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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.
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
Let’s face it: it’s been hard to predict anything in the last two years. I certainly don’t claim to be a prophet, but I am seeing and learning some emerging trends when it comes to ministry during Coronavirus Year Three. You might be noticing some of these things too.
Digital Ministry is the Church’s New Front Door
You’ve known for a while that people were checking out your church website before they were entering the physical front door. Now, digital ministry has become the church’s new front door. When people show up in-person for the first time, they are no longer “first time guests.” They’ve been watching online for a while. When they show up, they are ready in engage in small groups and serving.
Many pastors are frustrated that people aren’t “back” and are worshipping at home. I believe there are three reasons why people are still worshipping online. First, some are COVID Cautious. They’re just not sure if they’re ready to worship in-person, so they stay away. Second, some are COVID Convenient. (I used to call this “COVID Lazy,” but someone accused me of being judgmental.) They enjoy the convenience of worshipping at home and not having to pile everyone in the car to go to church. The third group is new attenders. They discovered your church during the pandemic. They are watching as regularly or more regularly than your in-person attenders are showing up. A church in Texas recently baptized an online attender who flew in from England. My friends at Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, baptized a police officer from New York City who came to Christ while watching online. This is more than a novelty. Digitial Ministry is a mission field.
Insight: Make your online worship service equivalent to your in-person worship service. It’s not the same (not even close). But, expect just as much from your online attenders as you do your in-person attenders when it comes to your growth track, small groups, giving, and serving. Specifically invite them to follow next steps. Give them a digital way to respond. For more on digital ministry, go here.
The Church You Have is the Church You’ve Got
Waiting for your pre-COVID worship attenders to return is like waiting for your old Blockbuster to reopen. It’s not going to happen. The church you have is your church, so lead it. As I wrote a few months ago, “Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
“The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.” To read the entire post, go here.
People are Choosier in Committing Their Time
During the pandemic your people divested themselves of every type of involvement. They wiped the slate complete clean. And, as you’ve seen, they haven’t immediately brought back everything they were doing before. They will form groups. They will serve. But, the motivation is more aligned with their personal mission than with being told they “ought” to.
When it comes to serving, help people discover their spiritual gifts and see how they align with their personal passions. Use a course like Network by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Start new ministries from your people’s passions rather than from the top down.
Give your people permission and opportunity to start small groups on their terms. Let them invite their friends. Let them meet in-person or online with any format that suits them. Small groups can grow if you let people meet anywhere at any time with anyone.
Insight: If your church parking lot is half empty, then encourage your parking team to start small groups. Everybody can find a parking place on their own.
Processes and Programs Should Give Way to Personalization
There has been a growing shift in discipleship for quite some time. Every person is different. They are at different places in their spiritual growth. They came to you from very different circumstances. A process is not the answer. After all, you’re not making widgits! (Read more here).
While there is a part of discipleship that involves content, the vast majority of disciple-making is personal. Churches in general have produced an inordinate amount of content because that’s the easy way to go in indoctrinating people. But, the reality is that just because people “know right” doesn’t mean they “do right.” You know that’s true.
Community is equally as important as content. One definition of “disciple” is the idea of “rubbing off on.” People need to be together in smaller groups to rub off on each other and practice the one anothers of Scripture. While many pastor struggle with getting online attenders to attend in-person, some will join an in-person small group even if they are worshipping online. And, some in-person attenders have discovered that online groups are more convenient for them. Regardless of how they choose to meet, encourage community.
How are your people motivated to change? How are they motivated to grow in the New Year? I’m not going to give you the answer. Ask them. How do you ask dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people? Enlist some help from your small group leaders and other mature church members. Conduct brief interviews, then make an action plan for each person.
When Spring Hits, People Will be Gone
In their fourth quarter forecast for 2021, Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicts that people are planning now for Spring 2022. They are booking vacation homes and cruises. What this says is that once the weather warms up, people will be gone. With Easter on April 17, 2022, your greatest ministry impact will come before Easter rather than after. Invest in a New Years’ small group launch or a Lenten series like The Crucified Life or All In (scripted to make your own videos), and then take your foot off the gas and plan for a strong fall 2022.
