By Allen White In my travels I’ve learned to automate certain things. By automate, I mean repeating the same patterns, not in an OCD fashion, but just so I don’t have to think about things over and over. For instance, I always park on the same level of the same parking garage. When I arrive home after several days on the road, I don’t have to think about where I parked. I parked in the same place I always park. I do the same with the rental car companies. For years, I’ve used Avis. Why Avis? Someone way back when booked a couple of cars with Avis for me, so I just stuck with it for the same reasons as above. I never have to think about which rental car company I have. I’ve also learned with Avis to use “Preferred” so I can skip the counter, go directly to the garage, see my name up in lights, find my car and get out of dodge. No lines. No conversations. I’m on my way. The other day I received a new card from Avis in the mail. I had qualified for “Avis First.” I had no idea what Avis First even was. While airlines often change on trips, Avis is a constant. It’s automated. Now, for my “loyalty,” I received a new status. This qualifies me for free upgrades, but I’m guessing not free drinks, since they are a rental car company…and I don’t drink. My next step with Avis First was activating my new status online. I went to the website, typed in my information, and received the following message:
“We’re sorry. You may not qualify for Avis First. Please contact customer service, blah, blah, blah.”
I felt almost special. Here this surprise came out of the blue only for me to discover this might have been a fluke. I would have happily stayed “Preferred.” I didn’t need to be “First.” But, Avis led me on. Avis promised me something, then quickly took it back. Then, I began to wonder how I’ve ever done that to other people myself. How many times have I asked people to sign up for something, then not followed up with them? Did they feel “almost special”? The pastor invited them to host a group or teach a class or lead in some way. They said, “Yes,” then they never heard from anybody. How many times on a whim had I tossed out an offer that I wasn’t prepared to follow through on? Now, from the size of the churches I’ve worked with, I could probably make some excuse about the sheer numbers of responses. But, to the person who took me up on the invitation, the only response they were thinking about was theirs. If I gave them a bad experience, how likely would they be to stick their necks out again? An invitation without a next step in place is a disaster. If you invite someone to lead a small group, what’s the next step? Often I’ve offered the next step immediately after a weekend service rather than asking them to come back during the week. If people are open to joining a group, do we make them wait for us to process a card or send them to a website? What if the card gets lost or if I get lazy, do they feel “almost special”? What did it take for them to say “yes,” and will I ever get that “yes” from them again? A good idea without a next step is a bad idea. So is a good idea with two or three or five next steps. What does this look like?
Step 1: If you’d like to join us, please fill out a card. Step 2: If you’re patient, we will reply to your card at some point after we’ve entered it into the database and figured out what we’re going to do for you. Step 3: Now that you’ve patiently waited, we are going to invite you to a meeting to come back to, so we can give you more information about what you’re interested in. Step 4: Thanks for coming to the meeting, if you’re really serious about this, we’d like you to join us for training so you’ll be qualified to do what you want to do. We’ll send you some information on when the next training is coming up. Step 5: Thanks for joining us for training. You are now qualified, provided that your a member of the church, complete an application, and set up a time to be interviewed. Step 6: Thanks for submitting your application, we will contact you about a time for your interview. Step 7: Welcome to your interview. Let’s take some time to get to know each other and see where you can serve in our church (or can’t).
None of these steps are bad, but every additional step increases your margin for error. Either someone on your team will drop the ball by not following up with the person, not getting an email on time, or is just too busy to pick up the phone, or the person who was interested lacks the gift of perseverance and gave up somewhere around Step 3. The next step should be both clear, accessible and somewhat automated. If you want to gather some friends and do the small group study, give us 10 minutes after the service, and we’ll give you enough to be dangerous and an experienced leader to help you. No cards. No waiting. No endless communication loop. Briefing, boom, you’re good to go. Avis finally got their act together. After I emailed customer service, I received a reply the following day saying I was indeed special and qualified for Avis First. Granted, I wanted to feel special sooner via their website, but now I am special nonetheless. In a couple of hours, I will pick up my first special car with Avis First. If “special” means Crown Victoria, I’m not going to feel so special…unless it’s equipped with lights and siren.
