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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.
When the topic of online groups comes up, people typically think of video-based platforms like Zoom. While this format is popular for some, it’s not the only way to meet online. When my first online group met in 1994 on CompuServe, there was no option for audio or video. You could only do so much with a dial-up modem. Yet friendships were formed, members were encouraged, and one guy came to Christ as a result of that group.
When you think about types of online groups, you actually need to consider two questions: Why is the group meeting? and How will the group meet? Let’s look at both.
What is the Purpose of the Group?
Groups meet for a variety of reasons. Some gather for connection, encouragement, and/or Bible study. Other groups meet for support. While in the season of Coronavirus, every group needs an element of support. Even in the groups of pastors that I coach, we start the meetings with a check-in on how everybody is doing. These are crazy times, and everybody is not doing great. Every group should allow time for members to check-in and process what they’re dealing with. While content should be the center of the meeting, people also need conversation.
Support groups, even those who were once reluctant to meet online, are finding amazing results online. They never imagined that online groups like Celebrate Recovery or the Alpha Course would work, but these ministries are seeing numbers like they’ve never seen. In a recent interview, Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha Course, said one pastor in New York is starting a new Alpha group every day. DivorceCare and GriefShare have gone online. These online groups are meeting the needs of a record number of people including those who might never darken the door of your church.
How Can Groups Meet Online?
Online groups can choose from a variety of meeting formats. Groups can meet on video, audio only, or asynchronously. As with any type of small groups, one size does not fit all for online groups either.
Video groups offer a multidimensional online group experience. Members can see each other, hear each other’s voices, text chat during the meeting, and share a teaching video. While Zoom is very popular, there are a number of other paid or free services including: GotoMeeting, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Google Meets, and Facebook Groups among others. For a comparison on some of these video services, see Jason DeGraaf’s post here.
Now, in the world of working at home and schooling at home, people have begun to complain about Zoom fatigue. At first I took Zoom fatigue as the new excuse for “I don’t have time for a small group.” While I still believe there is some of that, there is something strange about seeing your own image throughout the day, or even sitting in a meeting with everyone looking directly at you. When you’re in a meeting room, you don’t have direct eye contact with every person in the room. And, when you’re meeting in person, you don’t have to look at yourself. In fact, unless you pass a mirror, you’re probably not even aware of your physical appearance after you get ready in the morning (at least that was true for me). Fortunately, if people struggle with Zoom fatigue or are technologically challenged, there are other options.
Audio Only Groups
Audio only groups meet on a conference line. They don’t have to look at anyone. They’re just talking on the phone. Most people are capable of that. Free services like freeconferencecall.com are available to anyone who would like to set up a conference line. Typically, these services offer a long distance number, but long distance charges are not a real thing for most people these days anyway.
The only downside of an audio only group is that you can’t see when others are about to speak. Sometimes you get into that stalemate like when you’re at a four-way stop: “You go, no you go.” But, you can learn to yield to others. The leader can ask who has a comment, and then encourage members to start with a short answer like “I do.” Then you can call on them and avoid the traffic jam.
Asynchronous groups are simply groups that don’t meet at the same time. They leave a post in a private Facebook group. They send a group text. They post a short video on the Marco Polo app. Or, they could share a Youversion reading plan together. You use asynchronous groups all of the time: text message, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We could even go back to letter writing, but it would take a while for a group to get through a lesson that way.
Asynchronous groups are like my group on CompuServe in 1994. Someone posts a question, then the group responds, when they can respond. These groups are great for people who travel or who have odd schedules. They can participate in the group when it’s convenient for them. The group leaders post the questions and moderate the group. Asynchronous groups are also great for people who are new to online groups and maybe join through your online worship service.
Jay Kranda, Online Campus Pastor at Saddleback Church, says, “Private small groups will start off primarily via text-based interactions, move to audio calls after a few weeks, and hopefully turn into regular Zoom or Facebook video calls as trust is built within the group.” Every asynchronous group doesn’t need to transition to an audio or video group, but they certainly could move in that direction.
Digitally Interactive Curriculum.
This is another form of asynchronous groups, but the format is unique. I was introduced to this technology about five years ago. On this platform, the video and questions are hosted on the platform. Groups and their members logon and interact with the video (They can leave comments during the video), after the questions, and for each other).
This platform can be used with individual groups interacting with a study like Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head on Zondervan’s Studygateway.com. Individuals can participate with the thousands of others doing the study or leaders can form their own groups. Other studies are coming.
Churches can host their own digitally interactive curriculum through the parent technology from a company called Rali. Rali is principally a business platform, but the company has a heart for the church. Rali can be used for small group studies, Bible studies, recorded worship services, membership classes, Growth Track, or any other content you could host online. Members can interact with the content in general (like an online worship service) or in an online group. Pastors can view metrics for who is using the platform, where they live, what they’re interested in, how long they engage with the video, etc. I believe Rali is the solution for what 300,000 churches are dealing with right now. (I do not have any affiliation with Rali. I’m just a big fan.)
