By Allen White Rapidly growing groups during a church-wide campaign has a very positive upside. New leaders get their gifts in the game. New people are connected into new groups. Relationships are developed. Believers are disciple. There are awesome results all around. The problem comes in caring for new leaders when your coaching structure is already overwhelmed. Where do you get new coaches?
I ran into this problem a few years ago, when we doubled the number of our small groups in one day. We didn’t feel we were adequately coaching the first half. Now, we needed to help an equal number of newbies. Then, the light bulb turned on – if half of the groups are new and half of the groups are experienced, we just needed to match them up. We created a “buddy system” with experienced leaders helping new leaders. Never let a good crisis go to waste. Over the years, this coaching strategy was finessed into an intentional approach rather than a last ditch effort. In advance of a new church-wide campaign, we expect dozens, if not hundreds, of new leaders or hosts to step forward. Otherwise, why would we do a church-wide campaign? In anticipation of this new growth, we also know that we will need new coaches to encourage the new leaders. Where do we get the new coaches? At least a month before we start recruiting new leaders and host homes, we gather all of our existing leaders for a “Sneak Peek” event to reveal the Fall campaign curriculum. This is a great way to rally the troops and get our existing groups in on the new series. We explain all of the details of the series. We cast vision for new people connecting in groups and for new leaders starting new groups. Then, we present an opportunity for our existing leaders to walk alongside a new leader just for the six week campaign. Notice that we don’t use the word “coach” at this point. The ask goes like this: “Once upon a time, you were a brand new leader who had a lot of questions and a few fears about starting a new group. Some of you had a coach. Some did not. All of us need someone in our corner to encourage us, to pray for us, and to answer our questions. Would you be willing to do that for a new leader or group host during this next series? The commitment starts when the leader attends the host briefing and goes through the six week campaign.” And, our existing leaders sign up to help every time. The job description is simple. We ask them to do three things: (1) Pray for the new leaders. (2) Contact them every week in a way that’s meaningful to the new leader (not in a way that’s merely efficient for the new coach). (3) Answer their questions. During the New Host Briefing, I match the new leaders and group hosts with their new “coach.” Usually I start the meeting by introducing the series content and the timeline, then I tell the new leaders, “Now, I would like to introduce some very important people to you who are going to help you get your group started. They will be available to answer all of your questions as you’re getting started.” I introduce the new “coaches” and pair them up with the new leaders according to the type of group they are starting or the geographical region where they live. The “coaches” take over the meeting at this point and give the new leaders all of the details of how to gather their group, what to do the first night, and answer any questions they have already. They exchange contact information and the “coaching” begins. After the six week campaign, we check in with the new “coaches” about their experience. We ask three key questions:
How important do you feel you were to the new leaders?
How easy was it to keep in contact with the new leaders?
Which of the new groups plan to continue?
The results are uncanny. If the new “coach” has the ability to coach, the answers are always come out: “My help was very important to the new leaders. Contacting them was easy. Most of the groups continued.” If the new “coach” doesn’t have it, the responses are: “My help wasn’t important. Contact was difficult. Most of the groups will not continue.” There is very little middle ground. For the new coaches that answer positively, we invite them to continue coaching. For those who answer negatively, we thank them for serving for six weeks, and let them go back to leading their groups. You might be asking, “But, isn’t it risky to give a new leader to an inexperienced coach?” It’s risky working with people period. Personally, I’d rather hire staff to do all of the coaching, but who has the budget for that? What’s more risky is sending out a new leader or group host without a coach. The payoff here is that new groups will be established, and new coaches will be recruited. I’ve stopped recruiting with a job description over coffee. I don’t always do a great job choosing coaching candidates. What I have learned is that sometimes the most unlikely people make the best coaches and leaders. Let the trial run define who has what it takes to coach.
Small group leaders may be the only people who might ask that question. Professional athletes acknowledge their need for a coach. Many high powered business executives have a coach. But, why do small group leaders need a coach?
Well, let’s take a look at this the other way: what happens if small group leaders don’t have a coach? The first time we set out to form small groups at our church out West, we selected the best and brightest from our congregation. With these mature believers, we started ten new small groups. All of the groups were going strong, or so we thought, until they reached the end of the year. They all quit. When we asked why, the response was unanimous: “We loved our small groups, but felt like lone rangers out there.” I don’t blame them for quitting.
Leading a small group can be lonely at times. Every leader needs not only a coach but also a team of other small group leaders for encouragement and support. Sometimes in small group ministry we assume that the small group is the team. The truth is that the small group is our ministry. The team is made up of the coach and his/her circle of leaders. Together we can be encouraged. Together we can learn from others’ experiences. Together we can grow as leaders.