By Allen White Ben Reed is a gifted guy who blogs Life and Theology at benreed.net. He has a knack for finding leadership lessons in various situations, then blogs about them. For some reason, as I headed to the dump last week, I thought of Ben’s writing. (That isn’t a commentary of his writing, by the way). Here’s what I discovered: 1. When you have to wait, you have time to think. If you’ve ever taken a load to the dump, you know there is no express lane at the dump. No fast pass. No gold card. It’s a great equalizer, except for the rich folks who pay people to go for them. Waiting in line at the dump gives you plenty of time to think. John Maxwell said once, “We don’t learn by experience. We learn by evaluated experience.” After all if we solely learned by experience, then why has anyone ever repeated a mistake? We should have learned. But, when you take a little time to reflect, maybe as you’re waiting at the dump, you gain insights into not only what worked and what didn’t, but also what led you to the experience, why you were motivated to go there, and how you can be more effective in the future. For instance, if you need to go to the dump, you understand to avoid Saturdays. Go in the middle of the day during the work week, if you can. Otherwise, you will end up with a LOT of time to reflect. 2. Any life situation can teach a lesson. Some of us have “pastoritis.” We’re not allergic to pastors. But, we can turn any story into a spiritual analogy. Back when we lived in Northern California, I would hike in Yosemite National Park with my friends. I would always “Mirandize” them prior to the trip: “Anything that happens can be used as a sermon illustrations.” There were a lot of great stories out of those trips – most at my expense. If we pay attention, there are lessons to be learned all around us. Jesus did this in His teaching. He taught based on agriculture, shepherding, lilies, birds and many other common things. Jesus took unfamiliar concepts and packaged them in familiar language. What is your life teaching you? 3. When you go to the dump, you are not in charge. No matter who you are, no matter how much you make, no matter who looks to you for leadership, when you’re at the dump, nobody cares. My son and I hopped out our van and began loading boxes into a large recycling container. A worker shouted across the parking lot, “Put the boxes in on the other side!” This wasn’t Jesus telling us to cast our nets on the other side. Somehow the distribution of our cardboard was going to radically offset the recycling container’s balance. Not only were we recycling our cardboard, now we were sorting it. I was not in charge. I had to follow the rules. My status at the dump simply came down to this: was I a good customer who followed instructions or was I a bad customer about to be scolded by a county employee? Nothing else about me mattered in that moment. 4. A surprising mix of people use the dump. As I looked around the dump, I saw a number of vehicles I was surprised to see at the dump. Maybe saving on trash pickup helped them to afford their cars. Then, there were other cars the owners could have very well left at the dump. I was driving my wife’s car, so we were somewhere in the middle. Some people where there with an overabundance of yard waste. Others didn’t want to pay the $25 per month for garbage service, so they did it themselves. Several, like my son and I, were dutifully recycling. Others were trying to figure out why the sanitation workers wouldn’t haul off their old TVs and computers. The dump isn’t mandatory like the DMV. You don’t have to go there. But, it’s free and it meets a variety of needs. I’m contemplating ending my garbage pickup, but I’m a little afraid they would keep my car too. 5. Mentioning “Ben Reed” on your blog is an SEO magnet. Ben Reed is an outstanding small groups pastor at Grace Community Church. Ben Reed lives in Clarkesville, Tennessee. Ben Reed runs communication for the Small Group Network. Ben Reed tweets more than anybody I know. Ben Reed just helped my SEO…cha-ching. Thanks, Ben Reed, for being a good sport on my blog today.
Over the years, I’ve faced many ups and downs with small group coaching. The first time we launched groups, we had no coaches at all. Soon the groups burned out. When we debriefed with them, the response was “we feel like lone rangers out there.” We definitely needed coaches. The next time we launched groups, our leaders had a coach. His name was Allen. Allen recruited all of the leaders, trained all of the leaders, and coached all of the leaders. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” The ministry grew to 30 groups, and then it got stuck. In light of our stuckness and Exodus 18, new coaches were needed immediately.
Searching the congregation, we looked for the cream of the crop. Who had led groups? Who was wise? Who was good with people? We found them. These were experienced, mature folks who were willing to help other leaders. I put them to work: disseminate information, collect reports, visit the groups, and report back. I still held on to all of the training, but the coaches did all of the hand to hand combat.
A dear coach named Carol came to me one day. She said, “I’m not too sure that I want to continue coaching. I’m bored, and I kind of feel like I’m your spy.” She was right to feel that way. That’s exactly what she was. But, why was she bored? First of all, Carol was a wise, mature believer with much to offer. I had turned her into a paper-pusher and a spy. While the coaches participated in the group huddles, the pastor of small groups still ran the meetings and did all of the training. He was still in recovery….
