When my oldest son decided to play soccer, I was a little nervous. I wanted to be involved in his life, but I grew up playing football. All I knew about soccer was that you couldn’t use your hands, and the weirder your hair, the better you probably were. When the county soccer league sent out an email to parents asking for volunteers to help coach, I felt more than underqualified. But I said yes because I wanted to meet a need and be involved.
When I went to the first coaches meeting, I had a realization—small group leaders at church must feel the same way I do right now. Pastors and ministry leaders live in ministry 24/7, and it’s easy for us to forget what it feels like to step into leading ministry for the first time. We have a desire to see our churches multiply disciples, but it’s easy to forget the perspective of those we’ve asked to fulfill the mission. They’re scared, nervous, unsure what exactly they signed up for, or how they’re going to do it. They feel the same way I did in that coaches meeting—nervous, unsure, unqualified, wanting to meet a need but also wondering if they’re enough.
I left that meeting knowing more about coaching soccer, but I also left having learned about how to mature followers of Christ. Here are three lessons coaching youth soccer taught me about equipping small group leaders.
THEY NEED A CLEAR JOB DESCRIPTION
When I walked into that coaches meeting, I knew I would need to be at practice and show up to games, but that was about it. The Director of Coaching walked us through a very clear and well done packet that outlined what we were expected to do throughout the season. Everything from calling parents, getting cones, balls and nets, scheduling practice times, sample practice outlines, age appropriate expectations, drills and rules, etc. I knew what I was expected to do, and how they wanted me to do it.
Small group leaders need the same. What exactly do we want them to do? What is a win? If we want mature leaders, we need to put them in a position where they understand what they are supposed to be doing beyond a weekly list of questions to ask the people in their group.
Some leaders will have an expectation that they’re supposed to show up to group and preach a sermon or teach a lesson. Others will think their job as a group leader is to set out great snacks and provide a clean house. Others may see their group as an opportunity to promote their theological or political agenda. Still others may have absolutely no idea, but they are willing to show up and fill a need.
Small group leaders will not mature if they do not have a clear understanding of what you are asking them to do. There is no silver bullet job description to mature your small group leaders understanding of their mission, however. It will be largely dependent on your context, strategy, and philosophy of groups. If you don’t help your people to understand what you’re asking of them, they will drift into the assumptions they bring with them.
THEY NEED EFFECTIVE TRAINING
In the coaches meeting, I found out I could take a coaching certification course online through USA Soccer at my own pace and get an “f” license, and the program would pay for it. So I did. And I learned a ton! The video sessions were five to ten minutes long, easy to understand for a beginner, and came with a quiz afterwards. I moved from knowing that you can’t use your hands and off sides is bad, to understanding how USA Soccer believes soccer players develop. I learned skills to grow and mature players, drills and exercises to employ at practice, and how I could avoid harmful mistakes.
The soccer program invested in formal training for their coaches. It made me exponentially better at developing my team because I had high level, professional training. Churches can talk about training and developing leaders, but if we do not make training effective, accessible, and attractive, we won’t see it bear any fruit. They gave us a coaches meeting, but also provided engaging and accessible on-going development opportunities.
I was learning and growing as a coach every week. Are we giving our leaders the same opportunities to mature and grow in their leadership? Are there online resources you can equip them with? Is there space in your budget to provide them with equipping opportunities at conferences, or with coaching or online courses? Is there a local ministry or seminary that can provide resources or training to your leaders?
Any level of formal training we can provide our leaders will mature their faith and ministry. It doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or require a large chunk of our time. With all the digital options at our fingertips, we can cheaply and effectively train and equip our small group leaders. They almost all desire more training, we just have to show them where to find it.
THEY NEED COMMUNITY
Leadership is lonely. Anyone in ministry has learned that very quickly. They need a community of leaders and mentors to lean on when small group life gets discouraging, when they’re criticized, when they make a mistake, or when they feel unsure or lonely. Aside from the great information our soccer league gave us at the coaches meeting, we also walked away with a sense of community. We had a director of coaching who was available to help us build a practice plan, and as a go-to with questions about player development. We had a commissioner we could go to with problems like angry, disruptive parents, referee issues, or conflicts with other coaches.
Where can your first-time small group leader go for help when a group member confesses an affair, is dealing with addiction, has significant conflict with another person in the group, or the church? If our leaders are isolated as they shepherd a group, then hurt, conflict, and difficulty will overwhelm them and make it much more difficult for them to lead their group into a healthy obedience to Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest challenges church leaders face in maturing small group leaders is in seeing the ministry from the perspective of a person who has never done it before. We can’t assume maturity and confidence of the people leading a group. Anyone in church leadership would say mature and effective small group leaders are a cornerstone of the church blossoming into the body of Christ and multiplying disciples, but if we are not intentional about understanding and equipping our leaders, they will not mature into the leaders their groups need them to be.
Coaching soccer is a weird place to learn about maturing small group leaders, but it has radically changed and challenged the way I view leadership development in my church, and I hope it will for you too.
Nick Strobel lives in Terre Haute, Indiana and serves as the Discpleship Pastor at Marlyand Community Church. He and his wife Kayleigh have two boys Ethan and Sawyer, love Jesus, old houses and animals. Follow Nick on Twitter for church stuff, Stars hockey and West Wing quotes.