The Five Stages of Coaching Relationships

Learn what to expect, and how to react, as a small-group coach.

I'm sorry to say it, but no coaching relationship develops to perfect levels of openness and communication overnight. Instead, most coaches pass through predictable stages of highs and lows, which can be understood as a series of coaching stages. The following is a brief walk-through of those stages, including practical advice for growth.

The Romance Stage

My friend Trish told me that her husband, a doctor, was offered a prominent position at an upscale hospital in a different state. He turned it down. When they asked him why he wanted to stay at his Baltimore hospital, he responded, "I know the warts of this hospital. I don't know the problems over there."

For most endeavors in life, the grass really does look greener on the other side. Why? Because the brown spots are only visible up close. In the romance stage of a coaching relationship, everything is new, exciting, and green. The brown spots have not yet appeared. The cell leader is just starting out in a new adventure. She wants to win the world and multiply her cell in a few weeks. She thinks that you are the greatest coach in the world—that you can do no wrong. She's ready to drink in every word you say. Use this time to pour into your leader and prepare her for the stages to follow.

Advice for the romance stage:

  • Enjoy it for as long as possible. Don't try to hurry through it.
  • Take advantage of your leader's openness to receive homework assignments; teach as much as possible.
  • Go over your coaching relationship (e.g. how often you're going to meet, evaluations, confidentiality, expectations, and so on). Clearly remind the leader of the reality and resistance stages that will follow.
  • Help the leader count the cost. Remember that Jesus was constantly preparing the disciples for the tribulations that would follow.

The Reality Stage

Romance is normally followed by reality. Several members of the cell group aren't committed and don't attend each week. The leader invites five new people and no one shows up. The leader didn't think the results would be so sparse or that cell leadership would be so demanding.

Of course, the devil will do anything to foil a new leader. Peter says, "The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith" (1 Peter 5: 8–9a).

Advice for the reality stage:

  • Walk in grace. Love the leader. Lend a listening ear. Remind the leader that his reaction is a normal part of cell leadership.
  • Do something special with the cell leader that shows selfless love.
  • Gently remind the leader of the covenant commitment established in the first stage.
  • Continue to offer skills training to help perfect deficient areas. New skills provide new confidence.

The Resistance Stage

Some have called this the "I'm not sure if I can trust you" phase. The leader is seeing brown grass everywhere and might want to flee—perhaps to another church, another program, or to a vacation from ministry. Today, long-term commitment is rare. Why not spend my free time watching TV or some other less demanding activity? the cell leader might think. The temptation is always to live for self and do less for Jesus, not more. The leader might suddenly feel a knee-jerk reaction to leave. Go somewhere else. Anywhere. As long as it is away from you and the cell.

Some have called this time period a "dark night of the soul." This is where the coach will need to cry out to God for the life of the cell leader. I remember when two of my leaders entered this phase. One left my coaching network completely, while the other resisted me and even became emotionally angry.

The good news is that this time will draw you to your knees. You'll pray more fervently than you've ever prayed. You'll enter warfare prayer for your leader and the group under her charge. Hang in there. It's Friday, but Sunday is coming.

Advice for the resistance stage:

  • Pray fervently.
  • Walk in grace and truth. Ask permission to speak into the person's life.
  • Look for coachable moments. While in the romantic stage, the leader was open to receive information; now the leader is in the battle and might be more willing to apply that information.

Normally, the stage of resistance will move peacefully on to the resolve stage, but it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the relationship with the leader will not work. As on cell leader has said: "No one wants to feel like they've failed. But the best course of action—and the most professional—in some cases is to end the relationship." Perhaps your personalities are totally different, or philosophically there is no connection. In such cases, trust the sovereignty of God. Don't feel like a failure. God is using the situation to guide and direct you.

The Resolve Stage

The great news is that persistence and staying the course normally ends in resolve. The cell leader has learned to trust in God. She has given more time to God and feels God's presence in her life in a new, exciting way. She is planning for long-term involvement in cell ministry.

The resistance stage will deepen the relationship between you and the leader. You will know traits of your leader you would never have known during the romantic stage, when everything was surreal and pleasant. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." You and your team of leaders will begin to behave more like a battle-proven army, rather than fresh recruits who have played simulator games. You've now been in the battle and your camaraderie is enhanced by it.

Advice during the resolve stage:

  • Take advantage of this time to deepen your relationship with the leader by confirming lessons learned in the trenches.
  • Prepare the leader for the time when he or she will coach and disciple new cell leaders.
  • Bask in the deepening friendship of hard fought battles.

You will mostly likely enjoy this phase. You'll feel a release of pressure. You'll sense a glimmer of hope. You'll feel an emotional resurgence. It's time to move on to the reward stage.

The Reward Stage

The reward is seeing the fruits of your labor. The gain comes after the pain. But it does come. The cell leader passed through the dark night of the soul. She weathered the storms and has a multiplication leader who has successfully given birth. You are now a coach with a grandchild and there is a sweet peace in your soul.

Coaching your own leader to successfully give birth to a new cell group is one of the greatest joys on earth. You'll feel like you truly are participating in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:18–20).

Yet the greatest reward of all is to bring glory and honor to Jesus Christ and to see his church strengthened because you have faithfully coached those who are coaching others. In a very real sense, you'll receive the same reward of the shepherd that Peter refers to: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be … . And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1 Peter 5:2–4).

—Joel Comiskey; excerpted from How to be a GREAT Cell Group Coach. Used with permission. Published by TOUCH Publications, Houston, Texas. 1-800-735-5865.

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