Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned ... #3 - Burnout Is Universal

Robert Lay, holding up my book, The Pocket Guide
to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership,

translated into Portuguese
Brazilian leaders deal with burnout.

When I was first asked to speak on the topic of leader burnout in Brazil, I was surprised. Because of all the wonderful things I've heard about the Brazilian church, cells, and the people, not to mention the more relaxed pace of life there, I assumed they did not deal with burnout like we do in North America. I was wrong. 

In my first session I walked through some of the reasons that leaders tend to burn out and later I talked about the dangers signs of burnout, especially for cell leaders. In more than 25 years of small group ministry, I've witnessed leaders unfortunately burning out and then stepping out of leadership. 

I told the story of Don, a group leader in our church several years ago. Don’s group started smoothly and seemed to go well the first several months. But within the first year, Don called me to tell me he was stepping down from leadership. When I met with Don to ask what happened, he described the time he spent ...
  • preparing for the meeting
  • calling members
  • caring for some of the needy people in the group 
  • reaching out to lost people
  • inviting people to the group
  • discipling two of the newer Christians 
  • dealing with issues and conflicts 
  • helping his wife clean the house before the meeting 
  • and praying daily for cell members
Don also had a growing family with three young children, a demanding job, and many other responsibilities. 

Does that sound familiar to you, leader? Unfortunately, Don is just an example of the legions of leaders who are burned out, burning out, about to quit, or have already quit.

If you are reading this and you have lost your passion and joy for your ministry, I hope God can fill you back up. It's one of his specialties. I just want to encourage you: Don’t give up! The kingdom of God needs you! But first, God wants you to be healthy. “Do not become weary in doing good. Because at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” 

I wrote my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership (a small book with a big name!) because I believe the stakes are too high for leaders to burn out and quit. And I believe there are much better solutions. That book describes several ways to lead so that you won't burn out. The subtitle of the book provides a clue: "How to gather a core team and lead from the second chair."  But I've learned two things over the years about beating burnout: 
  1. It's not just about burnout. The same principles that will keep you from burning out will also make you much more effective as a leader. They will help your group to grow, bear fruit, and multiply. 
  2. That first discovery led to the second: Leading your group (or anything else, for that matter) in a healthy way will have two huge effects: (a) you will be much less likely to burnout; and (b) your group will grow, bear fruit, and multiply. You see, writing the book about burnout led me to write my next book, Small Group Vital Signs. 
I spoke at the Brazil conference about several of the vital signs of a healthy group and how these vital signs would help these leaders to not only avoid burnout but to be effective and productive in their ministry. So I spoke about the absolute vitality that your group be a Christ-centered community. If your primary focus is on anything else, you will tend toward burnout as a leader and your group will not grow, bear fruit, or multiply.

I spoke on the fact that a healthy group demands a healthy, overflowing leader. This is my favorite topic to talk about, and I found that the people in Brazil responded the most to this topic, both times I spoke about it. Leadership, I believe, is simple: you as a leader must be putting yourself in the position to RECEIVE from Jesus, the true Vine, and then you will naturally OVERFLOW into those you lead. 

In my fourth session I talked about the vitality of a leader sharing leadership with 2-3 others in a core team. Over the years, I've learned that one of the major causes of burnout is when leaders try to do everything themselves, especially the responsibilities of shepherding and discipling group members. 

In my last session, I spoke very personally about my own struggles with allowing my life to become upside-down and the huge toll that took on my relationship with God, marriage, family, and ministry. When we allow our ministry to become our priority, it can drown out our relationships with God, our spouses, our kids, and our friends. Burnout is often ultimately a result of living upside-down, allowing things other than God to be transcendent in our lives. 

Leader burnout and ineffectiveness is a universal problem because we as humans tend toward living life and leading our own way rather than God's way. It's true in the USA and in Brazil and anywhere else in the world where people are less than perfect. But there are solutions. 

