After working with P&G and PNC Financial Corp., Dr. Bill Donahue pastored in churches in Pennsylvania and Texas. He then joined the Willow Creek Community Church & Association (aka Global Leadership Network) for 18 years as Director of Group Life and Leadership, training leaders in the US and globally.
If you’re like most pastors a coaching structure for your small group leaders is a nagging idea in the back of your head. You would love to have the help, but the idea of building a coaching structure and connecting all of your leaders seems a bit daunting. In the meantime, it feels like you can manage your leaders by yourself, but there’s a drawback (see last week’s post).
Like the old adage of “How do you eat an elephant?” a coaching structure is built one piece at a time. Here are the three secrets to building an effective coaching structure one “bite” at a time:
Start by Coaching Your New Leaders Only.
Don’t paralyze yourself with the daunting task of matching every one of your leaders with a coach. Start with the leaders who need a coach the most – your new leaders. This works well for a couple of reasons.
First, new leaders need the most help. They’ve never lead a group before. Second, your experienced leaders are a wonderful pool of coach candidates. Any of your established leaders can answer new leaders’ questions and encourage them. They just share from their experience.
The other great thing about coaching new leaders is that they’ve never had the experience of not having a coach. As far as they know, every new leader at your church gets a coach. Whereas, if you announce to experienced leaders that they’re getting a coach, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Do new things with new people.
Build Relationships Not a Hierarchy
Coaching is built on a relationship. It’s not an administrative task. It’s not merely a management style. Coaches are NOT meant to be bureaucrats. Coaching is a relationship. If your previous attempts at coaching didn’t work, then examine the relationships between the leader and the coach. Chances are there wasn’t much of a relationship there.
When you are pairing coaches and leaders start by matching people who already know each other. If you’ve brought your prospective leaders or hosts into an orientation meeting, then instruct your coaches to make a beeline to the leaders they know when it comes time to select a coach. If the coach doesn’t know any of the new leaders, at least they’ve had the chance to meet in-person before the coaching starts.
While every one of your new leaders needs a coach, it’s okay to have a partially finished organizational chart. Put your perfectionism aside. Start by coaching your new leaders, then you can fill in the rest of the chart over time.
Every Leader is Not the Same
If you try to coach every leader on the same things, you will have many leaders who won’t respond well to coaching. If you gear your coaching toward new leaders, then you’re taking your experienced leaders back to kindergarten. If you focus more toward experience leaders, then you’re leading your new leaders in the dust.
Effective coaching is based on the group leaders’ needs. What do they need coaching on? What are they struggling with? What are their felt needs? Coaching based on addressing the questions, problems, and needs of group leaders is far more effective than coaching them on what you think they need to know. How do you know what to coach them on? Ask them.
Think about the developmental stages of your children. Babies have different needs than tweens. Toddlers have different needs than teenagers. Just like you wouldn’t teach your toddler to drive or attempt to spoon feed your tween, new leaders need more instruction and support while experienced leaders need more question-asking than instruction-giving. The great thing about coaching is that it’s completely customizable. You can deliver the exact training and encouragement to each leader when they need it.
Coaching is built on a relationship. Start by developing a relationship and building from there. When leaders know they can trust their coaches, then you will serve both your leaders and your coaches well.
Building a coaching structure is some of the hardest work in small group ministry, but once it’s built you can serve more people in a more effective way. And, the great thing is that once your coaching structure is built, it’s scalable. You won’t have to reorganized it as you grow. You just give everyone a promotion.
In some circles, coaching is either underrated or
non-existent. I think this is a mistake. Coaching provides a number of things
for new and established leaders:
Support and encouragement.
Customized training target to specific needs.
A spiritual covering for ministry.
Supervision and accountability.
A resource to help meet the needs of group
A sounding board for new ideas and
A relationship with a like-minded leader.
A link between the group and the church.
If you’re not providing this for your leaders, then how are you helping them? Meetings and emails might provide a little help, but they won’t provide help at this level.
Where to Start
Start with new leaders. A completed org chart does not need
to be in place to effectively coach leaders. In fact, I’ve seen some very impressive
org charts that actually didn’t represent very much. There wasn’t much coaching
going on, but everyone was accounted for.
New group leaders need the most help, so start with them. When prospective leaders show up at a new leader briefing, they can meet their coaches. The assumption is that every new group leader at your church gets a coach, and they should. New leaders are far more accepting of both the coaching and the help than established leaders. In fact, if you assign coaches to seasoned leaders, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Established group leaders will need a different style of coaching, which is covered in Chapter 10 of Exponential Groups.
