3 Defining Characteristics of Great Small Group Leaders

Ever wondered how to select the right youth ministry team? There are 3 key characteristics of great leaders you need to look out for.
Great Leaders

Who is your favorite small group leader? Ha! Trick question…we don’t have favorites.

Okay, not exactly true. Let’s be real, leader to leader. Some youth ministry small group leaders that we’ve worked with are just a cut above the rest. They are just built different. There is just something about them that makes it seem as though you could disappear and the ministry would keep rolling just fine. (Quick side note: That’s actually a good thing, by the way. But I digress. That’s another post for another time.)

The good news is, with some dedication, patience, and persistence, you can build an entire team of great youth ministry small group leaders.

Yes, it’s possible. And in my experience, it can take up to a few years. But I already know that you got into youth ministry to play the long game. Building the best things typically takes time, and building the best small group leader roster is no different.

Now, we could get into tactics, strategies, and systems for recruiting, training, and retaining large quantities of volunteers. But that’s not where we should start.

The Best Kind of Leaders

See, if we want to build a team of great small group leaders, we have to start by knowing what makes someone a great small group leader. Here’s why:

You can go further with few great leaders than you can with more than enough mediocre ones.

Even writing that feels a little harsh, but you can’t get around that truth. Some people are great small group leaders, but not all people are. And we can keep building teams of not-so-great leaders to fill our rosters and feel like all our responsibilities are covered, but we won’t see the development we’re aiming for in the lives and faith of students.

If we want what’s best for students then we need give them the best small group leaders.

AND if we want more of the best small group leaders, we need to see if we can all agree on a few key characteristics of great small group leaders.

Key Characteristics of Great Small Group Leaders

In my years of youth ministry, I’ve noticed 3 consistent marks of people who make great leaders:

1. Great leaders are healthy people.

I’m not talking kale eaters. Although if you can enjoy that stuff, you are a cut above the rest. I’m talking about people who have, are, or are willing to do the work to stay or become holistically healthy. I’m not saying that great SGLs are perfect people or people who act like they’re perfect. But I am saying that great SGLs are the kind of holistically healthy adults that we want to see students become. Essentially, great small group leaders make it personal. They don’t just talk about faith, but instead lead by their example. (Make it Personal is actually one of the essential practices of Lead Small).

Now, we’ve all had seasons of life where we weren’t as healthy as we would have liked to be. So, with that in mind, we need to graciously be willing to be honest about where someone is in their own journey before allowing them to step into the lives of students in a role as critical and connected as a SGL. Just because someone wants to be a small group leader, doesn’t mean they have to be that right now…or ever.

Checking in on Your Leaders’ Holistic Health

As student ministry leaders, it’s important that we’re willing to make the hard calls in order to ensure we’re putting the best SGLs in the lives of students. So, pay attention to your gut. Don’t be afraid to say, “no for now, but not forever.” Never be afraid to have hard conversations with current SGLs who aren’t making the healthiest choices.

The faith of middle and high school students is too important. Your role as a pastor or shepherd of people is too important to not fight for the health of your small groups, your students, and the leaders in their lives.

So, if you want a team of great small group leaders, make sure you ask the hard questions, listen to your gut, and be willing to tread into the awkwardness of checking in on the holistic health of the adults on your SGL team.

2. Great leaders are consistent people.

You might be thinking, “Of course they are! My best SGLs are the ones who are always around.” Yes and no.

Look, being present is a cornerstone principle of being a great leader of students. (We would require every potential volunteer to read Lead Small, to show how serious we were about Being Present and the other principles.) However, consistency of presence isn’t just about physical proximity. Great small group leaders are people who consistently show up as who they are day in and day out. Yet again, they make it personal.

Today’s middle and high school students are craving a church experience built on authenticity. SGLs who are consistent in presence and character show the next generation that God is consistent in who Christians say He is and who He actually is.

When your small group leaders are the same people at home, work, and on the weekends, students get an example of what it means to live with integrity and authentic faith.

Living a Consistent Life in All Areas

Let me be a little more direct on this:

You may have the coolest human you’ve ever known wanting to be an SGL on your team. It might be you just know this person will be great with students. You’re confident that this person will single-handedly attract an entire school to your programming. They will surely win influence with the next generation. BUT . . . if you’d be nervous for students to follow this person’s example during the hours outside of your programming time, it may not be best for them to serve as an SGL at this time.

Great SGLs have lives that line-up with what they say they believe during small group conversations. We’d never want to put someone in a position to have to lie about something to their group or give off the false impression that they are living a certain way when they aren’t. There is NO judgement and NO condemnation for anyone struggling to live consistently, BUT there is also no requirement for them to be a small group leader.

Great SGLs are consistent about showing up for students and consistent about showing up as who they really are. They are consistent in ways that make you wish they could be with their small group every day of the week, because if they would, the lives of their students would be that much better.

When you find these people, celebrate their consistent example to show others what it looks like to be a leader worth following.

3. Great leaders are “bought in” people.

The final hallmark of a great leader is their willingness to approach your local church and the student ministry as an owner not a renter.

In any property I’ve rented, the best part is when something breaks, I don’t have to fix it. I just put in a request and the landlord or property manager takes care of it. Honestly, I just complain and it’s someone else’s job to fix it.

When my wife and I bought a house, everything changed. As the owner, it was my blood, sweat, and tears that went into making our home better. Not to mention it was our responsibility to take care of the investment we had made.

So, let me ask you: Would you rather have an SGL team full of owners or renters?

Owners, of course!

Buying in to the Mission

Great small group leaders are bought into the vision, mission, and values of the local church and student ministry they’re a part of. They aren’t complainers, they are change makers. These great leaders dive into the unexpected and thrive when it comes to taking initiative. They go above and beyond to pastor their small group of students. See, great leaders don’t see their commitment as an obligation or once-a-week task. They view their role as God-given responsibility to shepherd middle or high school students.

There is a spark. Drive. Passion. Love…that sets them apart.

From time to time, you can sense this in someone when you sit down for an interview. But other times you’re surprised by someone who winds up taking ownership of their SGL role. Either way, when someone leads like an owner, put that person in front of other leaders. There is something about bought in people that tends to help move renters to want to become owners.

So, if you want more great student ministry SGLs, make sure people see what real ownership looks like.

Start Recruiting Great Leaders Now!

These are just 3 characteristics of people who make great small group leaders.

We could go on and on, but if we all agree to start recruiting, training, and retaining healthy, consistent, and bought-in SGLs we will take a massive leap in the direction of putting the BEST people in the lives of students.

If we want what’s best for the next generation, then let’s start by providing them with the best SGLs possible.

Just imagine what would happen if every small group leader was the kind of adult you hope your students will become.

Well, actually, it’s too important to just imagine…let’s go make it happen!

If you want to get started recruiting, retaining, and training great small group leaders check out the Creating a Small Group Culture Orange Masterclass with Trey McKnight, Lisette Fraser, and Tom Shefchunas. Or, learn the fundamentals of what it means to be a small group leader by reading Lead Small.

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