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.
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
Connect Church is an 83-year-old Wesleyan Church of 400 adults in Lawrence, Kansas. In recent years, they’ve started groups through church-wide campaigns for the first time and knew they would need help to support the group leaders with coaches.
“Before we didn’t have any kind of a coaching structure,” said Elizabeth Scheib, Connections and Communication Director. “I was caring for all of the leaders and not doing a very good job of it. I also tend to be a control freak. I wanted to control a lot of the processes and the things the leaders went through. But, we were stuck. We had plateaued.” The church at the time had an adult attendance of 350 with 165 people connected in 16 small groups. “It wasn’t impossible to coach 16 groups. It just wasn’t effective because the whole thing in coaching is about relationships.”
As the church began to embrace the Exponential Groups strategy of creating their own curriculum and making the Lead Pastor the spokesperson for groups, they knew many people would respond to host a group. They also knew these new hosts would need help. “If the host came out of a group, then their former group leader naturally became their coach since there was already a connection.” But many more people were about to host a group for the first time as well.
The established small group leaders were already in the practice of joining Elizabeth for a huddle twice a year prior to the two annual group launches. “I explained at the huddle that we wanted to grow our groups, so we were adding a layer to our structure called coaches. I asked them, if they had a heart to come alongside a new host and help them get off to a great start, we needed their help. Then, I explained the responsibilities and gave them a starter kit that included a coaching description and a coaching timeline.” Their leaders responded.
One new host almost immediately got cold feet after she had
volunteered to start a group. “We asked those who wanted to host a group to
come down to the front of the sanctuary after the worship service. We gave them
the information about starting a group and matched them up with a coach.”
In this case, a woman had talked herself out of hosting a
group by the time she had left the sanctuary. “I can’t do it,” she said. “My
husband is an introvert, and he never wanted to do it, but I felt like we
should.” Elizabeth encouraged the woman to give the group a chance. Her husband
could be the “kitchen guy and hang back where the introverts hang out.” She
could lead the discussion. Elizabeth also encouraged her to talk to her coach.
When the coach called her, they talked for an hour. “It was
laborious, but the coach was so gracious and had such a heart for this couple.”
They ended up leading a successful group for the eight-week commitment and even
added a potluck each week so the husband had a valued role. “It would not have
worked if they did not have constant encouragement and prayer from the coach.”
Another couple decided to host a group. They were extremely
gifted and had considerable experience leading groups. In fact, they were
involved in campus ministries at local colleges. But, they still needed a coach
to serve and support them, not in skills training, but in their own journey as
believers. “They knew how to lead a group. There were not foreigners to this.
But, I also knew that if I was going to make the coaching structure work, I
couldn’t give them a pass. I couldn’t be their coach. I knew from being in a
women’s group with the wife that they were going through some stuff.” The
couple was matched with another couple who coached them. “I assigned them to
coaches I knew would be able to really establish a deep spiritual relationship
with them.” Not long after the assignment, Elizabeth discovered the coaches had
already called them, and they had gone to coffee together. They didn’t need
someone to tell them how to lead a group discussion. But they did need some
prayer, encouragement, and friendship. They didn’t follow everything in the
coaching timeline, but they received the coaching they needed.
By recruiting experienced leaders to coach new hosts, Elizabeth discovered the church could provide the care the leaders needed, and she could provide the overall guidance for how the leaders were coached. By loosening the reins on coaching, the groups at Connect Church became unstuck. They went from plateaued to thriving.
Some small group pastors are of the opinion that coaching is too hard. Coaching is not hard. Well, at least it’s not as hard as leading without coaches and doing it all yourself.
But, why does coaching seem hard? I think it boils down to three things.
Have you ever invited someone to coach group leaders but didn’t really know what they were supposed to do? I have. It doesn’t work. In fact, for most pastors the lack of clear expectations and no job description for coaches is a non-starter.
Coaching only works with clear expectations. What should they do? Coaches should share their experiences with other leaders and build a relationship with them. There’s the job description. When a leader’s issues go beyond the coach’s experience, then the coach can depend on your experience.
But, here’s the key – coaches will easily relieve 90 percent of the burden off of you. As you multiply yourself through your coaches, then you have more time for other aspects of the ministry and hopefully more time for your family.
But, even when you’re clear about what coaches should do, how much is too much?
Coaching often fails because you ask too much of your coaches. At one point I had coaches who led their own group and supervised 20-25 other leaders. That was too much.
Some churches use a ratio or “span of care,” (if you prefer to be fancy), of coaches to leaders. This kinda works, except that not all coaches are created equal. One coach may be brilliant working with three group leaders, but would be a disaster working with four. Another coach might easily serve 10 group leaders. How do you know the threshold for each coach without sacrificing group leaders in the process?
It comes down to the coach’s relational ability. Here’s a simple test: Can the coach remember the names of the leader’s spouse and children? Without cliff notes, evernotes, or index cards, can the coach easily recall the leader’s most basic relationships. Think about it. If two friends were having a conversation wouldn’t they ask about each others’ spouses and children? As long as a coach knows the names of the leader’s spouse and children, then the coach can take on more leaders until they can’t keep these basic details straight. Every coach has a different relational capacity.
In order for coaches to succeed, they need to have a reasonable assignment, but they also need something from you.
Lack of Accountability
Then, there’s your part. While you can give the coaches tasks and authority to serve in their roles, you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry. You have to inspect what you expect. If your coaches should be calling new leaders once per week to answer their questions, then you need to call the coaches once per week to make sure the calls are being made. If your coaches are meeting with more seasoned leaders once per quarter, then you must do the same with the coaches.
If coaching is important, and it is, then you need to keep in communication with your coaches. If you have more than eight coaches, then you also need a small group leadership team to help you manage the ministry. The bottom line is you have to know what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you are depending on reports to give you that information, then you’re already in the weeds. Many problems that could potentially end a group can be averted through coaching.
If your small group ministry was twice as big as it is today (or four times as big), how would you manage the leaders? You couldn’t. If you feel your small group ministry is small enough for you to manage yourself, you shouldn’t. Scaling the leadership of your small group ministry with coaches and a leadership team will accelerate the growth of your groups.
How are you supporting your small group leaders? What’s your next step to improving your coaching structure?
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