Leading better Bible studies

Leading Better Bible StudiesLeading Better Bible Studies: Essential skills for effective small groups by Rod and Karen Morris is a compendium of valuable information on small groups ministry. The authors draw together a wealth of material acquired through theological training, adult education study, and years of practical experience leading Bible study groups. There’s much more to Leading Better Bible Studies than teaching us how to lead better Bible studies, but the Bible is clearly central to the whole agenda. This book is intended to assist leaders to ensure their groups are about helping people (i) grow in their relationships with God, (ii) become more like Jesus, and (iii) experience the joy of doing this in relationship with others.

Scan 2A strength of this book is its balance. Good small group leadership requires people to build biblically-shaped competence in a range of areas. Leading Better Bible Studies outlines seven areas important areas for leadership development. While the book follows a logical sequence, any chapter can be dipped into at any stage.

1. Being a Christian leader

The assumption is that leaders are men and women seeking to know God and serve him in their role as leaders. They must be Christians who trust in the saving work of the Lord Jesus. Leaders are not called primarily to impart their own wisdom, but to help the members of the group grow in their knowledge and love of God through studying the Bible. This will require leaders to focus on Christ, depend on the power of God’s Spirit, delve deeply into the Scriptures, pray humbly, teach in word and example, and call people to change in the light of God’s word.

2. Helping people learn

The main task of the leader is seen to be helping people learn from the Bible. This will, in turn, shape all the other ministry in the group. This takes diligence in understanding the Scriptures and it also requires the leader to understand how people people learn and how we can assist people to learn.

The content of our teaching is so important that we must use the best possible methods to enable people to learn.  (p2)

Scan 3Rod and Karen apply their understanding of adult learning principles and the adult learning cycle to enable leaders to suitably connect with the variety of people in their groups. They show how people learn through stages, but also how individuals have a preference for particular stages of the cycle. Activists tend to focus on the challenge of something new and fresh. They love the ‘doing’ part of learning. Reflectors take more time to reflect and consider how things relate. They look for patterns, connections and explore things from different perspectives. These people tend to take more time to come to their conclusions. Theorists are more into formulating explanations and developing principles. They’re keen to draw everything together into coherent unity. Pragmatists are keen to get to the point where the ‘rubber hits the road’. Recognising the different stages and preferences for learning can assist the leader to engage all members of the group better and, hopefully, help the pragmatists not to get so frustrated with the theorists!

3. Learning from the Bible in groups

This is the longest chapter in the book and focuses upon the leader’s central task. It looks to develop skills in handling the Bible, both personally and in the group. The foundations of understanding Scripture in its context are well presented here. We’re encouraged to look at the detail in each passage, within the overall theology of the whole Bible. Three aspects are developed in studying the Bible:

(i) observation – what does the text actually say?
(ii) interpretation – what does the text mean?
(iii) application – how do we respond to what the text means?

This chapter is a treasure chest of strategies for doing Bible study in our groups. It helps us to get beyond the boring Q and A approach of so many studies, and explore creative means of learning together from the Bible. They are designed to help people learn from the Bible and not simply discover what’s in the head of the leader! There are 21 different approaches to Bible study outlined here, each with an example study to share.

4. Developing group life

Many of us will have had superb experiences of small groups, along with others we’re still trying to forget. This chapter focuses on the ‘people’ side of our groups and how to develop groups that really work. It’s highly practical, dealing with issues such as group size, when and where you meet, developing mutual expectations of the group, building trust, sharing responsibilities, good communication, celebrating milestones, and more. Groups go through life cycles and good preparation enables the group to navigate these well. They require attention to task and maintenance functions. Finishing groups well can be as important as starting them well. If you’re looking for a range of activities to help people in your group get to know each other, this chapter offers you another 24 great ideas!

5. Helping people pray

Prayer is often emphasised in theory in Bible study groups, yet neglected in practice. We know of groups which run out of time and have only a perfunctory prayer to open and close the meeting; of others which never move beyond the mundane and superficial; and of still others where only one or two people pray, while everyone else remains silent.  (p151)

I suspect many of us have been involved in groups that struggle to pray. The strength of this chapter is that it offers practical steps to model, teach and encourage people in our groups to pray. And it needs to begin with the leader.

6. Sustaining group members

A good Bible study leader will seek to look after the members of their group. They will care for each person with regard to their relationship with God, and what’s going on in their lives. They will seek to equip the group to build one another through God’s word and loving service. This requires more than simply preparing a study and opening our homes each week. It requires perseverance and hard work, understanding of people, good communication skills, capacity to work through and resolve conflicts, and more. But it also requires a healthy grasp of the limits of our responsibility. Ultimately, the people in the group are God’s responsibility, not yours. Therefore there are limits to your accountability. (p188) A healthy reminder!