Think About It
Now that you’ve put your Blockbuster card away, what’s next for your church in 2022? As you look out over your congregation (in-person and online), do you see committed, motivated people who are with you? Do you see your faithful givers and servants? What future do you imagine could be achieved with these dedicated souls?
At the beginning of 2021, I started talking about the Small Group Boom. As COVID numbers were descending, a pattern began to emerge in several disciplines reminiscent of the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. After that period, people began to travel extensively both domestically and internationally. Then, of course, came the Roaring 20’s. The Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again even though it didn’t entirely disappear until the 1950s when it was overcome by Bird Flu (see this 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell). Sorry for that bit of bad news.
The churches I coached anticipated a great reduction in COVID cases and prepared for the Small Group Boom, then the Delta variant appeared. No one was prepared for that. The Small Group Boom of 2021 ended up being more of a Small Group Bump, but it was a significant bump. These churches ended up with more small groups than they ever had and more people in groups than ever. And, more of their groups continued. In places where we might have launched hundreds of new groups in more normal times, we launched dozens of new groups instead. They were “COVID successful.”
The church I am serving as Life Group Pastor in Lansing, Michigan saw a group increase of 176% in 2021. The senior pastor led the church in two alignment series which we self-produced. We started the year with 20% of their 1,500 adults in small groups and ended the year with 60% in groups. We are launching a third alignment series in February to reach our goal of 80% of adults in groups. This is both the in-person worship attendance (1,000) and the online worship attendance (500).
While everyone has been forced to adapt to the changing culture produced by the pandemic, many of the best practices taught in Exponential Groups are working very well. Inviting people to start their own groups is working. Gathering a group of friends is working. Coaching every new leader is working. Offering a next step series for groups to continue is working. And the Holy Spirit is working to transform lives and make disciples in groups. With a dose of flexibility regarding when, where, and how a group meets, these strategies have proven successful.
Here’s what’s different:
People have re-evaluated their priorities.
During the pandemic, most people divested themselves of everything – social activities, church activities, commuting to work, hobbies, and pretty much everything else. Once people had a “blank slate” on their calendar, they’ve been choosier about what to bring back. For many people, their calendars are not nearly as full now as they were at the beginning of 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Uncertainty produces a lack of commitment.
Preach what is certain. With so much uncertainty in politics, economics, supply chain (when have you ever worried about the supply chain), race relations, local schools, and many other things, you can give them what is certain. As Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).
Online worshippers are willing to meet in groups (online groups AND in-person groups).
Online services are great in delivering programming. Small groups are great in creating community. If you lead your online congregation to start groups, they will. Some are only uncomfortable meeting in-person in large groups, but they will meet in-person for a small group. Don’t overlook your online congregation. They will follow where you lead them. Online ministry is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
Now is the time to realign the priorities in your ministry.
If you ever wanted to change things, this is your moment. During the pandemic, you had a church of small groups (not just a church with small groups). Now is the time to emphasize small groups in the uncertain days ahead.
I want to help you prepare for what’s ahead for your church in forming groups in 2022. According to Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, right now in the fourth quarter of 2021, people are planning for spring 2022 already. That means two significant things for groups (barring another Coronavirus surge):
The New Year of 2022 is a crucial window to launch groups. Hit the New Year hard in recruiting leaders and launching groups. According to Gauge, people will be gone after Easter.
Your next big opportunity for a major group launch is fall 2022. While this is typically the biggest group launch of the year, post-Covid this could be huge.
People are ready to move forward. You hear it. You can feel it. Let’s talk about what it means to move forward in 2022. Join me for the Small Group Restart. This is a 5-day challenge to think through your small group strategies for 2022. Watch a daily video. Interact in our private Facebook group. Join a community of like-minded small group folks who are figuring things out just like you are. Click here to join.
Your church’s ministry philosophy could be handicapping your ability to recruit and develop leaders. Two distinct ministry models are prevalent in most churches today. While no church is probably 100 percent one or the other, the church’s ministry philosophy typically leans toward one side. Your church is either like Greyhound or Home Depot. Now, it might be kind of silly to think that your church is like a bus company or a home improvement store, but think about this:
Greyhound says, “Leave the driving to us.”
