Starting a Local Leader’s Cohort: Six Principles Toward Starting a ‘Band of Brothers’

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Eccles. 4:12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Six Principles in Starting a Band of Brothers

  1. Prayer, 2. Discernment, 3. Focus, 4. Defined Time, 5. Size, 6. Purpose

Sometime in 2016, I took a church revitalization elective at MBTS as part of the requirements for a degree program. Dr. Rodney Harrison and another professor tasked the small class with starting a local leader’s cohort to meet once a month and to help me work through some church revitalization issues. We were to pray about who we should invite, design a discussion time, and put together a survey that would serve as a case study for discussion during the in-class portion of the seminar. I promised the group lunch, and a couple books as a ‘thank you’ and ensured they understood that it was for a limited time.

Six years later, that group is still meeting. A friend calls it the ‘Band of Brothers.’ A few guys have come and gone, books have been read, debated, loved, and one or two hated. But several principles have remained, and many lessons have been learned. I’ve learned how and why leaders need a group of like-minded friends who gather together regularly to laugh, cry, build up, encourage, and sometimes lovingly chide a brother. I’ve learned why many groups don’t last very long, the type of person to be invited, and why utilizing the seasons is your best friend in scheduling meetings and breaks.

My first exposure to a leader cohort was with a friend (he’ll remain nameless to protect his innocence), who took me to a Monday morning pastor’s meeting. He used to take me on evangelistic visits, to the hospital, and to widows’ homes to teach me about pastoral ministry. I’m forever grateful for his love for me! The visit to the Monday meeting was different. He wasn’t happy. He was aggravated while heading there, at the meeting, and on the way home.

“You didn’t appear to like that meeting. Why?” “They are a waste of my time. We get together every Monday, and everyone goes around the room talking about ‘how many did you have yesterday’ and ‘we had an altar full’ or ‘the deacons are upset.'” He said, “the bivocational guys can’t come because they are working, the guys who come discouraged leave discouraged, and the ones who are looking to brag gets their moment to shine.”

” Wow! He took me to about two of those and said, “there, you’ve been exposed. I’m not going anymore.” Hahaha! I don’t blame him. He didn’t find value, so he didn’t continue going.

Several years later our family moved to a large city and I was invited to a few cohorts. One was at a local associational building on Monday and was like the experience above. One difference was that I didn’t feel welcome. “Oh good. Another student.” Another group I tried to join was with church planters in the same area. Again, a no go. We were planting a house church and trying to start a network, but I had a difficulty relating to this group. I was also working 50-60 hours a week and trying to complete my master’s degree. Christy and I were using our days off and work schedule to keep the kids out of after-school care. It was a busy time!

I wasn’t off to a good start with my experience and view of cohorts. Dr. Harrison had his work cut out to convince me that this exercise would be worth my time in the long run.

The way he had us start the group was beneficial. He told us to ask the Lord for up to ten pastors who might be interested in learning more about revitalization and who would be able to meet for six to eight weeks. I didn’t realize it then, but this narrowed my focus considerably. In the pastoral leadership world, if I’m meeting guys for lunch, I’m probably going to attract fully funded and the occasional bivocational leader. Knowing this gave me limitations on whom to invite, and the number of guys in the group made it large enough to account for the 3-5 who would come for one or two meetings and drop out, making the group intimate and open for good discussion. These guys finished the assigned group with me and almost all of them said, “do we have to stop? Can we keep going and do another book next month?” While I’ve started several other groups over the years, this Band of Brothers that still meets has been an absolute blessing for me! Each month I look forward to meeting with them, laughing, learning, and loving each other in the Lord. Below are the six principles I’ve learned over the past several years in starting a Band of Brothers.

Principle One: Prayer (Matt. 7:7-8)Is the Lord calling you to encourage a small group of people in your leadership network? Maybe you are fully funded, bivocational, or simply seeking others of like mind. Begin with prayer. Ask the Lord if this is something that would benefit you and others. As a former church planter, I think in the way, ‘what could be?’ “I don’t have it, I need it, nobody is doing it, let’s start it!!” Ask the Lord. Maybe He will say, “come on, you have 47 other things going on right now, along with your third job. Let’s do those first.” OR “Yes! You’ve been seeking this type of fellowship for some time now. I love you. Let me help you find the right ones.” The Lord is good. He will lead you. Ask Him.

