Senior Pastor’s Role in the Cell Church

Church Leadership

By Joel Comiskey

Fall, 2003

A church of 150 purchased a huge piece of prime-time property. The massive building engulfed this little flock inside a hollow behemoth that continually reminded them of their mistake. Adding insult to injury was the weighty debt that the outside organization expected the church to pay. Now they wanted to become a cell church. What could they do?

Surprisingly, the debt was not the church’s major problem. The church’s pigmy mentality, rather, caused the most grief. Church members believed that the senior pastor had to visit, preach, teach, and do everything else. Although an associate pastor helped bear the load, the church insisted that the senior pastor perform most of the work. Changing to the cell structure didn’t immediately help the congregation overcome this mentality. The church figured that the senior pastor would visit and pastor all the cells and continue his Sunday morning responsibilities.

This senior pastor weathered those initial storms. He nourished his vision, sought help, envisioned the big picture, and then worked diligently on the details. His church, which had refused to grow for 20 years, is breaking growth records for Jesus. It’s a model of how to grow in quality and quantity. The following principles will help pastors lay hold of the vision and practically implement it.[i][i]

Stay Close to the Fire

Senior pastors have one chief priority: give attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word. The Bible says in Acts 6: 1-4: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

Even well-known, highly-publicized cell church pastors have lapsed into moral failure. Jesus, not cell ministry, must be the most important focus of a senior pastor. We must remember that personal godliness is the senior pastor’s badge of authority and power. Trust is the glue that binds people to the pastor. If that trust is broken due to moral failure, it’s sometimes impossible to fix.

If there is any question about the pastor’s moral character and leadership, he will be a crippled leader for life. People might follow the pastor warily but hidden doubt will reside just below the surface. The pastorate, unlike other jobs, requires moral authority. The credibility of a pastor revolves around his personal life–who he is in the dark.

See the Big Picture—and the Small One

Some senior cell church pastors are more effective than others. One trait that distinguishes the best pastors is their ability to focus on the big picture while working on the details. Put another way, successful cell church pastors refuse to major on one minor item to the neglect of the others. They won’t allow one aspect of the cell church to drain their time and attention.

Take Encounter Retreats. God is using Encounter Retreats in a powerful way, yet, it’s possible to become an Encounter Retreat pastor and forget that an Encounter Retreat is part of the bigger picture of training cell leaders. Encounter Retreats are not an end in themselves.

Some pastors are enamored with discipleship to point of seeing everything through discipleship eyes. The danger is forgetting about cell reproduction and evangelism. Others become celebration focused, allowing the cell vision to diminish.

The best senior pastors know what the end results will look like. They nourish that mental blueprint until it becomes part of their present reality. They see with certainty what others dismiss as fanciful daydreams.

Yet, they don’t only live in the land of dreams. Their dreams compel them to master the details of the cell group church system.

Very few succeed in combining the big vision with the present details. I’ve known the dreamer-type pastors who launch lofty goals and do little else. Then there are those pastors who confuse the trees for the forest. They get lost among the trees, never quite knowing if they’re in the right forest.

David Jaramillo is very effective as a cell group church pastor because of his passion and clarity for the cell church vision AND his attention to details. He understands the big picture but then works weekly—and even daily—on those details that will make the cell church system work. Other cell church pastors tend to meander here and there. Like a cow preoccupied with the present patch of grass under his nose, some pastors fail to see the whole picture, getting bogged down in one or two cell church details.

Can any pastor lead a cell group church? Some pastors have a personal charisma that attracts people to the teaching or preaching event on Sunday morning. These pastors feel fulfilled and successful when large crowds gather to hear them.

The cell church pastor is different. His primary effort is not directed toward the celebration. His primary effort is growing the infrastructure. His success is determined by the number of cells multiplied and whether or not he’s caring for the cell system—not primarily whether or not a huge celebration crowd has gathered. Sunday attendance is the result of growing the infrastructure. Cell church pastors don’t place the cart of attendance before the horse of cell growth and multiplication.

