How to Be a Great Cell Group Coach

Joel Comiskey, How to Be a Great Cell Group Coach: Practical Insight for Supporting and Mentoring Cell Group Leaders (Houston, Texas: Cell Group Resources, 2003)

Summary

This book is useful if you’re preparing people to lead a new home group or helping them lead a group that is already established. Comiskey claims that the greatest contributor to cell group success (his cell groups are self-replicating, but smaller than our home churches) is the quality of coaching provided for cell group leaders. He offers advice on how to mentor, support, and guide cell group leaders into effective ministry.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Section 1: Habits of a Great Cell Group Coach
    • Chapter 1: Receiving
    • Chapter 2: Listening
    • Chapter 3: Encouraging
    • Chapter 4: Caring
    • Chapter 5: Developing/Training
    • Chapter 6: Strategizing
    • Chapter 7: Challenging
  • Section 2: Polishing Your Coaching
    • Chapter 8: Increasing Coaching Authority
    • Chapter 9: Diagnosing Problems
    • Chapter 10: Walking through the Coaching Stages
    • Chapter 11: Coaching Meetings
    • Chapter 12: Visiting Cell Groups

Introduction

The Origin of the word “coach”:

“Coach” comes from a Hungarian term which referred to carts made in a town called Kocs. In the late 19th century, coach became slang for instructor or trainer who conveyed a student through an exam as if he were riding a carriage.

The goal of Christian coaches is to convey people towards Christ.

Most churches lack qualified coaching. Without coaches, their small group ministry dries up.

David Cho (pastor of the world’s largest church in Korea) says the key behind the cell system is coaching.

“A cell coach equips cell leaders with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective. A cell coach encourages, nourishes, and challenges cell leaders to grow and multiply their cell groups.” (13)

“Successful cell group-based churches have developed people to care for cell coaches as well as cell leaders…” (13)

Being a coach is different than being a consultant:

Coaches Consultants
work on a broad range of issues over an extended period of time provide wise counsel on a specific issue over the short term
foster independence often create dependency
proactively intercept problems before they occur often focus on counseling, problems and complaints
help others fulfill their God ordained calling often focus on helping others through crises

Qualifications for coaching:

  • Coaches should be participating in their own cell group.
  • The best coaches have already multiplied their own cell group.
  • Coaches should see themselves as a catalyst to help others develop themselves.

Section 1: Habits of a Great Cell Group Coach

Chapter 1: Receiving

“Great coaches need in-depth wisdom and constant encouragement. The best way to get them is to go directly to the source: Jesus Christ Himself. Meet with God before meeting with your leaders. They’ll thank you for it.” (21)

“Coaches have nothing of value to give their cell leaders apart from what they are receiving from God…. It is important to spend time with God each day.” (22)

“We should cultivate the habit of turning to God whenever we stop any piece of work and look around to ask what to do next.” – Frank Laubach (24)

Scott Keller (a successful cell coach) believes that “the key to his success and the success of the leaders he’s coaching is praying for each of them and protecting them through prayer.” (25)

>> See paragraph 3, p. 25ff for a great example of patience in prayer.

Another reason to pray: “the Spirit of God is at work between coaching sessions.” (26) “The Spirit of God is the best coach.” (28)

“Coaches must protect their cell leaders by covering them with a prayer shield that can withstand even the fiercest assaults.” (26) “Prayer power allows a more experienced coach to be with a new cell leader at all times – even though he or she is physically absent.” (27)

Intercessory prayer is enhanced in effectiveness by properly discerning the needs of your cell leaders.

Chapter 2: Listening

“A coach is supposed to care for leaders and give himself or herself completely to their needs. Leaders are counting on the coach to give them 100 percent attention during each coaching moment. Listening is the key to giving that undivided attention.” (29)

Without listening, we’ll be offering counsel based on inaccurate data.

“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,.” (31) “You’ll need a special touch from God to focus on the leader’s needs and not your own.” (32)

Take notes on and keep a file of notes for each of your leaders. Use it to prepare for meetings.

