“Great coaches help their leaders develop both as persons and leaders.” So says Joel Comiskey in lesson six of “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I am currently going through with our coaches at National Community Church.
Comiskey’s sixth lesson is on development, which he characterizes as a “life-long process of helping a person mature and grow,” as opposed to the short-term process of training.
Toward that end, his focus is on a coach’s need to resource their leaders, equipping them with what they need to succeed. That, of course, entails discovering what they need, and he highlights several things to be on the lookout for — discouragement, knowledge deficiency, personal difficulties, hidden sin, rebellion, and small group member difficulties. As a coach, it’s vital to be knowledgeable and well-informed so you can point leaders to websites, books, articles, conferences, small groups, or other resources they may find beneficial.
Comiskey also notes the importance of “resourcing” in the moment through listening and prayer when a leader shares a deep struggle with you, as well as following up to remind a leader when they need encouragement to follow through with something they’ve committed to.
I often tell our coaches that, when a leader wants a form of mentoring or accountability they aren’t equipped to provide, their job is help the leader find it. That may include coaching them through the process of establishing those relationships, but it also involves resourcing them — pointing them to places where they can find what they need. That may mean directing them to Celebrate Recovery or the C.S. Lewis Institute Fellows Program or encouraging them to join a particular small group where you know members are transparent and vulnerable. As a coach, the more you can be aware of such options, the better equipped you will be to resource your leaders with whatever they need.
I’m going through Joel Comiskey’s “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” with our coaches and we’re on the fifth lesson – serve.
Focusing on servant-leadership, Comiskey writes about the importance of becoming a friend to your leader and encouraging them well. As he states, “Relational authority is the most important type of authority that you can wield.”
He reminds us that we need to make it clear to our leaders that our care for them is not dependent on their performance. While they (and we) are called to bear fruit, doing so is a process that takes time. Supporting them through that process is part of our job, but toward that end our foremost task is to be praying that the Holy Spirit builds the maturity in them that they need.
Comiskey also states that our effectiveness as coaches can be evaluated by whether our leaders’ needs are being met. And the best way to determine that? Ask them! He starts his coaching process by telling his leaders he’ll be asking for feedback so that he’s better able to serve them. Which then takes us back to lesson four — listen!
After covering the logistics, the first lesson I teach our coaches is on listening, a subject Joel Comiskey hits on in lesson four of his book that I’m currently going through with our coaches — “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group.”
Comiskey points out that coaching is quite simple — it consists of focusing on the needs of others rather than your own, primarily through careful listening. But while it’s simple, that doesn’t mean it comes naturally. He cites Stephen Covey, who said, “Most people do not listen to understand; they listen in order to answer. While the other is talking, they are preparing their reply.”
Fortunately, with intentionality and practice, we can become much better listeners. It requires hard work and some intentional skills. Comiskey mentions eye contact, which is one of five steps to attentive listening I talked about at our Helping People Grow May Term group:
- Squarely face the person
- Open your posture
- Lean towards the other
- Eye contact maintained
- Relax while attending
These steps are helpful for communicating to your leaders that you are listening and are interested in what they have to say.
Comiskey also talks about the importance of paying attention to non-verbal communication. This is one of the reasons why I much prefer in-person coaching meetings to phone calls or even Skype or FaceTime. Non-verbal communication such as body language and voice inflection actually make up the majority of a communication experience and much of that can be missed if you’re not in-person. Or, of course, if you’re not listening well!
Listening is a basic skill but one that’s incredibly essential to any relationship — we would all benefit from becoming more effective listeners.
Our NCC small group coaches are slowly working through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey. Lesson three focuses on the importance of planning rather than simply hoping something will happen in your coaching.
Plan to Pray for Your Leaders
I appreciate the fact that Comiskey starts out by emphasizing a need to plan to pray. When we first started our coaching system, I neglected to tell coaches that one of their key responsibilities is to pray for their leaders. Hopefully I thought that was a given, but regardless I now try to be clear that they need to be praying for their leaders and regularly checking in to ask their leaders what they can be praying for. Comiskey reminds us that we are engaged in a spiritual battle — through prayer we can support our leaders even when we aren’t with them.
Plan to Contact Your Leaders
When it comes to coaching, the more proactive we can be about contacting our leaders, the better. I try to send our coaches regular reminders to be contacting their leaders, but the best coaches won’t need a nudge from me. My own coach is very intentional about this — at the end of each meeting, we get the next meeting on the calendar, which is a good way to ensure they happen on a regular basis.
Comiskey also hits on group coaching and phone calls. While I generally steer coaches toward one-on-one meetings, we give them flexibility and a few have found coaching as a group to be very effective for their leaders. Coaching phone calls, on the other hand, can be a potential solution for coaches and leaders who have trouble coordinating their schedules (a common problem in DC).
Plan Your Questions
Our initial coach training emphasizes two things — listening well (which Comiskey hits on in lesson 4) and asking good questions. On the questions front, we want our coaches asking open questions, which have a neutral tone and can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. While it may be a struggle to come up with such questions in the midst of a conversation, Comiskey reminds us that we don’t have to — we can plan questions in advance as we think about individual leaders’ specific circumstances and needs.
In addition, after a coaching meeting we should always record our observations and insights in order to remember what we should be praying for as well as to better prepare us for the next meeting. Being able to refresh our memory before each meeting will enable us to build upon each conversation.