Effective pastors stay on top of their cell system, carefully analyzing weekly reports and knowing exactly what is happening. He helps the church stay focused on cell ministry and doesn’t let competing programs, building issues, etc. distract him. To successfully lead a cell group church, a pastor must possess an aggressive balance. He must have the ability to see where he wants to go and then move intelligently in that direction. Effective cell church pastors DON’T expect cell church success to simply happen. They make it work. To lead effectively, pastors must:

  • Catch the blueprint, the exciting vision of the cell group church
  • Master the details that make it work
  • Run with fire toward the vision while managing the various details, refusing to over emphasize one detail to the exclusion or neglect of the others.

Experiencing Cell

Dale Galloway reported that every pastor and staff person at New Hope Community Church led a cell group–even when the church had 6,000 members and 600 cell groups. He asserted that it’s foolish to expect others to follow what the senior pastor fails to model.[ii][ii]

Someone might argue, “Shouldn’t the senior pastor delegate as much as possible? Shouldn’t he rotate among the various groups instead of concentrating on one?” These arguments have their merits, but they fall short. The benefits of leading a cell group far outweigh the shortcomings.

Laxness and apathy develop in cell churches where the senior pastor is far removed from personal involvement in cell ministry. Over time, the cell church operates like a giant machine—without proper lubrication.

One particular church tried to transition but got stuck somewhere between theory and practice. The pastor waxed eloquently about the superiority of the cell church ministry but then trusted in programs to bring success. He really didn’t understand cell church—only the rhetoric that accompanied it.

When leading a cell seminar in his church one year later, I noticed little change in his leadership and even fewer positive results in the church. One year later I taught a cell church course in a nearby seminary. This same senior pastor audited the entire course. The one principle from the course that transformed his ministry was his need to lead and multiply his own cell group.

When I visited his church for a third seminar, this pastor was on fire for cell ministry. He was now walking the talk. Excitedly, he introduced me to a few of his disciples—former cell members of his own group who were now leading their own cells. Not only was his own perspective transformed by leading a cell group, he tripled his authority with the congregation. His life shouted, “Cell ministry is so important to me that I’m leading my own cell group. I’ve also multiplied it. I won’t ask you to do anything I’m unwilling to do.”

This pastor’s cell church rhetoric suddenly had a practical ring. He was no longer directing a program called cell group church; he was now involved in that ministry and demonstrating how others could be successful. Notice the benefits of leading a cell:

  • Deeper cell church vision
  • Increased pastoral concern for cell leaders
  • Insight into what cell lessons actually work and which ones don’t

Above all, it declares in a million different ways that cell ministry is so important that even the senior pastor is willing to lead one.

The pastor of a 3500-member transitioning church immediately knew it was right for him to lead his own cell. For too long, he had felt the inadequacy of announcing that everyone needed to be in a cell and even in the training route to lead one, when he himself wasn’t doing it. He found six professional couples who were not in cells and began leading them, excited about the growth that he knew would take place. He multiplied that cell within one year. He was a pastor who was passionate to practice what he was preaching.

A pastor can go to Elim’s yearly cell conference, visit Bethany World Prayer Center , fly to Bogota for International Charismatic Mission’s annual G-12 conference, or become immersed in David Cho’s ministry in Korea . Yet, the long-term success of cell ministry depends on adjusting cell group church principles to each church’s own reality. The best laboratory is personal involvement. When a pastor leads a cell group, he captures the weekly benefits of cell ministry and can sympathize with fellow cell leaders in the church.

Leading a cell group is costly in time, spiritual stamina, and pastoral care. And we all know that no one has extra time. When the senior pastor leads a cell group, it sweeps away the common arguments of the laity. The pastor’s actions declare to the rest of the church that cell ministry is not optional; it’s the very life of the church.

“I’m just too busy,” many pastors say. Yet, lay people also have crazy, crowded schedules. “I’m called to lead others on a macro-level, not on a micro-level,” a pastor might reply. Yes, but that’s the point. A pastor can’t understand macro thinking unless he knows what micro thinking is. Since the essence of the cell church is to convert the pew sitter into a harvest worker through cell leadership, shouldn’t the senior pastor know how to lead a cell?

Clarence Day once said, “Information’s pretty thin stuff, unless mixed with experience.”[iii][iii] Leading a cell group, as opposed to attending a cell group, allows the senior leader to experience the need to invite new people, train the next leader, prepare the study, and even shepherd those in need. And what better place for the senior pastor to determine if his own cell lesson (based on his Sunday morning message) actually works!