During the Coronavirus pandemic, every church in every state is facing different pressures. Only about 30% of churches are meeting in-person and are seeing less than 40% attendance. (If you’re the exception, let me know. I’d like to hear what you’re doing). That means that the way the Church fulfills our mission in the coming months will be different from anything we’ve ever done. If you are relying on the metrics that gauged your success a year ago, you are probably very depressed right now. Fear of catching COVID-19, fear of spreading it, and fear of being blamed for spreading it at church are keeping most churches closed and keeping people away. That’s your reality. But, COVID-19 isn’t even close to being the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).
This is an era of opportunity. People are tuning into online services that wouldn’t darken the door of your church. Millennials are attracted to online worship services because they can watch the service and no one is watching them. Like I said before, support groups like Celebrate Recovery, are posting bigger numbers than when they met in-person. The Alpha Course is doing the same. Pastors and churches are great at developing content, but people also need conversation and community even when they can’t meet for in-person services.
Online small groups – in whatever form – are a strong solution to this current situation. But, it’s bigger than this. There are so many benefits to online small groups that go beyond social distancing.
In a recent conversation, a pastor told me that this season of ministry is not unlike the invention of the printing press that fueled the Reformation. The church is no longer limited to an hour on Sunday, but can now offer worship services 168 hours per week. The same goes for groups, Bible studies, classes, and growth tracks. Could Zoom, Youtube, or Rali be your church’s new printing press?
When churches should regather for worship is one question, but an equally challenging question is when groups should meet in person. The issue of COVID-19 has not been solved. In fact, several states are now reporting more cases of Coronavirus than ever before. Just when you thought it was safe for groups to meet in person, the pandemic seems to be flaring up again in many places.
As people are becoming weary of quarantine and some despair of another online meeting, directing groups to meet too soon could only add to the problem. But, eventually groups will meet. When they do, how should you guide them? Here are some things to consider as you direct your groups:
1. What are the restrictions or recommendations of your local government?
State and local governments all have common, yet unique challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have no rhyme or reason. At first, the pandemic seemed more of a big city problem, but over time it has shown up in more rural areas. It’s hard to predict. While guidance and restrictions related to COVID-19 have unfortunately become politicized in some areas, this is a time to heed the counsel of government in directing your groups and especially observe restrictions on meetings and meeting sizes.
2. What are the recommendations from medical authorities?
While opinions vary among medical experts (and I’m not talking about your Facebook friends), there is some common agreement regarding the spread of disease. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so breathing it out while talking, singing, shouting, coughing, sneezing, or breathing spreads the disease. It seems to enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It would make sense to cover the body parts that spread the disease as well as those that serve in contracting the disease. Here is a description of how viruses spread from an immunologist.
There is debate over other issues. Can the virus be spread on surfaces? Clean them. Can the virus be spread through food? Avoid refreshments for now. Can the virus be spread through human contact? Maybe go “touchless” for a while in the group, even though group members will be desperate to give and receive hugs. Here are the guidelines from the CDC.
3. What should groups do over the summer?
Summer tends to be a challenge for groups anyway. People plan vacations or weekends at the lake. The rhythm of the public school calendar comes into play. Even though people are still working (hopefully), alarm clocks don’t ring. Longer evenings lead to more leisure. Warmer weather calls people outdoors. For places with long winters and/or long quarantines, once people can get out, my sense is that they will be gone. Don’t fight that.
In a normal year, I usually advise groups to meet as often as they would like, but at least once per month. They can meet socially. They could serve together. Some might want to meet for a Bible study. The bottom line here is that a group is not just a meeting just like a family is not just dinner. Groups also need group life together.
Summer is not the time to launch a new study or a new series. Churches that do a big push in the summer usually lose momentum when it comes to the fall launch. It’s better to embrace the typical rhythm of summer and gear up for a big fall. Even if the fall may bring a resurgence of Coronavirus and a second quarantine, people need a break in the summer. We will talk about fall planning in another post.
4. What do the groups want to do?
Even if the church gives groups the blessing to meet in person again, some people will be reluctant to meet for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Others will differ on what precautions to take. I’ve already heard of churches dealing with mask wearers and non-mask wearers. It hasn’t quite taken on the proportions of the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the book of Galatians, but the spirit is there.
With any small group dilemma, groups need to form their own group agreements going into this next season of meeting (or not meeting). A discussion of the group agreement will help everyone to feel heard and hopefully will lead to agreement on how the group will proceed in the summer or fall semester. For more information on forming a group agreement, click here.
While the church can offer some overall guidelines for groups, it’s really the decision of each group. Encourage your coaches to engage with the group leaders to help them navigate this issue. If you don’t have coaches, first, you need to think about starting your coaching structure. Second, if you don’t have coaches, then you need to talk to your leaders individually and help them.
