“Great coaches help their leaders develop both as persons and leaders.” So says Joel Comiskey in lesson six of “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I am currently going through with our coaches at National Community Church.
Comiskey’s sixth lesson is on development, which he characterizes as a “life-long process of helping a person mature and grow,” as opposed to the short-term process of training.
Toward that end, his focus is on a coach’s need to resource their leaders, equipping them with what they need to succeed. That, of course, entails discovering what they need, and he highlights several things to be on the lookout for — discouragement, knowledge deficiency, personal difficulties, hidden sin, rebellion, and small group member difficulties. As a coach, it’s vital to be knowledgeable and well-informed so you can point leaders to websites, books, articles, conferences, small groups, or other resources they may find beneficial.
Comiskey also notes the importance of “resourcing” in the moment through listening and prayer when a leader shares a deep struggle with you, as well as following up to remind a leader when they need encouragement to follow through with something they’ve committed to.
I often tell our coaches that, when a leader wants a form of mentoring or accountability they aren’t equipped to provide, their job is help the leader find it. That may include coaching them through the process of establishing those relationships, but it also involves resourcing them — pointing them to places where they can find what they need. That may mean directing them to Celebrate Recovery or the C.S. Lewis Institute Fellows Program or encouraging them to join a particular small group where you know members are transparent and vulnerable. As a coach, the more you can be aware of such options, the better equipped you will be to resource your leaders with whatever they need.
I’m going through Joel Comiskey’s “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” with our coaches and we’re on the fifth lesson – serve.
Focusing on servant-leadership, Comiskey writes about the importance of becoming a friend to your leader and encouraging them well. As he states, “Relational authority is the most important type of authority that you can wield.”
He reminds us that we need to make it clear to our leaders that our care for them is not dependent on their performance. While they (and we) are called to bear fruit, doing so is a process that takes time. Supporting them through that process is part of our job, but toward that end our foremost task is to be praying that the Holy Spirit builds the maturity in them that they need.
Comiskey also states that our effectiveness as coaches can be evaluated by whether our leaders’ needs are being met. And the best way to determine that? Ask them! He starts his coaching process by telling his leaders he’ll be asking for feedback so that he’s better able to serve them. Which then takes us back to lesson four — listen!
After covering the logistics, the first lesson I teach our coaches is on listening, a subject Joel Comiskey hits on in lesson four of his book that I’m currently going through with our coaches — “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group.”
Comiskey points out that coaching is quite simple — it consists of focusing on the needs of others rather than your own, primarily through careful listening. But while it’s simple, that doesn’t mean it comes naturally. He cites Stephen Covey, who said, “Most people do not listen to understand; they listen in order to answer. While the other is talking, they are preparing their reply.”
Fortunately, with intentionality and practice, we can become much better listeners. It requires hard work and some intentional skills. Comiskey mentions eye contact, which is one of five steps to attentive listening I talked about at our Helping People Grow May Term group:
- Squarely face the person
- Open your posture
- Lean towards the other
- Eye contact maintained
- Relax while attending
These steps are helpful for communicating to your leaders that you are listening and are interested in what they have to say.
Comiskey also talks about the importance of paying attention to non-verbal communication. This is one of the reasons why I much prefer in-person coaching meetings to phone calls or even Skype or FaceTime. Non-verbal communication such as body language and voice inflection actually make up the majority of a communication experience and much of that can be missed if you’re not in-person. Or, of course, if you’re not listening well!
Listening is a basic skill but one that’s incredibly essential to any relationship — we would all benefit from becoming more effective listeners.
Our NCC small group coaches are slowly working through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey. Lesson three focuses on the importance of planning rather than simply hoping something will happen in your coaching.
Plan to Pray for Your Leaders
I appreciate the fact that Comiskey starts out by emphasizing a need to plan to pray. When we first started our coaching system, I neglected to tell coaches that one of their key responsibilities is to pray for their leaders. Hopefully I thought that was a given, but regardless I now try to be clear that they need to be praying for their leaders and regularly checking in to ask their leaders what they can be praying for. Comiskey reminds us that we are engaged in a spiritual battle — through prayer we can support our leaders even when we aren’t with them.
