Church Small Groups: The Difference Between Leading and Participating

I have ‘small groups’ on the brain.

In a week our church launches the next batch of ‘community groups,’ that is, mid-week gatherings between different people in the church to study the Bible and grow closer as friends.

Currently as a leadership team we’re evaluating last semester’s challenges and successes, making a plug each Sunday for signing up, recruiting leaders, choosing studies, and personally inviting friends to come.

I feel a buzz of excitement (which is why I’m devoting the whole week to “Church Small Groups: Leading and Learning”). 

A little backstory:

I have been involved in traditional evangelical Church since I was two-years old.  I have participated in children’s choirs, pioneer girls, Christian camps, youth group, Christian bible studies, college groups, accountability groups, bible studies for women, co-ed bible studies, small groups by life stage, small groups by proximity, and small groups by study.  I cannot count the number of bible studies I’ve been a part of.

This does not make me an expert leader.  This makes me an experienced participant.  

Last year, I led my first small group.  And I learned an extraordinary amount about the difference between participating and leading.  I have a huge respect for all the small group leaders that volunteered and gave so much of their time to the various groups I’ve been in over the years.  THANK YOU.

I thought I’d share some of the differences I’ve noticed between leading a small group and simply participating.  Maybe these resonate with you?  Maybe you might have some to add?

1. Leaders cannot flake.  They cannot cancel last minute, skip out because they don’t feel like it, not do their homework, show up 15 minutes late, or leave 15 minutes early.  In order to lead (and lead well) they have to set the tone of being committed.  They have the responsibility of every week, every study, every assignment, every week facilitating conversation.  Because they are the leader, they have built in accountability for following through.  Leaders must be faithful.  

2. Leaders face spiritual attack.  The enemy seeks to kill and destroy, and the leader is the quarterback.  Take out the leader, knock out the group.  The leader helps drive the offense in the scrimmage that is everyday faith.  I can say that every single Wednesday (when our group would meet), I would face spiritual attack.  This included an escaped, dangerous man in our neighborhood with police and hound dogs searching for him, sick children, sudden and out-of-the-blue conflict with others, a hovering spirit of discouragement, a stopped-up sink, clogged toilets, broken garage doors, quarrels with my children and husband, hives, headaches, unsolicited and ungracious criticism from others, and a spirit of disunity among the church leadership team.  Leaders need your prayers of protection.

3.  Leaders feel the weight of group dynamics and shepherding of the group’s spiritual growth.  Leaders are aware of tensions in the room, of people on the outside, of people who seemed distressed, of people who have missed two weeks in a row.  Leaders are praying for their group tirelessly.  They are physically, spiritually, and emotionally invested.  They feel the weight of the burdens of the group more acutely than that of a participant.  A participant might leave the group thinking, “I can’t believe Sheri is going though all that!  That’s horrible.”  A leader might leave the group thinking, “I need to remember to check in with Sheri mid week, point her to a resource to help her, and add her to my prayer list.  She’s in a rough place, I need to keep my eye on her.”

4.  Leaders face frequent criticism.  Participants give the criticism; leaders receive it.  I heard criticism for the content of the study, the method of facilitating, the shallowness (or too-deepness) of participants, the start time, the end time, the manner in which I said something, the over-talking of other participants, etc.  The leader is the person griped to when the participant just wish one tiny thing would be fixed (and lots of people have ‘one tiny thing’ they’d love improved).  I did hear praise and affirmation.  But I heard far more complaints.  Leaders need thick shells.  (And wisdom to know what criticism is constructive and what is not).

5.  Leaders experience deeper rewards.  There’s the trusted saying, you get out of something what you put in. Leaders put in boatloads of time, effort, prayer, and research to help participants grow deeper in their walk with God.  And so when the growth comes, the leader feels the rewards deeply.  I’ll never forget the joy of telling a young advertising executive in my group that the Holy Spirit was in her.  She had been a Christian for a year and was trying to live her new life in her own flesh, being ‘better,’ trying harder, doing her best not to mess up.  When she learned she had within her a Helper, someone to Guide her through her new life, she was ecstatic.  I know I felt that joy deeper than any other participant in our small group.  In my mind, the entire 10 week study was worth that one moment.  I was on a bit of a high afterwards.  Most certainly, leaders celebrate successes.  

6.  Finally, leaders enjoy mid-week relationships and more frequent contact outside of the small group setting.  (This is a polite way for me to say leaders give massive amounts of time to the care of the small group outside of the set meeting time).  Participants often need and want to meet up mid-week for coffee, lunch, dinner; they initiate telephone chats, text messages, and facebook chats.  Become a small group leader and you’ll become ‘in demand.’  Participants now see you in a leadership role, and, (if you facilitate well), begin to trust you as a spiritual guide or (at minimum) someone they can confide in and come to for prayer.  This is extremely humbling and rewarding.  Leaders invest time above and beyond what is required.    

I hope, as I keep leading and learning, I will improve more and more as a facilitator and small group leader.  I know I have a lot to learn.  For those of you that are more experienced at leading a small group, do you have any thoughts to add?  What are some of the key differences between leading and participating?  

I’m extremely excited to start a women’s study next Wednesday night on the names of God: “Lord I Want to Know You” by Kay Arthur.  If you are in Orange County and want to join us, please email me or leave a comment.  The purpose of our time is to learn more about who God is, explore the Bible, and deepen our friendships.  I would love to have you!

Next post (stay tuned): Small group curricula (some plugs and recommendations)


  1. Hmmm…debated whether to leave a comment. I have a lot of concerns at present on the whole “small group” concept. But will leave that for some of my blog posts I think.

    I’ve been both leader and participant. I like how you point out what it is like to be a leader, as I think some people don’t think about all the responsibility involved. I hope participants will be challenged to show their appreciation through an encouraging word or note of thanks to their leaders.

    When I was on the participant side for years, I would always give the leader a small gift and note of thanks/encouragement for leading. I assumed others in the group were doing this as well.

    Then I became a leader and lead for about 5 yrs. I never, not once, got a note of thanks, encouraging word, or a little gift. I don’t want that to come across the wrong way – as though I am demanding and expect gratitude! That’s not it. But I was just surprised that is all! Leading is a huge responsibility, and it seems to me that expressing thanks should be a given.

    Thanks for letting me ramble!

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