7. Continuing as a leader

How do we keep leaders fresh and willingly serving God in this ministry for the long haul? The book finishes with some more practical wisdom. Refreshment is key to doing anything long term. People need change, variety and breaks. While they may no longer need basic training, they may benefit greatly from ongoing encouragement and support. Supervision, peer mentoring, personal reflections and self-appraisal are all useful tools for developing leaders.

Scan 4Rod and Karen suggest focusing on the person, the people, and the process. These three areas are all important for healthy leaders and healthy groups. They include a few pages of questions and ideas that could be used either personally, or by a supervisor who is encouraging another leader (p195-8).

Leading Better Bible Studies finishes with a list of resources on a range of topics related to each of the chapters. These are good resources, but it would be useful to update them to include materials written since the first printing of the book in 1997.

I’ve worked through this book on a number of occasions previously. It’s been my ‘textbook’ for teaching courses on leading Bible studies. Along with other books, such as Growth Groups, it’s been a ‘reference guide’ for equipping myself and others to lead. Our church is implementing a strategy of coaching and mentoring for our growth group leaders. My hope is for every coach to be familiar with this book, so they are better equipped to support the leaders under their care.

Gospel centered leadership

gcleadershipGospel Centered Leadership by Steve Timmis was a hard book to find – simply because I couldn’t spell centered! Now that’s sorted, and I’ve worked through the book, I’d like to recommend it. If you’ve never read a book on Christian leadership, this is a great place to begin. It’s thoroughly biblical and engages the reader with the arguments and implications of the Bible for leadership. It’s Christ-centred (!) as it describes the principles and distinctives and practicalities of leadership. It’s easy to read, focused and brief, with each chapter raising substantial issues to get your teeth into. It’s a practical workbook offering biblical content, discussion of principles, questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and ideas for action.

Each chapter of this book hooked me in with a brief scenario about leadership issues in church. I could identify with each of them and wanted Timmis to continue the story and reveal what happened! This is an excellent way to start each chapter as it helps us to see its relevance before we read it. We quickly move from these cameo intros to looking at the Scriptures, and then the Scriptures are applied to the relevant leadership matters. The use of the Bible throughout is very good. I’ve grown accustomed to leadership literature using the Bible as a springboard for ideas or a proof text for principles. This book does neither. Instead it grounds our understanding of Christian leadership in a biblical theological framework that centres on Christ. I’ve not read much by Steve Timmis, but as I worked through this book I grew to trust his handling of the Scriptures more and more.

Jesus Christ is demonstrated to be the leader of the church and therefore human leaders are to conform to his servant-hearted, cross-shaped leadership and they’re called to expound God’s word so that people respond to Jesus’ leadership. In the chapter focused upon various leaders from the Old Testament, Timmis challenges the simple ‘copy this leader’ approach of so many Christian leadership books, and instead explores how they point us to Jesus. I found this very refreshing. All human leaders will have their failures. Take these, for example: Noah – drunkard; Abraham – coward; Moses – murderer; David – adulterer; Nehemiah – failure. The Old Testament looks forward to a spectacular fulfilment in Jesus. It is Jesus who shows us what true leadership is to be like. He is the true shepherd of his sheep.

Gospel Centered Leadership explores a number of leadership distinctives. These include character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. A godly character is the chief qualification for Christian leadership. Timmis draws especially on the letters to Timothy and Titus to reveal that how we live is absolutely critical to leadership. There is to be no disjunction between life and teaching.

The bottom line is this: as leaders we are called to  be examples. Being an example is the primary way we lead. We are called to be intentional in how we live so that we can commend our attitude and lifestyle to others.  (p37)

These verses from the New Testament back this up:

In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.  (Titus 2:7-8 emphasis added)

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
(1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis added)

The explanation of  a leader’s aptitude to teach is most helpful. It cannot simply be an ability to craft or deliver words. Rather it’s more the fundamental ability to bring the truths of God’s word to bear with relevance into people’s lives. (p43) This can happen in a sermon, a Bible study, a seminar, a personal conversation. The medium is not the most important thing. It’s how the content of God’s word is handled that counts most.

Other aptitudes mentioned in the book are: taking responsibility, influencing others, working hard, making a priority of people, and self-awareness. Each of these areas contain the potential for building and for breaking great leadership. They can become virtues or vices. For example, hard work for the gospel can demonstrate credibility, integrity and commitment. But it can also be mere activism, or an excuse for neglecting family and other priorities. Laziness, on the other hand, in not fitting for the Christian leader and it can sometimes be well hidden behind a facade of ineffective busyness.

Wisdom is essential to good leadership and gospel centered leadership will embrace wisdom by keeping God at the centre of all things. The Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This means much more than trembling in the presence of God. It’s the intention to honour God in all that we do. The alternatives can quickly damage good leadership. The fear of men and women, worrying about what people will think of us, peer pressures, seeking to make a name for ourselves, will all compete with God’s agenda for leadership.