Read the rest of the posts in this series on Brazil HERE

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned ... #2

It's been a couple weeks since returning from my trip to Brazil, training cell pastors and leaders at two conferences. Yesterday, I shared the first of some of my discoveries from my trip: Community Is a Way of Life in Brazil, and because of that cells fit into that culture.

While I believe that's true, I also noticed that the Brazilian church, like the church in most places, is still lacking many of the biblical components of true, authentic community. That's my topic for today:

2. Community Is Not All It Should Be.
I'll tell the truth. When I was asked to speak to the pastors and leaders in Brazil, I wondered what I had to teach them. I've heard so much about the strength of the church and the cells in Brazil. I was told they are the "cell-group Mecca." One widely known cell-church leader told me the Brazilian Christians "are far ahead of us in experiencing the supernatural presence and power in their cells than US churches experience." Another cell-church leader told me about a church in Brazil with 10,000 cells.

It's easy to idealize (even idolize) the churches in other countries. We read about the great things God is doing there, the growth of the churches through groups, the spiritual vitality of the people. But we don't always hear about the weaknesses. Afterall, they had asked me to come and speak specifically about leader burnout and the vital signs of healthy groups.

While in Manaus, in the northern part of the country, the pastor of the church where the conference was held told me about some of the struggles many of their cells had. These sounded very familiar to me.

Lack of Authenticity
While the Brazilian people naturally share life together, they still seem afraid to share deeply about their inner lives. Like so many people I know, they tend to hide from one another, a situation that's been around since Adam and Eve after the Fall (Genesis 3:8).

Lack of Confession
This hiding results, of course, in abandoning the New Testament admonition of confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16). I could tell, even through our language barrier, that this pastor yearned to see his people be able to break free from their sin through authenticity, confession, and prayer. Oh, for more pastors who have this level of compassion for their people!

Lack of Christ-Centeredness
I spoke in my second session about the idea that a healthy group is a Christ-centered community. Even in my remarks, I mentioned that much of this was probably review for them, but after the end of the session in both cities where I spoke, many people thanked me for sharing this vital principle. Like so many groups, many of them had let other priorities rather than Christ take first place in their groups. Satan is tricky. He gets groups focused on otherwise good things that take our attention off of Christ, and the result is we don't experience his presence and power or carry out his purposes as we should.

Spiritually Struggling Leaders
I sensed the Holy Spirit leading me, over and over, to speak truthfully and personally about the vitality of leaders' spiritual lives, taking time, regardless of how busy they are, to spend time with God, to get away from the crowds and their groups and to spend time in solitude with the Father. In Aguas de Lindoia, I felt led to share my own story of allowing my ministry to come before my relationship with God and my relationship with my wife, and the terrible toll that took. Many pastors hugged me afterward, some with tears in their eyes and very firm holds on my shoulders, thanking me for sharing. It's so easy for us as leaders to confuse our priorities--to allow our passion for God to become a consuming zeal for ministry that then takes over our lives. Our call as leaders is to delight ourselves in the Lord, not in our ministry. God overflows through leaders who delight in him. He gives them the desires of their hearts.

Read the rest of the posts in this series HERE

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned ... #1

In March, my son Dru and I traveled to Brazil where I had the privilege of training cell-church pastors, coaches, and leaders at two conferences. The first three days I led five sessions in Manaus, which is in the north of Brazil. Then we traveled to the south to the beautiful resort town of Aguas de Lindoia, where I led the same (relatively) five sessions. In between, Dru and I had the opportunity to see some of Brazil, especially the Negro River, which is a huge river that feeds the Amazon, and visit several Indian villages along the river banks.

I was asked to go there to teach on the subjects of leadership burnout from my book The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership and the vital signs of a healthy group from Small Group Vital Signs. The fact is, I learned as much or more than what I taught.


