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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.
Clearly you have more to do than you could or should be doing on your own. Whether you lead a team or work solo, as your small groups ministry grows, there is more to do than is humanly possible. You have to multiply yourself for sure. You have to pass things on to other capable folks or else you will continue to feel like your failing your leaders or you will burn yourself out. (Give yourself a promotion!) But, as you delegate to capable people, could it be demoralizing?
What Are You Delegating?
You can delegate ministry tasks like calling to check in on group leaders, collecting reports, or visiting groups. This is how my church used to coach leaders. The coaches attended the huddles that I led. The coaches visited groups, then turned in a report to me. One coach, I’ll call her “Carol” since that was her name gave me some feedback. “I feel like I’m your spy.” I had sent her on a mission to observe groups and turn in a report on them. She was my spy. Later, she told me she was bored with coaching. I thought, “Why is Carol bored? I’m busy.” Then it dawned on me.
I had delegated tasks, but not responsibility or authority. I told them what to do for me, then to report back to me. (Are you catching on to the problem here?) The coaches couldn’t make decisions for the ministry. The coaches couldn’t call an audible to help a leader. They could gather data and report back to me. This brand of coaching was disempowering and demoralizing. It looked liked coaching. It was called coaching. But, it ended up being another mechanism to fulfill my need for control. It wasn’t good.
How to Empower Others
As you select capable people to coach others, give them broad flexibility in how they go about coaching. This requires two things. First, you have to recruit capable people of good character who you trust. That is quite a loaded sentence. This won’t happen overnight. Build your coaching structure slowly. Observe your leaders to see which groups are producing what you want them to produce. Then, give them a trial run at coaching others like walking alongside a couple of new leaders for a six-week alignment series. If they do well, give them more. If they don’t, then thank them for “fulfilling” their commitment.
Second, give the coaches the responsibility for some leaders and groups, but don’t get too deep in the specifics of how to do it. A good general goal would be something like “Help the leaders and groups fulfill their purpose.” Of course, you need to articulate the purpose for your groups. Then, meet with the coaches occasionally to hear what’s going on with the groups. In the beginning, you might meet with them frequently. After a while, you could pull back on the frequency of your meetings with them. But, of course, you’ll always be available “on call” in case something urgent occurs.
Don’t Recruit Hirelings
Jesus talked about hirelings, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13, NIV). You want coaches to fulfill the role of a shepherd rather than a hireling.
In my experience, my dear friend, Carol, was treated as a hireling. She was working for me. She was reporting to me. She was taking direction from me. I was holding Carol back. She wanted to be a shepherd to her group leaders, but I treated her like a hired hand.
The best thing I ever did to support and coach small group leaders was to invite a group of capable leaders to lead the small group ministry WITH me. Our small group ministry was growing rapidly. In fact, in a six-month period, we went from 30% in groups to 60% in groups (on one day) [LINK] to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups. It was a whirlwind. I needed help. I had already failed with Carol, so I needed a different approach.
The invitation went like this: “I don’t have all of this figured out, but if you would be willing to learn with me, I would love to have you on my team.” Not only did they say, “Yes!” this was by far the best group that I’ve ever been a part of. We met every Wednesday night for dinner because the small group ministry was growing so rapidly. We even traded off who brought the meal.
But, here’s the biggest part, I committed to them that decisions for the small group ministry would only be made with them in our Wednesday meeting. I did not make any decisions apart from that meeting. We were a team because I shared the responsibility and authority of the small group ministry.
Now here’s the best part. When I left that church to coach pastors and churches, that team led the small group ministry for the next 12 months without a small group pastor. Not only did they know what to do, they owned the responsibility of the small group ministry. As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
Think About This
I hope this doesn’t come across as a boastful post. It’s not meant to be. The humbling part for me is that it took me 12 years to figure this out! 12 years!! Please don’t take 12 years to do this in your church.
Are you partnering with others to lead your small group ministry? Has your church struggled with coaching in the past? Did you give your coaches only tasks Or did you give them responsibility and authority? Were your coaches hirelings or shepherds?
After working with P&G and PNC Financial Corp., Dr. Bill Donahue pastored in churches in Pennsylvania and Texas. He then joined the Willow Creek Community Church & Association (aka Global Leadership Network) for 18 years as Director of Group Life and Leadership, training leaders in the US and globally.
Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
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