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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.
Clearly you have more to do than you could or should be doing on your own. Whether you lead a team or work solo, as your small groups ministry grows, there is more to do than is humanly possible. You have to multiply yourself for sure. You have to pass things on to other capable folks or else you will continue to feel like your failing your leaders or you will burn yourself out. (Give yourself a promotion!) But, as you delegate to capable people, could it be demoralizing?
What Are You Delegating?
You can delegate ministry tasks like calling to check in on group leaders, collecting reports, or visiting groups. This is how my church used to coach leaders. The coaches attended the huddles that I led. The coaches visited groups, then turned in a report to me. One coach, I’ll call her “Carol” since that was her name gave me some feedback. “I feel like I’m your spy.” I had sent her on a mission to observe groups and turn in a report on them. She was my spy. Later, she told me she was bored with coaching. I thought, “Why is Carol bored? I’m busy.” Then it dawned on me.
I had delegated tasks, but not responsibility or authority. I told them what to do for me, then to report back to me. (Are you catching on to the problem here?) The coaches couldn’t make decisions for the ministry. The coaches couldn’t call an audible to help a leader. They could gather data and report back to me. This brand of coaching was disempowering and demoralizing. It looked liked coaching. It was called coaching. But, it ended up being another mechanism to fulfill my need for control. It wasn’t good.
How to Empower Others
As you select capable people to coach others, give them broad flexibility in how they go about coaching. This requires two things. First, you have to recruit capable people of good character who you trust. That is quite a loaded sentence. This won’t happen overnight. Build your coaching structure slowly. Observe your leaders to see which groups are producing what you want them to produce. Then, give them a trial run at coaching others like walking alongside a couple of new leaders for a six-week alignment series. If they do well, give them more. If they don’t, then thank them for “fulfilling” their commitment.
Second, give the coaches the responsibility for some leaders and groups, but don’t get too deep in the specifics of how to do it. A good general goal would be something like “Help the leaders and groups fulfill their purpose.” Of course, you need to articulate the purpose for your groups. Then, meet with the coaches occasionally to hear what’s going on with the groups. In the beginning, you might meet with them frequently. After a while, you could pull back on the frequency of your meetings with them. But, of course, you’ll always be available “on call” in case something urgent occurs.
Don’t Recruit Hirelings
Jesus talked about hirelings, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13, NIV). You want coaches to fulfill the role of a shepherd rather than a hireling.
In my experience, my dear friend, Carol, was treated as a hireling. She was working for me. She was reporting to me. She was taking direction from me. I was holding Carol back. She wanted to be a shepherd to her group leaders, but I treated her like a hired hand.
The best thing I ever did to support and coach small group leaders was to invite a group of capable leaders to lead the small group ministry WITH me. Our small group ministry was growing rapidly. In fact, in a six-month period, we went from 30% in groups to 60% in groups (on one day) [LINK] to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups. It was a whirlwind. I needed help. I had already failed with Carol, so I needed a different approach.
The invitation went like this: “I don’t have all of this figured out, but if you would be willing to learn with me, I would love to have you on my team.” Not only did they say, “Yes!” this was by far the best group that I’ve ever been a part of. We met every Wednesday night for dinner because the small group ministry was growing so rapidly. We even traded off who brought the meal.
But, here’s the biggest part, I committed to them that decisions for the small group ministry would only be made with them in our Wednesday meeting. I did not make any decisions apart from that meeting. We were a team because I shared the responsibility and authority of the small group ministry.
Now here’s the best part. When I left that church to coach pastors and churches, that team led the small group ministry for the next 12 months without a small group pastor. Not only did they know what to do, they owned the responsibility of the small group ministry. As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
Think About This
I hope this doesn’t come across as a boastful post. It’s not meant to be. The humbling part for me is that it took me 12 years to figure this out! 12 years!! Please don’t take 12 years to do this in your church.
Are you partnering with others to lead your small group ministry? Has your church struggled with coaching in the past? Did you give your coaches only tasks Or did you give them responsibility and authority? Were your coaches hirelings or shepherds?
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.”
Mark Richardson is the Life Pastor at San Diego Rock Church, where he has served for 15 years. Rock Church has over 500 small groups and saw their groups increase by 211% in 2020. Prior to the Rock Church, Mark served as a board member and executive director at the Jireh Ministries Foundation and was an intern with the Christian Embassy to the United Nations. He holds a MA in Pastoral Studies from Azusa Pacific and an MBA from Point Loma.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
Elliot Diaz has served at Manna Church, Fayetteville/ Fort Bragg since March 2013. He has served as the Small Groups Pastor, and is currently the Site Pastor of the Cliffdale Site and is a member of the Lead Team. Manna Church is a multi-site church of over 2800 people in weekly attendance led by Senior Pastor, Michael Fletcher. Elliot is a 19 year Army veteran, who currently serves as a Chaplain in the North Carolina National Guard.