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You’ve probably got a story about how you’ve tried coaching group leaders and how it failed. I actually have a few of those. But, let me assure you that coaching can and does work. You need coaches. You must multiply yourself in order for your small group ministry to grow. So, let me help you get out of your own way when it comes to coaching just like I had to once upon a time. Here are the three biggest reasons that coaching fails.
1. Lack of Relationship
You’ve probably heard coaches complain that their leaders won’t call them back. As much as you try to reassure your new leaders that when their coach calls it’s not a spam call about their car’s extended warranty, the reality is that small group leaders will only take time to call people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. The leaders aren’t to blame. The challenge is how coaches can become important to your leaders.
Coaching is built on a relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no coaching. Period. Adam Grant says that it takes 50 hours to become a friend and 200 hours to become a close friend. If your coaches are starting at zero relationship with their leaders, then it will take a lot of diligent effort and cups of coffee to build a relationship with their leaders. But, you can get a jump on this.
First, match your coaches up with small group leaders they already know. If they already have a relationship, then you’ve got a great foundation for coaching. If the small group leader came out of another group, then the obvious coach is the leader of the group they came out of. If you are starting a new coaching structure, then ask your coaches which leaders they already know. Let the coaches choose their leaders (or even let the leaders choose their coaches). Either way you do it, start with relationship. The only exception is coaching close relatives. Once I allowed someone to coach his son-in-law. I had to unplug that rather quickly and apologize profusely. Ben, I am still sorry. Other than in-laws, start your coaching based on established relationships.
Next, make sure your small group leaders understand that coaches are important people who will help them get their groups started. Remember why leaders don’t call their coaches back? They only return calls to people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. For new leaders this may mean including your coaches in the new leader briefing and leader training.
When our church started groups, I led the briefings and the training, and then assigned the new leaders to the coaches. This did not work. My coaches complained that this was like cold calling. They were right. It was! To make coaching better (and avoid a revolt by my coaches), I started including coaches in the briefings and training. For the new leader briefing, the coaches were instructed to invite the new leaders they knew to join them at a round table. (See we were putting point #1 into practice). Then I introduced the coaches as “important people who would help them get their groups started.” I gave them reason to call their coaches back. Lastly, after I introduced the coaches, I left the room. The coaches did the rest of the training.
If your coaches are struggling to connect with their leaders, then you need to check the temperature of the relationship. The closer the relationship, then the better the coaching. The more unreturned calls, well, you do the math.
2. The Wrong Approach
If your leaders are not responding to coaching, then they’re probably being coached in the wrong way. Probably the second biggest mistake in coaching is attempting to coach all of your leaders in exactly the same way. Your leaders have very different needs and abilities depending on their experience. Coaching should start with what the leaders need. Don’t go into coaching with a prescribed coaching process that you will inflict on every small group leader. That simply won’t work. After all, ministry is not something we do to people.
Are your leaders starting their very first groups? Then, they will need direction and support to get their group started. This might involve weekly contacts. It will certainly involve a great deal of encouragement. But, if you’re leaders have led for a while, this is the last thing they need. In fact, if you attempt to coach an experienced leader in the way you would coach a new leader, don’t be surprised if that experienced leader disappears, even if the leader and the coach have a good relationship.
Think about your children. If you have a variety of ages of children, you don’t treat them the same way. Infants depend on you for everything. Teenagers and young adults can hopefully do more on their own. In fact, if you attempt to tell a young adult what to do like you would tell a younger child, you’re probably in for a fight. At this stage, you ask more questions and help them reach their own conclusions. You also wouldn’t attempt to teach your toddler to drive the car. In the same way, coaching must be appropriate to the leader’s experience.
When you think about your leaders, who is just starting out? What type of coaching do they need? Then, who’s starting a new group, but has experience leading groups from previous groups or another church? They don’t need to go back to kindergarten. Which leaders have been around for a while? They probably don’t need to be told what to do. But, they do need support in difficult circumstances and accountability to fulfill their group’s purpose.
When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. If you are attempting to coach all of your leaders exactly the same, then you’re making a big mistake. Start with what your leaders need, then coach from there.