Plan Your Visits to Small Group Meetings
Having coaches visit small groups has never been an official part of our system, although I’ve recently begun throwing it out as an option to our coaches. Comiskey wisely points out that there are some issues a coach will never be aware of unless they visit the leader’s group and he provides some guidelines for doing so, declaring that your primary objective is to encourage the group and the leader. We’ve been hesitant to require this, given our short semesters and concern that leaders would misinterpret the visit as checking up on them rather than as trying to encourage them. But it’s something we may explore more in the future.
Comiskey reminds us not to let our plans lock us into a course of action, but as I’ve mentioned, we often remain flexible in other ways as well. We encourage our coaches to do what works best for them and their leaders — group coaching, coaching phone calls, and small group visits are all options they can try if they think it will be effective. We really want them to take ownership and discover what works for them. And as we like to say at NCC, “everything is an experiment!”
I’m continuing to work through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey in conjunction with our team of small group coaches, which I lead. Lesson two is on learning – specifically, learning from failure, learning from your own small group leadership experiences, and learning about your leaders by spending time with them.
Learning from Failure
Comiskey points out that there are no shortcuts – we learn from experience and we gain experience by making mistakes. While mistakes invite self-condemnation and attacks from the enemy, the reality is that Jesus uses inadequate people – it is in our weakness that He becomes strong. We must continually cling to that truth and keep trying.
God hates passivity. Comiskey quotes Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Boundaries: “The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try.” As Hebrews 10:38 says, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”
Learning from Leading
For small group coaches, one of the best experiences to learn from is leading small groups ourselves, which is why we make that a prerequisite for coaches. This allows us to draw from our own experiences – both positive and negative. In fact, often it is our failures that are more helpful to our leaders than our successes. I’m always amazed at God’s ability to redeem anything, and in coaching one of the most gratifying experiences is to see God repurpose our own negative experiences to benefit our leaders.
Learning through Spending Time
Simply put, we learn about our leaders through spending time with them. But how much is enough? And how much is too much?
While we ask our coaches to meet with their leaders a minimum of three times each semester, over the long term we seek to learn how much time a leader needs from us. That will vary depending on the leader. As Comiskey notes, the key question is whether or not the leader feels cared for. It may be as simple as asking, “How much time do you need to spend with me to be a more effective leader?”
We are life-long learners. Comiskey identifies the foundational coaching principles as listening, caring, developing, strategizing, and challenging (which he explores in the following lessons). As we learn from our failures, from our own leadership experiences, and from interaction with our leaders, we can build upon those principles and continue to grow in our ability to coach.
Our small group coaches have begun working through Joel Comiskey’s training manual “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I highly recommend.
The first lesson focuses on our ability to receive. As it’s been said, ministry flows out of being. The effectiveness of a coach depends on his or her own relationship with Christ. Comiskey reminds us that you can’t lead a person beyond the place where you are and that your character will eventually find you out. No matter how talented or gifted you are, that’s no substitute for virtues like honesty, faithfulness and good judgment.
So what’s the key to receiving well? Comiskey points to spending time with God each day, taking a day off each week, and prioritizing relationships with those closest to you.
Time with God
Henry Blackaby has said that what we need more than anything is unhurried time with God. Spending time with Him each day enables us to know Him better, learn from His Word, be empowered by His Spirit, and grow accustomed to His voice. It’s essential, but far too often we allow it to be crowded out by other activities or by liberal use of the snooze button (or maybe that’s just me). We need to remember Who it is we are meeting with and make it a priority.
After being convicted by Blackaby’s “unhurried time” statement, I’ve tried increasing my often rushed morning quiet time to a full hour so I have plenty of time to read a devotional (by Blackaby, coincidentally), read my Bible (a friend and I pick a new book to focus on each month), journal, pray, and spend time silently waiting on God. Rarely do I actually spend a full hour (that darn snooze button) and it fails to happen altogether far more often than it should, but the key is to be moving in the right direction.
A Day Off
God didn’t design us to work 7 days a week. That’s just the way it is. If we do so, we’ll get out of balance and burn out.
Several years ago Heather and I read “The Rest of God” by Mark Buchanan (which I also highly recommend) and began being much more intentional about setting aside a day each week where we refrain from “work” and only do activities that recharge us. I’m an introvert and she’s an extrovert, so it may not always look the same for us, but we’ve both found it extremely helpful. I’m able to be much more productive during the week when I know that I have a day off approaching. And implementing Sabbath gave me time to add back into my life activities (like cooking and reading) that bring me joy but had gotten squeezed out by busyness. More joy is always a good thing.
We all need close, intimate relationships where we can know and be known. We grow in our relationship with God as we are able to share our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with our spouse and close friends. If you don’t prioritize your family life and those closest to you, you won’t have much to offer those you are coaching.
Heather and I always have room for improvement, but we have established many ways to ensure we remain close and connected, including date nights every other week, monthly goals/calendar/budget breakfasts, and an annual prayer retreat. Keeping our relationship on solid footing enables us to more effectively minister to others.
So how are you doing in terms of receiving? Do you have a daily quiet time, a weekly Sabbath, and are you cultivating your relationship with family and close friends?
What is it you need to do? Don’t just ponder it – go do it.