Cell Coaching

by Joel Comiskey

Cell Group Journal, Fall, 2003.

My wife and I coached one married couple that was really struggling. Their cell group started strong with ten people coming regularly, but gradually attendance dropped off until they were the only people present on the night of the meeting. This couple did all the right things that work in building successful groups—they prayed, they invited people, they regularly contacted the people who had attended, but they couldn’t reverse the trend.

After about three weeks with no one showing up, Patty called me saying, “Joel, my husband and I are ready to throw in the towel. This is just not working. We must not be the right leaders.” I countered, “You’re excellent leaders! God is in this. He’s called you. I really believe in you and your ministry. The enemy wants to discourage you, but Jesus wants you to persevere and keep praying until that breakthrough comes.”

Several weeks later, attendance picked up again, the fellowship began to gel, and people loved belonging to their cell group. Over the years, many people have been saved through their cell, new leaders have been raised up, and the cell group has multiplied on several occasions.

Patty has stated repeatedly that the conversation we had on the phone that night was a turning point in their cell ministry. The devil wanted Patty and her husband to give up at that early point, rendering them useless and ineffective for God’s kingdom and preventing them from the ministry successes they have experienced.

Cell leadership can be a wearisome journey. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The fact is that members often don’t show up, evangelism fails, babies get sick, events fill the calendar, and bosses require extra hours. Cell leadership involves making phone calls, developing new leaders, evangelism, and administration. In the face of so many tasks and problems, how are you supposed to keep the cell leader alive, well, and ready to follow God?

The answer is encouragement. A coach who encourages can make the difference between success and failure, between the leader continuing—and eventually multiplying the cell—and throwing in the towel. This ministry of encouragement takes on additional importance because it has the potential to have long-term, widespread impact on many people, not just on an individual cell group leader.

“Find the one thing that you believe is the potential leader’s greatest asset, and then give 100 percent encouragement in that area” (John Maxwell).

Praise Is Like Oxygen to the Soul

UCLA basketball coach John Wooden told players who scored to smile, wink, or nod to the player who passed them the ball. “What if he’s not looking?” asked a team member. Wooden replied, “I guarantee he’ll look.” Everyone values encouragement and looks for it.

Although every coach wants to win the game, a good coach knows that refreshed and energized players do a much better job.

How to Encourage Cell Leaders

  • Highlight accomplishments
    • Compliment them in front of the group
    • Catch people doing something right and tell them
  • Express confidence
    • Verbally: “You can do it!”
    • Acted out: by the way you let them lead and achieve
  • Show you care about the leaders personally
    • Know what is going on in their lives
    • Be there when they have a tough time

The writer to the Hebrews says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). Discouragement comes naturally to everyone. Introspection haunts people; they compare themselves to others and feel like they don’t measure up. A word of encouragement can often make a huge difference.

The wife of one of the leaders I’m coaching told me privately that her husband easily becomes introspective and discouraged without compliments. “Encouragement is his love language,” she told me. “Right now he’s receiving very little of it.” “But he’s doing so well in cell ministry,” I thought to myself. I realized afresh that even the most successful leaders need lots of encouragement.

Most managers in the business world think that the lack of encouragement will motivate people to work harder. A marketing executive at a large consumer foods company noticed the great work of one of his regional directors. When asked if he had told the director that he was pleased with her progress, the executive responded, “No, she’s just rounding first base at this point. I wouldn’t want her to think she was almost home.” The director was craving support and even a hint that her efforts were making a difference. But the executive believed that a pat on the back would cause her to slack off. In fact, a good cheering section would have let her know she was heading in the right direction and encouraged her to keep running.

A cell group coach should be the head cheerleader for his or her cell group leaders. Cell leaders who are supported and encouraged will serve above and beyond the call of duty. Those who wonder if they are appreciated or even noticed will eventually run out of steam.

There is always something to encourage. Are the cell leaders improving? Celebrate any progress, even if it seems small. Winning is important, but winning results from doing one’s best. Success should be rewarded.

Inspirational Coaching

The quarterback was playing a miserable game. He made it even worse by throwing an interception. At halftime, the coach came up to him and the quarterback thought, “That’s it. He’s taking me out.” Instead, the coach said, “Don’t worry son, you’re still going to be the hero of this game.” With renewed energy, the quarterback played a brilliant second half and threw the winning touchdown. During the post-game interview, the quarterback shared this story, giving all the credit to the coach’s encouragement.

Begin Meetings with Encouragement

I recommend that coaches start one-on-one sessions and group huddles with encouragement. Leaders are much more likely to share honestly if they know that they are on the right track. Begin with something positive you heard about a leader. Share how you see people changing.

Leaders have the tendency to second-guess themselves, to feel like they just don’t measure up. Many leaders magnify one or two weaknesses way out of proportion, until they feel condemned and depressed. Martin Luther, one of the greatest leaders of all time, was subject to such fits of darkness and despair that he would closet himself for days. In the meantime his family would remove all dangerous implements from the house. C.H. Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers in world, told his 5000 member congregation in 1866, “I am the subject of depression of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever gets to such extremes of wretchedness as I to go.” If great heroes of the faith have felt this way, how much more will cell group leaders?

The enemy of the soul seeks to accuse leaders and deplete their energy through lies that discourage. He whispers things like, “No one respects your leadership,” and, “You can’t lead tomorrow’s lesson. You don’t know the Bible well enough.” Satan knows that if he can discourage the leader, he can discourage the entire cell group.