New leaders need the most help. They will have many questions. As the church continues to implement new strategies of forming groups like the HOST model or “do the study with your friends” strategy, two things will happen: (1) the “leaders” of these groups will be less “experienced” and will need help, and (2) the church leadership will not be as familiar with these “leaders.” The safety net here is launching non-groups led by non-leaders which are not advertised, but there is still a responsibility to these non-leaders and their non-groups. If each of these prospective leaders, even in the unadvertised groups, has a coach, then the leaders will be supported in meaningful ways, and the church will be assured of what’s going on because the coach is checking in.
Coaching will help new groups actually get started and will keep them going as they face various issues and possible discouragement. As new leaders are forming their new groups, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed. An experienced leader who is willing to coach these new leaders will help you get more groups started.
Shepherding God’s people is a big responsibility. It’s just about the biggest. By recruiting “under-shepherds,” you can guide your new leaders and new groups into transformative experiences in their groups.
Almost every small group pastor or director will agree coaching small group leaders is important. Yet, many of those pastors would also admit they don’t know how to adequately coach their small group leaders. Having tried and failed at various coaching structures many times myself, I have found three key issues in unsuccessful (and eventually successful) coaching.
Many coaching structures fail simply because no one knows what a coach is supposed to do. Is the coach an administrator or record keeper? Is the coach a trainer? Is the coach a figurehead so we can say we have a coaching structure? What do we expect our coaches to do?
If we need coaches to train leaders, then why are small group pastors still running centralized training meetings? Do we really need coaches to collect rosters and reports? Don’t we live in the 21st century? After all, churchteams.com will solve all of these administrative issues. (In an effort for full disclosure, I believe ChurchTeams is the best small groups’ database on the planet. Boyd Pelley did not pay me to say that. He did buy me an ice cream once.)
What do we need coaches to do? We need coaches to do the things we can’t do ourselves. If we had, say, five small groups, then what would we do with those leaders? We’d call them on a regular basis. We’d get together for a cup of coffee. We would personally encourage them, answer their questions, and pray for them. We would invest in the relationship. What if our coaches started there? Coaching is based on relationship. If there’s no relationship, not much coaching will take place.
A friend of mind called me a while back. He was frustrated because many of his coaches were quitting. I asked him what he was asking them to do. He wanted his volunteer coaches to hold a monthly training meeting with their leaders on the church campus. Then, I asked him if he’d ever driven in his city?
This was a major metropolitan area. So, think of requiring volunteer small group coaches to hold monthly training meetings in the middle of one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. It wasn’t working, and his coaches were quitting.
Face to face meetings are great. If you can pull them off with all of your leaders together, that’s really great. But, most people can’t. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.
Why not meet “together” with small group leaders on freeconference.com or Skype? Every day I coach small group pastors across the country over the phone or by teleconference. I’ve met few of them in person, but we connect on a weekly basis. We have a relationship, and they have seen success in growing their groups. This works with leaders locally too.
Facetime is necessary (the real, in-person version). Again, coaching is built on a relationship. But, maybe the face to face meetings are with one or two group leaders and not all of them. We can use other means to connect at other times. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a simple “Like” on Facebook or a bulk email to all of the leaders at once. The connection must be personal to grow the relationship.
Lack of Accountability
None of us likes to make people uncomfortable. Some of us avoid this discomfort to the point of not asking our coaches if they’re coaching. Then, we discover not much coaching is taking place. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Only what we supervise gets done. Now, we don’t have to come down on our coaches like a ton of bricks, but we do need to ask. Rather than asking, “Have you contacted your leaders?” we should assume the good, qualified people we recruited to coach are actually coaching. The question could go like this, “What are you learning from your leaders?” They won’t get defensive.
They might respond, “Well, I haven’t contacted any of them lately.” That’s okay. Give them a deadline, “I understand you’re busy, but connect with your leaders in the next two weeks, then I’ll check-in with you again.” Presuming the best about our coaches both honors and motivates them. Giving them accountability helps them keep their commitment to coaching and eliminates the guilt of not fulfilling their commitment.
Effective, motivated coaches need direction that is clear, reasonable, and accountable. How do I know? A good coach taught me that…as he was resigning. Do your coaches know your expectations? Do you know your expectations? Are your requirements reasonable? And, if it’s truly important, are you holding them accountable? These three simple words will transform your coaching structure.
Catch The 10 Biggest Coaching Mistakes Webinar with Allen White on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 1pm Eastern. For more information: https://allenwhite.org/10biggest