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 What is a small group? In my group, the answer would be either “A group that is small” or “Jesus.” But, the group wouldn’t give those answers. The former answer would come from Jeff and the later from Jamie. (I use these names, because these are their names. We’ll talk about confidentiality another time.) While anyone can join my group, my group is not just made up on anyone. My group is made up of eleven individuals. Eleven men, each with unique challenges and outstanding gifts. I know them, and they know me. We meet for lunch every Wednesday. We eat at deli’s and sushi bars and Southern barbecue joints. But, we’re also there for each other. The most significant conversations that take place aren’t necessarily around the table at lunch. While we have good Bible-based discussions, we share life in the parking lot afterward and throughout the week via email and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter. If you treat your group like a class, then you become the teacher, and they receive a grade. Too many tardies or absences and soon they get an “Incomplete.” The difference between a group and a class lies in the center of it. A class is centered on a subject. That class will take place whether you’re there or not. A group is centered on the group members. The connection trumps the content. Listen to actual group leaders talk about the importance of one on one ministry in groups: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN4gdT-6NHs&w=425&h=349] Trouble viewing this clip? Go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN4gdT-6NHs The strength of a small group is built on the level of touch and interaction among the members. If your small group members don’t like each other or don’t know each other, then get ready to do something else in the near future. But, on the other hand, personal touch is more needed and more significant now than it’s ever been. 1. Encourage members who were absent. Chuck Swindoll said years ago, “Every person you see is a person in need of encouragement.” In group life, our members need encouragement when we see them and when we don’t see them. But, following up after absent group members isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’m probably the only person that does this, but when someone misses the group, I think: “I must be a terrible leader. Our discussion wasn’t very insightful. As their group leader and their pastor, I let them down. Maybe I should just quit and let someone else take over the group. People are falling away because of my ineptitude.” Okay, I would never use “ineptitude” when I worry, but you can see where this is going. A very popular book starts with this sentence: “It’s not about you.” What if they missed because someone was sick? What if there was something more interesting on TV? What if they’re not confident talking about their faith in public? What if they forgot? What if they had to work overtime? What if you as the leader don’t actually suck at all? Could it be true?! Leaders are the people who do the things that other people refuse to do. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is picking up the phone, but it’s an important touch. Even if you just leave a personal voice mail, “Hey, we missed you today. I hope everything is alright.” If your group has a Bible study, then the content is stellar, so it must be something else. Their absence could lead to a prayer request, which could lead to another touch. 2. Follow-up on comments and needs brought up in the meeting. As leaders, we don’t always realize the impact of a statement in the meeting. As much as we put sharing in the group over the study guide, sometimes we’re thinking about the next question instead of the last comment. Then, it dawns on us later that the group member had just disclosed something significant, and we went on to the next question. That’s okay. Pick up the phone and ask the group member what’s going on. Say, “I was just thinking about something you said in the last meeting. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you about it right then, but I just wanted to see what was going on.” It might be nothing, or it might open the door to personal ministry. If someone is sick or in the hospital, check in on them. Visit them in the hospital. Take a meal to their house. Call them and see how they’re doing and ask what they might need. If you’re not sure whether you should go or not, go! It’s better to show up where you’re not needed than to miss the opportunity to serve. 3. Be normal. Unfortunately, some of us require a manual on being normal. The Bible tells us to “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, NLT). Celebrate with your group members on their happy occasions: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, promotions, new houses, new babies – these things all need celebrating. Then, circle around them when they weep. We all need our group when we experience significant losses in our lives – deaths and unemployment, struggles and setbacks – this is when we need community, not advice. This is when group members need each other – not to throw down advice or quote Romans 8:28 – but to be there. The more that we can make our group relationships, and discipleship for that matter, a normal part of our lives, the better off we’ll be. 4. What touches are significant to your group member? Sure, it’s easy to send an email blast to the entire group and “Reply to All” with our responses, but is that actually a touch? One on one ministry isn’t built on convenience. The Bible tells us to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). How do you do that? If your group member loves to email, then email away. If they’d rather talk in person, then get together for a cup of coffee. If they’d rather text, then text. Offline relationships can be enhanced with online communication. It usually doesn’t work as well in the other direction. (Although I do have a good friend who I helped lead to Christ in an online small group back in 1994 on CompuServe.) A wise person told me once, “People have more ways to communicate today than never before, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” When email inboxes and twitter direct messages overflow with spam, even personal electronic communication can get lost in the mix. Maybe it’s time to go old school with a pen, a card and a stamp. Personal hand-written snail mail definitely stands out these days. 5. Don’t Lead Alone. As a leader it’s easy to be overcome with a list like this. Most leaders have a job, a family, a life as well as a group. While the group is pretty high on the list, sometimes it’s all that a leader can do just to make the meeting happen each week. The tension is we all need more than discussions with members living disconnected lives. What’s the answer? I’ve said this before, but while the leader is responsible for the group, the leader isn’t responsible to do everything. The leader’s job is to make sure everything is done, but not to do everything. Ask for a volunteer in the group to follow up on members who are absent, then follow up with the volunteer. If someone in the group says, “I wonder what happened to,” there’s probably a very good reason why they’re thinking about them. Don’t get in the way. Encourage the person who asked to follow up. John Maxwell is often credited with saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Group life should engage both our heads and our hearts. Group is not something we do. It’s something we are. We can’t say to a group member, “I don’t need you” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25). “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:16, NIV). Inevitably, we will have one of those days when we stop and think, “I didn’t sign up for this.” We thought we were getting together with other believers to do a nice, neat Bible study. Then, it got messy when people opened up. It got a little complicated when people took off their masks to reveal that they weren’t as together and freshly scrubbed as they usually appeared on Sunday morning. We certainly didn’t sign up for this, but God signed us up. Over the next 30 days, how can you show each of your group members how much you care about them?
