Talking with an ineffective leader is challenging. Whether it's a small-group leader who refuses to attend leadership meetings, a small-group leader who is dominating the group, or a small-group coach who doesn't have enough time to care for his or her leaders, we need to act quickly and resolve the issue in a positive way.
There are countless scenarios that we encounter in small-group ministry where leaders need to be addressed. It can be awkward, complicated, and result in hurt feelings. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can work with your leaders and restore them to fruitfulness with these tips.
Love Your Leaders
Don't miss this. It's easy to grind your teeth when you think about your ineffective leaders. However, there are a variety of reasons why leaders find themselves not being able to fulfill their roles. Our job is to equip people so they can fulfill their roles. Seek to understand what's at the root of the problem. Find out what is going on the leader's life. Is it guilt over some hidden sin, an awkward relational conflict, or a leader who is serving outside of his or her gifts? Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to demonize leaders. Communicate that you care more about who they are than what they do.
Don't Put It Off
Many small-group directors are in their role because they are pastoral and know how to care for people. They can see the best in people and are understanding of people's life situations. A temptation can exist for those of us with a shepherd's heart to sweep the issues under the rug and hope the situation will just get better. However, having an ineffective leader in any role is just like Proverbs 25:19 says: "chewing with a broken tooth" (NLT). Don't expect to get much done with ineffective leaders continuing in their current state! It will be painful for everyone they lead and will only become increasingly more painful the longer they're allowed to lead with their blind spot. Ignoring the problem doesn't honor the leader or anybody else.
What do you expect of your leaders in your context? Do you have a clarified set of leadership expectations?
For instance, do your leaders need to attend your church? Though that may sound like a no-brainer, I once discovered that one of my small-group leaders had stopped attending our church. She started developing a house church, and fell out of the communication loop of our church. As time went on, she became less effective in her role, and she began to lose credibility as a leader. It was easy for me to challenge her because we are very clear in our leadership expectations about leaders regularly attending our weekend services. If we hadn't been clear up front, it may have been a trickier conversation.
Be careful, though, not to set the bar so high that Jesus wouldn't meet the requirements. We explain our expectations in terms of "spiritual velocity." We recognize that people aren't perfect on all things, but we do hope that they are moving in the direction of all of our leadership expectations. Do your leaders value your expectations? Are they growing into the expectations? Make sure you have clear expectations, and then communicate them. Make the expectations available, too, so that leaders can share them with their apprentices.
Describe a Win
How do your leaders know when they're winning? Andy Stanley and North Point Community Church do a great job of clarifying the win for their ministry leaders. Stanley says that it's not enough to clarify a win for the entire small-group ministry. Your leaders need to know what a win looks like for their specific role. When it comes to apprenticing a leader, what does a win look like? What does a win look like when it comes to serving together as a group? How about in terms of following up on small-group member prospects?
One way to help clarify the win for your leaders is to consider how you want people to respond after a certain activity. What do you want people to say after attending your small group for the first time? What do you want people to say after attending your small group for a year? What do you want people to say after ________? This simple eight-word phrase will help clarify the various wins for your leaders.
Create a Healthy Culture of Feedback
I love getting good candid feedback from people. One thing I hate is when people don't address their concerns with me. Then their discontent builds and is unleashed on me when it's too late to make corrections. I honestly want to know if there is something I need to do to be more effective. Just tell me! I've learned that it's crucial for me to model this kind of humility in receiving feedback so that my leaders learn how to receive feedback as well.
If I know I need to have a coaching conversation with a struggling leader who I don't know very well, then I invite the leader to give me feedback once or twice leading up to the conversation. I ask the leader to watch me in a certain context and give me some feedback about my leadership. Then, when I receive the feedback, I express how helpful it is to have an extra set of eyes and ears and how much I appreciate their honest feedback. When you give leaders an opportunity to see how we receive feedback, they're much more likely to receive feedback in a positive way when their turn comes. Being able to receive feedback is one of our "must haves" for potential leaders. If they can't take feedback, it's going to be difficult to teach them any new tricks.
Consider the Leader's Capacity
I recently had a coach who was assigned a huddle of five leaders to care for. It was too much and became so overwhelming that he stopped meeting with everybody. Instead of canning him as a coach, I took him out for tacos and validated his coaching skills. I also told him that we were reducing his coaching huddle to a number he could manage. I could tell that this pruning was a shot to his ego as we cut him back to coaching only two leaders. I reassured him, however, that if he could be faithful with a few, we would entrust him with more. He understood, and it has restored his coaching confidence and relieved the leadership toothache I had been feeling every time I thought about his huddle. Now instead of gritting my teeth, I smile when I think about his leadership. It was simply a capacity issue.
Remember that your first goal is to coach leaders to success, not simply can them when they're struggling. Some leaders have never been coached or apprenticed. They may have slipped into leadership to fill a gap or because they had leadership experience in a previous context. If they meet your leadership expectations and you want them around, tell them!
Sometimes leaders just need to be told what their strengths are and have somebody believe in them. Identify where they're doing well and help them lean into their strengths. Then tell them that you value their leadership development and want to help them succeed. Let them know that you're going to give them a coach who can give them topnotch feedback to help them take their leadership to a new level. Assign them a coach who can join the group for a few months and help them identify how they can address any concerns. Be honest with them about where you would love to see them grow.
Group Several Leaders
Vary rarely do we have leaders who can do everything. Most of the leaders I see who are struggling are doing so because they're not sharing the load with an apprentice and host. Team leadership is much more fun and effective. It shares the load for the leader and helps the group fire on all cylinders. If you have a struggling leader, encourage him or her to identify an apprentice and host who can share the load. Make sure that you encourage the leader to identify people with complementary gifts so that the group will benefit from a wide range of giftedness.
Give Them a Break
Leading groups can be tough and exhausting, and sometimes leaders need breaks. Encourage all your leaders to enjoy regular seasons of rest from leading. It's amazing how refreshing it can be to take a term off and jump into a group with a different leader. Great cross-pollination takes place when leaders do this. If your leaders never take breaks, they'll eventually go through seasons of ineffectiveness. Be wise and make sure not to burn out your leaders. Tell them that part of their leadership development is taking a break to just be in a group for a while. Set a date for when you want them to jump back into leadership.
Your Last Resort
If you've followed these suggestions and the leader is still struggling, it may be time to find another way for the leader to contribute to your church. At this point, he or she should feel incredibly valued that you want to help find the perfect place to serve. Every leader should be able to find a place where they can experience God's life-giving work in and through them. And though that spot may not be in small-group leadership, there's an equally important place for them to contribute to the kingdom.
—John Wentz serves as Small Group Champion for all 14 campuses of Community Christian Church, and as the Small Group Director for their Yellow Box Campus in Naperville, Illinois; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.