5. Create Some Group Guidelines.
Groups will need some overall guidance from the church. These should be general guidelines based on the best medical and governmental information you can access with the understanding that groups and their members will have different opinions and feelings about this. Personally, I would avoid making the guidelines too directive, in that, you don’t want to put the church in a place where they might be liable for a group’s actions.
Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA published guidelines for groups at one of their campuses in Minnesota. Bear in mind as you read their guidelines that to date this county in Minnesota has had no reported cases of Coronavirus.
Group Grand Opening Guidelines by Will Johnston and Cheri Liefeld
We recognize that some of you may be nervous about meeting at all—and that’s okay, you don’t have to—and others of you may feel like any sort of meeting restrictions are unnecessary. We’ve adopted these guidelines because we want to preserve our witness for Jesus to our communities by following our local, state, and national leaders, and because we don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak that could devastate lives.
Illness – Group members should stay home if they or anyone in their household is sick.
Location – Select a gathering place where you can safely distance. Meeting outside is encouraged when possible.
Masks – We are asking group members to wear masks, especially in the time people are arriving and socializing. Once group members are safely distanced, masks may be removed at the discretion of the leader and participants.
Food – We are big proponents of food at small group gatherings, but during this season we are recommending that groups not eat together. If you do choose to eat, encourage members to bring their own beverage and snack.
Greetings – As much as some will miss hugging or shaking hands with other group members, for now it is wise to avoid physical contact.
Cleaning – The host should be prepared to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched both before and after group (Door handles, chairs, restrooms, etc.).
Virtual Option – Not everyone will feel comfortable attending in person at first. Consider setting up a computer in your meeting area so group members can join in via video conference.
Childcare – Due to the challenge of having young children practice distancing, at this time we are asking groups not bring children to meetings at this time.
High Risk Individuals – Those who are 65+ or who have serious underlying health conditions are strongly encouraged to join an online small group rather than an in-person one. Groups comprised largely of high risk individuals are encouraged to continue meeting virtually.
Group Size – Groups of more than 10 people that choose to meet in person should divide the group up and meet in different places or at different times.
Guidance for groups regathering is not a simple cut and paste. While I feel that the guidelines from Eastside are thorough, you need to come up with what’s right for your small groups. And, then encourage each group to determine what’s right for them. Online groups may not feel perfect to some, but they may need to be an option for a while.
In all of this, don’t forget why we’re doing this. Groups are not for the sake of groups, but for the sake of disciples making disciples and practicing the one another’s (which can be done in ways other than meetings). Groups are one method of making disciples. Group meetings are one component of groups. Don’t limit yourself with in-person meetings.
Join a Conversation about Regathering on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern. To register, click here.
Various parts of the world are reacting differently to the Coronavirus pandemic. Some churches were online only last Sunday. Others were sparsely attended. Yet, Costco is jammed!
By choice or by mandate, your meetings might be cancelled this week. You may even work from home. All of that to say, things have slowed down. While you very much deserve a little downtime or even a staycation, this is also a great time to invest in yourself.
In some circles, coaching is either underrated or
non-existent. I think this is a mistake. Coaching provides a number of things
for new and established leaders:
Support and encouragement.
Customized training target to specific needs.
A spiritual covering for ministry.
Supervision and accountability.
A resource to help meet the needs of group
A sounding board for new ideas and
A relationship with a like-minded leader.
A link between the group and the church.
If you’re not providing this for your leaders, then how are you helping them? Meetings and emails might provide a little help, but they won’t provide help at this level.
Where to Start
Start with new leaders. A completed org chart does not need
to be in place to effectively coach leaders. In fact, I’ve seen some very impressive
org charts that actually didn’t represent very much. There wasn’t much coaching
going on, but everyone was accounted for.
New group leaders need the most help, so start with them. When prospective leaders show up at a new leader briefing, they can meet their coaches. The assumption is that every new group leader at your church gets a coach, and they should. New leaders are far more accepting of both the coaching and the help than established leaders. In fact, if you assign coaches to seasoned leaders, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Established group leaders will need a different style of coaching, which is covered in Chapter 10 of Exponential Groups.
New leaders need the most help. They will have many questions. As the church continues to implement new strategies of forming groups like the HOST model or “do the study with your friends” strategy, two things will happen: (1) the “leaders” of these groups will be less “experienced” and will need help, and (2) the church leadership will not be as familiar with these “leaders.” The safety net here is launching non-groups led by non-leaders which are not advertised, but there is still a responsibility to these non-leaders and their non-groups. If each of these prospective leaders, even in the unadvertised groups, has a coach, then the leaders will be supported in meaningful ways, and the church will be assured of what’s going on because the coach is checking in.
Coaching will help new groups actually get started and will keep them going as they face various issues and possible discouragement. As new leaders are forming their new groups, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed. An experienced leader who is willing to coach these new leaders will help you get more groups started.
Shepherding God’s people is a big responsibility. It’s just about the biggest. By recruiting “under-shepherds,” you can guide your new leaders and new groups into transformative experiences in their groups.