Finally, I turned all of the training and meaningful interaction over to the coaches. Suddenly, I had fewer people to communicate with. The coaches were doing their job. Then, the complaints started rolling in. Not from the leaders, but from the coaches: “I can’t get the leaders to show up for any meetings.” “I call them, but they won’t call me back.” So, I fired all of the coaches. Actually, I didn’t. It was time to regroup.
Did we need coaches to disseminate information? No, we had email. Did we need coaches to collect reports? No, we used churchteams.com. Did we need coaches to be spies? Yes, we actually did, but not like that.
What can a coach do that a small group pastor or director cannot? A coach can develop a close personal relationship with each of the group leaders. One pastor or director with even five groups cannot keep up with every group leader and what’s going on with their groups. Coaches serve a vital role in the relational makeup of a small group ministry.
Coaching relationships still have an intentional aspect. The role of a coach is to refocus the player. When they look at their group leaders, they see busy, sometimes frazzled people, who desire for God to use them, but often don’t have much time to think about their group. This is where the coach comes in. If the coach will meet with each group leader, even just once every three months, God will use that coach to encourage the group leader and to energize that group. The meeting simply goes like this:
1. Ask the group leader who is currently in their group. Not to take a roster, but to start a conversation. The leader will list out the names: Bob Sue James Peter Paul Mary
2. Ask the group leader what is going on with each of the members. As the group leader begins to think about each member, God will bring to the leader’s mind a next step the leader needs to take in the relationship. “Well, I haven’t seen Bob in a while. I need to give him a call.” “Paul is struggling to find work. I need to pray for Paul and see what help he needs.” And, so on.
The coach doesn’t need to tell the leaders what to do. The coach simply needs to offer the space for a leader to reflect on his/her group. After they write down the next steps for each group member, the coach and group leader should set up an appointment in three months. This gives the leader time to take action and gives a deadline for accountability.
Those of us who serve as professional small group folks, especially the recovering control freaks among us, crave more complexity in these relationships. Here’s what I know – complicated coaching in my experience has led to no coaching. By being available to leaders when they need their coach, scheduling quarterly meetings, and participating in a couple of training events per year, leaders will have more than enough resources to motivate them in ministry.
For those of us who would like to tinker will all of this more than we ought to, why not start a blog or something?
By Allen White When you think about such a large scale small group ministry like the one at Saddleback Church, it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around. How could a church of 25,000 or so on the weekend have over 50,000 connected in small groups? A ministry of that size doesn’t sound like small groups. It sounds like a decent sized town. Sure, any church can get a bunch of people into groups for a short-term church-wide campaign, but how does Saddleback keep the arrow moving up and to the right? If these were temporary, thrown together groups, then you would expect them to disband as quickly as they formed. What’s the secret? What makes a good group system? Trained, motivated leaders. Visionary direction. Welcoming groups. Growing group members. Any or all of these descriptions would produce effective groups. But, there is one word that captures all of this and is the secret to Saddleback’s small group success: Health. Balancing the biblical purposes of fellowship, discipleship, ministry, worship and evangelism creates healthy groups, which in turn produce healthy group members. Leading Small Groups with Purpose is a multifaceted resource. Steve Gladen not only gives the theory of small group ministry, he offers practical next steps to hit the group where the rubber meets the road. Whether a group has just started or has been together for a long time, each topic contains Crawl, Walk and Run steps to integrate the biblical purposes in the group, thus producing group health. This book is not over any leader’s head and is certainly not beneath any leader either. Beyond the tools Steve offers in the book, he points the reader to many tools available on the web as well as quite a number of other resources. The book even comes with a small group assessment tool created by Dr. Les Parrott, which addresses group dynamics. In practical, honest and humorous ways, Steve cleverly relates many stories from his own group experiences to convey his points. Having learned from the laboratory of over 5,000 groups at Saddleback Church, 30 years of ministry experience, and especially his own small group, this book speaks to the heart of small group leaders from a small group leader. While leading one of the largest small group ministries in the country, Steve is a small group leader through and through. My only objection to this book is the author’s support of the Anaheim Angels in the World Series. Being a long time San Francisco Giants fan, I believe there never should have been a Game 7 in that Series. Other than this significant difference in core values, I’m a big fan of this book. Every small group member, whether new or experienced, will benefit from this book. If you’re a group leader who feels a bit like you’re on your own, this book will serve as the small group pastor that you wish you had. If you are a small group pastor or director, do yourself a favor and buy a case of these books and hand them out to your leaders ASAP. Related Books: Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen Connecting In Communities by Eddie Mosley
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.