Greyhound wants its passengers to sit back and enjoy the ride. The company doesn’t want the passengers to do anything. The staff will handle all of the details related to the trip. Greyhound will take its passengers from point A to point B and won’t ask for anything other than the price of the ticket.
When I arrived at my first ministry assignment in 1990, the founding pastor told me that the church’s motto was the same as Greyhound’s, “Leave the driving to us.” Those were his exact words. The church depended on staff to do the work of the ministry. While people were recruited for minor ministry roles, any ministry leadership was entirely up to the staff. Identifying the gifts and callings of our members was just not done. After all, isn’t it easier to depend on someone you’re paying to do the ministry?
Clearly there are limitations on this model. No church can ever afford to hire everyone it needs to fulfill its mission. It also left a lot of gifted people very frustrated. The church did not acknowledge their gifts or encourage their development. The Greyhound model led to what I jokingly referred to as the “spiritual gift of complaining,” which is not a product of the Holy Spirit.
While the Greyhound model sounds convenient by just hiring staff to fulfill major roles, ultimately it’s not good for the staff and it’s not good for the church. Members rely on the staff for everything. Staff must recruit for every volunteer position. Staff must place people in every group or class. Staff counsel. Staff teach. Staff lead. All of this leads to a stagnation of the church’s impact because the people are held back. It also creates an unhealthy co-dependency between the staff and the members. It might fulfill staff members’ need to be needed, but it ultimately leads to burnout. If this is your church, it’s time to get off the bus, Gus.
Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.”
Well, at least that was their old slogan until they got sued. Now, they say, “Where doers get more done,” which doesn’t really apply to this post, so let’s stick to the original slogan, “You can do it. We can help.”
Look at the contrast between Home Depot and Greyhound. Greyhound requires nothing. The staff does everything. In the Home Depot model, the emphasis is on the member doing the work of the ministry. The staff isn’t going to do it for them. They are going to do it with the staff’s help. If members want to start groups, then they can gather their friends and start groups. The staff will support and encourage them. If someone needs to find a group, then that person can attend a Connection Event and sign up for a specific group. The staff will provide the opportunity, but will not get involved with placing them in a group. (Most people who ask to be placed in a group don’t really want to join a group anyway. They just want your time and attention. When they don’t end up in a group, it’s not on them, it’s on you! Their guilt was transferred to you. No wonder you feel so bad).
The Home Depot model is the realm of ministry multipliers. Group members can become group leaders. Group leaders can become coaches. Coaches can become Small Group Leadership Team members. Everybody gets a promotion. You can do it. We can help.
You have to give up to go up.
Sometimes as a staff member, you feel stuck by being bogged down with too much responsibility. You don’t want to let anybody down. You don’t want to make anybody mad. You don’t want to get blamed. I get it. But, you end up clucking with the chickens when you long to soar with the eagles. But, it’s hard to let go.
When you are reluctant to release ministry to others, it’s not for lack of willing people. It’s out of fear of being blamed, or it’s out of just not knowing any better. When you think about releasing ministry to others, you face many doubts and fears — What if they don’t do it right? What if they don’t do it the way that I can? What if they do something wrong? What if they cause a problem? Let me confirm your fears. All of the above will happen, but it will amount to about 2% in my experience.
Often you get trapped in Moses’ thinking in Exodus 18, which basically says, “I’m the only one who can do it, and the people like coming to me.” His father-in-law Jethro called him on it and pronounced it, “Not good.”
In order for you to accomplish more with your groups, you have to give up responsibility to seemingly less capable people. You have to take a risk. You have to train them. You have to supervise them. But, if you don’t, then everything will continue to revolve around you. You will feel bogged down and burned out. Your people will feel underutilized and frustrated. Big L leaders will continue handing out bulletins and parking cars. What a waste!
The Apostle Paul spoke to this in Ephesians 4:11-12, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (NIV). If you consider yourself an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher, your role is pretty clear – “to equip his people for works of service.” Or, as Home Depot would tell your people, “You can do it. We can help.”