5 Important Ways to Excel as a Leader

Subtle roles every leader should play

Do small-group Bible studies really need leaders? Can’t a bunch of people just get together and swap ideas about a particular passage? That’s not as easy as you might think. It takes a high degree of motivation, discipline, and coordination among the group members. It can happen, but it seldom works smoothly.

This doesn’t mean a group must have a Bible scholar at the helm. Bible studies thrive when people are sharing ideas, not just receiving info. So then, what exactly does a group leader do?

Consider these five subtle leadership functions.

Invite and Facilitate

The best leaders do a number of little things that make it easy for people to get to the meeting and function at their best once they get there. To begin with, leaders make sure folks know they’re invited. Surprisingly, this factor is often overlooked. It might not be enough just to post the details on the church website. Personal invitations—whether by text, email, phone, or in person—can be very effective. Top leaders also communicate clearly the time and place of meetings, as well as the passage to be discussed.

In the meeting itself, the good leader functions as a traffic cop or an orchestra conductor, making sure everyone has a chance to speak, that all comments are honored, and that the discussion stays in the general vicinity of the subject.

Create the Right Environment

This function often falls to the host of the gathering, but the leader needs to make sure it’s right. Is the room temperature acceptable? The seating arrangement? The lighting? Can people hear one another? Are Bibles available, handouts ready, video cued up? If you want the group to feel comfortable discussing Scripture, it helps if they’re actually feeling comfortable.

Drive the Group’s Vision

Even without a leader, most groups are capable of mulling over what Scripture means. But a good leader asks, “What could it mean in your life? In our life together?” There is a change here in the angle of the group’s thinking. Instead of looking down at the text and back into history, they’re also looking inward and forward and upward. Who is God calling us to be? Where is God calling us to go? How will we grow through our interaction with Scripture?

Here, by the way, is one surprising advantage of having a facilitator-helper in the leadership role, rather than an expert teacher. A teacher might have the authority to say, “This passage means you should do this.” But the facilitator can ask a visionary question: “Do you think God might be asking you to … ?” To what? To sell all you have and give it to the poor? To quit your job and become a full-time missionary? To take in a foster child? To do some radical thing that the Spirit might be suggesting through this passage? As a result, people get to envision a possibility, rather than accepting (or rejecting) a direction.

Encourage Risk Taking

There are several situations where extra courage might be needed in a Bible study group. Here are three:

  • “I don’t know the Bible well, so anything I say will sound stupid.”
  • “This Bible passage is challenging things I’ve always thought. I’m not sure I can go there.”
  • “A story from my life might help the group, but I don’t want to be vulnerable.”

Encouragement isn’t about making everyone feel good. It’s about helping people take appropriate risks.

  • So the newbie needs assurance that the Lord welcomes the uninitiated. No question is “stupid,” even if it’s basic. Jesus asked us to come to him as little children.
  • The person who feels challenged by Scripture needs courage to follow through. Far too often our groups feel uneasy with such challenges, and we discourage people from embracing them. Rather than exploring a unique way to follow Christ, we uphold the value of normalcy, the way things have always been done, and we overlook the possibilities of adventurous discipleship.
  • The one with a story to tell needs to know how safe the group is. The story might or might not need to be told. The leader can help that person navigate the risks, while providing support and comfort.

Groups thrive within a culture of support. Do people feel pressure to answer questions correctly? Or is there freedom to roam together through the caverns of life and thought and scriptural nuance? The leader sets that tone.

Have Appropriate Resources

A group leader doesn’t have to know everything about the Bible, but it helps to have some key references at hand. A good study Bible is extremely helpful, offering quick notes that might shed light on many of the questions group members ask (the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is one of many such resources). A Bible dictionary could also help with person or place names (we like the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary and the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.) Resources like this are available in print or digitally. An alternate version of the Bible, even a paraphrase, can often help a group grasp the meaning of a murky text.

Remember that we’re talking about facilitators rather than teachers. If you’re dispensing a lot of information, you probably have a commentary or two that you regularly consult. But even facilitators can benefit from having a few key resources available as questions come up.


These five tasks of the group leader can be summed up as Facilitate-Environment-Vision-Encouragement-Resources. Maybe the acronym FEVER can help you remember them. Is it too much of a stretch to think of the small-group leader as one who burns with a passion to open up the Bible to others?

As a prophet once prayed: “… your message is like a fire burning deep within me. I try my best to hold it in, but can no longer keep it back” (Jeremiah 20:9b).

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen was formerly Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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