For 20 years I have been researching what makes small groups grow. This has involved many rounds of data gathering and careful statistical analysis. Over and over again the results reveal: The most important factor for the health and growth of a group ministry is coaching.
For some reason, I woke up at 2:30am today wondering, “Why is coaching so important?” And I started to think of the different small group coaches who have helped me as a group leader over the years. They all had unique styles and they helped me in different ways. Let me tell you about a few of them.
The Hands-On Coaches
I led my first small group at the age of 21. I was single and had just graduated from college. My pastor asked me to lead a Wednesday morning group for people that worked second shift. I was the youngest person in the group. I had zero small group training but they gave me a coach couple. Bob and Sara met with me and their other small group leaders every Sunday night. They prayed with us, encouraged us, and went over our small group lessons for that week with us. God did amazing things in that group and in my life.
The Insightful Coach
The next small group coach that comes to my mind is Joe. He would take me out for breakfast. One time I told him my group was struggling relationally. There was not much friendship or caring happening between members. He told me, “Relationship emerges from the core of a group. Don’t worry about getting close to everyone in the group. Have fun with a few of the members and when you start experiencing community, it will draw others in.” He was right! That insight, and others that he shared, have stuck with me and helped me for years.
The Practical Coach
Fred and Karen were practical coaches. They loved to visit our group. When they came to our meetings, they noticed people with deep needs and offered to meet with them personally outside of group to pray with them. Wow! That was a huge help. But Fred actually refused to “coach” me. I often said to him, “Fred, it would be great to meet with you one-on-one to talk about how my group is going.” Each time he would say, “Jim, you know way more about groups than I do. You’re a small group pastor. You did your Ph.D. researching groups. You don’t need my help.” But he was wrong. Like every small group leader, I needed someone to ask me simple questions. “How is your group going?” “What are you thinking about studying next?” “How are you doing personally?” But, even though Fred didn’t know how to serve as a “coach,” Fred and Karen profoundly helped my group.
The Encouraging Coach
Dave was an encourager. He loved to take me out for breakfast and ask me how things were going. I knew that he was praying for me. When he visited the group that my wife Vicki and I were leading, he always did the same thing. He would put us in the middle and say: “Your group has great leaders who love you and sacrifice for you. Let’s begin our prayer time tonight by blessing and praying for them.” Every year he hosted a great Christmas party for his leaders. Dave made us feel encouraged and appreciated.
The Available Coach
My most recent coach was Rich. He wasn’t as proactive with me as previous coaches. He was available. I could call him when I had a problem and he would listen and pray for my group. He met with me and his other small group leaders at our church’s periodic leader meetings. We would share and pray for one another. Once I asked Rich to meet me for breakfast to talk over a problem. Although he didn’t proactively relate to me and my group, he engaged with younger leaders leading newer groups. He met regularly with them and visited their groups. He was a wise coach, giving more time to leaders needing more help. But he was also available to me.
Developing a supportive coaching system for your group leaders takes a lot of effort and time. It involves strategy, recruiting, training, monitoring, and encouraging. It is messy, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating. Different coaches do things in different ways. Some take more responsibility than others. But, as a group researcher wanting to help you do you best, I want to say this: Develop a vibrant coaching system. It is the most important thing you can do for the long-term health and growth of your group ministry.
And, as a small group leader, I want you to understand this: I have never had a bad small group coach. Each of them encouraged and helped both me and my groups. I need a coach, and so do all your leaders.