When Coaching Philosophies Collide: How Can Both Be Right?

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Great question from a reader today.  Bet you’ve had the same question.  Here it is:

I’m having a tough time reconciling two approaches to coaching and that makes it hard to decide on the right role and job description for a coach.  Loved Jim Egli’s recent book Small Groups Big Impact which highlighted an effective coaching structure as the dominant factor correlating with the success of the small group ministry.  Egli recommends the coach care for and support about five leaders, meeting with them and pulling together in huddles.

I also read and like Steve Gladen’s new book Small Groups with Purpose.  There he describes how they’ve eliminated the ‘coach’ level in the structure and have gone to a community leader overseeing 25 small group leaders, providing customized care for each one to the degree that they need, which will vary from leader to leader.  The main factor he cites is that many leaders want nothing to do with a coach, no matter what you say their role is (which leads to burnout of volunteer coaches). We have seen this pushback from leaders when we tried (without success) to implement coaching a few years back.  We’re a small to midsize church with 25 groups whose leaders have been highly independent and without much care or direct oversight for a while now.

How can I reconcile Egli’s findings with Gladen’s recommendations?  Which parts of the two approaches are key to consider when trying to (re)start a coaching system in a culture resistant to coaching?*

Before I even respond…let me say you’re asking a great questions!  Right on target for many, many of us.

Here’s how I’d break it down:

  • First, I think Steve would agree that a 1 to 5 ratio is an ideal ratio.  Carl George pointed this out years ago and talking about span of care said, “Everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one can really care for more than about 10.”  Few, if any, within the small group community would argue with that wisdom.
  • Second, it should be acknowledged that as long as we live in free countries (welcome to my readers from around the world!)…you can’t really force small group leaders to respond to a coaching assignment.  Right?  You must put this into your equation.  None of us doubt Egli’s findings in any way.  It has way more to do with the willingness of the leader to accept the relationship.
  • Third, I’d want to point out that one of the greatest challenges in small group ministry is the attempt to retroactively assign coaches to existing groups.  In my experience, once a group has been meeting longer than about three months without a coach, it is very difficult to assign one.  After all, they’ve survived on their own.  In their minds, they can do it without help.  Of course, that reasoning really misses the point.  Once they’ve been meeting that long, they’ve probably figured out many of the most obvious coaching concepts (Coaching FAQ: How Much of Coaching is about Technique? will provide some helpful detail on this point.
  • Fourth, along the same lines, Steve would point out that while some small group leaders will accept the kinds of care (read: accountability, challenge, shepherding) that they really need in order to grow spiritually, the majority will not.  Their reaction ranges from failure to prioritize and avoidance, all the way over to pushback.  What is the wise course of action at this point?  Providing a level of care that they will accept.

What should you be doing, given the scenario you describe?  First, I’ve written two articles that may provide some help with the prickly issue of providing coaching for group leaders that are resistant: How to Implement Coaching for Existing Groups and Coaching FAQ: What to Do When Your Leaders Don’t Want Coaches.  And second, I’d suggest that you thoroughly diagnose the coaches who are currently serving and carefully evaluate any new recruits.  Diagnosis: The Coaches in Your System and Recruiting Coaches: When Not to Compromise will help you do that.

What do you think?  Got a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

*I’ve edited the readers questions slightly in order to provide clarification.

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  1. Larry Baxter on July 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Very helpful post Mark, thanks! Your posts have a great mix of reality and optimism. I had missed a
    few of the posts you linked to here, and those were also
    very helpful. I think your observation on the huge challenge of adding coaches to existing groups is so true. Some takeaways I got from this for an existing ministry include *very* careful selection of coaches, emphasis on care/relationship over ‘helping them grow’, meeting people where they are at, focus on providing great care to new groups, and don’t give up on coaching just because it’s tough to get right.

    Your post shows that the two philosophies are not all that different in their goal or ideals. It’s easy to focus on implementation concerns and miss the bigger issues, though there’s still some practical questions I wonder about in this specific context of adding a coaching structure to an existing ministry. First, how many groups to assign to a coach. Go for one community leader of 25 groups, stick to small span of care (5), or because of the high number of reactive care groups, it would be fine to have maybe two leaders provide care for a set of 25 groups without getting burned out, as most of the effort will be with a small number of new groups. Then recruit others as needed as you get more new groups. Second, a key thing recommended for coaches is to huddle their leaders regularly. With Egli’s approach that looks like a half-dozen people around the kitchen table. With ‘reality’ and/or one community leader per 25 groups, that kind of huddle is unlikely to occur? I’m guessing with fewer leaders wanting coaching  it would be appropriate to rely on quarterly gatherings (all leaders, but perhaps sitting with their coach), plus try some huddles with the new coaches. Last question- how do you encourage the spiritual growth and development as a leader for small group leaders who have done Bible studies on their own for quite some time?

  2. Anonymous on July 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    You are asking some really, really good questions. I’ve been in your situation a number of times. Almost everyone runs across a time when they’re responsible for (1) providing development experiences and opportunities for existing leaders and (2) launching new groups and developing those new leaders. The best method I’ve found for meeting the needs of existing leaders (given the realities we’ve discussed in this post) are what I talk about in How to Implement Coaching for Existing Leaders. (http://www.markhowelllive.com/how-to-implement-coaching-for-existing-group-leaders/) An initial quarterly strategy can eventually lead to decentralized (either by life-stage or geography) coffee and dessert, covering the same concepts and providing the same care and accountability via peer-to-peer interaction. By the way, it is very possible to hold a centralized gathering for existing leaders, seat them by affinity (life-stage or geography), lead them through a dialogue around the tables, and then have them choose a “coordinator” (using a method much like the Small Group Connection) and pick a location for their next meeting.