By Allen White Small Groups can meet some of our basic emotional needs. Everyone needs to feel that they belong. This is a high value among Small Groups. The Bible teaches us, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5). We all want to be included by others. Our Small Group is the place where we’re always included. We belong. We also need to feel accepted. Regardless of where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, Small Group is a place where we can come as we are to learn, to connect and to encourage each other. That doesn’t mean that our group will allow us to stay where we are. If there are things going on in our lives that are harmful or damaging to our well-being and our spiritual growth, then it’s the group’s place to address these things in our lives. Sometimes we are blind to things about ourselves that are very obvious to others. The group should never approach anyone with a judgmental or self-righteous attitude. The rest of the group has their issues too. Our couples’ Small Group in California was a diverse group. We had a broad age range. Some couples had small children. Others had teenagers. One couple had grown children. One member enforced the law, while another member gave us the impression that he might be running from the law. It was a mixed bag of folks. Two of our guys would always end the evening by going out in front of our house for a smoke. The rest of the guys were a little jealous of the fellowship they enjoyed out there. For a brief time, we even considered taking up the habit. Word got out to other Small Groups that we had a couple of smokers. In fact, a member of another group approached me at church one day, “It must be embarrassing that you as a pastor have small group members that smoke in front of your house. What do your neighbors think?” I said, “I know it’s terrible. But, what’s even worse is that I’ve heard that some of our groups are full of gossips.” Okay, I didn’t actually say that. But, if I had, wouldn’t that be awesome? We have to accept people where they’re at. Think about it. Where else are we going to accept them? I suppose we could put some prerequisites for being accepted into our group. But, why make it harder to be accepted in our group than it is to be accepted by Jesus Himself? While Small Groups can meet some important emotional needs for our members, groups can’t meet all of their emotional needs. And, I’ll go ahead and say it, they shouldn’t try to meet all of their emotional needs either. While the Bible does tell us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), it also tells us that each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). John Townsend and Henry Cloud do a great job of explaining this in their book, Boundaries. As a group, we can help people process what’s going on in their lives. We can care for them. We can pray for them. We can follow up with them. But, we can’t allow the needs of one member to dominate the group. If we begin to see this happen, we need to gently recommend other resources to address their issues. At that point a support group or counselor could help them work through their issues. If someone is struggling in a relationship or with a life controlling problem, the group can certainly support them in his progress, but the group cannot become his “support group.” Now, I didn’t say kick them out of your group. I didn’t say that. In fact, the leader should let them know that they are welcome to stay for Bible study and that the group will gladly support them in their journey. But, the work that needs to be done has to happen in another setting. It’s important to know what we can and cannot do in a Small Group. We can offer teaching from God’s Word. We can offer fellowship. We can offer prayer. We can offer acceptance and belonging. We can’t offer anything that caters solely to one group member and excludes the others. We can’t take on all their problems. We can’t meet all of their emotional needs. We can’t do for them what only God can. But, we can keep pointing them back to God. A member of my group was struggling with how to help a friend who had a financial need. He wasn’t sure about how much more involved he should be. He had already paid some of this person’s bills. I asked him what he felt led to do. He gave one of the most honest answers I’ve ever heard. He said, “I’m codependent. I feel led to solve all of the problems. That’s why I need the group’s insights.” We helped him figure out where to draw the line. What is your group carrying for your members? Where might your group be trying to carry the member’s whole load as well? How do you know when it’s time to ask for help? I would encourage you to check in with your coach and determine what help is truly helpful.