Your coach is available to help you. As leaders sometimes we feel that we should be able to handle every problem that crops up in our groups. That’s not true. While we would never want to exclude anyone from our groups, we certainly can’t care for every need in the group. When you feel overwhelmed by issues surrounding a group member, your coach is a great resource.
Let’s say that you have a group member who always talks about himself. And, that’s all they talk about. Most groups cannot tolerate a narcissistic person. For many groups, this is the beginning of the end. Your coach can help guide you in setting the proper boundaries for this group member. They can even help you refer the member to other help and resources at church.
You may be asking at this point: why can’t I just call the pastor of small groups? The answer is that you could. But, if hundreds of group leaders are calling the pastor, how long will that pastor last? In Exodus 18, Moses is confronted by his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses’ family had left him to live with Jethro. Moses didn’t have time for them. Moses’ days were consumed with solving the problems of all of the Israelites. Moses had very good reasons, he thought, for handling all of the matters himself. First, he was the only one who could do it. Secondly, the people liked coming to Moses. (I think maybe Moses liked it too).
Jethro pointed out to Moses that this system was no good. Moses was worn out. New leaders weren’t being developed. The people were frustrated. And, Moses’ family was living with Jethro.
So, Jethro offered a solution. Put the people into groups of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. If the leader of ten didn’t have the answer, then he would turn to the leader over him. The issue would travel up the chain until a solution was reached. Only the most crucial issues should get all of the way to Moses. The people would be happy. Moses would be less stressed. Moses’ family could return home. And, Jethro could live in peace. It worked.
This system was not only good for the Israelites, it’s also good for small groups and even business. Now, once upon a time, I thought that I could handle it all. What I discovered was that I could handle it all as long as “all” remained under 30 percent of our congregation. Anything above that created a debilitating, life-squelching bottleneck. That’s no way to treat a growing church body. Once a solid coaching structure was embraced, we reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in small groups. Leaders were better cared for. I was less stressed. My family moved back home (okay, they never left, but you get the point).
Everyone needs encouragement. Everyone needs a person in their corner that they can count on for support. No leader should stand alone. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who is your coach? What questions do you have for him or her? Take a little time to connect. Soon.
ISSUE: My Small Group frequently chases rabbit trails. How can I keep them on topic?
ANSWER: It’s certainly easy for discussions to get off course and maybe never come back. This is partly the challenge of leading adult learners. Adults already have a lot of information and a lot of experience. Think of the brain as a filing cabinet or a hard drive. When we receive any new information, we open a file with that label only to discover that there are other things in the file.
Let’s say your small group is discussing Daniel and his vegetarian diet from Daniel 1. The group members’ brains automatically open the folders for “Diet.” While they’re in there, they remember several diets that they’ve tried and failed at in the past. “Does anyone remember the grapefruit diet?” “How about South Beach?” “How about the tomato and cabbage stew diet?” And, off they go. Now some have cross referenced from “diet” to “hunger.” They’re thinking “I wonder who brought the snack tonight. I hope it’s not one of those Atkins dieters who bring the pork rinds…” Suddenly your group has traveled a long way from Babylon.
You really can’t stop adults from being distracted by their thoughts and experiences. It’s just how they’re wired. But, you can prevent this from becoming an epidemic in your group.
If your group is fairly new or if this is a relatively new problem, then the facilitator simply needs to redirect the conversation every time it begins to stray. Going back to the failed diet rabbit trail, the facilitator could simply say, “Boy, we’ve certainly opened a whole can of worms haven’t we. Let’s look at the next question.” Or, you could go with a little humor, “Wow, that’s a topic for another show.”
If your group has been around for a while and this has become a bad habit, it might be time to check in with the group and make sure everyone is okay. You might even be losing group members if this is going unchecked. Simply ask the group if everyone is going okay. You might even add: “Permission to speak freely.” Get the group to come to an agreement about staying on topic and socializing at the end of the meeting.
Sometimes we have to walk a fine line. When someone begins to go off topic, be careful not to cut them off immediately. In fact, you might want to whisper a quick prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern what’s happening. Sometimes people need to share a painful experience or a pressing problem, and they just can’t wait until the right point in the agenda. If as the facilitator you feel that they should continue, then let them continue. If the person wants to talk about himself every week, well, that’s another problem.
Lastly, if you find that your group likes to spend the first part of the meeting catching up with each other. Don’t fight it. In fact, you might change your prayer time to the start of the meeting and pray right after everyone has caught up. Then, you can start your study. Remember you are leading a group, not just leading a meeting.