3. You Won’t Let It Work
I’m not going to accuse you of this last one, but I will explain how this was my problem. I recruited people with good character and great small group experience to coach my leaders, but I held them back. They were more than capable of coaching and supporting their leaders, but I kept them on a short leash. They had given no evidence of doing a poor job coaching leaders or being untrustworthy in any way. I was just insecure. Under the guise of being responsible for the small groups, I assigned tasks to my coaches but I did not give them the authority to lead. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” As the pastor, I felt that I needed to be involved in everything and know everything that was going on. No one really needed my intervention as much as I needed to be needed. I believe that’s called co-dependency. The result was that my leaders were okay but not excelling, my coaches were frustrated, and our groups were stuck with only 30% of our adults connected. My coaching wasn’t working, and I was the problem.
The best decision I ever made was to gather a team of coaches to lead the small group ministry with me. We led together. We learned together. We troubleshot issues together. The small group leaders had better coaching. The coaches felt empowered and enabled to lead. I had the most fun I’ve ever had in small group ministry. Oh, and our groups went from 30% of our adults connected to 125% connected. I wasn’t managing 30% very well. I never could have kept up with the growth of our small groups except for that team.
Here’s a hard truth: your small group leaders and coaches don’t need you as much as you think they do. They need someone who is available when something really big happens in their groups. They need a friend to coach and encourage them. But, they don’t need another leaders’ meeting. They don’t need another newsletter. They need a coaching relationship. And, you need to let capable people lead with you. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.
Think About This
Some churches have the staff and budget to hire all of the pastors they need to coach their small group leaders. Other churches have a simple church approach and just don’t offer very many ministries. Their staff is devoted to group leaders. Good for them, I guess. But, whether coaches are paid or volunteer, these lessons apply. How are the relationships going between coaches and leaders? What kind of coaching do your leaders need? And, are you empowering others to lead and getting out of their way?
It might seem easier to coach and train small group leaders all by yourself. But, I guarantee you that it’s not better.
Clearly you have more to do than you could or should be doing on your own. Whether you lead a team or work solo, as your small groups ministry grows, there is more to do than is humanly possible. You have to multiply yourself for sure. You have to pass things on to other capable folks or else you will continue to feel like your failing your leaders or you will burn yourself out. (Give yourself a promotion!) But, as you delegate to capable people, could it be demoralizing?
What Are You Delegating?
You can delegate ministry tasks like calling to check in on group leaders, collecting reports, or visiting groups. This is how my church used to coach leaders. The coaches attended the huddles that I led. The coaches visited groups, then turned in a report to me. One coach, I’ll call her “Carol” since that was her name gave me some feedback. “I feel like I’m your spy.” I had sent her on a mission to observe groups and turn in a report on them. She was my spy. Later, she told me she was bored with coaching. I thought, “Why is Carol bored? I’m busy.” Then it dawned on me.
I had delegated tasks, but not responsibility or authority. I told them what to do for me, then to report back to me. (Are you catching on to the problem here?) The coaches couldn’t make decisions for the ministry. The coaches couldn’t call an audible to help a leader. They could gather data and report back to me. This brand of coaching was disempowering and demoralizing. It looked liked coaching. It was called coaching. But, it ended up being another mechanism to fulfill my need for control. It wasn’t good.
How to Empower Others
As you select capable people to coach others, give them broad flexibility in how they go about coaching. This requires two things. First, you have to recruit capable people of good character who you trust. That is quite a loaded sentence. This won’t happen overnight. Build your coaching structure slowly. Observe your leaders to see which groups are producing what you want them to produce. Then, give them a trial run at coaching others like walking alongside a couple of new leaders for a six-week alignment series. If they do well, give them more. If they don’t, then thank them for “fulfilling” their commitment.
Second, give the coaches the responsibility for some leaders and groups, but don’t get too deep in the specifics of how to do it. A good general goal would be something like “Help the leaders and groups fulfill their purpose.” Of course, you need to articulate the purpose for your groups. Then, meet with the coaches occasionally to hear what’s going on with the groups. In the beginning, you might meet with them frequently. After a while, you could pull back on the frequency of your meetings with them. But, of course, you’ll always be available “on call” in case something urgent occurs.
Don’t Recruit Hirelings
Jesus talked about hirelings, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13, NIV). You want coaches to fulfill the role of a shepherd rather than a hireling.
In my experience, my dear friend, Carol, was treated as a hireling. She was working for me. She was reporting to me. She was taking direction from me. I was holding Carol back. She wanted to be a shepherd to her group leaders, but I treated her like a hired hand.
