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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.
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.
There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” You’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s old, but the meaning is relevant. No matter how well you coach and train your leaders, they need to know that you care. Lack of care often leads to burnout. You don’t want to go there.
As the typical ministry season (September – May) beings to
wrap up, it’s a great time to show your appreciation to your group leaders. You
don’t necessarily need to make over-the-top gestures, but it’s important to do
something. After all, there are only two parts to small group ministry: (1)
Recruiting Leaders, and (2) Keeping Your Leaders Motivated, Equipped, and
Happy. They’ll gladly do their job, when you do yours. Here are some ways to
show your leaders that you care:
Plan a Fun Event.
When you think about events, they really can run the gamut
depending on your budget. You could go the route of team building events like
ropes courses, trampoline parks, or escape rooms. If you’re in the vicinity of
a campground, they might have an affordable facility available for your event.
If you’re on a budget, think about a picnic or tailgate. You
could either cater the event or invite all of the group members along with the
leaders to the event. The group members can provide the food for their groups,
so there’s nothing to budget for.
One year our church in California had a picnic like this and
asked each group to present an award to their group leader. Every group got up
and expressed appreciation for their leaders publicly. Then, they would present
either a homemade award like a plaque or a trophy. One group even created a
Barbie doll to resemble their leader. Some groups went way over the top and
gave restaurant gift certificate, a weekend away, or something else their
leader really enjoyed. No matter how it was done, every leader left feeling
very appreciated by the church and by their group.
Give a Small Gift.
small gift communicates a lot. You don’t need to give away a car for leaders to
feel appreciated. Think about what the leaders might enjoy – a Starbucks card,
movie tickets, or an ice cream cone.
One year I gave every one of my leaders a book. I purchased two cases of John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s Making Small Groups Work and gave one to every leader. Not only did they feel appreciated, I also put some training into their hands. Many churches have done the same with my Leading Healthy Groups book.
don’t need to be large. But, even something small communicates a lot.
Give Public Recognition.
In addition to a small gift or some other form of
appreciate, publicly recognizing your group leaders in a worship service is
meaningful to leaders. If this comes from the senior pastor, you get bonus
Asking group leaders to stand, come to the front, or come up
on stage, communicates the importance of small groups and the role of small
group leaders in your church. Either you or your senior pastor can publicly
thank leaders for letting God use them in the past year. You could even give
some statistics like the number of people who came to Christ as a result of
groups, or the number of people currently involved in groups.
While you’ve got your congregation’s attention, this would
be a great opportunity to give them a heads up about your next group launch,
even if it comes in the Fall. People like to plan ahead. And, remember, what
you are saying to your current leaders is also being said to your future
leaders sitting in the congregation.
Leader appreciation is only limited to your creativity. If
you have no budget, then get even more creative. Even simple things like a
handwritten note are significant. After all, who gets personal mail anymore? A
personal email is not the same.
How will you appreciate your leaders this year? What have
you done in the past? I would love to hear what you’re doing.
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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Let’s connect over 100 percent of our adults into groups in 2019! Have you heard or declared that rallying cry yet? What’s the plan? How is this year’s plan different from last year’s plan, or is it just wishful thinking? As a small group pastor, early December was usually the time of year for thinking ahead a little. Groups usually wound down into a few parties and the new study wouldn’t ramp up until January or February. December is a great time for discipleship pastors to coast. (But, don’t let this get out or else you’ll spend your time stuffing those little candles into their holders for the Christmas Eve service.) Cracking the code of connection for 2019 would be easy if the expert’s advice was true. If the group leaders had apprenticed a new leader, then the year could start with twice as many groups. If groups were selfless enough to break up and start new groups, then more people could be connected. If the senior pastor was as excited about groups as about worship, then 2019 could be a banner year. Maybe this is the year for you to make a move to another church… Everybody wants exponential growth. Few want to make the sacrifice. At this point, you either resign yourself to mediocrity or admit defeat. But, those aren’t the only two options.