Plan to Contact Your Leaders
When it comes to coaching, the more proactive we can be about contacting our leaders, the better. I try to send our coaches regular reminders to be contacting their leaders, but the best coaches won’t need a nudge from me. My own coach is very intentional about this — at the end of each meeting, we get the next meeting on the calendar, which is a good way to ensure they happen on a regular basis.
Comiskey also hits on group coaching and phone calls. While I generally steer coaches toward one-on-one meetings, we give them flexibility and a few have found coaching as a group to be very effective for their leaders. Coaching phone calls, on the other hand, can be a potential solution for coaches and leaders who have trouble coordinating their schedules (a common problem in DC).
Plan Your Questions
Our initial coach training emphasizes two things — listening well (which Comiskey hits on in lesson 4) and asking good questions. On the questions front, we want our coaches asking open questions, which have a neutral tone and can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. While it may be a struggle to come up with such questions in the midst of a conversation, Comiskey reminds us that we don’t have to — we can plan questions in advance as we think about individual leaders’ specific circumstances and needs.
In addition, after a coaching meeting we should always record our observations and insights in order to remember what we should be praying for as well as to better prepare us for the next meeting. Being able to refresh our memory before each meeting will enable us to build upon each conversation.
Plan Your Visits to Small Group Meetings
Having coaches visit small groups has never been an official part of our system, although I’ve recently begun throwing it out as an option to our coaches. Comiskey wisely points out that there are some issues a coach will never be aware of unless they visit the leader’s group and he provides some guidelines for doing so, declaring that your primary objective is to encourage the group and the leader. We’ve been hesitant to require this, given our short semesters and concern that leaders would misinterpret the visit as checking up on them rather than as trying to encourage them. But it’s something we may explore more in the future.
Comiskey reminds us not to let our plans lock us into a course of action, but as I’ve mentioned, we often remain flexible in other ways as well. We encourage our coaches to do what works best for them and their leaders — group coaching, coaching phone calls, and small group visits are all options they can try if they think it will be effective. We really want them to take ownership and discover what works for them. And as we like to say at NCC, “everything is an experiment!”
Writing about three pastors who resigned over extramarital affairs, James Emery White makes a point (well, it’s one of several) that all pastors need to remember:
Let me tell you something that you may have never heard before: Ministry is spiritually hazardous to your soul. If you haven’t found that out by now, you will.First, it is because you are constantly doing “spiritual” things, and it is easy to confuse those things with actually being spiritual. For example, you are constantly in the Bible, studying it, in order to prepare a talk. It’s easy to confuse this with reading and studying the Bible devotionally for your own soul.You’re not.You are praying – in services, during meetings, at pot lucks – and it is easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer.You’re not.You are planning worship, leading worship, attending worship, and it is easy to believe you, yourself, are actually worshipping.Chances are, you’re not.When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.
SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen Noah (which you should definitely go see).
Personally, I loved the movie Noah and think we should be glad that it beat out Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted (both of which are also good movies) at the box office this past weekend. Thousands of people watched a movie based on a Bible story highlighting questions of goodness and wickedness, justice and mercy. Those are conversations worth having and hopefully it provoked many to explore the Genesis account and discuss the movie with their Christian friends.
Many Christians, of course, were upset by any deviations from the Biblical account — or from their own interpretation of the Biblical account. While I hope many non-Christians dive into Scripture, I’m also hoping Christians revisit the narrative as well to discern what is actually in the Bible and what are the gaps they’ve filled in themselves.
Toward that end, some thoughts on elements of the film:
The Watchers. I assume there’s a Biblical reason for it, since everyone does it, but the filmmakers followed most Christians’ example and conflated the “sons of God” with the Nephilim, who are both mentioned in Genesis 6:4. No one really knows what either was, although one of the most common interpretations of the “sons of God” is that they were fallen angels who wanted to sleep with human women — we should probably be grateful the filmmakers opted for a different interpretation. The Nephilim were some sort of giants — they’re called “men of renown,” so I suspect they were more human in appearance than the film portrays. The Nephilim are mentioned again in Scripture — they are the giants in the Promised Land in relation to whom the Jewish spies felt like grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33). I found the backstory given to the Watchers to be fascinating, even if the Ent-like rock creatures themselves weren’t my favorite interpretation (see Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for that).