The best thing I ever did to support and coach small group leaders was to invite a group of capable leaders to lead the small group ministry WITH me. Our small group ministry was growing rapidly. In fact, in a six-month period, we went from 30% in groups to 60% in groups (on one day) [LINK] to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups. It was a whirlwind. I needed help. I had already failed with Carol, so I needed a different approach.
The invitation went like this: “I don’t have all of this figured out, but if you would be willing to learn with me, I would love to have you on my team.” Not only did they say, “Yes!” this was by far the best group that I’ve ever been a part of. We met every Wednesday night for dinner because the small group ministry was growing so rapidly. We even traded off who brought the meal.
But, here’s the biggest part, I committed to them that decisions for the small group ministry would only be made with them in our Wednesday meeting. I did not make any decisions apart from that meeting. We were a team because I shared the responsibility and authority of the small group ministry.
Now here’s the best part. When I left that church to coach pastors and churches, that team led the small group ministry for the next 12 months without a small group pastor. Not only did they know what to do, they owned the responsibility of the small group ministry. As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
Think About This
I hope this doesn’t come across as a boastful post. It’s not meant to be. The humbling part for me is that it took me 12 years to figure this out! 12 years!! Please don’t take 12 years to do this in your church.
Are you partnering with others to lead your small group ministry? Has your church struggled with coaching in the past? Did you give your coaches only tasks Or did you give them responsibility and authority? Were your coaches hirelings or shepherds?
These are controversial times. You probably don’t have to think too hard about controversial issues that could pop up in small groups. In fact, some of the issues probably already have. What’s the best way to handle them? Should you just avoid controversy in groups? Is there a way for groups to navigate controversy in a positive or meaningful way?
When you consider the conversations between Jesus’ disciples, they had their fair share of controversy. From James and John’s mother asking about seating her sons of Jesus’ right and left in Heaven (Matthew 20:20-22) to Jesus calling one of his group members “Satan” (Matthew 16) to a group member betraying Jesus, which lead to his death (Matthew 26). The controversies in your small groups probably don’t seem so big. But, that doesn’t keep them from being troublesome. Here are some ways to handle controversy in small groups.
Nip It in the Bud
In the words of the great theologian Barnie Fife, “Just nip it. Nip it in the bud!” When group members start in on topics that have nothing to do with the group lesson and threaten the harmony in the group, the leader can simply stop the conversation. Remind the group that its purpose is to apply God’s Word, the Bible, to their lives in a practical way, and that the controversial topic is not part of the discussion. Once the controversy is diverted, then the group can return to the Bible study.
Revisit Your Group Agreement
What is the purpose of the group? Hopefully your groups have a group agreement. If you’d like to form a group agreement, the process is a free download from my study, Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. The group agreement helps to define and manage expectations in small groups. Every group member has a say in what the group values and what the group is going to be about. Barring the purpose of the group being to air controversial issues, by simply reminding the group members of the agreed upon purpose of the group, the group can move forward and avoid the controversy. But, avoidance isn’t always the best method.
Hear Them Out
If a particular issue has a group stirred up, it might be good to give everyone a fair hearing. The meeting should be structured so that everyone gets to have their say without judgment or condemnation. The leader could set a time limit for each “side” to convey their point of view. This would be a good opportunity to invite the group’s coach to join the group meeting as an impartial observer. The group could even invite an expert on the topic to come and share his or her perspective on the subject.
You should limit this discussion to one meeting. Everyone can have their say. They may agree to disagree. Once this discussion has happened, then the group moves forward.
The most important thing is that each group member feels valued and heard. For any issue that is not immoral or illegal, the group members should be gracious to each other and their points of view. Any attitude that will force the choice between who’s right and who’s wrong will cause the group to either end or divide and will possibly make enemies of friends. There is no point in allowing things to go that far. It’s important for group members to understand those they disagree with. After all, every believer at one point was regarded as “God’s enemy” (James 4:4). Considering God’s patience with each believer, this would be a good exercise in patience with each other.
Think About This
If groups are ever going to do more than just scratch the surface, then controversy or disagreements will come up from time to time. If controversy never surfaces in a group, then you would need to wonder how shallow the group really is.
Of course, these thoughts are not license to stir up every possible issue. This is also not reason to turn group meetings into a circus. But, if an issue is important to a group member, then it’s important to discover the reason why. Sometimes the group’s “curriculum” doesn’t come from the pages of a book. It comes from life.
You work hard. You’ve learned a lot. You are growing your small groups both numerically and spiritually. Your hard work should pay off. But, a promotion is not necessarily a bigger salary or a larger title (but it could be!) Your small group ministry will grow. Your time will not. How are you preparing yourself for what’s ahead?
