One of the most encouraging aspects of the work I do is getting to meet and spend time with Groups Point People around the country. Almost all of them are exceptional and, through my conversations with each of them, I learn something. On some occasions I have a conversation with a groups pastor that, it’s obvious, is more than exceptional, they are extraordinary leaders as well as being change agents in the small group movement. Jeremy Linneman is one of those people. Jeremy is the Pastor of Group Life at Sojourn Community Church, a multi-site church in Louisville, Kentucky.
I was thrilled when Jeremy agreed to allow me to interview him. Day one of this three day interview will give you some understanding of who Jeremy is as well as giving you a basis for becoming a Groups Pastor.
Rick: Jeremy, I’m really honored that you’d be willing to do this interview. You are one special church leader with amazing insights into group life. I was wondering, what was your first group experience and how would you describe it?
Jeremy: Thanks Rick! I’m honored to be interviewed and much more, to be counted among your friends.
Now, my first group leadership experience was something of a nightmare… My wife, Jessie, and I had just gotten married and joined a church plant (Karis Church in Columbia MO), and we led the third group at the church. We had four couples start with us, but within a few months, things unraveled quickly. One couple that we had poured countless hours into finally decided to walk away from the faith. The second couple—very close friends of ours—left for another church. The third couple called us and let us know they were getting a divorce and leaving the church too. The fourth couple was dating at the time, and due to some sin and conflict, had to be separated into different groups. Within six months, everyone who started this group with us were gone. Needless to say, my first few months of group leadership were not what I had in mind. My wife and I shed many tears and were close to giving up at many points.
But the beautiful thing was that the group kept growing through it all. As I recall, we never dipped below eight people, because just as one of those couples left, another visitor or two would join. We survived those first six months, and the group stayed together for several years and then multiplied. Some eight years later, that group is still growing in multiplying at Karis. God is very good!
Rick: After talking with hundreds of groups point people, I’ve become aware of the fact that God has brought us all into the small group pastor role in various ways. What prompted you to become a small group point person and what process did God use to make you aware of your calling to be a small group pastor?
Jeremy: In college, I studied microbiology at the University of Missouri and planned to go into medicine. But I was a student leader for Campus Crusade and spent most of my last two years discipling guys, leading Bible studies, and emceeing weekly gatherings. Several of my friends and mentors encouraged me to consider ministry instead of medical school, and I began to feel a growing call to ministry. Jessie and I got married right after college, and I took that first year off to evaluate whether I wanted to go to med school or seminary, and that’s when we got involved with the church plant. That year really confirmed my desire to a life of full-time discipleship, counseling, and teaching. (And thankfully, I decided to do an internship with a real flesh-and-blood church rather than move off to seminary.)
As for my call to small groups ministry… You might be disappointed to find that I don’t feel any particular call to it. When we got the opportunity to move to Louisville for me to come on staff at Sojourn in 2010, I started out as an operations director and executive pastor. But my heart has always been for people and leaders, and I’ve been leading, resourcing, and coaching small groups since my college days. At Sojourn, all of our people are in groups, and most of our leaders are community group leaders. So I just want to be where the people were! I devoted myself 100 percent to groups ministry in early 2014, and it has been a great fit: I get to coach a number of godly, high-capacity leaders, meet with and encourage some wonderful men and women every week, and do a wide range of preaching, teaching, writing, and pastoral care.
Rick: Jeremy, many people will read this blog who long to be small group point people. You may be able to help them conclude if they’re right for the role. What characteristics do you think are necessity when it comes to being a small group point person in a local church?
Jeremy: It’s not for most people. Most people can do it for a couple years, but to stay in it long-term, that takes a really unique shepherd-leader. The big question I would ask is, “Are you okay to live and lead in a lot of tensions and without a lot of tangible rewards?” Community is messy because people are messy. Leaders aren’t perfect, and groups are typically only as healthy as their leaders are healthy and committed. So you’ve got to be comfortable with always being in the middle of sin and frustration and conflict. But then again, that’s what most of ministry is. But the critical thing that’s different about small groups ministry than preaching or counseling or administration: our leadership is at a distance. Preachers say exactly what they want to their congregations weekly; counselors choose the right words and timing in their sessions; administrators have direct control of job descriptions, time sheets, funds, and so on. But we small group leaders do everything at a distance: we provide vision, mentoring, content, resources, but the actual work of the ministry is done by volunteers all over the city, on all nights of the week, and there’s little we can do to nuance their words, improve their relational skills, or ensure their fruitfulness week to week. I think that’s really discouraging for a lot of groups pastors and coaches, because there’s so little immediate progress. Also, there’s typically less “reward” in the traditional sense. Hopefully you do have some measures and metrics, so you can be encouraged or thanked by your Lead Pastor when groups grow or launch or multiply. But the average church member won’t think to hunt you down on a Sunday to thank you for the perfect curriculum for their group or expert training for their group leader. As with all less-visible pastoral roles, we have to be genuinely content with people growing and community forming without frequent Thank You’s and We Could Never Do This Without You’s.
But for me, it’s worth it, because we’re not just training and coaching small group leaders, we’re forming disciples of Christ in every area of life—we can speak into their spiritual rhythms, their marriages, parenting, work, giftedness, weaknesses, and limits. It’s really an “all of life” ministry. So while there’s not the immediate payoff, to see someone lead well or a group flourish for several years… that’s what it’s all about.
I think about it like this: whereas a preaching pastor gets to have a marginal influence on a large number of people, we groups pastors/leaders get to have a much deeper influence on a small number of people (our coaches and leaders)—and we still have a marginal influence on the whole through content and training. But I think this deep-with-a-few influence is critical for evaluating ministry fruitfulness. No one ever reaches the end of their life and says, “I wish I had spent more time having very broad relationships with hundreds more people.” No, on their deathbeds, what do people say? “I wish I had spent more time with the few people closest to me.” It seems that we know—somewhere deep in our souls—that life is about deeply touching a few peoples’ lives, and everything else, whether teaching to a large room or having an online “platform,” is just a small bonus. Does that make sense, Rick? I think that’s what Jesus’s ministry was all about anyway. Yes, he taught on the hillsides and in the synagogues, but he spent the VAST majority of his time with these twelve regular, impatient, unimpressive folks.