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Discipleshp through Coaching
Taken from Chapter 9 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church
by Joel Comiskey
Logic says that Jesus should have spent the vast majority of his time concentrating on the multitude. After all, he was only going to be on earth for a short time, and the masses had so many needs. Yet of the five hundred fifty verses in Mark that record Christ’s ministry, two hundred eighty-two show Jesus relating to the public, while two hundred sixty-eight illustrate his working with the twelve.[i] Why would Jesus spend so much time with so few disciples? Even within the group of twelve, he gave more attention to James, Peter, and John. Jesus knew he needed to focus on the few in order to prepare those who would actually lead the multitude. The strategy worked. Acts 2:41-42 says: “Those who accepted his [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Many pastors forget this principle. Unlike Jesus, they concentrate on the multitude and don’t develop disciple-makers. Some pastors spend most of their time preparing their sermon to those hearers who come on Sunday. The problem is that disciples are not primarily formed through hearing a message. Other pastors prioritize counseling those who come through the church doors. Counseling, like preaching, is important. The problem is dependency and ministry extension. In fact, the two are connected. Because the pastor creates a dependency on himself, he is not able to reach more people.
The only way for a pastor to go beyond himself is to follow the pattern of Jesus: concentrate on the disciple-makers who will then pastor the multitude. Why? Because they will provide care for the rest of the church.
This was the same principle Jethro communicated to Moses after seeing him serving as judge from morning until evening (Exodus 18:13). Jethro said to Moses, “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Moses needed to concentrate on the leaders who would then care for leaders until each member in a group of ten would be pastored.
Although the word coaching is not used in Exodus, the principle is the same. It’s discipling the disciple-makers. This is what Jesus did also when he concentrated on the twelve who then coached the key leaders of the early church. The essence of coaching is discipling a few who in turn minister to others. Coaching in the cell church ensures that those who are discipling others are also receiving discipleship. Effective cell coaches zero in on the particular needs of each leader through listening, teaching, encouragement, and strategizing. Effective coaches care for the person’s spiritual, emotional, familial, and personal needs.
The word coach is descriptive of the role a person plays as he or she supports cell facilitators under his or her care. It is not a sacred term. In fact, churches use many terms to identify the role played by the cell group coach: supervisor, section leader, G12 leader, cell overseer, cell sponsor, even L (which is the Roman numeral for 50). I’ve written extensively in other books about the different coaching structures that cell churches use.
Keys to Disciple Leaders through Coaching
In a church plant or smaller church, the lead pastor does the lion’s share of the coaching. In fact, coaching the cell facilitators should be the main role of the lead pastor. He needs to do what it takes to ensure the cell group leaders are healthy spiritually, prioritizing their families, and leading the cell group teams effectively. In larger cell churches with numerous cell groups, the lead pastor will focus on those who are coaching other cell team leaders (Jethro principle).
The number of cell group leaders a coach should oversee varies from church to church, depending upon the vision of the church and the capacity of the coach. If the coach also leads a small group, I would say that the coach should not take on more than three leaders. If the coach doesn’t lead a small group, five is acceptable. When coaches care for more than five people, the quality often suffers.
I encourage mother cell leaders to coach the daughter cell leaders from their own group, if the mother cell leader is willing. The reason is because a relationship already exists between mother and daughter leader. Like a mother caring for her children, the mother cell leader has a special affinity for the new team leader and will most likely take greater care in visiting and ensuring his or her success. However, sometimes the mother leader is not able to coach the daughter cell leader because of time constraints, desire, or coaching ability. In these cases, it’s best to assign a coach to the new team leader. The key is that each new leader has a coach who is praying, visiting, and serving the leader.
The best coaches have led and ideally multiplied cell groups. They are in the battle and have come from the cell system. Yet, not all leaders are great coaches. It’s like basketball, football, or any sport. The best players are not necessarily the best coaches and the best coaches possibly were mediocre players, because playing and coaching requires different skill sets.
I recommend at least once per month coaching meetings in a group context (the coach with all of those leaders he or she is coaching) and once per month one-on-one between leader and coach. The group context brings out common problems and encourages the leaders to interact with one another. Individual coaching helps the coach meet the deep personal needs with each leader (e.g., family, personal needs, job, and spiritual life).
Some leaders need to meet more frequently than two times per month. Other leaders need less time. Jim Egli, who did his Ph.D. on cell ministry, writes,
Coaches need a personal meeting with their small group director or pastor at least monthly. Small group leaders need two connections with their coach each month—one that focuses on ministry to them personally and one that focuses on the mission of their group. . . . At bare minimum coaches should meet with their leaders at least once a month. The big advantage of meeting twice a month or every other week is that it enables you to move beyond personal ministry to your small group leaders to actual planning and problem-solving.[ii]
I’ve seen some cell churches overextend their coaches with too many coaching meetings. This might work well for a particular time period, but in the long haul, burnout can ensue. I think it’s essential to be balanced with regard to the number of coaching meetings.
