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At some point you encounter the thought, “There’s just not enough of me to go around.” When you consider your spouse, your family, your church, your groups, (and don’t forget yourself), this admission is accurate. You are insufficient to accomplish all that God has called you to do. But, this is not necessarily bad news.
Have you ever called tech support only to hear that your problem is “user error?” I am so relieved when it’s just user error. I don’t have to send my device in or buy a new one. The problem is me! This is great news, because I can fix me. Once you discover this, you can fix it!
Don’t Put a Lid on Your Small Groups.
Once upon a time my groups were stuck at 30% after seven years of very hard work building a small groups ministry. I handpicked all of the leaders. I trained all of the leaders. I coached all of the leaders. Our small group ministry had grown as far as it could under my leadership. At this point, there was a choice: (1) Blame my senior pastor for not promoting groups, (2) Blame our people for being selfish and unwilling to leave their groups to start new groups, (3) Find another job, or (4) Change myself.
After spending a fair amount of time on options 1 and 2, I finally came to the realization that the solution was to change myself. This wasn’t easy. After all, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.
John Maxwell coined “The Law of the Lid” which states, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” We were stuck at 30% of our congregation in groups, because that’s the most I could effectively lead by myself. If I didn’t multiply myself and raise my level of leadership, then our groups would never have grown.
Where Do You Start?
The bad news was that I wasn’t adequately serving my small group leaders. The good news was that I still had small group leaders. They had figured out how to lead their groups and keep them going. Now, I didn’t completely neglect them. We did a lot of training meetings that were half attended at best. (Did I also mention that I oversaw the entire children’s ministry, some of the church administration, and led worship for a season? It wasn’t a very good season.) I’ll stop making excuses. As John Maxwell also says, “People who are good at making excuses are usually good at little else.”
My motivation to shift my leadership came in the form of a crisis. We doubled our groups in one day. From a coaching perspective, I now had twice the problem. I wasn’t adequately coaching the leaders I had, then suddenly I had an equal number of new leaders. I was overwhelmed. Then, something dawned on me.
If half of my leaders were new, then that meant that the other half had some experience. While they weren’t trained as coaches, they had enough to answer the new leaders’ questions and encourage them. I matched them up in a buddy system. Looking back, it was quick and dirty and very chaotic, but it moved my leadership enough for the next time our groups doubled, which was six months later.
Empower Coaches to Serve.
Even though I had leveraged a crisis to recruit coaches, I still had another problem. Remember that part about “My name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” Yea, that didn’t go away quickly.
I had coaches. This was a big step. I had willing, capable, and experienced leaders to coach new small group leaders. But, my coaches became bored and frustrated.
I was still running the monthly huddles. I did all of the training. I sent the coaches into the groups to gather information for me. No wonder that one coach, Carol, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” She was!
This forced another leadership growing pain for me: if I didn’t get out of my coaches way, then I would lose my coaches. I’ll admit it – I was insecure. I had never led a small group ministry with 60% of our adults in groups. If 30% was too much for me to handle alone, then 60% was way beyond my ability individually. I couldn’t lose my coaches. But, I had only given my coaches half of what they needed.
I gave my coaches the tasks of coaching, but I hadn’t given them the authority of coaching. I trusted them to do the grunt work, but I didn’t trust them to make wise decisions. At this point two major shifts were necessary: (1) I needed to get over myself, and (2) I needed to invest more in the relationships with these coaches and allow them to invest in the leaders. This worked.
When I began to regard my coaches as partners rather than subordinates, they began to shine. They loved helping other leaders. And, I was grateful for the help.
Carl George, my friend and mentor, often asks: “How are you getting in the way of accomplishing your goals?”
I’ll leave you with that question.
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Ministry is more decentralized than ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, many of the things you typically count on to monitor the health and activity of small groups aren’t functioning at their optimal level. How can you know what’s going on with your groups when your “dashboard” has short circuited?
Don’t Just Hope It Works.
If you launched a lot of new online groups in the last year or moved your established groups online, then your reporting system is probably not functioning quite as well as you’d like. But, if you are depending on a report to know what’s going on in your groups, you’re already in the weeds.
In-person leader meetings aren’t happening and online leader training is poorly attended. While it’s great to see everyone’s face, meetings are okay at dispensing information, but you still don’t know what’s going on in your groups.
Some have basically given up. They are hoping that one way or another, groups will survive the pandemic and come out okay. The truth is what you don’t know will hurt you.
Where Do Online Groups Need Help?
Your group leaders are facing issues they’ve never faced before. The stress of the global pandemic, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and political chaos has taken a toll. Overall mental health is precarious. Your group leaders may or may not be equipped to handle what they’re facing.
The sheer numbers of issues coming up among your people are too much for you to manage alone. You need a level of leadership between you and your leaders. This doesn’t mean becoming aloof to your leaders’ needs. It means that you have very quickly become stretched too thin. It’s time to bring in the reinforcements! Which of your established leaders could help you carry the load and care for your group leaders?
