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.

Dysfunctional pastors

Preaching cartoonPastors everywhere are not doing their job. They’re not doing what they’re called to do and it’s hurting our churches. Not only is it restricting the growth and health of our churches, but it runs contrary to God’s word on the matter.

Pastors are doing the work of ministry. They’re preaching, teaching, visiting, caring, counselling, administrating. They’re running Bible studies, prayer meetings, committee meetings. They’re leading church, leading singing, leading prayers, leading worship. They’re following up newcomers, chasing up non-comers, greeting all-comers. They’re organising dinners, lunches, afternoon teas. They’re holding evangelistic courses, missions meetings, aid campaigns. They do the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals, and all the preparations. They’re in the office, typing up news sheets, photocopying bulletins, updating the website, organising the rosters, snowed under with emails.

Our pastors are doing the ministry. They’re busy with ministry. All kinds of ministry. Exhausted from ministry. Never ending ministry. And here’s the real problem…

God doesn’t call pastors to do the ministry.

A dysfunctional church is where the pastor does all the ministry. It’s not what a church should look like. It’s not what God intends for his church. Ministry is not ‘the pastor’s job’. And if it’s not the pastor’s job, then we’ve got to stop employing pastors to do it. We mustn’t hire pastors to do all the ministry. It doesn’t help pastors and it doesn’t help churches.

God’s design is so much better. Take a look at the picture that Paul paints in Ephesians 4:

11 And He (Jesus) personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ…  (Ephesians 4:11-12, my emphasis)

Here’s the job description, for the pastor and for the church. The original language suggests that pastors and teachers should probably be seen as one and the same in this list. What are they to do? Training, equipping, preparing, getting others ready. That’s their job. Not simply doing, but helping others to get doing. The pastor’s job description is to train the saints (the Christians in the church) in the work of ministry. The pastor is to be the trainer, the coach, the mentor. God calls the whole church to be involved in ministry, not simply the pastor. When the pastor does the ministry instead of the church, he breeds a dysfunctional, disobedient, and lazy church. He robs the people of their opportunity to be ministering to one another.

The stupidity of this scenario becomes clear when we transpose the situation to a rugby team. The coach’s job is to prepare the players to play the game. He must focus on training, equipping, coordinating others. If he decided that he wasn’t going to train others, then the team would lose. If he decided that he would play instead of the team… you can see the problem, and too many churches are just like this.

The picture of a healthy church is very different…

From Him (Jesus) the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.  (Ephesians 4:16, my emphasis)

Ministry is for every part of the body. We’re all called to play our part. We need each other. God’s design for a healthy church is that ministry is to be shared by all. It’s not the exclusive domain of the pastor.

How can we get this happening? One fundamental strategy is to get pastors actually doing their job. They need to spend time on what God wants them to be doing… training Christians for ministry to one another. I haven’t done the research, but I have enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often the first thing that gets dropped off the pastor’s list of priorities (if it was ever there at all).

If you are a pastor, let me ask you how much time do you spend training, equipping, preparing, apprenticing, coaching, mentoring others in their ministries? Too often, the honest answer is very little or no time at all. This is so wrong. We need to audit our timetables, calendars, priorities. We’ve got to stop neglecting our responsibilities. We’ve got to stop robbing our churches. We’ve got to stop getting in the way of others doing ministry. What is it that you need to change? And how can you make it happen? If we’re not prepared to invest in training others for ministry, then we should do the honest thing and resign as pastors.

If you’re part of a church looking for a new pastor, be careful what you look for. Don’t hire someone who will do all the ministry in your church. Don’t hire someone who is really good at ministry, but who never spends any time mobilising others. Look for someone who will prepare others. That’s the KPI that really matters. Maybe you could help your existing pastor by offering to get more involved in ministry yourself or asking him to help you get equipped.

Let’s pray for healthy churches and godly pastors. God wants pastors who take seriously their responsibility to help the whole church in building one another. God is seeking churches where everyone is involved in ministry.

Custom make your own conference

This time last year I was enjoying the Geneva Push In the Chute conference in Melbourne. I gathered with others from all over Australia, young and old, from a range of denominations, to encourage each other in the work of planting new churches. In some ways, I was the middle-aged pinup boy, heading to the Top End to begin all over. It was exhilarating to feel the energy, especially from those who were moving to new places to reach out with the message of Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching on why we need to keep planting new churches, how to build ministry teams, as well as sharing our specific dreams and plans for outreach in the Darwin area.

This year, I’m unable to attend. I’d truly love to be at the conference, listening to Don Carson teach, finding out how some of the new churches are travelling, and generally being encouraged to keep on with the work of ministry. However, health, other commitments, and distance are keeping me away this time round.

Depending on our networks, some of us could spend an awful lot of time at conference after conference. In my case, I get drawn towards church conferences, FIEC conferences, men’s conventions, CMS summer schools, Geneva Push conferences, MTS conferences, AFES conferences, FOCUS camps and conferences, RUPA conferences, Easter conventions, Arrow Alumni conferences, AFES staff and regional directors conferences, speaking at other camps and conferences, and the list could go on!  Sometimes it’s simply too much and not all of them are always that relevant. I understand that I’m there for what I can give as well as what I might get, but there are times when I just crave to focus on some particulars and we just don’t go there.

3stoogesI thought I’d share a do-it-yourself idea that I came up with a couple of years back. I customised my own mini-conference that just involved 3 or 4 people. Our church was going through a few strategic and structural changes and I was keen to gain wisdom from others in thinking through these issues. I made contact with a couple of other senior pastors, whose churches were at a similar size and stage, and we organised to set aside two half days to talk things through together. I took a colleague with me, and we flew to Brisbane to catch up with the other guys.

In order to maximise our time together, I wrote up a couple of pages of topics and issues that I was keen for us to discuss. This helped us to think ahead and to stay on topic in the limited time we had together. Each of us had been reading one or two of the same books that had been shaping our thinking about ministry, and so we were able to interact with these ideas also.

I confess to driving the agenda because there were things that I was keen to nut out. We were able to explore how each of us approached different ministry issues, what our churches were doing in a range of areas, how we planned and organised, and more. Talking together afterwards revealed that each of us had benefited in different ways through our time together.

Some of my peers do a similar thing from time to time, so as to focus on their preaching. They meet together for a couple of days, share ideas for a series of talks, preach and critique each others sermons, discuss their exegesis or illustrations or applications, and show how they’ve integrated the preaching with a series of Bible studies.

The advantage of these do-it-yourself mini conferences is that they are tailor-made. You meet for a clear purpose, you contribute to that purpose, and you get out of it what you put into it. It can be organised around your timetables and calendars. You can do it in-house if you have a large staff team, or you can coordinate with others in other places if you’re more isolated. This strategy will work to connect people in similar types of ministries also. Children’s workers can get together with other children’s workers … so can youth workers, women’s workers, executive pastors, small group coordinators, evangelists, school chaplains, and so on.

If you want to make the most of your time, then I recommend you consider the following:

  • agree on the main purpose of your conference
  • put together an agenda or list of issues to be discussed and allow time for people to prepare in advance
  • consider a book or two, or other resources, that are related to your issues, and get people reading these in advance so as to inform your discussion
  • clear your diaries of other commitments and meet in a comfortable place that is free of distractions
  • pray for each other throughout your time together
  • take notes of ideas and have someone distribute a follow up summary of discussion and ideas
  • contact each other a few weeks after your conference to see how things have progressed.

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