The Fine Art of Coaching Small-Group Leaders

There are at least three critical tasks good coaches master.

Coaching appears to be the "next big thing" when it comes to church leadership. It seems almost everyone either (1) wants to be a coach, or (2) wants to be coached. The fact is, everyone needs a coach, but a great teacher does not necessarily make a good coach. Indeed, being a great practitioner of a skill does not automatically mean someone is going to be a good coach. A good coach can be difficult to find, even in a large pool of talented leaders. Coaching is both a skill and an art. It takes discernment, observation, and a knack for asking the right question at the right moment.

However, there appears to be some confusion about what coaches actually do. Many "coaches" in the church are convinced their role is to teach their team members the newest techniques, methods, or even doctrines. However, coaching is not about transplanting knowledge from one brain to another. For instance, it would be pretty presumptuous for anyone to try and teach Michael Jordan much about basketball, even another professional ball player, and yet throughout his illustrious career, Jordan needed (and received) coaching. Coaching is the art of bringing out the best in someone—their very best.

The good news is that the skills to become a good coach are teachable. The bad news is that it is work and it is not an easy study. If you can learn to ask good questions, learn to listen, and learn to withstand silence, you can coach your small group leaders effectively.


Before you can coach, you have to have a coachable player. That may seem obvious, but many leaders are not actually in the "game." They are either in the stands watching or on the sidelines waiting. Many coaches fail because they try to coach spectators, which is a waste of time and energy. Spectators fantasize about being in the game. They may even "suit up" with the right gear, but they refuse to leave the safety of the stands or the bench. They insist they "don't know how" or make other excuses for not engaging. If they are not in the game, or do not hit the playing field in the first week or so of your coaching, trade them for a real player.

You can tell who is on the playing field by watching the game to see who is scoring points. The problem is, we often do not know what it takes to score. You have to ask, "What's the point of my small groups?" If it is supposed to be evangelistic, you know the group is on the playing field when it is growing from conversions. If it is supposed to be developing faithful disciples of Jesus, you know it is on the playing field when the participants are practicing what Jesus did…healing, delivering, evangelizing, loving as Jesus loved, and so on.

Just because a player is on the playing field, that does not mean he/she is coachable. We all know of prima donna sports stars who are uncoachable. The same is true for church leaders. Some leaders are on the playing field and they are playing full out, but try and coach them to become superstars and they will buck anything they hear. They already "know it all." Though they may look good on the court, prima donnas seldom take the team on to victory. Therefore, before you put on your coach's hat, make sure you have a coachable player.

The Fine Art of Coaching

There are at least three critical tasks good coaches master. Coaches are able to ask good questions. They know how to listen, and they embrace the sounds of silence. Without these three skills, a coach is just another advice giver.

Effective Questions

The first skill of a good coach is the ability to ask effective questions. Note the key word "effective." Anybody can ask a bunch of questions, but a good coach knows the difference between asking a question for information and asking a coaching question. Let us take baseball as an example.

Your little leaguer has consistently struck out at the plate, and you are convinced that she is averting her eyes after the ball is pitched. An inexperienced coach asks, "Are you keeping your eye on the ball?" She will answer "Yes!" as she sits on the bench in dejection. On the other hand, an experienced coach asks, "Which way were the threads spinning when the ball crossed the plate?" That is a very different kind of question. It is the kind of question that can only be answered by someone who is actually watching the ball. Ask the question each time your slugger steps up to the plate, and watch her start smacking the ball into right field.

Most of us know that it is important to ask open-ended questions, but effective coaching questions cause the player to stop, evaluate, reflect, and act. The art of coaching rises and falls with the coach's ability to develop these perceptive questions. Asking a struggling small group leader, "Are you spending time in prayer?" will evoke a dejected, "Yes" almost every time. Instead, ask, "What is God saying to you in your prayer time?" or "How much time did you spend in prayer this morning?" Granted, the second question is not an "open" question, but the answer should lead to a follow-up question that is both open and effective.

Effective Listening

There is no sense in asking questions if you are not willing and able to listen. Most people consider themselves to be fair to good listeners, but the fact is, listening is different than hearing. Listening means taking control over that voice in your head that evaluates everything you hear. (For those of you who do not think you have a non-stop talking voice in your head, it is the one that said while you were reading, "I don't have a voice in my head!") That voice is more interested in planning how you are going to respond to your coachee than it is in listening to what s/he is trying to communicate. As long as that is the case, your effectiveness as a coach will be curtailed.

Learning to listen takes real effort. More than that, it takes a dedicated awareness of the you that is within your mind that never shuts up. It is only when you become aware of the voice that weighs everything you hear and then intentionally refocus your attention that you will actually begin to listen. When you listen, you can begin to pick up the clues that will lead to the next, all-important coaching question, whatever that may be.

Embracing Silence

The third skill that is critical in effective coaching is getting comfortable with the sound of silence. We live in a culture that insists on filling the world with sound. My children come home and turn on the TV so there is "noise" in the house. I am a Muzak kind of guy and like to have tunes playing to set the ambiance right. Unfortunately, our distaste for silence creeps into our coaching conversations as well. Once a question has been asked, it is difficult to wait for an answer, and even more difficult to wait for a complete answer. However, complete answers do not come from the player's hip. They are not the first things out of most people's mouths. As a coach, you are looking for a thoughtful answer, an answer that emanates from the deepest reaches of the soul. Those kinds of answers come only with reflection. Think about a pool of water. As long as there is turbulence, the pond will not reflect. However, if you give the water time to heal, the ripples to ebb, and the sediment to settle, you can see clearly enough to make good decisions. That is what silence does to a player being coached.

The hardest part of silence is related to the previous section—listening. First, we want to fill the void with our words, and second, we fill our mind with words that are dying to check the silence. However, give your player time and space to wrestle with your questions, especially the "What else…" questions, and you will discover your coachees really do have some great insights, answers, and ideas tucked way down inside them.

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