Jesus demonstrates ever so clearly that leaders are to be servants. This isn’t a leadership strategy or an aspect of leadership. Rather it’s the very essence of leadership. It’s what the Christian leader is called to do. Forget self-promotion, parading of titles or degrees, the wearing of special clothing that separates us from the people. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, in the light of his impending death upon the cross, he demonstrated the cost of sacrificial servant leadership. But the willingness of the leader to do anything for his people doesn’t mean that he should do everything. God doesn’t expect us to be omnicompetent. Rather, as we teach the word of God so we are called to equip and empower others to lead by serving also.

Servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Leaders are to lead, but they lead in serving the needs of others. The leader sets the direction for people to follow and they do this by teaching the Scriptures with an awareness of the cultural context of the people. The leader sets a direction to develop a new culture in the Christian community, differentiated from the culture at large. This will affect relationships, priorities and expectations. It will be created through prayer, Bible teaching, example and influence. (p88) Leaders will take initiative to lead, and failure to take initiative may be an important indicator of one’s unsuitability for leadership.

The final section of the book deals with putting leadership into practice. Timmis admits that his chapter on decision making might be controversial. He calls for a consensus approach to decision making, claiming that this is the best way to care for all people and their issues. He encourages us to take the time to hear people’s concerns and to take on board their ideas. A consensus approach still requires the leaders to lead. They need to convey their vision and seek to persuade people of where the church should be headed and why. Leadership is about guiding people in God’s way, not getting our own way, and this takes time, patience, and good two-way communication. The principles in this chapter are excellent and I can see them working in in obvious ways in a small church. However, they raise many complicated issues for a large church with multiple staff, congregations, ministry departments and so on. More thought is needed here and such issues are teased out in other places (including some helpful work by Tim Keller on changes to decision making with the growth of a church).

Very helpfully, there is a chapter on what to do when leaders fail. And they will! In a fallen world, many Christian leaders will fall into temptation. We only need to read our New Testaments to see how quickly this can happen. Timmis gives good guidance in such situations encouraging other leaders in the church to not despair, nor simply to echo the woes of others, nor to assassinate the leader. No leader can or should ever replace Jesus. At such times we need to be reminded explicitly that Jesus is our only Saviour and he cares for his flock. Being reminded that this is God’s church frees us from many burdens.

Gospel Centered Leadership is a brief but important book. I’d recommend it to church leaders to read through and discuss together. Do the homework, read the Scriptures, answer the questions, raise your own issues, and work on building a common understanding of Christian leadership in your context and culture. I’ll be recommending this book to our Growth Group leaders, youth leaders, children’s leaders and others. You can, of course, read this on your own to great profit, but I’d recommend grabbing a few others and getting them to read it with you. If you’re a leader this will help you to develop other leaders. And if you’re not it will help you evaluate whether you could or should be seeking to serve others in this way.

Leadership and followership

For the past 20 years I’ve been the leader: Director of the FOCUS ministry on campus; Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church; making the decisions; setting the vision; recruiting the staff; leading the team; critiquing, evaluating, shaping and encouraging. It’s been my responsibility.

Now things have changed. I’m entering new territory this year. The Senior Pastor has now become the Associate Pastor! Now I report to Marcus – the same Marcus whom I recruited, mentored and employed. To be honest, I like the idea. It’s exciting to be able to change positions. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this way.

I don’t have the same authority or responsibility that I had in the past. And that’s probably a good thing. I’ll need to be more flexible, less time-constrained, and more careful about what I do and don’t do. Some days I might be highly productive and other days I might be stuck in bed. Things that need to happen every day, week, or month – without fail – probably won’t be the best fit for me. My prayer is that there will be less adrenaline, stress, late nights, and compromised days off in the new regime!

My new job description will take a while to bed down, but we’ve got the big things worked out. I’ll be focusing on ministry training and leadership development across the church, as well as contributing to the preaching program. I’m also planning to write. God-willing, I hope to produce some resources for ministry training, that can be used at Crossroads and more widely. There are also a couple of books I’m keen to have a crack at! But one step at a time!

I’ve begun to work on material and ideas for leadership development. Currently, I’m reading through Malphurs and Mancini’s book, Building Leaders. They remind us that in order to be good leaders, we must first be good followers. In fact, I would say if we can’t follow, then we must not lead. Good leadership is not about getting our own way or the wielding of power over others. It’s about service and giving our lives for the benefit of others.

In response to a power struggle among his followers, Jesus taught these things to them:

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Christian leadership is primarily about influencing people to follow Jesus, and to do this in every area of their lives. Leaders should teach these things, but they also need to model them. This means that leaders must first be followers. It goes with the job description.

The challenge to me as I enter a new form of leadership this year, is to keep working on my ‘followership’. Firstly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, and secondly as a newly positioned member of the pastoral team following the leadership of my Senior Pastor.