The idea of exponential growth lends itself to generational growth. Leaders develop leaders who develop leaders. If this were true, we would have groups, groups, and more groups. I never had that, and yet I connected 1,000 people into groups in a church of 800 adults. And, I helped a church of 2,500 people start 500 groups. But, nobody “multiplied” anything. I love the idea of exponential growth. I could just never get there. So, I redefined exponential. Brett Eastman tells the story of a challenge Bruce Wilkinson gave to Rick Warren on the eve of the first 40 Days of Purpose. Bruce had just returned from spending several years in Africa after the success of The Prayer of Jabez. His challenge to Rick Warren and Saddleback Church was to take whatever goal they were dreaming of and increase it 10 times by putting a zero on the end of the number. If the goal was 200 groups, then it would become 2,000 groups. If memory serves me, this was about the number of groups for that first 40 Days of Purpose at Saddleback in 2002. (If the details are a bit murky to some, then please forgive my recollection). Instead of getting bogged down in the mire of leaders not developing apprentices and groups unwilling to birth/split/divorce, bypass all of this and just put a zero at the end of your 2019 goal. Trust God for 100 groups instead of just 10, and so forth. The idea is to set a goal that is impossible for you to achieve apart from God’s help. There is no sense in waiting five years for your group leaders to fail to multiply. Make it happen now. But, how?
Give Everyone a Promotion
In order for you to 10x your goal, you must prepare to receive what you are trusting God for. If you are not prepared when God delivers, then the increase will just be squandered. If you are trusting God for 100 group leaders in 2019, then you will need someone to coach these leaders, and it’s too many for you to coach alone. For the sake of easy math, let’s say each coach takes on five new leaders. You will need 20 coaches. Where will the coaches come from? How many group leaders do you have right now? All of your current group leaders will become coaches. They know enough to answer a new group leader’s questions. As long as their available to the new leaders, you’re in good shape. There is no magic in coaching. You just do the work. If you’re like me, 20 coaches is a lot to track, so divide that group by 5 or so. This is your small group team. The team, in this case, is four leaders, who have five coaches each reporting to them. You can keep up with four people. Who do you choose for your team? Simple. Consider all of the leaders who are doing a great job. Who has greater leadership potential? Who could do your job? (Remember, you’re giving yourself a promotion too). This is your team. Now, with a plan in place to coach new leaders to supervise new coaches…
Where Do the Leaders Come from?
It would be natural to assume that if the current small group leaders become coaches and small group team members, then the current small group members would become group leaders, right? Wrong. This is the problem we started with. Few want to give up their groups to start new groups. Don’t get stuck here. I used to think that in order to have 100 groups in my church, I would need 1,000 members to join those groups. I no longer believe this. In order to have 100 groups in your church, you need 100 people who are willing to gather their friends and do a study together. The focus is on potential leaders, not potential group members. How do you get 100 non-leaders to lead? First, you give them an easy-to-use study. Video-based curriculum works very well in this case. The person doing the study with their friends does not need to be a leader or teacher, and you don’t want them leading or teaching anyway. You want to give them the permission and opportunity they need to gather their friends (either in the church or outside of the church) and do a study together. Every church member is promoted to group leader. Their assignment is to lead the “group” of friends they are already a part of. Last year a church of 600 in Baltimore launched 147 groups doing exactly this. If your people can gather their friends, then they have enough leadership ability to start a group. They probably don’t think of themselves as group leaders, so you can keep the terms “leader” and “group” to yourself. How many non-leaders could lead your non-groups in 2019?
What Keeps Us From Reaching Our Goals?
First, if you don’t think your goal is possible, then it isn’t. Second, you don’t have to. Let’s face it, no one is holding a gun to your head and demanding that you get everybody in groups in 2019. Whether you launch ten new groups or 100 new groups, you’re still going to have a job. Who needs the stress, right? Third, fear or blame. If I state an outrageous goal for 2019 and don’t achieve it, then won’t I be embarrassed or get blamed for the failure? (This is why you need to work with a church consultant – it’s always the consultant’s fault!). What’s it going to be – Incremental growth or Exponential growth in 2019? If you’re ready to go for it, I can help you.