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Why Small Group Coaching Systems Fail – And How to Give Yours CPR
I had another conversation the other day with a church whose small group coaching system was not working. Over the years I have been to many churches that have gone down this road, or tried to go down this road and are starting over. The problems became so predictable that I couldn’t stop myself from going into telling mode. “Let me guess,” I offered. “Coaches haven’t had any trainer training, so they’re frustrated and don’t know what to do; and small group leaders don’t want to be trained because they don’t want to be spied on.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
In my experience, these are the two biggest failure points for small group coaching systems. What usually happens is that the church (or one of its leaders) gets excited about coaching and dives headfirst into setting up a coaching system. Often existing supervisors or successful group leaders are simply referred to as “coaches”. Coaches rarely require formal training programs or coaching qualifications, and I have yet to find a church that screens people for coaching qualifications in any way. Generally, the chosen ones are available, trusted members who have successfully led a small group.
Once hired, these coaches are then assigned to work with several existing small group leaders. The first assignment of a coach is to call them and announce that they now have a coach. The roll-out of a coaching program may have been talked about and promoted in a small group system, usually with no group leader having worked with a coach or seen a coach in action. So when they hear they’ve been assigned a “coach,” the questions begin:
- Is this person going to tell me how to run my small group? I’m doing fine without it, thanks!
- Why did they assign me to this trainer – I hardly know her! Check it out for a while before I share anything important.
- Why are they putting these boxes on us? Do they think I’m screwing up? Will my coach relay what I say back to the small group pastor?
Because they have no real image of what coaching actually looks like, when they hear “coach” they think of a counselor, or a mentor, or a supervisor, or even the high school football coach who beat them at every practice. . They don’t mind doubting this new coaching system!
If your church is essentially doing this, your system is not producing any better results than it was before you tried coaching. Coaching holds great promise for improving small group ministry, but without a serious investment in learning the coaching paradigm and the skills that make it work, the same people with the same skills are going to produce the same results, no matter what you say. Your system needs some CPR: trainer training, pictorial coaching, and resources for trainers.
A great place to start changing things for the better is coach training. Coaching uses a very different skill set than mentoring, counseling, or small group leadership. To coach your leaders effectively, you need to learn techniques to help people grow without telling them what to do: how to create SMART goals, develop options, ask powerful questions, hold accountability with the leader, create committed action steps, and healthy, encouraging feedback. and provide accountability. To coach effectively, your leaders need structured training and practice sessions to build competency in these skills.
To overcome small group leaders’ resistance to coaching, they need to have a picture of what coaching really looks like. Talking about coaching won’t do the trick – they have to actually see it in action and experience that coaching is about getting them out and believing in them rather than telling them what to do.
Here are some structural solutions that can also make a difference in the resisting-the-coach problem:
- Don’t let coaches lead. Instead, find an organic way to connect leaders and coaches in which they buy in. When a leader has a say in a decision, he also has ownership.
- Do not assign reporting or supervisory functions to coaches. When coaches have too many hats, they struggle to know how to engage the leader. And leaders are less likely to really open up when the coach believes in them and empowers them and reports back to them some of the time.
- Build relationships first. Investing time in building friendships early pays dividends later. The more trust and openness, the more effective the coaching relationship. The book A Pocket Guide to Coaching Small Groups has as many tips for building a coaching relationship as the Authentic Coaching Relationship CD.
Resources for Instructors
Once your coaches have had some training and have developed a good relationship with the group leader… then what? Coaches often struggle to have tools that are truly helpful without falling behind in knowing what to say or giving advice. An ongoing resource is critical to keeping the coaching movement alive and kicking. These resources will put practical, easy-to-use tools in the hands of your instructors:
- Life-on-Life Leadership Manual Written around the seven leadership principles from the Master Plan for Evangelism, this coaching handbook includes tools, assessments, goal-setting exercises, and more, all designed for the leader to coach the small group. This gives the coach a solid program to work with.
- How to Ask Big Questions A great resource on question construction written in the context of leading small groups and discussions. Very affordable, and perfect for group leaders as well as coaches.
- The Coaching Questions book is essentially a 100-page cheat sheet for coaches, with dozens of tools and over 1200 question examples. It also includes training exercises and a self-study schedule. This book can provide material for continuing ed sessions for years to come.
- Training CDs Get a set of trainer training CDs and pass them out to keep people sharp.
Finding time to coach
The third biggest failure point for coaching systems is that coaches don’t have enough time and therefore don’t meet frequently with leaders. When meetings are spaced a month or more apart, the coach is unable to provide adequate follow-up and consistency to do much with goals and action steps, so the coaching role is reduced to providing occasional pastoral care and leader development. Here are several suggestions for making time for deeper relationships:
- Limit the number of leaders assigned to each coach If you don’t have enough coaches, instead of thinning them out, use peer coaching for the rest of the group leaders until you can grow enough coaches.
- Use the Phone Most professional training is done over the phone, but almost all small group training is done in person. An in-person session can take twice as long as a phone appointment (you have to drive there and back, have long “hello”s and “goodbyes,” and often have lunch breaks). Train your coaches to meet by phone and you’ll dramatically increase their productivity.
- Instructor in Triads. Meet with two small group leaders at a time and train them to meet for a short peer coaching session to support each other in their goals and actions. Two leaders may receive two coaching sessions each month, while the coach has only one meeting.
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