Why Small Group Coaching Systems Fail

(and How to Give Yours CPR)

by Tony Stoltzfus

I had another conversation the other day with a church whose small group coaching system wasn't working. Over the last few years I've been to a lot of churches who are going down this road, or tried to go down it and are starting over. The problems have become so predictable that I couldn't restrain myself from going into telling mode. "Let me guess," I offered. "The coaches haven't received any coach training, so they are frustrated and don't know what to do; and the small group leaders don't want to be coached because they don't want to be spied on."

"Yeah, that's pretty much it."

In my experience, these are two of the biggest failure points for small group coaching systems. Generally what happens is the church (or a leader in it) gets excited about coaching and dives rapidly into instituting a coaching system. Often existing overseers or successful group leaders are simply renamed "coaches". There is rarely a formal training program or coaching qualification required of coaches, and I have yet to find a church that screens people in any way for coaching aptitude. Generally, the ones chosen are available, faithful members who have successfully led a small group.

Once designated, these coaches are then assigned a number of leaders of existing small groups to work with. The coach's first assignment is to call them up and announce that they now have a coach. While the rollout of the coaching program has probably been talked about and promoted in the small group system, usually none of the group leaders have ever worked with a coach or even seen a coach in action. So when they hear that a "coach" has been assigned to them, the questions begin:

  • Is this person going to tell me how to run my small group? I've been doing fine without that, thank you!
  • Why did they assign me to this coach--I barely know her! Better check this out for a while before I share anything important.
  • Why are they putting these coaches over us at all? Do they think I'm screwing up? Will my coach report back to the small groups pastor everything I say?

Because they have no real-life image of what coaching actually looks like, when they hear "coach" they tend to think Counselor, or Mentor, or Supervisor, or even back to the high school football coach who used to berate them at every practice. No wonder they are suspicious of this new coaching system!

System C.P.R.

If this is essentially what your church is doing, your system is not produce any better results than you were getting before you tried coaching. Coaching has great promise for improving small group ministry, but without seriously investing 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 call it. Your system needs some C.P.R.: Coach Training, Picturing Coaching and Resources for Coaches.

Coach Training

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 leading. For your leaders to coach effectively, they need to learn the techniques for helping people grow without telling them what to do: things like how to create SMART goals, develop options, ask powerful questions, keep responsibility with the leader, generate committed action steps, and provide healthy, encouraging feedback and accountability. To coach effectively, your leaders need structured training and practice times to build competency in these skills. Here are several great coach training courses you can use:

  • The Peer Coach Training Program
    A low-cost, DVD-based coach training in workshop or 8-week class format, created by a professional coach trainer and designed for small groups. Includes Workbook, Facilitator's Guide, DVDs and Brochures.
    Best Feature: you don't need to be a trained coach to facilitate it.
  • Leadership Coaching: Developing Discipling Leaders
    A DVD-based curriculum for churches with discipling systems or discipleship-oriented small groups.
    Best Feature: Teaches coaching as part of the discipling process.
  • Open Source Training Courses
    Royalty-free, modular training courses you can customize to suit your needs. Courses include Outlines, Presenter's Notes, Participant's Guide, and E-brochure. Some have PowerPoints.
    Best Feature: professional-level courses for certified coaches who want to train others.

Picturing Coaching

To get beyond the small group leaders' resistance to coaching, they have 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 drawing them out and believing in them instead of telling them what to do. Here are some ways to give people a picture of what coaching is really about:

  • Demonstrate Coaching Live
    Have someone who has had coach training coach another leader (or even better, the small groups pastor) in front of the group. The first time through, do it wrong--be a teller, give lots of advice, don't listen well. Then restart, and use a coaching approach. Debrief with the group and draw out their observations about the difference between coaching and mentoring or telling.
  • Demo with DVDs
    Do the same as above, but use the demo in the Peer Coach Training DVD set.
  • Invite Small Group Leaders to Training
    When you do a training workshop for your coaches, have the small group leaders come to the first session or two, where you demonstrate what coaching is.

Here are some structural solutions that can also make a difference with the resisting-the-coach problem:

  • Don't assign leaders to coaches. Instead, find an organic way for leaders and coaches to connect that they buy into. When the leader has some say in the decision, s/he will also have ownership in it.
  • Don't give coaches a reporting or supervisory function. 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 part of the time the coach is believing in and empowering them, and part of the time reporting on them.
  • Build relationship first. Investing time up front in building a friendship pays dividends later. The more trust and openness, the more effective the coaching relationship. The book, A Pocket Guide to Coaching Small Groups has a wealth of tips on building the coaching relationship, as does the Authentic Coaching Relationships CD.

Resources for Coaches

Once your coaches have some training, and they've built a good relationship with the group leader… then what? Coaches often struggle with knowing what to talk about, or having the tools to be genuinely helpful without falling back into advice-giving. On-going resourcing is vital to keep the coaching movement alive and kicking. These resources will put practical, easy-to-use tools in the hands of your coaches:

  • A Pocket Guide to Coaching Small Groups
    An inexpensive guide you can get for all your coaches with dozens of great tips from a leader with decades of experience resourcing small groups
  • How to Ask Great Questions
    A great resource on question construction written in the context of small groups and discussion leading. Very affordable, and perfect for group leaders as well as coaches.
  • Coaching Questions
    This book is essentially 100 pages of cheat sheets for coaches, with dozens of tools and over 1200 question examples. It also includes training exercises and self-study schedules. This book can provide material for continuing ed sessions for years to come.
  • Training CDs
    Get a set of coach training CDs and pass them around to keep people sharp. Coach22 has a great selection from beginning to advanced training CDs.
  • Free Tools and Articles
    The Christian Coaching Center offers hundreds of free coaching articles by two dozen columnists.

To learn more about the fundamentals of coaching, get Leadership Coaching by Tony Stoltzfus.