By Allen White I am a coach. The reason I’m a coach is because once upon a time, I was greatly helped by a coach. In fact, I still have several coaches and mentors I turn to regularly for help and advice. They ask me thought provoking questions. They offer me their experience. They care about my success. Here is the story of my success in working with a coach.
After attending conferences and reading every small group book I could get my hands on, our groups hit a wall. I followed what I understood from the best and brightest. We made a plan and executed it wholeheartedly for seven years. We connected 30 percent of our average adult attendance into groups, then we got stuck. I was up against a wall, and I was banging my head against it. As our church continued to grow, our groups fell further and further behind. I needed help.
2. A Laboratory and a Network
I found help in a coaching group with 40 other churches from across the country. While we tended to be from churches of the same size, the group crossed denominational lines and represented about every region of North America. While it was a little ridiculous to have 40 other pastors on a weekly conference call, we learned from each other and from our coach. Some pastors would jump ahead and try a new idea when it was thrown out. I was one of those. Others would hold back and see if there were any survivors before they jumped in. And, that was okay. Everybody adopts new ideas at their own rate.
3. Place to Discuss Small Group Stuff
As I became more enthused about discussing small groups, some of our church staff became less enthused to hear about it. While my senior pastor was completely on board (after all he found the dollars to fund it), other staff weren’t so thrilled to hear about small groups. The coaching group provided a place with like-minded people who also had small groups on the brain. This was our community. Our band of brothers (and sisters) in the small group trenches.
Everybody faces setbacks, especially when they try new ideas. After all, when you’re performing experiments, sometimes an experiment blows up. The coaching group provided a place to test new ideas; debrief less than stellar results; and gain the momentum to move forward. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As one of my friends and mentors, Carl George said, “Do whatever it takes to keep yourself inspired.” The coaching group kept me encouraged.
5. I didn’t have to walk alone.
What I discovered in my coaching group is that everyone else’s coaching structure was also lousy or nonexistent. They struggled to recruit leaders. Air time in the weekend service was scarce for small group announcements. Their group leaders didn’t like to attend meetings either. Leading up was always a challenge. I soon realized I wasn’t defeated. I was normal.
Now don’t get me wrong.
I love conferences. In fact, I wish every day was a conference, because at a conference your mind is filled with vision and grand ideas. But, as soon as you get home, reality slaps you in the face. Reality stinks. But, what if you could take the benefits of a conference and spread it over an entire year for basically the same money? My next coaching group is starting in a few weeks. Will you join me? https://allenwhite.org/coaching
What giving up control taught me about effective group ministry
By Allen White
I hear a lot of pastors who debate the need for a quality experience at the expense of connecting and growing the vast majority of their congregations and their communities into their group system. I also hear the reverse of this which is in order to embrace a large quantity of groups, then quality must somehow be sacrificed. We approach ministry as if we have all of the time in the world. Somehow we think our people will live forever, and so will the people our people need to reach for Christ. But, let’s be honest, we don’t have the luxury of time. The Apostle Paul didn’t have the luxury of time either. Reviewing his journeys in the Book of Acts, Paul never spent more than 6-18 months in any one location, yet in his quest to spread the Gospel throughout the known world and to reach Spain, he put leaders in place everywhere he planted a church, then gave them the crash course on ministry. We would call this “quick and dirty” before we would call it “quality.” Paul gave them their marching orders, then basically instructed them, “Do the best you can. The Holy Spirit will guide you. If you run into trouble, then send me a letter.” Then, Paul was off to the next place. In living with the tension between the quality and quantity of ministry, I want you to consider these words from Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management: “…there are two different kinds of compromise. One is expressed in an old proverb, ‘Half a loaf of bread is better than no bread.’ The other, in the story of the judgment of Solomon, is clearly based on the realization that ‘half a baby is worse than no baby at all.’ In the first instance, the boundary conditions are still being satisfied. The purpose of bread is to provide food, and half a loaf is still food. Half a baby, however, does not satisfy the boundary conditions. For half a baby is not half of a living and growing child.
“It is a waste of time to worry about what will be acceptable and what a decision maker should or should not say so as not to evoke resistance…In other words, the decision maker gains nothing by starting out with the question, ‘What is acceptable?’ For in the process of answering it, he or she usually gives away the important things and loses any chance to come up with an effective — let alone the right — answer.”
In retelling this story, my friend and mentor, Carl George once asked this question which changed the course of my thinking about small group ministry: “Are your groups more like a baby or a loaf of bread? Because if it’s like a baby, then half a baby won’t do. You want a perfect baby. But, if it’s more like a loaf of bread and you’re starving, any amount of bread will help to alleviate the hunger.”
In managing the tension between quality and quantity, we must figure out a way to embrace the Genius of the And, as coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last. This isn’t an either/or circumstance, in that, if there is no quantity, then quality doesn’t actually matter. The question is whether the limitation on the quantity is a matter of necessity or a personal need for control. As I wrestled with this tension when I was first introduced to the idea of rapidly expanding group system, I pleaded with God, “But, I need quality control.” God called me on it. He spoke to me and said, “Allen, when you say ‘quality control,’ quality is your excuse.” God doesn’t go easy on me. But, I got the point, and moved forward. What do you think?
By Allen White 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.