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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.
Heather Zempel serves as the Discipleship Pastor and Ministries Director at National Community Church in Washington, DC. With a background in biological engineering and experience as a policy advisor in the United States Senate, she brings a unique perspective to ministry, leadership, and discipleship. Heather is the author of several books including the most recent, Amazed and Confused and Big Change, Small Groups. She loves football, BBQ, and having adventures with her husband Ryan and fun-loving daughter Sawyer Elizabeth.
You work hard. You’ve learned a lot. You are growing your small groups both numerically and spiritually. Your hard work should pay off. But, a promotion is not necessarily a bigger salary or a larger title (but it could be!) Your small group ministry will grow. Your time will not. How are you preparing yourself for what’s ahead?
Many small group pastors and directors start out as small group leaders. By virtue of the fact that you are now leading the small group ministry at your church, you have already received a promotion somewhere along the way. Who are you leading now? Maybe you’re leading a handful of groups. Then you’re probably okay for now. Maybe you’re leading dozens of groups. You’re probably not doing as well as you did when it was only a handful. You need help. Maybe you’re leading hundreds of groups. If that’s the case, then you are completely overwhelmed. You are either barely keeping your head above water, or you’ve convinced yourself that an email newsletter, occasional meetings, and a reporting system are adequate to sustain a large small group ministry. Don’t kid yourself.
If you’ve got dozens of groups, then give yourself a promotion. Recruit and develop coaches to serve the small group leaders, then you will serve the coaches. If you’ve got hundreds of groups, then you deserve two promotions – not only should coaches serve the leaders, but a small group team should serve the coaches. You only meet with eight or so leaders of leaders. These leaders could be paid staff, but in the churches I’ve served these leaders volunteered their time and abilities. Honestly, I had a better team than I could ever afford to hire. But, where do you find these leaders of leaders?
Are You Sharing Responsibilities?
Think about all of the things you are doing right now. Make three lists — what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you hate to do. Take a minute right now and make your lists. I’ll wait.
Now, make a plan to give away everything you hate to do. There are people in your church who would love to do the things you hate to do. Years ago, every member of our church filled out a paper health assessment during a service and turned it in. Now the task was to input all of those paper surveys into a database. (Why did we use paper? Well, it was pre-COVID and pre-smartphone. Stay with me.) I asked for volunteers to help with data entry. Three people stepped up, and three days later the job was done. If that was up to me, those surveys would still be sitting on my desk. There are people who would love to do what you hate to do. Let them do it! This was the easy one.
What are the things you like to do? How can you recruit and develop people to do these things? John Maxwell says, “If someone can do the job 30 percent as well as you can, let them do it. Most likely they can do it 60 percent as well.” But, if you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you’re the only one that can do it, and people like coming to you. Moses had this same issue in Exodus 18. Read more about delegating leadership here.
You need more help, but you need the right help. When you look at your small group leaders, whose groups would you like to see more of? Recruit those leaders to coach others. Which groups do you not want to see more of? Skip those. For more on recruiting coaches, go here.
The biggest issue is not finding qualified people to lead at a higher level. My biggest issue was getting out of their way and letting them use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve other leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely hands-off. Everyone and everything was supervised. I just had to come to the realization that my coaches could be more available and serve the leaders better than I could, and that the leaders didn’t need me as much as I thought they did.
Now, let’s take stock. If you’ve given away all of the things you hate to do and are in the process of giving away the things you like to do, then what’s left? The things you love to do. Wouldn’t you love to have more time to do the things you love to do. You can, if you follow this plan.
Are You Raising Up Leaders?
Ask others to read the books you are reading. Bring them to the conferences you attend. Share the podcasts you listen to. Then, get together and talk about what they’re learning and how they’re applying it. Develop a monthly circle of leaders who get together for lunch to discuss leadership principles. If you want to draw out the leaders in your church, offer a group, a conference, or a workshop on leadership. Simply by calling something a “Leadership [Fill in the Blank],” you will quickly identify the leaders or wannabe leaders in your church. Once you know who can lead, then give them a next step.