Levels of listening…

Level Description
1 The coach focuses on what the leader is going to say rather than what the leader is actually saying. This is listening only to reply.
2 The coach tries to focus entirely on what the leader is saying. This means allowing a leader to complete his story without providing a quick fix to a difficult situation.
3 Listening from a number of perspectives – body language, words, tone, etc.
Being flexible re. the direction the conversation takes.
Probing further into areas of interest.

Prepare open-ended questions for your meeting with leaders in advance, but avoid rigidly using a list of questions that doesn’t address the need of the moment.

After the meeting, write down what you learned immediately. Use this info as fodder for your prayer.

Help leaders find answers to their own questions. When they do, they will be more likely to act on the answer. Before sharing your story, ask: “will this contribute to the life of the leader? Is this important for the leader’s learning?”

Don’t share insider info or criticize others to bring leaders into your confidence. This will erode their willingness to be open and honest with you.

Chapter 3: Encouraging

“Cell leadership can be a wearisome journey. It’s not for the faint hearted… How are you supposed to keep the leader alive, well, and ready to follow God? The answer is encouragement.” (42)

John Wooden (a former UCLA basketball coach who won 10 national titles) encouraged his players to wink or nod to another player who passed them the ball. Affirmation encourages more passing.

Even the most successful leaders need lots of encouragement.

“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.” (43)

“There is always something to encourage. Celebrate any progress…” (44)

Begin coaching meetings with a word of encouragement. Even great leaders like Luther and Spurgeon went through deep low points and bouts with despair. “The enemy of the soul seeks to accuse leaders and deplete their energy through lies that discourage.” (45)

Lack of encouragement may be the number 1 reason why leaders quit.

>> Good de Tocqueville quote on p. 45 re. Americans’ tendency towards depression and disappointment.

“When one of your leaders starts talking about the lack of fruit, the discouragement, the difficulties, you need to listen first. Sympathize… (Then) find the little things and highlight them. You might pinpoint a leader’s honesty, transparency, or hard work.” (46)

Emphasize the importance of persistence and diligence – these are things a leader can control. “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 (diligence) and keep on practicing it, the doors will open.” (47)

>> Good story on p. 47 about George Mueller praying all his life for five non-Christian friends.

“Abe Lincoln failed twice as a business person and was defeated in six state and national elections before being elected president of the United States.” (47)

Be a son of encouragement like Barnabus.

Chapter 4: Caring

Don’t just focus on results. Remember that cell leaders are humans. “Coaches remember that every leader is a person; they provide care for leaders by showing love for who they are, not simply for what they do.” (52) Time spent together and verbal expressions of love are important.

If your leaders are struggling with a particular issue, find them the help that they need. Minister to the whole person. They need attention and care.

Be real and transparent. This will build trust. Jesus said, “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.” – John 15:15

Win your leaders through friendship. “He appointed twelve – designating them as apostles – that they might be with him…” – Mark 3:14 (55) “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“A consultant focuses on advice that will make a difference. An administrator is concerned about making sure that advice is followed. A coach focuses on building a complete person through care and servanthood.” (57)

Chapter 5: Developing/Training

“The drive for development must come from deep within a leader’s soul.” (59)

Support your leaders in their areas of interest. “A good coach recognizes the differences between group leaders, and he or she adjusts his or her coaching style accordingly.” – David Owen (60)

“Approach your coaching like a gardener who does not try to motivate the plants to grow, but who seeks the right combination of sunlight, nourishment, and water to release the plant’s natural growth.” – David Peterson and Mary Dee Hicks (61)

>> Comiskey quotes extensively from David B. Peterson and Mary Dee Hicks, Leader as Coach: Strategies for Coaching and Developing Others (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Personal Decisions International, 1999).

Encourage your leaders to be life long learners. Be slow to give advice. Probe them first for insights. Draw insights from them and point out their own insights to them.