Granted, there are times when the senior pastor will no longer lead a cell group. Many senior pastors of the world’s largest cell churches don’t personally lead a cell group. These churches have reached another level, and most likely the senior pastor has worked his way through the ranks and thus might not lead a cell now. There are also time periods in which a senior pastor will not lead a cell, only to enter the fray later on.

The norm of leading a cell group always has its exceptions and there is probably a time when this rule should be broken. Do so, however, with great care. Resist the temptation to supervise without personally leading a cell as long as possible.

Feed the Vision

To understand how to feed the cell group church vision, here are several recommended steps:

First, a pastor should be a cell church student. A pastor’s library should have the latest small group/cell church books like David Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups, Ralph Neighbour , Jr.’s book, Where do We Go from Here?, Carl George ’s book, Prepare Your Church for the Future , Bill Beckham ’s book, The Second Reformation, and even a few of my own! Successful cell church pastors study and restudy the cell church literature to solidify their vision.

Cell seminars will also help a pastor grow in knowledge. Yet, the primary role of a cell seminar is not to teach a pastor how to do cell ministry, but rather to fan the flame of vision and to encourage the pastor to press on. The most popular seminars are filled with inspirational stories and miracles from the Almighty God. With such a diverse audience and so little time, the seminar speaker must paint broad strokes, knowing that each situation is different.

I’ve heard of pastors who repeatedly attend the great cell church conferences around the world in order to keep recharging their vision. I applaud such effort.

The second most important thing is for pastors to network with other cell church pastors. Pastors can learn from each other’s successes—and failures. Our cities are full of hungry pastors who long for a helping hand to guide them in the process. Cell group church networks provide that link. Meeting with other pastors to share ideas and pray together is a bonding experience that refreshes.

Perhaps, the most famous is the cell church network of Hong Kong , under the direction of Ben Wong. He primarily directs the HK Cell Church Network, which links approximately 160 cell churches to share ideas and resources to more effectively reach the remaining unreached people groups. From the Hong Kong network sprang an international gathering of cell church pastors that meets in a different country each year.[iv][iv]

There are also formal networks that link professional coaches with pastors transitioning to the cell group church model. A formal network connects an experienced, successful coach with a un-experienced pastor.

One of the best ways to feed a cell group church vision is to actually visit a cell church. If a pastor can combine a visit to a cell church with a cell seminar, it’s even better. The best cell church seminars take place in cell churches, allowing participants to see practical examples of what they’re hearing.

From the Inside Out (from core to crowd)

The effective cell group church pastor knows that if he can mobilize the laity to lead cell groups, those attending the church will receive personal care. The major statistic for a cell church pastor is how many cell groups are functioning in the church, as opposed to how many people are attending the worship service.

A lone pastor in a small church will take longer to arrive at this point than a pastor in a large church. The goal is the same, however. Carl George says, “I challenge pastors to be minister developers, and then to measure every other effect in the church by that standard—not by how impressive is the sermon but by how many ministers are made. Measure not by how available or busy the pastors are but by the extent to which the paid staff contributes to the making of ministers.”[v][v]

The cell group church strategy is primarily a leadership strategy. The very essence of the cell church is developing new leaders. Cell groups are leader breeders. The primary function of the group is to develop new leaders, not to provide an atmosphere for cell attendance.

Successful cell group church pastors see success as how many pew sitters can be converted into cell leaders who will pastor home groups that will in turn pastor and evangelize. The real work is caring for the current leaders (G-12) and then training the future ones (training track). The celebration is important, but it’s the RESULT of the real work that takes place during the week.

The cell infrastructure focus helps align the pastorate with New Testament truth—remember that Ephesians 4:11-12 says the job of the pastor is to train the lay people to do the work of the ministry. This new focus also helps rescue the pastor’s role from the star of the Sunday celebration to chief trainer and disciplemaker. Instead of asking about how to make the celebration attractive enough to keep people coming back, he asks, “How can I prepare and release lay workers into the harvest by developing them to lead dynamic cell groups?”

Like Jesus and His disciples, the lead pastor will primarily care and minister to his ministerial team (G-12, staff, etc.). The senior pastor must pour his life into his key leaders. He must build relationships with them outside of the official team gathering. Jesus, the ultimate G-12 leader, revealed how He developed relationships with His disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15 ).

