Leaders Are Saints, Sufferers, and Sinners, Too

Author’s note: For this title, I’m indebted to Mike Emlet, author and biblical counselor with CCEF, who taught me how helpful it is to view people (including myself!) we seek to counsel or disciple as saints, sufferers, and sinners. He unpacks these thoughts in his excellent book, Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, New Growth Press, 2009.

Group night rolled around and I needed to be honest with God and myself: I felt distracted, unmotivated, and needy. It’s not that I didn’t care for the women I’d be leading in a couple of hours, or wasn’t thankful for the ministry entrusted to me. I just . . . felt . . . weak. 

Maybe I should cancel the group. Maybe all the women won’t come? Lord, help me! I want to be faithful to you, but honestly, I’d rather just run away.

Running away and escaping weren’t exactly godly options. 

Perhaps, like me, you’re a small group leader who fails to have Christ-centered motives, faithful preparation, or warm affection 100 percent of the time. As leaders, we can struggle in these areas for a variety of reasons:

First, we are sinners in need of God’s intervention to do the ministry through us, allowing it to bear fruit as we abide in our Lord Jesus. We are also sufferers who face the brokenness of this world with bodies and minds that don’t work the way they were originally intended. Relationships prompt stress, fear, and pain in our hearts. Circumstances impact and weaken us. These and other factors threaten to undermine our faithfulness in the work God calls us to. Leaders, we need self awareness regarding these realities.

Remember the Most Important Thing About Who You Are

But sister, more than anything else, you are a daughter of God–a saint! If you are saved through faith, having been born again by the work of the Spirit, you are a woman who is in Christ—chosen, holy, and beloved (Col. 3:12). These are the truths that describe your eternal identity as a saint who belongs to the Lord.

Our identity as believers is a crucial foundation for our ministry, especially when we struggle to do what God has called us to—including leading small groups. When we feel ill-equipped or unmotivated we need to remember: I don’t belong to myself. I belong to the Lord. 

And then, we pray:Father, fill me with joyful willingness to embrace what You’ve called me to do. Regardless of what I’m feeling, help me believe that You have given me everything I need to love and lead these women (Heb.13:20–21). 

We mature as effective small group leaders when we humbly develop our giftings and acknowledgeour weakness. We need to understand how we are uniquely and wonderfully made and also acknowledge the ways we are not the same (see Psalm 139). For example, your spiritual gifting influences the time needed and ease with which you prepare to lead a discussion, as well as how you’ll respond to women in your group who seem to be consistently hurting and needy. Your personality influences the way you spend the hours before the actual group time. Introverts like me may need to guard quiet, alone time leading up to meeting with a group of women so we are emotionally and mentally ready to facilitate. 

The main idea is this: being a saint doesn’t give us license to be lazy or selfish regarding the ministry He entrusts to us. However, we can trust that even when we are unfaithful, He is faithful and will provide richly for any good work He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10)! He doesn’t leave us in our weakness and sin, but invites us to come to Him as we are for transformation (see Rom. 8:28–29, Phil. 1:6, and Heb. 4:14–16).

Recognize You Are a Saint Who Is Also Needy

Remember, you weren’t born a saint! Your status is an inheritance given to you through God’s gracious love in Christ. Paul says it this way: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Yet, the residue of your sin nature remains. The natural “you” will be exposed daily as you suffer and sin while you live in a world also broken by sin. 

Suffering comes in many forms. On that particular group night, my body and mind were tired. My heart was weary from a full day of listening to painful stories entrusted to me by women seeking comfort and counsel. I was also grieving a family member’s slow decline, having lived so many decades on God’s green, but broken earth. Finally, the stress of a global pandemic, racial tensions, and volatile responses to injustice were exploding all over the country. I suffered grief near and far, from within and from without. I didn’t feel strong enough to lead others who were suffering as well.

I wish I could say that I always respond to suffering in a saintly way, but I don’t. That night, I initially responded selfishly when confronted with the responsibility to lead a group discussion I didn’t feel prepared for. I craved ease and didn’t feel like serving others. I wasn’t excited to die to self when I was needy, broken, and tired. Bleh. But that’s the truth.

Leader, don’t believe the lie that you have to be a 2020 version of Esther, Elisabeth Elliot, and Joanna Gaines all wrapped up in one. Bible heroes and admirable Christian women alike are still saints who sin, like us! 

Is the suffering in your life threatening to hijack your heart’s focus on Jesus? He knows where your heart is, just as He knew mine that day, as I headed into an evening of being “on” when I just wanted to be “off.” The Suffering Servant Savior, Jesus, enables us to humbly bring our brokenness to Him, collapsing upon His mercy at the throne of grace in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Sister, are there temptations waging war for the allegiance of your heart? This is a form of suffering, yet if you give way to them, your status as a sinner wins out. Thoughts, behaviors, responses, words, relationships, sexuality, media consumption, etc. will all be areas that need Christ’s transformation throughout your life. Take heart: your Savior knows that putting on righteousness and putting off sinful pursuits is a moment by moment, lifelong walk of repentance. But also, sober up! Sin is serious and needs to be turned from. Don’t linger in its false comforts. Set your hope on Christ with a sober mind, dependent on His grace as you pursue holiness (1 Pet. 1:13).

Realize Christ-Awareness Transforms Our Self-Awareness

Wise self-awareness ultimately comes from faith-fueled Christ-awareness. Paul said that it’s Christ's love which controls and sends us out (2 Cor. 5:14–15)—not to live for ourselves, but for others. That includes the women we have been entrusted to lead. Wisdom reminds us to not find our identity in a worldly point of view, but in Christ, through whom we are a new creation (2 Cor. 16–17).

So what happened that night with my small group? I led, listened, and sought to love the women in front of me. God showed up as He always does, and we had a sweet, encouraging discussion about Scripture and real-deal life stuff. I repented, asking the Lord to forgive me for laziness and selfishness; He comforted me with kindness. And then, I got up from the throne of grace and moved on. 

About the Author

Ellen Mary Dykas

Ellen Mary Dykas lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and serves as Director of Women’s Ministry for Harvest USA, a national ministry focused on gospel-centered discipleship and teaching regarding sexuality and gender. She writes and teaches on these topics and more, and has authored Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, and Toxic Relatonships: Taking Refuge in Christ. Ellen loves ministry to women and is most passionate about mentoring, teaching God’s Word, and spiritually nurturing others to walk deeply with Jesus.