Many small group pastors and directors start out as small group leaders. By virtue of the fact that you are now leading the small group ministry at your church, you have already received a promotion somewhere along the way. Who are you leading now? Maybe you’re leading a handful of groups. Then you’re probably okay for now. Maybe you’re leading dozens of groups. You’re probably not doing as well as you did when it was only a handful. You need help. Maybe you’re leading hundreds of groups. If that’s the case, then you are completely overwhelmed. You are either barely keeping your head above water, or you’ve convinced yourself that an email newsletter, occasional meetings, and a reporting system are adequate to sustain a large small group ministry. Don’t kid yourself.
If you’ve got dozens of groups, then give yourself a promotion. Recruit and develop coaches to serve the small group leaders, then you will serve the coaches. If you’ve got hundreds of groups, then you deserve two promotions – not only should coaches serve the leaders, but a small group team should serve the coaches. You only meet with eight or so leaders of leaders. These leaders could be paid staff, but in the churches I’ve served these leaders volunteered their time and abilities. Honestly, I had a better team than I could ever afford to hire. But, where do you find these leaders of leaders?
Are You Sharing Responsibilities?
Think about all of the things you are doing right now. Make three lists — what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you hate to do. Take a minute right now and make your lists. I’ll wait.
Now, make a plan to give away everything you hate to do. There are people in your church who would love to do the things you hate to do. Years ago, every member of our church filled out a paper health assessment during a service and turned it in. Now the task was to input all of those paper surveys into a database. (Why did we use paper? Well, it was pre-COVID and pre-smartphone. Stay with me.) I asked for volunteers to help with data entry. Three people stepped up, and three days later the job was done. If that was up to me, those surveys would still be sitting on my desk. There are people who would love to do what you hate to do. Let them do it! This was the easy one.
What are the things you like to do? How can you recruit and develop people to do these things? John Maxwell says, “If someone can do the job 30 percent as well as you can, let them do it. Most likely they can do it 60 percent as well.” But, if you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you’re the only one that can do it, and people like coming to you. Moses had this same issue in Exodus 18. Read more about delegating leadership here.
You need more help, but you need the right help. When you look at your small group leaders, whose groups would you like to see more of? Recruit those leaders to coach others. Which groups do you not want to see more of? Skip those. For more on recruiting coaches, go here.
The biggest issue is not finding qualified people to lead at a higher level. My biggest issue was getting out of their way and letting them use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve other leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely hands-off. Everyone and everything was supervised. I just had to come to the realization that my coaches could be more available and serve the leaders better than I could, and that the leaders didn’t need me as much as I thought they did.
Now, let’s take stock. If you’ve given away all of the things you hate to do and are in the process of giving away the things you like to do, then what’s left? The things you love to do. Wouldn’t you love to have more time to do the things you love to do. You can, if you follow this plan.
Are You Raising Up Leaders?
Ask others to read the books you are reading. Bring them to the conferences you attend. Share the podcasts you listen to. Then, get together and talk about what they’re learning and how they’re applying it. Develop a monthly circle of leaders who get together for lunch to discuss leadership principles. If you want to draw out the leaders in your church, offer a group, a conference, or a workshop on leadership. Simply by calling something a “Leadership [Fill in the Blank],” you will quickly identify the leaders or wannabe leaders in your church. Once you know who can lead, then give them a next step.
You don’t want to give anyone the keys before giving them a test drive. If you love to mentor individuals or small groups of people, then pour your efforts into a small group of people who can lead others. Start by asking them to help you by walking alongside new leaders for one alignment series or semester. See how they do. See if they like helping other leaders. See if they’re any good at it. For those who do well, invite them to coach more. For those who didn’t do well (or didn’t do it at all), just thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
The Legacy You Leave is the Leaders You’ve Developed
Think about the steps you took in becoming a leader. Did someone just ask you one day to step into the role where you currently serve? Probably not. Someone saw something in you. Someone gave you a chance. Someone invested in you. Who can you invest in?
In a recent conversation with Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church, Washington DC, she shared how a number of former small group leaders who got their start at NCC are now leading in larger capacities across the US. Heather mentored Will Johnston (Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA), Ashley Anderson (Campus Director, NCC), Brad Dupre (Next Level Church, NH), Jonathan Shrader (Reservoir Church, CA), and Clynt Reddy (River Valley Church, Minneapolis, MN). (Catch my interview with Heather Zempel on the Exponential Groups Podcast in a couple of weeks).