What’s the Next Step for Your Online Groups?
Where are you leading your online groups? Are they just a stop-gap until the pandemic ends? There is more potential in your temporary, online groups that you realize.
If people have stepped forward to lead a short-term online group with their friends, they have essentially self-identified as a potential group leader. If they are leading an egroup, book group, or something else that you’ve come up with, then give them the next step into small group leadership. But, don’t make the step too big. (If you haven’t launched short-term online groups, then start promoting now and launch “egroups” for the 30 days prior to Easter, which is the Lenten season.)
As I talk to pastors every day, churches and small groups are faced with very different restrictions and regulations depending on their region of the country. Even if churches and groups aren’t limited in meeting, some of your members may be avoiding physical contact out of an abundance of caution. People need connection and conversation. Use this season to experiment. Tell them you’re only doing this “because of COVID.” For every group that is divided over meeting in-person or online, start two groups. Then, give them a next step.
Give the group a study or a sermon discussion guide to use after Easter. Most short-term groups disband because they aren’t invited to continue. (That isn’t rocket science, but it sure took a long time for some of us to figure out.)
Give the “leaders” of these temporary groups a next step into training. Start by inviting them to your basic training (I recommend Steve Gladen’s Small Group Leader Training kit, which is completely customizable.)
The link to successfully getting new groups launched and to help them continue is a coach who will encourage and instruct the leaders as they need help. You can’t host the meetings you used to. You can’t personally check in on dozens or hundreds of new leaders. You can’t write off these short-term groups and hope things get back to normal.
You have an amazing opportunity to grow your small group ministry in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Many of the other ministries in your church which might have competed for the same leaders and group members have been postponed or shut down. Nothing has cleared the deck of church activities like COVID. This is your opportunity. Assess your established leaders to recruit coaches. Ask your senior pastor to promote “egroups.” Then, buckle up!
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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 members.
- A sounding board for new ideas and troubleshooting issues.
- 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.
This article is an excerpt from the Exponential Groups Workbook (Hendrickson 2020).
For more guidance on building a coaching structure, check out the Coaching Exponential Groups Online Course.
Some pastors outgrow their jobs. Others find their jobs outgrow them. In 30 years of ministry and 16 years of consulting churches, I’ve witnesses the hard break of pastors putting their hearts and souls into their churches and small group ministries only to eventually become disqualified for their positions. As you grow your ministry, you must grow yourself.
A great example of this principle is found in Moses and how he handled the people’s disputes while they wandered in the desert. The Israelites numbered somewhere around 3 to 3.5 million. Moses spent his days resolving every conflict for all of them. Things became so bad that Moses’ wife and children left him (Exodus 18:2).
Moses’ father-in-law Jethro confronted him: “What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Moses’ answer sounds like a lot pastors I know (and a pastor I’ve been): (1) The people like coming to me and, (2) I’m the only one who can do it (18:15). Some of us think, “Well, isn’t that what good pastors are supposed to do? But, others might realize this all sounds a bit co-dependent. Moses needed to be needed. Have you ever known any pastors like that? To be honest, I didn’t need to be needed. I just needed to be in control. And, our small group ministry got stuck because of it. (Click here for more lessons on why small group coaching fails).
You Cannot Personally Pastor Everyone
If you have more than 10 small groups in your church, you have to decide who you are going to personally pastor. If you wear a lot of hats other than groups, 10 group leaders might be too many. While you may not think you don’t need any help, you have to realize that you are not giving adequate help and support to your leaders if you’re trying to do it all by yourself. You’re probably busy putting out fires, but you are not mentoring your leaders. You’re probably holding big training meetings that are half attended at best, but you’re not coaching your leaders. You might be sending a weekly email blast, but you’re still not training your leaders. You’re just spamming them. No wonder your leaders don’t respond!
Take a look at Jethro’s advice to Moses: “But select from all of the people some capable, honest men (and women) who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten” (Exodus 18:21). Jethro gave Moses the model for a small group coaching structure. The leaders of ten are small group leaders. The leaders of 50 and 100 are coaches. The leaders of 1,000 (if you have thousands) are a small group team (staff or volunteer).
But You Can Pastor the Right Ones
Growing your leadership does not mean that you stop pastoring and mentoring people. But, it does change your focus as to whom you invest in. You don’t need to handpick every small group leader, but you do want to handpick your coaches and your small group team. If you can only spend time with 10 leaders, then choose 10 leaders who are mentoring 10 other leaders. Now you’re set for 100 groups. If you have more than 100 groups, then choose 10 leaders who can mentor 10 coaches who are mentoring 10 leaders. Now you’ve covered 1,000 groups. (If you have more than 1,000 groups, then talk to Steve Gladen at Saddleback or Bill Willits at North Point.)
