In his latest book, Small Groups, Big Impact, Jim Egli concludes that small-group coaching is the most important aspect of successful small-group ministry. I couldn't agree more! However, the struggle with coaching isn't realizing its importance, but getting effective coaching in place. It's not as simple as selecting godly men and women to be coaches—or even as easy as promoting successful small-group leaders to be coaches. Good small-group coaches have experienced leading a group well and are able to have healthy, transformational relationships with the leaders they're coaching. Both are needed to be effective in the two primary tasks of coaching:
Shepherding the shepherds. Coaches speak into the lives of small-group leaders on a personal level. Just as a small-group leader does this with his or her group members, so a coach does this for the leaders in his or her care. It means talking with them about how they're doing spiritually, how their relationships are going, and how they're feeling in their role as leader.
Helping them lead well. This is why coaches must not simply be godly men or women. They have to be people with the experience of shepherding and leading a small group well so that they can help the leaders they are coaching. In order to give helpful input to their leaders, they need to be able to draw upon their own experiences, frustrations, and failings.
Responsibilities of Coaches
In order to accomplish these things, coaches need to commit to several regular actions:
Read the weekly report of each of the small-group leaders you are coaching. We utilize Churchteams, an online tool for small-group ministries that prompts leaders to fill out quick reports after their weekly meetings. The report is sent automatically to the coach, senior pastor, and small-group director. The report asks for attendance, prayer requests shared, study topics, and more. Even if you don't have Churchteams or a similar system, it's important to have leaders fill out simple reports each week. Keep it easy by asking only a few key questions: How'd the meeting go? (Any wins? Any concerns? Any questions?) Who was there? What upcoming small-group events do you have in the works?
Visit each of their small groups every couple of months to encourage and observe. Generally, groups will drift into poor habits that will hurt their continued success (such as consistently going late or someone dominating conversation), and these things don't show up in written reports. So being there to observe can give coaches a truer picture of how things are going. Coaches need to remember, though, that they are guests. They should mingle and make conversation with the group members. They should share when appropriate, but never take over. And they should always encourage and honor the leader in front of the group members.
Communicate regularly with each of their small-group leaders. Call them on the phone. Communicate through texts and e-mails. Get together for coffee. Coaches should be a regular voice in their leaders' lives—talking about how things are going in their group and how things are going for them personally and spiritually.
Communicate at least monthly with the small-group point person. Coaches are the link between the point person and each of the small-group leaders in their care. Leaders need to understand the vision of the ministry as a whole, and you need to hear stories and concerns from small-group leaders. Coaches allow this communication to take place regularly.
Growing a Coaching Structure
Before you set out to immediately implement a coaching structure in your ministry, know that the best coaching structures are grown, not simply put in place. It does take longer, but it will be better received and will guarantee that you have the right people in coaching roles.
Begin by having good small-group leaders simply coach one or two small-group leaders that multiply out from under them (through apprenticing and releasing new leaders from within the group). The leader continues to lead his or her small group while coaching the leaders of one or two additional groups. The relational aspect is already in place because they've already been in a shepherding relationship through the apprenticeship process.
Once there are three or more groups under one leader, pull the leader out to focus on coaching instead of leading and coaching simultaneously. Otherwise, the span of care becomes too great and the coach will end up managing more than coaching—or just burn out! As this continues across your ministry, you will develop the coaching structure you desire. It will take longer, but it will be worth it in the end.
—Jay Firebaugh is the Director of Small Groups at New Life Church in Gahanna, Ohio. You can check out practical tools for pastors and small-group leaders on his All About Small Groups Facebook page. Used with permission from the author.