One of the foundational ways of coaching is visiting the cell leader’s group. In this way the coach can see what’s really happening—not just what the leader says is taking place. When the coach does visit the cell, I encourage him or her to blend in as one of the cell members and to participate like any other member in the cell group.
Visiting a cell group is one of the best ways for the coach to observe cell leader patterns. Does the team leader talk too much? Not enough? How does the leader deal with the talkers? The silent ones? Did he or she follow the cell lesson plan? End on time? When talking with the leader personally about the cell, start with positive aspects and then highlight areas that need to improve. This will help in the discipleship process and encourage the leader to grow closer to Jesus.
How to Disciple Leaders through Coaching
Andre Agassi, the famous tennis player, wrote his personal memoir entitled, Open. Agassi describes some terrible coaching experiences, but the one coach he extols is a man named Gil. Why did Agassi feel Gil was such a great coach? Because Gil adapted his coaching to meet Agassi’s needs. Former coaches gave Agassi general exercises. Gil studied Agassi’s specific needs and adjusted the coaching regimen accordingly. Gil even built a gym in Agassi’s garage and crafted all the exercise machines with Agassi in mind. He prepared specific exercises for Agassi, knowing his specific game and needs. In the following years, Agaasi went on to win all four grand slam tournaments, and Agassi attributes much of his success to Gil, his coach.
Effective coaches hone in on the specific needs of the players. What is the leader lacking? What particular needs does the leader have? There are specific disciplines that effective coaches practice in the process of discipling the leaders under their care.
Discipling through Prayer
Effective coaches cover their leaders in prayer, knowing that God gives the victory and answers prayer. Paul said to the Colossian house church, “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (Colossians 2:15). Even though Paul wasn’t physically present with the church, he was there in spirit. It’s possible to be present spiritually with the leader through prayer. The Trinity is the best coach and loves to respond to believing prayer.
Coaches go to battle on behalf of the leaders under their care and provide spiritual protection against Satan’s onslaughts. Effective coaches cover the leaders with a prayer shield and then when they talk personally, there is a unity that has already been developed through prayer.[iii] I encourage coaches to pray continually for their leaders, and then tell them about those prayers. This will help tremendously in the spiritual realm, but this fact will also give the leaders renewed hope and confidence in the ministry.
Discipling through Listening
Often the coach feels inadequate to coach because he feels he doesn’t know enough. Yet, I often tell them that the most important element is a listening ear. Often the leader already knows what to do. Coaches can get so focused on what they want to say that they forget that the real work is listening.
The coach needs to recognize that his or her agenda is secondary to the leader’s agenda. A great coach knows when to shut up and let the other person speak. The human mind processes ideas and thoughts far faster than a person can speak them (by five to one), so it’s easy to drift or daydream when someone is talking. The coach must concentrate to effectively listen, and it’s not easy.
Preparing to listen requires some pre-meeting homework. Such preparation involves thinking about each leader’s circumstances and needs. It’s a great idea to write down notes and insights about the leader that can be reviewed before the next meeting. This helps the coach remember past conversations and prepares the coach to listen more intently.
Great coaches don’t just listen to what has taken place in the cell but are also concerned about the leader’s heart and life in general—marriage, emotional struggles, children, devotional life, and work. Often there are burdens that need to be shared in order for the leader to do a better job. The coach draws the leader out through careful listening.
Discipling through Encouragement
Barnabas is known as the “son of encouragement.” He encouraged Paul and through his encouragement he helped Paul become an effective disciple of Jesus Christ. He saw beyond the rough edges, personally approached Paul, and then accompanied Paul on his journeys.
Why is encouragement so important? Because small group team leaders often don’t feel they are doing a great job. They compare themselves with others, and they feel like a failure. They hear about the other team leader who already multiplied his cell and won multiple people to Jesus. The leader can easily suffer from feelings of inadequacy. “Why aren’t more people coming to my cell group?” he wonders. Effective coaches use every opportunity to encourage the leader. “Jim, you show up for every cell group. Great job. That takes a lot of effort because I know you are busy.”
Although the small group leader is doing his or her ministry for Jesus, when the coach can be God’s instrument of encouragement, it’s God directly saying to the leader, “I appreciate you; keep on pressing on; your reward is in heaven.”
Discipling through Caring
The pastor cares for the coach and the coach cares for the leaders. The leader in turn cares for the members. Everyone needs to be coached and cared for. Coaching helps the system to flow together—just like the early church.
Often the best way to care for the leader is to be a friend. Many people overlook this simple, yet powerful, principle, but I believe that is one of the keys to successfully coaching small group leaders. Jesus, the ultimate coach, revealed this simple principle in John 15:15 when he said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Jesus entered into friendship with twelve sinful human beings, whom he mentored for
three years. He ate with them, slept with them, and answered all their questions. The Gospel writer Mark describes the calling of the twelve this way: “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him. . .” (Mark 3:14). Jesus prioritized being with them over a set of rules or techniques, and this is what caring is all about.