You don’t want to give anyone the keys before giving them a test drive. If you love to mentor individuals or small groups of people, then pour your efforts into a small group of people who can lead others. Start by asking them to help you by walking alongside new leaders for one alignment series or semester. See how they do. See if they like helping other leaders. See if they’re any good at it. For those who do well, invite them to coach more. For those who didn’t do well (or didn’t do it at all), just thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
The Legacy You Leave is the Leaders You’ve Developed
Think about the steps you took in becoming a leader. Did someone just ask you one day to step into the role where you currently serve? Probably not. Someone saw something in you. Someone gave you a chance. Someone invested in you. Who can you invest in?
In a recent conversation with Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church, Washington DC, she shared how a number of former small group leaders who got their start at NCC are now leading in larger capacities across the US. Heather mentored Will Johnston (Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA), Ashley Anderson (Campus Director, NCC), Brad Dupre (Next Level Church, NH), Jonathan Shrader (Reservoir Church, CA), and Clynt Reddy (River Valley Church, Minneapolis, MN). (Catch my interview with Heather Zempel on the Exponential Groups Podcast in a couple of weeks).
What will your legacy be?
Think About This
Ministry done right is all about working yourself out of a job. You might like your job, but sometimes you have to give up to go up. What are you willing to give up? What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years? How are you preparing for what’s ahead?
When you leave your current position and/or your current church, will the small group ministry you’ve built stand or fall? While the church’s next hire will fill the position you left, the success of your small group ministry is a leadership team who will outlast you. Who are you investing in? What are you letting them do?
As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
Allen White is the author of four books on small group ministry including Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential. After serving churches in California and South Carolina, he has coached over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years. Allen also serves as the outsourced Life Group Pastor for a church in Lansing, Michigan. He and his wife, Tiffany have been married for nearly 22 years. They have four children ranging in age from 8 to 20. And, last summer they moved back to his hometown of Topeka, Kansas after being away for 38 years.
In This Episode, Allen Answers Listener Questions About…
Christ Church is a United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. They have been ranked as the third fastest growing UM church in the U.S. “We have a transient church. Our town is around a military community, so we get a lot of visitors. We have experienced some rapid growth over the years,” said Pam Huff, former Director of Connection and Discipleship (now retired).
When she first came to the church, groups were pretty disorganized. “There was no organization whatsoever. Small groups were pretty new in the beginning. There had been a lack of leadership. If I did anything else, I put some organization into the small group ministry.” Not only that, but she learned to leverage relationships in both forming groups and partnering new leaders with coaches.
To connect people, the church started using church-wide campaigns, but found that only a limited number of groups would continue. “At this point, we started to introduce the whole coaching system. I didn’t have good luck getting them established with my old groups, but our new groups responded well.” Pam looked over all of the church’s experienced leaders and invited those she believed would be the most supportive of the small group ministry. “The new leaders would come to a training event and meet the coaches there. Originally, I would assign new leaders to coaches, but then the leaders didn’t know who was calling them or why, even though I had told them they would get a call.” By providing an opportunity for coaches to connect directly with the new leaders, natural connections formed, and the coaching relationship began.
For group formation, the church didn’t put a lot of requirements on new leaders except for inviting members to their groups. “My only real requirement was that someone was a Christian. I would usually have a face-to-face contact with them, but there was no real vetting process for new leaders. We really encouraged people to do a lot of inviting themselves.”
The church supplemented personal invitations with opportunities for the congregation to sign up for specific groups after the worship service. “We would introduce the leaders during the service so people could put a face with a name. Then, the leaders would stand by their sign-up sheets in our Scripture Hall, which was a big gathering area.” People would sign up for the specific group they wanted to join.
The church found personal invitation and personal introduction at these sign-up events was far superior to assigning people to groups. “Sometimes people would fill out a card in the service indicating they wanted to join a group. When I reached out to them, I would never hear back from them. It’s almost like they were surprised that somebody actually contacted them.” By providing more active methods of forming groups like invitations and in-person sign-up opportunities, more people found their way into groups without all of the work of processing sign-up cards that never really netted many results.
The way Christ Church chose to form groups greatly determined the groups on-going success. Groups of friends indeed lasted longer than groups of strangers. Coaches gave new leaders the encouragement and support they need to both start and continue their groups. These simple adjustments helped Pam to start and keep more groups than ever before.