I want to share just five of the many observations I made while there. I want to be careful not to overgeneralize or make blanket statements about all Brazilians, all Brazilian Christians, or even all Brazilian cell-group members. But I do want to share my own perceptions, for what they are worth. My intent for sharing these is that I learned quite a bit about North American Christianity and group life in the process.

Today I'll begin with my #1 discovery. I'll share the other four over the next week or so.

1. Community Is a Way of Life in Brazil. 
One of the reasons cells work so well in Brazil is that sharing life with one another is natural for most Brazilians. I saw this everywhere, from the way they drive (see my post and video abouit this here) to the way they share meals together to the way they worship. The latter of these really struck me. It seemed to me that when Brazilian Christians worship corporately, they do so as a community, looking at one another, pointing at each other, putting their arms around their friends ... rather than as individuals who all happen to be gathered in the same room.

There is an important nuance here that I noticed. My whole life, I've experienced church as an individual who then steps into a community; in Brazil, people seem to see themselves as part of the community, the body of Christ, who have individual gifts and resources to share in that community. This difference makes community, evangelism, celebration--everything as the church--more vibrant, more like the New Testament church, than I've seen elsewhere.

My takeaway: I believe in the power of authentic, Christ-centered groups even more than ever before. Whereas in Brazil, and, from what I understand, many other countries around the world, cell life fits in perfectly with their community-driven culture, here in North America small groups and cells (I use these terms interchangeably, by the way) must be the driver of helping us develop a more community-driven culture in our churches and beyond.

We talk a lot about "sharing life together." But we must humble ourselves and ask God to break our independent natures in order to truly live that way. I believe in the vision of my friend +Rick Howerton to see "a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples," but I believe first we must learn to live  in the kind of community the early church experienced, not claiming that anything was their own, but sharing everything they had (Acts 2:45; 4:32). As always, health must proceed growth.

It's in this kind of environment that once again the Lord will add to our number daily those being saved.

Read the rest of the posts in this series HERE

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jesus' Small Group Was a Dysfunctional Mess

Art Credit:
Jesus' small group was a mess. It was often dysfunctional. Except for its leader, this leadership training group seemed to lack any observable spiritual leadership potential.

Within two pages in my Bible, Jesus had to ...

  • rebuke his leader-intern (Mark 8:33). Actually, this verse says he looked at all the disciples as he addressed Peter: "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" 
  • deal with Peter missing the bigger vision during their mountaintop experience (9:5-6)
  • stop an argument between some of his group members and the religious leaders (9:14-16)
  • rescue his group members when they could not do what he had told them to do (9:18, 25-28)
  • correct his disciples who were arguing about which of them were the greatest (9:33-34; also see 10:35-45)
The next time you feel like there are tensions and problems in your group, look again at Jesus' group! 

We often talk about what kinds of characteristics to look for in potential leaders: a heart for God, a servant's heart, and humility, for instance, but from all discernible measures, the guys Jesus selected did not have these qualities. And the worst culprits seem to be the men selected for Jesus' core team: Peter, John, and James. 

Of course, "the Lord does not look at the things man looks at" (1 Samuel 16:7). Even when we as men try to look at the things of the heart rather than just outward appearances, however, we can miss what God sees ... which is why we must pray, and ask the Lord of the harvest to send us potential leaders. 

Yes, Jesus' group was a mess and often dysfunctional, but Jesus' group was healthy. That might seem like an oxymoron, but I don't believe it is. Jesus understood the principle of process. He did not see only what they were, he saw what they were becoming. And often this process of becoming looks very messy. 

If your group is a mess--if your group includes a bunch of dysfunctional, sinful, pride-laden, argumentative men and women--don't give up! Ask God to help you see the process of what your group members are becoming. At the proper time--God's time--you will reap a harvest if you do not give up! 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

REPOST: 5 Minute Daily Devotions for Leaders ... C'mon Man!

I am reposting some of most-read posts from the past as I speak at the Cell-Church Conference in Brazil. Tomorrow, I begin teaching in Águas de Lindoia, which is in the south of Brazil, about a two and a half hour car drive from Sao Pãulo.. Please continue to pray for me and those I'll be speaking to! 