Realize it may take quite a while to truly understand the needs of your leaders.

Repeat needed training tips until they have sunk in (e.g. coaching a leader to speak up when they teach). People need practice (repeated practice) DOING, not just training on what to do.

Encourage practice and learning from practice vs. “doing it right” and critiquing what didn’t go right.

Use teachable moments. “People learn best when they are confronted with trials and difficulties – when they are suddenly on their backs looking up. Take advantage of these opportunities to coach.” (65)

Good questions for a leader who seems stuck in their development:

  1. What do you already know that you are consistently failing to apply?
  2. Are you taking advantage of skills that you already have?

Adapt your questions to the leader you are coaching – different approaches are needed for different people.

“Your goal as a coach is to help conform you leaders to the image of Jesus Christ.” (69)

Chapter 6: Strategizing

“Cell group coaches must help leaders develop strategies that will move their groups forward to accomplish the vision God has given them.” (71)

They need to develop an image of the future state of the cell that is better than the current one.

“By including your leaders they will have more ownership in the vision, and they will learn to do the same when they become coaches.” (72)

The overall strategic goal of your group must be multiplication.

“It’s possible for cell leaders to fill their cells with people from Sunday services and never reach out. To avoid this, encourage leaders to get their core people from the Sunday celebration (perhaps 7 people) but to then mobilize that core to continually exercise their outreach muscles.” (73)

>> Good warning against over-relying on transfers for growth during a home group cycle.

Multiplication is a health issue. (>> good response for those who argue that we emphasize multiplication because we’re into “numbers, numbers, numbers…”) “If we were to identify any one principle as the most important, then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups… We asked all survey participants about concrete plans for their own group [multiplication]. Virtually no other aspect of church life has such an enormous influence on both the quality index and the growth of a church.” – Christian Schwartz reflecting on his research of 1000 churches in 32 countries. (73)

Urge cell leaders to find an apprentice (someone who is hungry for God and faithful to attend and participate). Keys to creating an environment that releases new leaders: cast the vision for multiplication, remind and review the vision regularly, pray about whom to release and when, delegate responsibility to them, avoid negative terminology (split, divide, break). (75)

Set a date to multiply. “The date should be far enough away to ensure the health of both the mother and the daughter cells, but close enough to ensure urgency.” (75)

Leaders who set clear goals increase their chance of multiplying to three out of four.

Coaches should offer gentle reminders about reproduction and help their folks find and prepare new leaders. They should also guide leaders into gradually giving their apprentice more responsibility (>> See p. 77 for “Home Group Lamaze” – detailed steps to gradually transition an apprentice into group leadership). They should also help leaders weigh out different multiplication options (mission plant, conventional plant, etc.).

Comiskey recommends planting while you still have growth momentum.

Encourage leaders to establish a network of mentor-protégé relationships in their group.

“A cell leader’s main task should be to work his way out of a job by training cell members to lead the cell group.” (80)

Chapter 7: Challenging

“A coach is not a good coach if he allows the leader to get away with mediocrity or to wander down the wrong path.” (81)

Empathetic listening is not enough. Coaches need to “balance grace (e.g., listening, encouraging, caring) with telling the truth (e.g., strategizing, challenging).” “Holding back and being ‘nice’ when you should share the truth does not serve the leader’s best interests.” (83) You should be willing, when necessary, to interrupt a leader when they ramble.

Effective feedback is descriptive (instead of evaluative), specific (rather than general), and directed toward controllable behavior. It’s also preferable (but not necessary) to offer feedback when leaders are asking for it.

Offer feedback soon after the event or situation that gave rise to the need for feedback.

While talking with a leader, act on promptings from the Spirit. When you get promptings, express them tentatively (e.g. “I have a sense” “May I tell you the impression I’m sensing…” “Can I check something out with you…” “See how this fits for you…”) (87)

Ask permission to confront coaches at a deeper level. “By phrasing suggestions is such a way that are not ultimatums, the leader has the opportunity to take ownership of the idea rather than doing it just because the coach said so.” (88) Remember, you aren’t their boss.