“Encouragement is the most important part of coaching because cell leadership is a thankless job—especially if there are some high need people in the group. I believe the number one reason why cell leaders quit stems from lack of encouragement. Most new cell leaders start on a fairly high level of motivation. Over a period of time, the level drops and if left unchecked, the leader soon gets ‘discouraged’ and then ‘disillusioned’ and then ‘despair or dejection’ sets in, and finally comes the ‘resignation.’”—An Australian Cell Group Coach

Discouragement also comes from the world in which leaders live in everyday. For the most part, North Americans are under the constant barrage of guilt from not feeling like they’ve done enough. Edward Stewart, an expert on anthropology, referring to the average North American, said, “Restless and uncertain, he has recurrent need to prove himself and thereby attain an identity and success through his achievements.” The French writer and researcher, Alexis de Tocqueville, said something similar:

In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures because they never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.. . so the efforts and enjoyments of Americans are livelier than in traditional societies, but the disappointments of their hopes and desires are keener, and their minds are more anxious and on edge.”

The Bible Commands Encouragement

The New American Standard version translates 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “…appreciate those who diligently labor among you…” The Greek word literally means “to perceive” or “to know” those who labor. Recognition means acknowledging the diligent labors of your cell leaders, giving credit where credit is due. The purpose of recognition is to honor and affirm the leaders’ ministries. It’s akin to a “payment” for well-rendered service.

Encouragement through Listening

Listening opens the door for encouragement. Tune your ears for the slightest reason to give praise. If there’s even a hint of excellence, spot it and acknowledge it.

When one of your leaders starts talking about the lack of fruit, the discouragement, the difficulties, you need to listen first. Sympathize with the leader. Remind him of what God has already done. Perhaps you can remind him of his personal growth through cell group leadership.

Write an Encouraging Letter

One thing you can do to encourage your leader is to write a note of encouragement. Kent Hughes writes, “Some years ago I read that Phillips Brooks kept a file of encouraging notes and letters for rainy days and during such times would pull them out and reread them again. So I began my own file. I keep every encouraging letter I receive, and there are occasions that I read them again. But, even more, I began to write many more encouraging notes to others, especially to my colleagues in the ministry.”

Find the little things and highlight them. You might pinpoint a leader’s honesty, transparency, or hard work. Point out whatever you see that is positive and honors God. Turn the little things into huge victories.

Encourage Your Leader to Persist

As I give cell seminars around the world, one particular session has emerged as a clear favorite—the session on diligence. I highlight the numerous occasions that the Greek word spoude (diligence) is used in the Bible (e.g., 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:12-14, Hebrews 4: 10,11, etc.). I get everyone in the seminar to repeat the word spoude over and over again, and we have a great time. After one seminar in Hong Kong, the participants even made t-shirts with spoude on the front to remind each other to keep pressing on.

Why is this session on spoude so well-received? Because it encourages cell leaders to focus not on those areas beyond their control (e.g., talent, giftedness, education, or personality) but to focus instead on hard work, which anyone can do. Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Seminar participants are reminded that persistence and diligence will eventually bring results. Spoude!

Strategies backfire and teams lose. Period. Not every game is a smashing success.

The best cell leaders keep on inviting, they keep on making contact, they keep on sowing, and then they eventually reap. When coaches encourage their leaders to practice spoude and keep on practicing it, the doors will open.

Discovering Gold Nuggets

“Sometimes the only way we can see our talents objectively is through the eyes of others.”

A strong leader knows how to pick himself up and press on—in spite of the obstacles. And a good coach reminds his leaders that it’s a marathon race. For example:

  • Abraham Lincoln failed twice as a businessperson and was defeated in six state and national elections before being elected president of the United States.
  • Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. In between his strikeouts, he hit 714 home runs.
  • Theodor S. Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) first children’s book was rejected by 23 publishers. The twenty-fourth publisher sold six million copies.
  • George Mueller prayed throughout his lifetime for five friends to know Jesus Christ. The first one came to Christ after five years. Within ten years, two more of them received Christ. Mueller prayed constantly for over twenty-five years, and the fourth man was finally saved. For his fifth friend, he prayed until the time of his death, and this friend, too, came to Christ a few months after Mueller died. For this last friend, Mueller had prayed for almost fifty-two years.

John Maxwell on What Leaders Need

All people, whether leaders or followers, have some things in common:

  • They like to feel special, so sincerely compliment them
  • They want a better tomorrow, so show them hope
  • They desire direction, so navigate for them
  • They are selfish, so speak to their needs first
  • They get low emotionally, so encourage them
  • They want success, so help them win

The best cell leaders don’t give up—even when the odds are against them and success looks slim. They find a way, even when they have to build their own roads. Your encouragement, coach, can keep them pressing forward.

“‘In my wide association in life, meeting with many and great people in various parts of the world,’ Schwab declared, ‘I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.’”

Coach Barnabas

There was a reason why the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement) to Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Barnabas lived up to the apostles’ expectations by sponsoring Saul to the disciples in Jerusalem, when they were all deathly afraid of him (Acts 9:26-27). Then the apostles sent Barnabas to a new, dynamic church in Antioch. Scripture says, “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”(Acts 11:23). His zeal for their encouragement led him to ask the apostle Paul to join him in the work of encouraging the church in Antioch.

Follow coach Barnabas and become a child of encouragement. Don’t fear over-encouraging, thinking that you might puff up your leaders too much. Encourage, encourage, encourage, and the leaders under your care will blossom.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey’s book Groups of Twelve expounds on the G12 principles. The book From Twelve to Three also explains G12 principles that should be adapted rather than adopted. Comiskey’s book How to be a Great Cell Group Coach highlights what it takes to effectively care for small group leaders. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.