Coaching Life-Changing Small Group Leaders

Bill Donahue delivers another great resource for everyone who loves small groups.


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I love Lifeway's slogan about Sunday School:

Sunday School, the original small group.

It reminds us that everything written on small groups will be useful for Sunday School. There is no essential difference. A small group is just a Sunday School class that meets in the home.

Seen in this light, it is easy to see why I would recommend Bill Donahue's books to lovers of small groups and lovers of Sunday School. He is Willowcreek's small group guy and one of the key national leaders on small groups. He, along with Greg Bowman have written a great new resource: Coaching Life-Changing Small Group Leaders. Everyone who loves small groups will love this new resource. This article will summarize the book in the form of an interview. The answers below are quotes or near quotes from the book.

Josh: What is coaching?

Bill and Greg: It is an often misunderstood role, mistaken by some to mean "boss" or "fault-finder." But, that is not coaching, at least, not when the spiritual growth of leaders and church members is at stake. It is different from mere supervision or oversight. Coaching is personal, developmental, and supportive. Coaches bring out the best in leaders.

Josh: Why is coaching important and necessary?

Bill and Greg: It takes a coach--a shepherd-leader--to build into the lives of small group leaders. The power of the Holy Spirit is released when someone speaks life and hope and truth into the heart of another person. This is especially true of those who carry the burden and weight of ministry. They need words of life. Larry Crabb writes in Soul Talk, "Visionaries call us to religious action. Entrepreneurs figure out how to get action going. Marketing geniuses brand the item until everyone is talking about it. Gifted performers speak or sing us into action. All good things with an important place. But, more important is that each leader be known by someone, not by a crowd or a committee, but by an individual, a close friend, an intimate companion. And, not merely held accountable, but genuinely known in an intimate, vulnerable, painful, real, long-term relationship.

Josh: What does it take to have a strong coaching ministry in a church?

Bill and Greg: There are four foundational truths that we must embrace to have a strong coaching ministry:

Embrace a vision for life change. We must believe that people really can change. Early in his career a seasoned pastor came to young Bill Hybels and said, "Hey Bill, you are an idealistic young guy, but can I shoot straight with you? You stand up there every week preaching your heart out, hoping people will change. But, the truth is, people just don't change." Hybels replied with courage and conviction, "Well, sir, I am betting my whole life on the fact that you are wrong."

Nurture your love of community. Coaches develop and support group leaders because they are "devoted to the fellowship." (Acts 2.42) "Community," exhorted Dietrich Bonheoffer, "is what we share in Christ" and not something we create. Community is created by God and we are called to participate in it.

Cultivate a passion for developing leaders. A major barrier to spiritual growth and the connection of people in the church community is the availability and empowerment of shepherd-leaders who will nurture them in Christ and provide a safe, loving place for them to belong.

Ministry is like love--it has no value if it is hoarded. The point is to give it away. It is a ministry of reproduction. Few people have modeled this at Willowcreek more effectively than Mark Weinert.

To honor Mark, we invited him in front of the congregation to thank him. So that he could see the impact of his work, we asked members of the congregation who had been personally discipled by Mark to stand. Fifteen people stood up. Then we asked people to look carefully at the people standing. "If you were mentored either one-on-one, or in a group with one of these people, would you stand?" Another forty or fifty people stood. Finally, a third request. "Look at those standing. If you were mentored one-on-one, or in a group with one of these standing, will you also stand?" By now there were more than two hundred people standing. And, that is just the ones who were present that night. The power of reproducing leaders is awesome.

Develop the heart of a shepherd. A shepherd guides to rest and refreshment, comforts in the face of difficulty, provides for life, and assures of God's presence. (Psalm 23)

Few coaches embrace the characteristics described above more than Debbie Beise. Typical coaches gather their leaders every four to six weeks. Debbie met with hers weekly--because they wanted to. Though she suffered from liver cancer, she courageously devoted herself to her leaders, many of who fought serious challenges of their own and needed care and support.

Josh: That story leads me to the key question--what do coaches actually do?

Bill and Greg: Four key skills can define a coach's effectiveness. These four skills are:

  • Modeling: Pursue Christ-likeness

  • Guiding: Shepherd intentionally

  • Envisioning: dream together

  • Equipping: developing skills

Josh: Let's take these one at a time, starting with modeling. What is the biblical basis for modeling and how have you seen in work in the real world?

Bill and Greg: Jesus taught that when modeling is working as it should, the disciple will ultimately become like his teacher. (Luke 6.40) Leadership studies have shown this to be true. They confirm that in about thirty-six months, the people you lead will closely reflect who you are. A loving teacher will produce loving disciples. A joyful teacher will produce joyful disciples.

The sobering aspect of this is that it also works the other way. It works whether the practices you model are good or bad. Grumpy teachers= grumpy disciples.

Josh: Step two is shepherd intentionally. What are some common mistakes you have seen in this step?

Bill and Greg: Coaches can easily miss the need to build community with and among their leaders. They move too quickly to envisioning and equipping. When this happens, leaders can be left feeling like a manager or a guide, not a shepherd. Jesus placed a high value on relationships in ministry and so should we.

Josh: What about step three, vision casting, what are some common mistakes you see there?

Bill and Greg: Most churches have a vision for the role of small groups in their church. The vision often breaks down when it gets translated from a larger vision of the whole church to the role each group leader plays in helping the church reach that vision.

Coaches can easily fall into the trap of simply parroting the official vision of the church. If this happens, the vision will not capture the hearts of the group leaders and there will be little connection to day-to-day activities of the group leaders. Coaches need to create space to think about and dream about what the larger vision would look like if it were fully lived out in their group. Coaches work with leaders to develop a clear and compelling vision for their group.

Josh: The last key practice is skill development. Is it fair to say that many churches jump into this too quickly?

Bill and Greg: Yes. That is a central message of our book.

Josh: What is the opposite error?

Bill and Greg: Getting stuck in the relationship phase. This is not just a feel-good session. Skill building is also important.

Josh: Well, that takes us through roughly the first half of the book. Next week, we will discuss the second half and get into the nitty-gritty of how to develop a coaching structure for small group leaders in your church.

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