Encourage the leader to fulfill God’s vision. Remind them of what the vision is and encourage them to fulfill it.

Section 2: Polishing Your Coaching

Chapter 8: Increasing Coaching Authority 

How do coaches increase in authority?

  1. Through battles won and lost: Coaches grow one battle at a time. “With each battle fought, each mile walked, each lesson learned, cell group coaches increase their coaching authority. As authority increases, so does the anointing to minister, thereby increasing the number of people being touched through a coach’s life.” (93)
  2. Through service, not their position as coach: Some authority does come simply by having the position of coach. “Coaching, however, is a servant role, and the best way to increase your positional authority is to serve others.” (94)
  3. Through expert knowledge: Great coaches know their game. Devour books and articles on cell ministry. Solicit input and opinions from others. Be slow to draw conclusions. Listen before you speak.
  4. Through prayer: “The leaders under your care need to know that God speaks to you. They need to believe that you can hear from God, which in turn gives you credibility and authority.”
  5. Through building relationships.
  6. Through soliciting feedback from the leaders you coach.

>> See p. 99 for an evaluation form that coaches can give the leaders they coach.

Chapter 9: Diagnosing Problems

Pitfalls in diagnosing problems:

  • jumping to conclusions
  • failing to define the problem
  • action overkill – when a coach’s sense of urgency leads to recommending too many actions simultaneously.

You must observe a leader in a variety of situations to diagnose the problem.

Problem: Discouragement
Solution: “The best thing you can do for a discouraged leader is to listen (chapter 2) and encourage (chapter 3).”

Problems: Nutrient deficiency (leaders lacking practical leadership skills); bad cell group dynamics (leaders who talk to much, over control, don’t evangelize).
Solution: Expose them to training materials that address their deficiency (e.g. a poor listener should read up on how to listen).

Problem: Personal problems
Solution: Remember that coaching is about personal development. Get around them while they are with their families and in other settings to see how they operate. Get them info on how to find a job, deal with finances, etc.

>> Some of this might be mitigated by recognizing leaders of a new group who already “manage their own household well.” (1 Tim. 3:4)

Problem: Hidden sin.
Solution: Ask your leaders what Jesus is doing in their life. Be aware of past patterns of sin that a leader may lapse into again and ask them specifically how they are doing in those areas.

Problem: An “Absolom Spirit” – rebellion
Solution: Make sure every leader in a network is being coached by someone.

Problem: Leaders overwhelmed by the needs of cell members.
Solution: Many cell members have needs beyond the ability of leaders. Make sure leaders know they are not betraying a confidence when they seek help from a legitimate source.

Coaches need to find solutions – get out there and find what your leaders need on the internet, from people that have coached you, from books, etc.

>> A large part of the onus for this should be placed on the cell leader.

Realize you’ll only grow in diagnostic skill as you wade into leader/group problems and try to diagnose them.

Chapter 10: Walking through the Coaching Stages

“Knowing that there are predictable stages to go through as people learn how to work together in cell groups brings hope.” (111)

  • The romance stage:
    • Everything is new, exciting, and green.
    • Enjoy this stage.
    • The leader will be teachable, so give them cell knowledge and strategy.
    • Help them count the cost.
  • The reality stage:
    • The leader is confronted with the real challenges of leadership.
    • Selflessly love them. Do things with them that communicate your love. Listen carefully.
    • Keep teaching.
  • The resistance stage:
    • The leader is seeing “brown grass” everywhere and wants to quit.
    • Pray fervently - cry out to God for the life of the cell leader.
    • Ask permission to speak into their life.
    • Be patient and look for coachable moments.
    • Display empathy, understanding and openness while speaking the truth in love.
  • The resolve stage:
    • Persistence has now led to resolve that doing Christian work and leading groups is where it’s at.
    • They’ve been through the battle which enhances your camaraderie with them.
    • Deepen your relationship with them. Prepare them for the day they will coach new leaders.
  • The reward stage:
    • “Coaching your own leader to successfully give birth to a new cell group is one of the greatest joys on earth.” (116)
    • Coach the leader to let their apprentice guide the group in preparation for multiplication.

