About two years ago we fired our coaches. OK, truth be told, we didn't really have any coaches to fire. Two years ago we liberated our small group staff to coach the small group leaders directly—without the aid of a lay coach.
First, let me recognize that this will not work in every environment. I believe that small group structures and systems are not universally applicable. Principles may be, but strategies must be malleable and customizable. If, however, you are a church on the path to become a church "of" small groups, you have at least one staff member who is dedicated to the groups ministry, and you are deepening your commitment to groups, this is a viable alternative to the traditional lay-coaching model.
Let me begin with the Ada Bible Church story. About 15 years ago we hired our first small groups pastor. As the church grew, so did our groups ministry. We were able to develop leaders and provide groups for those who wanted to be in them. Several years ago we developed a connections process that ended the endless waiting list of people who wanted to be in groups. We added additional small group staff, wrote our own all church campaigns and small group curriculum.
But the one thing we have never successfully developed is lay-coaches. By all accounts we should feel great. We have small groups for everyone beginning at age 4. At Ada Bible Church we have more than 2,000 kids and adults in groups. While children's, singles', and women's ministries have lay coaches, men and couples groups are without lay coaches.
When I joined the staff in 1998 I was told that my job was to coach coaches. This meant I had to convince leaders to become coaches or recruit non-leaders to be coaches. It never worked at Ada. The second attempt was when we reorganized our leaders under a care structure with elders serving as coaches. Again, it did not work. We felt guilt and defeat.
About two years ago we gave up. We didn't give up on coaching, but on lay coaching. It started with coffee and the occasional lunch. I would make an appointment with one of my leaders and we would talk about what was happening in their lives and in their groups. They seemed to value this time—and so did I. Groups became more stable and leaders seemed to develop.
What I soon discovered is that I naturally contacted some leaders but easily forgot about others. While I was convinced that one staff member, dedicated to groups could adequately care for 30-50 small group leaders, I was barely able to keep track of 15. I then set up a simple spread sheet so I could track contact (or lack of it). Eventually, one of our fellow small group staff members customized a computer program (Filemaker Pro) and moved us from a paper sheet to an electronic system. This system helps us make sure leaders receive adequate contact.
Currently all of our couples and men's leaders are served by our staff. Every leader receives an e-mail or two every month, a phone call every month, and a face to face meeting every six to eight weeks. That's our standard. Sometimes we don't live up to that standard, but if you explore most groups ministries with lay coaches you will often find leaders who rarely, if ever, hear from their coaches. And we don't have the problem some coaches have run into with unreturned phone calls and e-mails.
We still value huddles. We host these leader gatherings about twice a year. Our goal for them is part social interaction and part training. We discovered along the way that most small group leaders see their groups as their community and don't put the same value on a huddle. We often reserve a weekend and leaders are invited to a Friday or Saturday evening and they attend the evening that fits their schedule. While I prefer to see the same people in the same huddle, my pragmatism beats my idealism (I would rather have a person attend the "wrong" night than not attend at all).
A good friend of mine recently challenged this approach as undermining the lay workers in the church and perhaps ultimately harming the priesthood of all believers. He has a point. By doing the work of the coach I'm essentially removing from service an opportunity for a key lay person to use their gifts. On the other hand, if we had lay coaches we would not have taken this path. In rare instances where we have leaders asking for more responsibility, we give them coaching responsibilities. Furthermore, we believe that we are entrusting the care of our front line servants to the people who are the best trained and most passionate about community life.
While coaching small group leaders by staff may not be the best way to care for leaders for every ministry, it may stir you to think past old patterns and re-invigorate your ministry. My hope is not that you copy our pattern but that you think more deeply how to best care for your small group leaders. For a deeper look at the staff/coach model read "Creating Community" by Bill Willits and Andy Stanley.