Who’s doing a great job with their groups? Which groups would you like to see 10 more just like them? Recruit these leaders to coach other leaders. If you have groups you don’t like or leaders who aren’t doing well – don’t recruit those! If you have leaders who are hard to get along with – don’t recruit those either. Recruit the ones who are doing a good job (and the ones you like!).
A Coaching Structure Will Save Your Ministry
You cannot possibly address every issue in every group. Seating group leaders in neat rows and lecturing them has never really solved a group problem. But, if an experienced leader builds a relationship with a new leader and gives them what they need when they need it, then they receive training that sticks. Think about it. What lessons have stuck with you? The ones that you learned when you were in the middle of a problem. Your leaders are just like you.
Your leaders need a spiritual covering. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I also don’t want to make too little of this. There is a spiritual battle afoot. The enemy comes to steal and to kill and to destroy (John 10:10). Leaders will become discouraged. Groups might become divisive. Your leaders and groups need a coach to care for them, encourage them, and lead them spiritually. By the time an issue gets to the pastor, the situation is usually out of control. Coaches can address problems while they’re still small and haven’t done much damage yet.
Isn’t It Easier to Do It Myself?
It depends on your goal. If you are in a church that only cares about having “some groups,” then you can probably get away with dabbling in groups and not attempting to connect the entire congregation. But, if your congregation and your small group ministry are growing, then doing everything by yourself becomes impossible. There is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in a day. Face it – you are one disaster from being out of a job! I know that sounds extreme, but it’s easy to cruise when problems haven’t raised their ugly heads. Eventually, something is going to blow!
I was reluctant to have coaches. I knew I needed them. I recruited a couple and only got in their way. Finally, after we had doubled our groups in one day (whole other story), I was forced to invite some experienced leaders to help me. Here was the invitation: “I don’t have this all figured out, but if you’re willing to help me build this, I really need your help.” Nobody turned down that invitation.
Start small and start building your coaching structure. Recruit coaches for your new leaders first. (Your other leaders have it figured out). And, the great thing about building a coaching structure like this is it can scale as your ministry grows!
Are you ready to learn more? Join the 10 Biggest Coaching Mistakes Webinar on Wednesday, March 4 at 1pm ET/ Noon CT/ 11 am MT/ 10 am PT.
Coaching small group leaders is one of the most important roles in a healthy small group ministry, yet it proves to be the most difficult to accomplish. A recent survey of small group pastors and directors from across the U.S. demonstrates the growing need for help in establishing their coaching structures and supporting their leaders. These pastors and directors were allowed to choose “All that Apply” for the first set of responses.
57% reported their biggest struggle is in Identifying and Recruiting Coaches.
39% found their next biggest complication was in Training Coaches.
30% were frustrated by a Lack of Communication between Coaches and Group Leaders.
26% were unclear about Creating a Good Job Description.
Another 26% admitted they were Unclear About the Coach’s Role.
These pastors also shared some of their frustrations and limitations by volunteering these responses:
- Not enough time to build a coaching structure.
- Groups are growing, so more coaches are needed.
- Some group leaders don’t really see the need for a coach.
- Group leaders are not engaging with their coaches.
In analyzing the survey results, there is a progression of issues. First, if the coach’s role is unclear, then it’s difficult to spell out expectations in a job description. If these things are murky, then it’s also challenging to know who to recruit and what to train them to do.
When the respondents were asked what they were currently doing in the area of coaching, the responses ranged from nothing to recruiting through a trial run at coaching to the church elders coaching small groups leaders. Some of the frustrations centered on lack of connection between the coach and the group leaders, inconsistencies in coaching, or just starting out.
Most of the respondents (74%) felt that the ideal span of care was one coach for every five leaders. Other churches used ratios of 1:7, 1:10, and even 1:25. The bottom line is that the amount of care really depends on the number of new leaders a coach is responsible for and the number of struggling leaders they are helping.
The respondents were asked about what they believed was the primary purpose of coaching. The highest percentage of pastors (44%) hold that Building Relationships is the primary purpose. The next 39% of respondents gave a wide range of purposes for coaching including encouraging, equipping, growing groups, connecting, supporting, shepherding, and a number of other things. This confirmed the findings in the first data set, which indicated there was no unified, clear direction for coaching.
Building a coaching structure is the hardest work in small group ministry. It’s also the most important work. If pastors would spend the time they invest in placing people into groups and recruiting group leaders and focused on building their coaching structure instead, their ministries would flourish and grow in unprecedented ways.
Pastors battle the tyranny of the urgent. Often pastors are serving in multiple roles and are wearing many hats. The key is recruiting a team of trusted leaders to help you lead the small group ministry. As you delegate both responsibility and authority to them, you multiply your leadership and better serve your leaders.
For more information on coaching:
The 10 Biggest Coaching Mistakes Webinar is Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 1pm Eastern. Click Here to Register.
The Coaching Exponential Groups Online Course is available only through Friday, August 31, 2018 at Midnight. For more information: http://www.coachingexponentialgroups.com/enroll