The following post is one of the most popular posts on my blog in the last month. It's also a topic very close to my heart. 


Leadership is about two primary activities: receiving and overflowing. As a small group leader -- as any kind of leader -- my relationship with God comes first. I first must receive from him, and when I make myself available, God gladly pours into me all the things I do not have on my own, but that those I lead need: grace, love, patience, power, compassion, and so much more. When I am receiving, I can overflow, but I cannot overflow without receiving.

Today as I read Psalm 61, I came to a significant verse:
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! (Psalm 61:4, New Living Translation).
King David was on the run, but he yearned to be back in Jerusalem, not because that's where his palatial home was, but because that's where God's sanctuary was. To David, God's presence resided especially in the sanctuary, and David yearned to be there.

Leader, don't miss the word forever here. David longed to dwell in God's presence forever. The relationship, the fellowship, he had with God was so sweet he didn't want it to end!

Here's a tough question for us today. Do you feel the same way as you spend time with God?

Do you rush through your daily quiet time to get to the "more important" things you have to do or would you rather hang out with God a little longer, enjoying some intimate time with him? Do you schedule a 5 or 15 minute meeting with God and just do the bare minimum because you feel you should, or do you open your heart to God and desire to spend as much time as needed to enter into real fellowship with him?

I'm concerned for us, Christian leaders, that perhaps we've set our own agendas for our times with God rather than coming humbly to him seeking out his agenda and purposes for our time together. There are a number of "entry-level" devotionals out there that help beginners spend time with God. Five Minute Bible Devotionals, Five Minutes with Christ, Five Minutes a Day: 365 Daily Devotionals ... I found a bunch of these listed on Amazon. And those are fine, I suppose, for new Christians. But if you're leading others and you're still doing 5 minutes a day with God, I just want to say, "C'mon man!"

I believe that our time spent in solitude with God is THE secret to fruit-bearing ministry. You must receive before you can overflow!

How is your time with God? Are you rushing through it or, like David, do you not want it to end?

Monday, March 24, 2014

REPOST: Healthy Small Group Leaders Are Friends

I am reposting some of most-read posts from the past as I train Cell leaders and pastors in Brazil. Yesterday, I finished my fifth session in Manaus, which is in the north of Brazil. I will speak in the south of Brazil beginning this Thursday.

The following post is, for whatever reason, the most visited post on my blog.


The Best Small Group Leader Ever called his group members friends. But perhaps that word meant more to him and them than it usually means to you and me. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Real friendship is sacrificial.

A healthy group is a group of real friends. A healthy leader considers the members of the group as friends, not as students, participants, or “those people who come to our house every week.” As the leader, you invest into the friendships first, especially with the Core Team.

On Facebook I asked for stories about favorite small group leaders. Linda from our church wrote:

Joe and I have been in small group with Gary Wood for about five years now. I wasn't sure about a "bible study," but this group is so much more. Our group is small, but the friendships we have formed are everlasting. Our small group, with Gary as our leader, not only studies the Bible, but we hold each other up; we encourage each other in good and bad times; we have moments where we laugh and sometimes cry; we love each other, no matter what; and we know in our hearts that Jesus Christ is always with us. Gary keeps us focused, and he is one of the best friends Joe and I could ever have!

Wouldn’t you want someone in your group say the same about you?

How else is friendship a vital part of leadership?

This post is excerpted from Chapter 2 of my new book, Small Group Vital Signs, from TOUCH Publications

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Brazilian Community: What We in the US Can Learn

My son Dru and I arrived in Manaus, Brazil yesterday and today we have been able to get out around the city a little. This is a beautiful place and very warm, friendly people. I've been told by many before I came that Brazilians naturally know how to do authentic community, and I'm seeing the evidence of that all around me.

Here's a 2 minute video report of what I'm seeing and learning: