Friday, September 21, 2007


Where you set "the bar" for leadership in your ministry is one of the most important decisions you will make. May I suggest that you consider setting the bar lower instead of higher? Before you burn me at the stake as a heretic, let me explain by first telling you a story:

I was once in a doctoral class led by John Maxwell, who has written numerous books on leadership. In a particular class session we got on the subject of small groups and Maxwell, who at the time was pastoring a large church in San Diego, California, USA, said emphatically (not sure he ever says anything differently), "Small groups don't work." He went on to explain: "You cannot find enough qualified leaders to sustain a church organized by small groups. You'll run out of qualified people to lead groups long before you run out of people who need to be in groups." I hope you "listened" carefully to what he just said. Did you pick up on the key word? It's the word that I would say doesn't describe the leadership limitation, but actually creates it. It's the word "qualified."

The word "qualified" speaks to the bar for entry to leadership. It may be code for the bar being set artificially too high. "Qualified" says that we (the organized church) have set a standard for leadership that goes beyond the person being a follower of Christ. So here is what I actually heard Maxwell say, "As high as I want to set the bar for leadership - and I want to set it pretty high - there are not enough people in the average church who can clear that bar; certainly not enough of them to organize in groups of ten."

I have agreed and benefitted greatly from John Maxwell's insights into leadership and organizations, but this is a place where I part company with him, and many other evangelical leaders. I believe that the lack of "qualified" people is not the real problem. The real problem is between our ears, in the expectations that we have for people. We do not trust God to use real, broken, average - and dare I say it? - unqualified people to do His work. When it comes to leadership potential in the body of Christ, we have a scarcity mentality. That is, unless we don't set the bar that high.

There is an abundance of potential leaders for small groups, but only if you make the job description "do-able" for the average person. This is why I am careful to speak of "facilitating" a group, not "leading" it. (There are a limited number of people who feel they can "lead" others; there is a much larger group of people who can "facilitate" a group meeting.) This is why I am intentional to call the Bible portion of the group meeting a "Bible discussion" and not a "Bible study." (There are a limited number of people who know the Bible well enough to study and teach it; there are a lot of people who can lead a discussion about it.) Steve Mason, the founding pastor of CTK in Bellingham, used to say, "If you can invite your friends over for a BBQ and figure out how many hot dog buns you need, you have what it takes to facilitate a small group." When you set the bar low enough, you can get a lot of people over it.

This business of setting the bar lower is counter-intuitive. There is something in us that wants to "raise the bar." But "raising the bar" can have the opposite effect on followers as we might imagine. For instance, if you say, "We need godly, dedicated Christian leaders to lead small groups" you might imagine that most Christians will respond by thinking, "Yes, and I will rise up to be that person you are talking about." In reality, most Christians respond by saying, "Well count me out then, because I'm not there yet." You see, people have inside information on themselves, and they do not perceive themselves to be "qualified." Quite the contrary. The challenge before us as leaders is to let them know that God can use them just as they are, right where they are. Raising the bar, instead of elevating their estimation of their leadership potential, can diminish it.

How do you set the bar appropriately - for most people to clear it? One way is through stories. The stories you tell help to "set the bar." If, for instance, you tell a story about a small group leader who has a Bible college education and is leading his group through a verse-by-verse study of the book of Revelation (and how wonderful that is), you have subliminally communicated what you view to be "success." Do you know what else you have done? You have unwittingly just caused 75% of the adults in your ministry to check the "No" box under "Am I qualified (there's the word again!) to lead a small group?" If on the other hand you tell the story of a person who, though only a few months old in their faith, is facilitating a group of friends who are discussing their faith and sharing what they're learning, you have now pre-qualified 75% of the adults in your ministry to say, "I could do that."

When I tell stories from my own small group experience, I try to share openly about my own lack of qualifiedness (not sure this is a word). I tell about how questions came up in the group that I could not answer, or of times when needs surfaced to which no one knew how to respond (reality for many small group leaders). By sharing from a point of weakness, not strength, I validate the "normal" small group experience and let small group leaders know that they don't need to be "The Bible Answer Man," only a vessel for the Lord to use. In effect, I am keeping the bar low enough where they can continue to clear it.

I am well aware that I may be the only pastor in America suggesting that you set the bar for entry to leadership lower instead of higher. But as exhibit A in my defense I would present Jesus. If he believed in the leadership potential of Peter, James and me, then I have to believe that I can believe in the Petes and Jims that I'm working with.


The last two decades have proven Maxwell absolutely wrong. There are churches around the world now approaching millions of people and they are ALL organized around the volunteer leadership of small group leaders. The largest churches in the world are cell churches. These churches are not churches of thousands or even tens of thousands, but churches of hundreds of thousands. Movements are always decentralized and spread through the masses of average people. There are plenty of potential leaders out there.


Ok, I hear the question already. "Aren't there any qualification for leadership?" Yes. The guide that has served me well over the years is the "pointed in the right direction" guide. I ask, "Is this person pointed in the right direction?" That is, are they a follower of Christ? They may not have arrived yet. They may actually have a long way to go. But if they are pointed in the right direction, time is on their side. And when you take a view of leadership that says that "leaders are fellow-strugglers" it says that they can facilitate a group, even though they may not be as far down the path as others in the group. That approach would not be possible in a context where it is implied that the group leader must be advanced in his faith from those attending the group. This is why it is so important that you take care where you set the bar!

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