What will your legacy be?
Think About This
Ministry done right is all about working yourself out of a job. You might like your job, but sometimes you have to give up to go up. What are you willing to give up? What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years? How are you preparing for what’s ahead?
When you leave your current position and/or your current church, will the small group ministry you’ve built stand or fall? While the church’s next hire will fill the position you left, the success of your small group ministry is a leadership team who will outlast you. Who are you investing in? What are you letting them do?
As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
The loneliness of small group leadership seems like a misnomer. After all, small group leaders, coaches, directors, and even small group pastors are in a group. Why would they feel lonely? This isn’t the loneliness as a person. This is the loneliness of the leader. It’s the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. The experience of leadership can be a lonely experience. Here’s how to alleviate loneliness for your leaders and yourself.
Offer Community Experiences for Group Leaders
Recently one of my small group leaders from a previous church was reminiscing about a retreat we did over 10 years ago. It was a great retreat. I had budgeted to bring in an excellent speaker. Our speaker was Carl George in this case. We planned the weekend to offer some down time in addition to having Carl take us through the Nine Keys of Effective Small Group Leadership. The setting was great. The teaching was stellar. However, the memory my small group leader shared was a group of leaders gathered around the fireplace sharing stories with each other. Internally, I thought, “Man, that was the highlight! What about Carl George!” People who offer community to others need community for themselves.
Community for small group leaders is easy to take for granted. Like I said, they’re in a group. They have community. But small group leaders need a community of leaders. My friend, Alan Pace, gave me the idea of gathering small group leaders in small groups every month to take the pulse of small group ministry in the church. These were informal lunches and coffee meetings just to hear what was going on in the groups. Usually the small group leaders answered each others’ questions. I just sat there and took notes. In fact, I often felt my most valuable contribution was initiating the gathering and picking up the check. Those informal conversations meant a lot to the leaders.
At Westover Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, the small group pastor, Johnny Junkhout, offers a hang out setting in a room at the church every Sunday. Leaders gather as they will to hear the latest about small groups at the church, have a question answered, meet a new coach, or just enjoy a community of leaders.
How are you offering community to your small group leaders?
Give Every Leader a Coach
Our church in California offered small groups for the first time in 1994. We chose 10 of the best and brightest in our congregation to lead the groups. All of the groups started in January. Then, all of the group leaders quit in December. The senior pastor and I asked them what happened. The response was, “We felt like lone rangers.” I have to admit that we were surprised. The church at the time was only about 350 adults. We talked to these leaders every week. But, we weren’t doing anything intentional for them as group leaders. They were experiencing community personally, even with the pastors, yet they lacked community as leaders.
We took a couple of years off from small groups to rethink our strategy. When we launched groups in 1997, every leader had a coach. Now, you may have a strong reaction to coaching. Building a coaching structure is hard work. But, it’s worthwhile work. Some of the largest churches in the country lack a coaching structure because they pay staff to coach their leaders. You probably don’t have that luxury.
At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina, we grew our small groups to 400 groups from 120 groups over four years. Every leader had a coach. Every coach had a director or community leader. I met with the community leaders once a month. I met with the group leaders twice a year: once for our annual church-wide campaign announcement in the fall, and the second at our annual off-campus retreat. The eight directors and 40 coaches were all volunteer positions. My only paid staff was my assistant and a part-time senior adult director. Yet, the leaders of leaders of leaders I had the privilege of working with were tremendous.
Find a Small Group Leadership Community for Yourself
Speaking of lonely, your job as the small group point person can also be a lonely experience. Even on a staff team, no one understands or appreciates small groups the way that you do. The student pastor is passionate about students. The worship pastor is passionate about worship. But, you’re probably the only one passionate about groups. But, you know, you should be. If you’re not passionate about groups, then who is? But, that doesn’t keep it from being a lonely experience.
Intentionally connect yourself to others in small group ministry. Find a local huddle of small group pastors through the Small Group Network. Join the SGN Facebook group and connect with others online. Reach out to other small group pastors in your denomination or association and invite then to lunch. (If you need a guest facilitator, give me a call!) If there’s not a group in your area, then start one. Join a cohort of small group pastors in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
What’s Your Next Move?
Small group leaders at every level need others to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It’s as easy as a lunch meeting or a text message. You don’t need to stand alone.
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.