Principle Two: Discernment (who to invite and not) (Prov. 16:21) Let’s face it. Some people will kill a group. Why? 132 different reasons. They just will. Ask the Lord, and He will guide you. Ask a trusted friend about a guy’s character. Listen. Trust their judgment. We’ve all come home from a group meeting and said, “I’m never returning to that group! That one guy alienated everyone/talked WAY too much/told too many jokes/promoted himself endlessly/etc.” Invite those who want to learn, have the same concerns, need fellowship, and can meet when the majority are available.

Principle Three: Focus/Affinity (Acts 18:3) I like squirrel hunting with my friend in January. We use a .22lr because the leaves are off the trees, and we don’t care if we miss all day. We don’t set up in his field with shotguns and start blasting at the wood line, hoping something will fall. We are specific with our choice of gun, the round we use, and the animal we hunt. Be clear with whom you focus and what you are doing. The ‘Band of Brothers’ group started with revitalization leaders. We were all fully funded, at about the same stage of ministry, and could relate to one another very well. When you invite “whoever wants to come,” you get no one or the wrong group. What are you trying to do? Maybe you’d like to start an encouraging group for bivo guys who want help with sermon prep once a month? A cohort for new youth leaders in a metro area? A Zoom group for rural church planters? Add some focus before starting.

Principle Four: Defined Times/Seasons (2 Sam 11:1) Use the seasons to your advantage! Leaders will carve out time from January to the front of May and late August/early Sept through early November. I work within these bounds. This just works. When I start a group I like to let the guys know how long we plan to meet, and I do my best to keep within those parameters. If it’s a book group, we define the length, and everyone can agree to hang out for a certain time. Start on time and finish on time. Don’t let the one habitually late guy make you start late and punish everyone. Honor everyone who showed up on time by starting on time. Finish 5 minutes early and set the next meeting date before everyone leaves. This will help you get it on your calendar to remind everyone 3-4 days before the next meeting.

Principle Five: Size (Eccl. 4:12) Keep it smallish. 3-8 leaders are ideal for me. Anything over this gets impersonal and my personality is to remain quiet in larger groups unless zero leadership emerges. I shoot for 8-10 and generally end up with 5. I call it member math. I did the same thing when I was pastoring. If I needed 10 people to help with an event, I told the church I needed 20. I always got the number of people I needed. You are looking for a size that will comfortably gather at a local coffee shop or around a table at church.

Principle Six: Purpose (What are you doing and why?) (Ps 57:2) “Hey Toby, want to get together?” My first inner thought most of the time is, “why?” or “what do you want?” It’s probably yours too, if you are honest. Tell them why upfront. Take away the “why” and “what do you want.” (The same thing goes for those texts you receive from a church member saying, “we need to meet.” About what? Why? 90% of the time it’s not good. Church members, tell your pastor what you want before you meet!! Pastor, ask your member what they want!) Be very clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Give them time to check their calendar to accept or to graciously decline. Define the follow-up date and mark it down on your calendar. Follow up with the stragglers once, then move on. They’ve ghosted you. It happens.

When inviting someone, say, “hey brother, I’m praying about starting a cohort for leaders once a month in the afternoon at the local coffee shop. I’m praying for five guys who would like to go through a leadership book and encourage each other for an hour and a half. Here are the two books I’m thinking about. Here’s who I’m planning on inviting… Can you pray about it and let me know next week? Can I follow up with you if I don’t hear from you?

Eccles. 4:12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Some great resources include:

Dr. Bryan Hurlbutt’s Cohorts: Forming a Legion of Disciples in the Local Church (FREE)

An academic dissertation on the benefits of a leadership cohort

Calvin’s Company of Clergy

Principles from John Wesley

MLJ on Training Pastor/Leaders (Audio-67min)

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