I strongly advise lead pastors to read my book How to be a Great Cell Group Coach ( Houston TX : Touch Publications, 2003) and apply those principles with key leaders. In that book, I recommend the following coaching order:

  • Receive from God
  • Listen to the leader
  • Encourage the leader
  • Care for the leader
  • Develop/train the leader
  • Strategize with the leader
  • Challenge the leader

The senior pastor will never fully meet the needs of his disciples in the weekly group meeting. He must spend personal time with each key leader outside the leadership meeting.

Ministering to the Ministers

The following agenda is recommended when the senior pastor meets with his paid staff or key volunteer cell leaders (G12 group):

Word and Prayer time

“For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12 , NIV). A wise pastor begins with the Word of God. Often the senior pastor will give a brief explanation of the passage and then ask application questions.

Prayer naturally follows ministry time in the Word. The senior pastor must make time for his key leaders to share their burdens and receive prayer.

Review of Cell Ministry

Before we transitioned to the cell group church structure, we started our ministerial meetings with a review of the various programs, ministries, and worship service concerns. Since becoming a cell group church, we start our meetings by talking about the heart of the church: cell groups. The beauty of the cell group church is that it’s possible to know what is really happening in the church. In a program-based church, the emphasis is on how the programs are functioning. In the cell group church, the focus is on how each cell is doing. Each cell turns in a report to his or her supervisor that might look like:

Weekly LifeGroup Report

Please return to LifeGroup mail slot in church workroom by Sunday.

Leader: ____________________ Attendance: _______ Date: ___________

Conversions: __________

Topic/Theme of gathering: ____________________________

Multiplication date: ___________ Multiplication Leaders: ________________

Contacts of members/visitors: _______ Visitors: __________

How many in Training Track: ________ Meeting with Coach: __________

Utilize the back for prayer requests or information you deem important to communicate with your Coach/Pastoral Staff.

Those reports are collected and summarized so that each pastor can see the results. Each pastor (or lay leader) reports on what is happening in his or her network of cells. This includes struggles, number of leaders visited during the week, groups that have closed or are in the process of closing, victories, conversions, number of people in the training track, plans, why certain groups didn’t meet, etc. As each key leader reports on his or her network, there is a sense that the church is truly pastored.

In the initial stages, we covered these reports quickly, but when we grew to 250 cell groups, we had to take longer. I believe that the team should take as long as necessary, remembering the Proverb, 23 Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds (Proverbs 27:23). Cells are the heart of the church, and the place where the church is pastored.

Celebration Concerns and Other Matters

Since cell ministry drives the cell group church, it’s best to cover cell ministry before celebration. After fully covering cell ministry, it’s important to review the celebration service and everything connected with it.[vi][vi] During this time, the team discusses areas of need, worship, ushers, preaching, children’s ministry, or any other aspect of the Sunday celebration. The team might talk about a future planning meeting, retreat, finances, or whatever relates to the church and vision.

Promoting the Vision

Promotion and vision casting can’t be delegated. I made a mistake in 1993 when I personally assumed the role of the cell minister—even though I wasn’t the senior pastor. I made cell ministry happen. The senior pastor administered the various visions at the church. To justify my position, I even wrote in my training manual, “The head pastor . . . doesn’t necessarily need to be in charge of this ministry. However, it is necessary that he is in total agreement with a cell-based vision for the church.” I’ve changed my thinking since then. I now believe that the senior pastor must be the cell minister.

No one else can take his place. George Barna reiterates this point saying, “The role of the leader/pastor is to provide vision, motivation, mobilization, direction, and resources to the laity. The role of other staff is to reinforce motivation, facilitate team building, and disseminate resources strategically.[vii][vii] Only the senior pastor can promote the vision effectively enough to make it work. Dale Galloway understood this truth in 1984 when he wrote: “One mistake I made about three years ago was looking for someone from the outside to head up this ministry in our church, much like one might look for a music man or a youth pastor. This is the wrong approach. For the cell system to be successful it can never be delegated to someone else as a separate ministry. It must come out of the vision and heart of the Senior Pastor who is in charge. It must never be another ministry but must be central for the entire body. It is not to be like a music ministry, youth ministry or some other ministry that you hire an associate to do. If it is to be successful, it must be the vision, desire, and passion of the leader of the church.”[viii][viii]

I encourage lay people in my seminars not to attempt to transition to the cell group church philosophy. They must, rather, pray for their pastor to catch the vision, as well as invite him to attend a cell seminar, provide literature, etc.. A church will never go beyond the level of a church with cells unless the senior pastor is sold on the cell church vision and is openly promoting it.