Chapter 11: Coaching Meetings

Coaches should use a mixture of one-on-one and group coaching.

“In one-on-one meetings: care and develop;
in huddles: lead and model;
when visiting groups: affirm and observe.” (117)

“The single most important thing a coach can do is maintain regular contact with his group leaders whether by phone or face-to-face.” (118) Include prayer in these interactions.

One-on-one coaching:

  • How often? At least once per month while being in touch weekly by phone.
  • Start by asking Q’s re. their personal and spiritual life. Listen, encourage, and demonstrate care and concern.
  • Then develop plans and strategize in areas where they need help (e.g. evangelism).
  • When the need arises, speak the truth in love.
  • Pray with them re. needs that came up in your conversation.

Group Huddles

  • What is it? Pulling together group leaders that you coach for training and encouragement.
  • How often? At least once per month. If huddles are too infrequent, you’ll lose coaching influence and ministry impact.
  • Why? Cell leaders feed off of and benefit from hearing the experiences of fellow leaders.
  • Where should it meet? Anywhere is fine.
  • When? Group huddles before and after other meetings will save time.
  • Other formats: Consider super-huddles – several coaches pulling their group networks together for a larger meeting (>> like a sphere-based Servant Team meeting).
  • What happens at a group huddle?
    • Start with fun fellowship and refreshments. Give them “house keeping” type info during this time.
    • Pray and worship God together.
    • Listen, encourage, and care for each person. Maybe take time out as a group to pray for a specific leader.
    • Have leaders prepare beforehand and teach them new skills and knowledge.
    • End the meeting with a visionary challenge.
    • In general, be flexible re. the agenda and responsive to the Spirit. “Great huddles demand creativity, engaging communication, and a better than average aptitude for spiritual nurture and stimulus.” – Bill Donahue 

Chapter 12: Visiting Cell Groups

Why?

The coach needs to see his/her leaders in action. “Many details of cell ministry will only come to the surface when a coach actually visits cell groups—starting and stopping time, arranging the chairs, dealing with kids in the cell, etc.” (123)

“By sitting with one session of a group I can learn more about the dynamics and health of the group and the style of the leader than a dozen verbal descriptions. I am then in a much better position to know how to help that leader when we meet.” (123)

How often?

Visit each cell under your care once per quarter and visit them more often when they are first starting.

Beforehand:

Tell your leaders in advance that you’ll be visiting.

Pray for the leader before you go, asking the HS to bless the group and give you wisdom.

Arrive earlier than the crowd so you can visit with the leader before the meeting starts.

At the meeting:

Focus on being encouraging.

Participate and share transparently, but don’t take leadership of the meeting.

Evaluate these parts of the meeting:

  1. Welcome – what did they do to make newcomers feel at home? Did the meeting start and end on time?
  2. Worship – did the worship leader bring focus and direction?
  3. Word – did the cell leader correctly interpret the passage? Did he stay on the subject? Was he in control but not overbearing? Was everyone involved in the discussion? Were his questions effective? Did he listen to responses?
  4. Works – “did the leader share the vision of the cell group to reach out to nonbelievers?” (126)
    >> We should state publicly state the purpose of our group more often.

Other things to look at:

  • Was prayer meaningful?
  • Was God at work in the meeting?
  • How well did the group members relate to each other?
  • What produced life change?
  • What is the relationship between the leader and the group members?
  • Is birthing a part of the groups’ strategy? How is this strategy being carried out?

After:

Give the leader feedback either immediately or very shortly after the meeting. Strive for a 5:1 ratio of encouragement and admonition.

Readers of this book should focus on applying the principles in this book to their specific situation.