I learned the hard way that coaches help launch more groups.
One church I served had a weekly average adult attendance of 800. During our third launch in Fall 2004, we start 103 small groups. Those were pretty amazing numbers. In the middle of that series, I sent out a survey to determine how many of those groups would continue. I was hoping for at least 80 percent moving forward.
The results came back: 70 percent would continue with 30 percent ending. These were not the results I wanted or expected, so I sent a survey to the 30 leaders who were ending their groups. The response was startling. Out of the 30 leaders, only two leaders had actually led a group for the six week series. The other 28 groups had never started. This lead me to a very important principle:
Groups that don’t start tend to not continue.
It’s almost a proverb, isn’t it? It might deserve a needlepoint cushion.
Why didn’t the groups start? The new leaders got cold feet. Some of them were rejected by the people they invited. Some had good intentions starting out, then life just got in the way.
They didn’t miss the boat. I missed the boat. So, we did something new, immediately.
On the next campaign, we added 32 new groups to the 73 groups that continued from the Fall for a total of 105 groups. Every new leader met an experienced leader who would coach them at our New Leader Briefing. Their “coach” called them every week starting after the briefing through the end of the series. When they had a setback, the coach encouraged them. When they had a question, the coach gave them an answer. All of these groups started and most of them continued.
How many new groups are you starting? Divide that number by two. That’s how many coaches you need. One experienced leader for every two new groups. The experienced leaders are still leading their own group, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Then recruit experienced leaders to help the new leaders get started. And, they will start.
Where do you find these experienced leaders to coach? Make a list of your best leaders. Pray over the list. Then, invite them like this: “We are going to be completely inundated with new leaders. Our coaching structure is completely overwhelmed. I NEED YOUR HELP.” That is a very compelling invitation that will get a “Yes.”
At the risk of overstating my point, it is Mission Critical to have someone calling your new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” to starting a group until the study starts. More groups will end in that window than at any other time.
By now most small group pastors and directors understand coaches are essential to sustain and support small group leaders. While everyone will agree to the necessity of coaches, most don’t know what to do with coaches, and unfortunately, most coaches don’t know what to do period. Beautiful org charts in a lot of churches actually net zero results. Here are some tips to moving your coaches in the right direction:
1. Coaches Aren’t Accountants.
The problem with most accountability in Christian circles is that it becomes too much like accounting. Unlike Santa Claus, coaches do not relish keeping a naughty or nice list. What’s more, group leaders don’t appreciate being supervised by a supervisor. This doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind, but we also don’t put a cruel task master over small group leaders. After all, “love keeps no record of wrongs,” right? (1 Corinthians 13:5). Read more on accountability that works here.
2. Coaches Aren’t Middle Managers, Bureaucrats or Spies.
Years ago, Carol, one of my coaches, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” At that point, I was still recruiting and training all of the group leaders myself. Carol and the other coaches were sent out to visit the groups and report back what they saw. No wonder she felt that way.
In recruiting coaches, we work hard to select mature, capable people to serve with us. Then, often because we don’t have the coaching role figured out ourselves, we tend to micromanage them as if they are neither mature nor capable. I didn’t keep many coaches that way.
The key is to elevate the role of coaching. When I chose coaches the next time around, I invited capable, mature people to join me in a journey. We met every week for dinner and to talk about the direction of our small groups. I committed to never make a decision about our small groups outside of that meeting. We led together.
These folks aren’t underachievers who need our constant motivation. These aren’t people who are prone to wander and need a steady reminder of direction. If they are, then they shouldn’t be coaching groups. If they’re not, then they deserve more respect than a place in our little bureaucracy.
3. The Role of the Coach is to Refocus the Player.
My friend and mentor, Carl George has drilled this phrase into my psyche. When you think about a coach in sports, he stands at the sidelines and guides his players. If the last play went terribly wrong, his job is to refocus the players on the next play. They can’t replay the last play on the field. But, if a bad play keeps replaying in the players’ minds, then the next play will also suffer.
Small group leaders have busy lives and are pulled in many different directions. On a particularly hectic day or difficult season, it’s easy for leaders to become discouraged and wonder why they ever got into this business in the first place. The relationship with the coach is key to maintaining momentum in groups. The coach is not making sure the job gets done. The coach is making sure the player is okay.
4. Give Your Leaders the Space to See What God is Doing
The most valuable function of a coach is giving a small group leader an opportunity to reflect on what God is doing in his or her group. Most would admit to the difficulty of working “in” something and “on” something at the same time. It’s nearly impossible. Often group leaders are working so hard in the group, they don’t see the big picture of what God is doing.
By setting aside an hour or so once every quarter, a coach can give group leaders the space they need to see what God is doing and to identify what is next. This is as simple as the coach asking the leaders to list the names of their group members, then asking them to talk about what God is doing in each person’s life. As the leaders discuss their members, the logical next steps will begin to surface for the leader.
Bob – Hasn’t been around for a while. I need to give him a call.
Joe – Struggling at his job. I need to pray for him and give him some encouragement outside of the group.
Steve – Lost his job. I need to check-in with him and see if there’s any way the group can help.
Tony – Making poor choices. I need to pray for him and for the right timing to have a tough conversation.
Brett – Shows strong leadership potential. I need to give him more responsibilities in the group and eventually invite him to co-lead with me.
You get the idea. The coach must approach this conversation as a learner, not as an instructor. It would be easy to quickly diagnose each member and offer next steps, but the next steps determined by the group leader will be the next steps that are actually executed.
To make this work, start with a few assumptions. Assumption #1: Group leaders have made themselves available to God, and God is using them in their group. If a group leader is going through a hard time, he may be wondering if God is doing anything at all. He needs encouragement. But, some group leaders so naturally use their gifts, they might not even realize how gifted they are. They also need a coach’s insight.
Assumption #2: Who you are as a coach is more significant than what you could every say to a group leader. Your relationship with your group leaders is the greatest gift you can offer them. When relationship comes first, tasks get accomplished. Without relationship, leaders easily burn out.
5. Small Group Pastors: Get Out of Your Coach’s Way
How many Team Owners or General Managers have made their coaches’ lives miserable? Small Group Pastors and Directors, like their coaches, should approach their roles as learners, not drill sergeants. God wants to use your coaches. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to effective coaching is often a well-meaning Small Groups Pastor.
While you cannot give away the responsibility for the ministry, empowered coaches are effective coaches. Disempowered coaches become burned out middle managers. Your expectation of your coaches should be clear, reasonable and accountable. But, again, don’t approach accountability as an accountant. Give your coaches the benefit of the doubt: “How are your groups doing?” not “Have you followed up on your groups lately?” If your coaching system is in disarray, then you’re probably in the way.
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.