Saying NO to the Myriad of Programs

The ship Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable. The builders didn’t even bother to provide sufficient lifeboats because of the unsurpassed toughness of the ship. No one imagined that it could ever sink. Yet, one tragic night, the Titanic met its match in the form of a rock-hard iceberg. The impossible turned into tragic reality.

The most subtle iceberg in cell ministry is when the senior pastor becomes enamored with new techniques, visions, and ministries. Seminars abound promoting new techniques that promise incredible results. Magazine articles and books promote the latest church program. Church members push—and sometimes demand—their favorite outreach or plan. In a strictly democratic situation, each proposal would receive equal billing and attention.

Such equality, however, will sink the cell group church transition. Be leery of the argument, “This program will help our cell ministry.” This argument could be repeated for virtually every program on the market today. Everything “potentially” could help your cell ministry. Yet in the process, you will drain your scarce “people” resources and fail to do “this one thing” well. If you expect your people to multiply cell groups, oversee those new groups, and attend your church activities, you must not expect them to involve themselves in a variety of additional programs. Only the senior pastor can successfully navigate around the hidden icebergs of church programs and keep the cell group church transition on track.

Including Cell Ministry in the Sermon

When the person in the pew hears the senior pastor using illustrations from cell groups this transmit the vision loud and clear. Larry Stockstill makes it a point to include one cell illustration in each Sunday morning message. In a cell-based church, the experience of the cell should be the life blood of each member. Visitors should immediately know that involvement in the church means active participation in cell ministry. Hearing it from the pulpit will do one of two things: Draw the person to participate in a cell or turn the person against cell ministry. The senior pastor must not capitulate to those who would rather not participate in cell ministry. Although there will always be those who choose to sit and soak, the senior pastor must choose to focus on the active, involved segment of the church. In our church, we’ve made the rule that only leaders of cell groups are permitted to participate on the church board, thus removing the possibility of those not involved in the vision to rule in the church.


The end result of cell ministry for the senior pastor is freedom. He’s set free from the heavy load of pastoring everybody, being everywhere, and doing everything. It’s the same freedom that Moses must have felt when he accepted Jethro’s advice and re-organized around groups of ten, 100, and 1000.

Establishing the church around groups of ten requires hard work. The rewards, however, of seeing a church of lay ministers, lay pastors, and lay evangelists, brings relief, freedom, and joy to the heart of God.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey’s books Making Cell Groups Work Navigation Guide and From Twelve to Three talk about the senior pastor’s role in cell ministry. Reap the Harvest also dedicates an entire chapter to the senior pastor’s role in cell ministry. Order HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.

[i] Lawrence Khong says, “The cell group church is vision driven. It needs a strong leader to rally the people toward the God-given vision. Because it is also structured like the military, it calls for a strong commander to instill a sense of strict spiritual discipline to complete the task” (Lawrence Khong, The Apostolic Cell Church: Practical Strategies for Growth and Outreach from the Story of Faith Community Baptist Church. Singapore : Touch Ministries International, 2000, p. 108)

[ii] Galloway said this to a group of pastors at the Republic Church on Thursday, June 29, 2000 .

[iii] As quoted in Thoene, Bodie & Brock, Writer to Writer (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1990), p. 58.

[iv] For more information, please contact Neville Chamberlin at or You can also visit their web site at or

[v] Carl George , How to Break Growth Barriers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993), p. 104.

[vi] Part of the reason that we start by reviewing cell statistics rather than the celebration needs is to change our conventional paradigms. Before becoming a cell church, we spend the vast majority of our time talking about programs in the church. Cell ministry, as one of those programs, received some attention. Now as a cell church, we’ve made it the goal to start with this focus and to always keep it central.

[vii] George Barna , The Habits of Highly Effective Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1999), p. 62

[viii] Dale Galloway , 20-20 Vision (Portland, OR: Scott Publishing House, 1986), p. 156.