suggestions about how to make complaints, how not take them personally, and how to use the internet constructively.

What is a complaint? Fundamentally, it is a statement about expectations that have not been met. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for the organisation, business, or church in our case, to make some helpful changes. This book calls upon us to redefine complaints as gifts. This will require us to separate the message from the medium. We must distance the content of the complaint from the emotion of being blamed. In other words, we shouldn’t take things so personally!

This will mean gaining empathy for the disappointed people and rethinking how complaints can help us to move forward as a church. The very fact that they made the effort to complain indicates some level of commitment to us. Many will only grumble to others or simply walk away. We’d do well to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that what they are complaining about had happened to you. How would you react? What would need to happen for you to be satisfied?

This book warns against a strategy of reducing the number of complaints. Complaints can be avoided by closing down lines of communication. But all this does is bury problems and maintain the poor state of affairs. Instead, we need to create opportunities for feedback. We can do surveys from time to time, but they will never adequately reflect the levels of dissatisfaction. Such people are unlikely to wait for the next survey to air their complaints. Maybe they’ve already walked away in frustration.

Churches, like businesses, depend heavily on word-of-mouth advertising. The way we handle complaints will work for or against us. People are much more likely to believe a friendly recommendation than formal advertising. If we handle complaints well it can be a powerful source of positive word-of-mouth. On the other hand, the more dissatisfied people become, the more likely they are to spread bad news. I couldn’t tell you many times we’ve had people turn up at our church, saying things like “I used to go to… but I left there because…” And I’m sure there are plenty who’ve left our church, headed elsewhere, and told a similar story. So much movement and pain could probably have been avoided if we’d done a better job of listening to complaints.

While written with the business sector in mind, this book has value to a much wider audience. The issues raised are relevant for personal relationships, resolving conflict, and improving communication. At a time when people are craving connection, pleading to be heard and understood, churches and their leaders would do well to take notice. While some will read the book and be motivated by the desire to increase profits, pastors should read it with a regard to people’s souls.

A complaint is a gift (2nd ed.) is divided into three parts.

The first part, Complaints: Lifeline to the customer, examines the strategy for developing a positive mindset toward those who complain. It helps us to understand what is going on when someone complains, and how they are likely to respond when they are not satisfied.

The second part, Putting the complaint as a gift strategy into practice, focuses on how to handle complaints well. It develops an 8 step gift formula for keeping our words and actions consistent with our beliefs that the complaint is a gift:

  1. Say “thankyou.”
  2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint.
  3. Apologise for the mistake.
  4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately.
  5. Ask for necessary information.
  6. Correct the mistake – promptly.
  7. Check customer satisfaction.
  8. Prevent future mistakes.

The final part, Dishing it out and taking it in: the personal side of complaints, is new to this edition. It is a helpful addition, broadening the scope and value of this way of thinking into other areas of life. There is good stuff here for strengthening marriages and other personal relationships.

This is probably not a book that many church leaders would think to add to their libraries. You probably wouldn’t buy it to help resolve conflict with your neighbour or a work colleague. I doubt you’d be impressed if I recommended it for strengthening your relationships with your spouse or children. However, this book offers practical help for all these scenarios.

Of course, there is another book that has contained this wisdom and more for centuries. It hasn’t been revised or improved, but then it doesn’t need to be. Check out these gems:

He who listens to a life giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. Proverbs 15:31

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1

A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise. Proverbs 15:12

Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trust in the LORD. Proverbs 16:20

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:24

However, it’s not just the head that needs to change, it’s our hearts. The temptation is often there to take things personally out of pride, or to get defensive because we want to look good before others, or to blame others because we don’t want to confront our own selfishness. What we really need is for God to renovate our hearts and minds, to transform us from the inside out. When you read the gospels about Jesus, you can see how he modelled and taught that genuine humility is the key to relationship with others. Christians have a special reason to listen and respond well to others. As it says in Philippians 2:

1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!