God doesn’t want lone rangers. He wants us to practice the one-anothers at every level. And the coach can minister to those leaders under his or her care by simple love and friendship.
Discipling through Developing
Coaches develop the leaders in both formal and informal ways. A coach supports each leader’s ministry by connecting them to necessary resources, such as curriculum, equipping, or prayer support.
You might want to go over a book with your leader or at least recommend one. Great resources will help your cell leaders strategize better. You might say, “John, here’s a link to an article about listening. Please check it out and we’ll go over this next time we meet.” Or if John is not the type that would go to the internet to check it out, the coach would simply print it out and give it to the leader. Later the coach would ask the leader what he or she thought. If the leader is not willing to commit to doing it on his or her own, it might be a good idea to read the entire article with the leader.
Become a resource person, and you will improve yourself and the leaders under your care. A coach can contact the leaders online, sending them articles, quotes and encouragement through email. Communicating with your leaders online is a fast, quick, and effective way to provide resources. You can send instant prayer requests, real-time updates on cell ministry, and helpful material that will encourage them to press on in discouraging times. Information sent via email is great because your leaders can process the information privately while having it handy for the future.
Discipling through Strategic Planning
When we were missionaries in Ecuador having our first baby, Sarah, we were nervous. A midwife from the U.S. embassy helped greatly. She was cheerful, confident, and encouraging. She was right there in the hospital when our firstborn came into this world.
Coaches can help cell leaders tremendously through the birth process. They help the cell leader envision future disciple-makers by encouraging the leader to develop strategic planning to get everyone participating in the group. The coach might say, “Tony, have you noticed Jill in your group?” “Why don’t you consider her as a future leader?”
The coach also reminds the cell leader that his strategic planning should include encouragement of all members to take the discipleship equipping, knowing that no one will be a future team member without graduating from the equipping process. Effective coaches also help in the birthing process as the group sends out a new team of leaders.
Discipling through Challenging
When a team leader is stagnant, the members feel it. They wonder what’s wrong with the group. Vitality is lacking, the lesson is unprepared, and the leader exudes a certain dullness. Effective cell coaches are close enough to detect the leader’s lifelessness. The coach must be willing to speak directly to the leader, knowing that the leader’s negative spiritual condition will affect those in the group.
Paul, in his message to the Ephesian house church, said, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Great coaches seek to model this challenge for action by honest interaction and asking the hard questions. I encourage coaches to start with the phrase, “Can I have permission to share something with you.” The leader should know that the coach will give a straight answer and not beat around the bush.
Yet, because the coach wants the best for the leader, the coach sprinkles a healthy dose of love in the mix. It’s a good practice not to give correction until giving truthful and positive praises. And there’s always something positive to observe and highlight. The positive encouragement will allow the leader to receive the challenge for correction.
Coaching Is Most Important
I often recommend Jim Egli and Dwight Marble’s book, Small Groups, Big Impact. The authors conducted their research among three thousand small group leaders in twenty countries and wanted to know why some groups grow and why some cell churches do a better job than others. They discovered that growing small group-based churches prioritize prayer, practice pro-active coaching, and establish a culture of multiplication.
Yet, when all three of these activities were analyzed together, coaching was the key factor.
Jim Egli writes, “Of all the questions on the survey, one emerged as most important. That question asks small group leaders: ‘My coach or pastor meets with me to personally encourage me as a leader.’ Leaders that respond with ‘often’ or ‘very often,’ have groups that are stronger in every health and growth measure!”[iv]
Most churches fail because they don’t see coaching as critical. They don’t prioritize coaching in their budget, nor do they take time to learn how to coach. They might even downplay the significance of coaching in their rush to start new groups. The research of Egli and Marble remind us that a healthy system of coaching keeps the cell church healthy and moving forward. Healthy cell churches disciple the disciple-makers.
 In my book, Passion and Persistence: How the Elim Church's Cell Groups Penetrated an Entire City for Jesus (Houston, TX: Touch Publications), I talk about Elim’s coaching structure, how their coaches are organized, what each level of coach does, the schedules, and how coaches are developed. I have two books on the G12 structure: Groups of Twelve (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1999) and From Twelve to Three (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 2002). These book explain how G12 groups are organized and how they can be adapted.
[i] Jim Egli and Paul M. Zehr, Alternative Models of Mennonite Pastoral Formation (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1992), p. 43.
[ii] Jim Egli and Dwight Marble, Small Groups, Big Impact (Saint Charles, IL: Churchsmart Resources, 2011), p. 60.
[iii] God revolutionized our lives in 1995 after reading Peter Wagner's book Prayer Shield (Regal Books, 1992). Both Celyce and I realized that it wasn't enough to send out “prayer letters” to friends. We needed to have specific prayer partners. One of the best ways to coach leaders is to encourage the leaders to have a prayer shield (those who are praying for the leader) and to be part of the prayer shield for the leader.
[iv] Jim Egli and Dwight Marble, Small Groups, Big Impact (Saint Charles, IL: Churchsmart Resources, 2011), p. 57.