Develop Coaches (or Better Stated "Elders")
From the embryonic days of small group ministry, leadership oversight and coaching has been a crucial component. Every small group resource on my self speaks to the importance of establishing oversight structures. Even the house church movement sees the need for oversight. I’m not going to get into the details of these structural patterns, as that has been done many times over, including in two of my own books. Coaching structures tend to be a big focus when we talk about coaching. Instead, I want to talk about what group members and group—not just leaders—actually need in order to move into a new way of life. In a nutshell, they need elders.
Coaching & Eldering
One of the common responses to the idea of coaching goes something like this, “My group leaders don’t want the input of a coach or a pastor. They find the extra meetings a waste of time. They lead groups quite well on their own.” Research states just the opposite. Jim Egli performed an extensive statistical study on what impacts group health and life and the evidence is beyond conclusive: "The single thing that impacts group life more than any other is the ministry of the coach." So if people don’t want it, just what is it that they don’t want? And if it has such a huge impact, what part of coaching makes the difference?
Leaders don’t want oversight. They don’t want a big brother telling them what to do. And they don’t want extra meetings to explain lots of theory about what should be happening in their small group. Some leaders want a relationship with a leader who can mentor them and encourage them on the journey, but not all leaders desire this.
But there is something that impacts groups far more than conventional coaching. Groups move forward toward group life that experience community and mission by “eldering.” Previously, the small group world has emphasized the relationship between the coach or pastor with the leader, urging coaches to meet with leaders to support, encourage, and mentor them. And while I am in no way saying that this function needs to be tossed, as many leaders need to be coached and mentored, I am saying that groups need something different.
Eldering might very well involved coaching and encouraging the leader, but role of coaching does not necessary include the ministry of an elder. The elder invests in the people that belong to the various groups under his care. I hope you clearly understand the distinction I am making here. The common imagination of a coach—at least in the most popular books on the topic—is that the ministry is to and through the small group leaders. I am using the world elder to point to the role of a leader who cares for the groups as a whole, not just the leaders.
What is an Elder?
Basically, the term for elder (presbutas) denotes someone who is older and more experienced. It was a common practice in the wider culture for elders to serve the Jewish religion or a city. This practice was carried over into the church. Paul established churches, then appoint elders to lead the church when he left. To be clear, I'm not using the word elder to reference an official office within church government. I'm talking about it in functional and relational terms.
The New Testament does not provide us with detailed descriptions about how the leadership of the early church was structured. It is not possible to base modern church leadership upon the specific structures of the early church because we lack a clear outline of what that looked like. I’m not using the word elder here to try to get back to an early church perspective. Instead, I use it to demonstrate the desperate need within the church for experienced people to guide and lead others. Age is one contributing factor, but experience in walking with the Lord is even more important. Elders have been shaped to be people who can guide others.
Eldership with this understanding will include coaching and mentoring of small group leaders, but it also means the care and investment into the life of the small groups or house churches. I’ve heard it said many times that the coach should not step in and involved himself or herself intrusively in the life of a group. Instead, they should work through the leaders. The same is said about pastors. They should not visit a group because they will step on the authority of the group leader. On one level, this is good advice. Those in official church positions can exert their authority in ways that shut down other leaders. At the same time, when someone is living in a mature, whole walk with Christ and they are serving the church in leadership, why would we restrain them from ministering to the entire group? That just does not make sense.
Of course, elders would do this in a way that does not dominate or disempower the small group leaders. Instead they would come alongside and serve the group (See 1 Peter 5:1-4).
How have you seen the impact of coaches who empower groups through eldering verses those who coach out of position?
[This post is abbreviated and adapted from chapter 12 of MissioRelate.]