Vegetarianism. This is where I really want Christians to re-read their Bibles. It sure doesn’t seem to me that God gives humans permission to eat animals until after the flood (see Genesis 9). Prior to that, they only talk of eating plants. Abel does raise flocks (possibly for wool?) and sacrifice animals to God, but there’s no mention of eating them. I’m as carnivorous as the next guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noah was probably a vegetarian before the flood. To suggest that the wickedness of man included eating animals when they weren’t supposed to makes sense to me.
Environmentalism. More broadly, is there an environmental angle to the film? Well, it is portraying a Biblical tale where God wipes out all humans but one family while preserving the animals, so it’s kind of hard to avoid a somewhat pro-environment message. But also, keep in mind that we’re dealing with a mere 10 generations after the Creation, among peoples whose history would be primarily oral. It makes complete sense that God is referred to as “The Creator” and that those who follow Him believe it’s important to preserve those things He’d declared to be “good” in the Creation account. I also found the reference to taking only what we need to be reflective of a culture that lives much more closely to the land than we do today. They’d be more akin to the tribal cultures we are familiar with than our own cultural context. Rather than reacting against what we may interpret as environmental propaganda, let’s use this as an opportunity to wrestle through to a better understanding of Scriptural context.
The Wives. Did Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives enter the ark? Technically, yes — two of the wives just did so within the belly of the third. Granted, this is a significant deviation from what we assume happened based on the bare bones description in the Biblical account, but it did set up a very interesting question worth wrestling with — do we trust in God’s provision or do we try to meet our needs our own way? Interestingly, it was in trying to meet the need his own way that Noah got messed up in the head and decided that humanity should end with his family, which then blinded him to God’s provision for that need. And before you say, “Eww, gross, you wanted Ham and Japheth to marry their nieces?”, be reminded that logic dictates a lot of intermarriage in the first few generations of humanity.
Noah Goes Nuts. Well, the drunk, naked Noah is Scriptural, so they had to set that up somehow, right? Actually, I felt like it raised a lot of interesting questions about hearing from God. In the Biblical account, God simply “speaks” and Noah acts, but there’s no record of Noah responding to or interacting with God. With the Bible, we too often fall prey to forgetting that its characters were people like us who experienced God in many ways similar to our own. We assume a big, booming voice from heaven very clearly told Noah what to do. The suggestion that his instructions actually came by way of visions and his grandfather is intriguing. And the suggestion that he got his wires crossed and misunderstood (when he wanted to kill his grandkids) is humbling. Maybe there aren’t as high of stakes, but how often do we wrestle with whether or not we’ve clearly understood God? And how often are we more certain of what God said than we should be?
The Creation Account. I loved the scene where Noah recounts Creation. And I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of walking a fine line of leaving evolution open as a possibility without declaring it to have happened that way.
Methusaleh’s Death. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that if you do the math, Methusaleh dies the year of the flood. I’m glad they kept it that way.
Animals 2 by 2. I’ve heard Christians compliment them on getting this right, when actually this is one area they got wrong. While there was one pair of each of the unclean animals, there were 7 pairs of the clean animals (Genesis 7:2-3). This is a place where filmmakers stuck to the popular understanding even though it’s not entirely Biblical. Can you imagine how much they’d be getting attacked if they’d actually been Biblical on this point?
Anyway, those are some general thoughts I had following the film and reading others’ commentary. Personally, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion is a win.
I’m excited about the upcoming Noah movie, but am also well aware that a lot of Christians have expressed concerns and the movie has already come in for a great deal of criticism. While I can’t speak to the legitimacy of much of that criticism until I’ve seen the movie, some of it has demonstrated a need for Christians to revisit the Noah narrative themselves, to make sure their critiques are, in fact, Biblical. There are also a few other things they need to be aware of.
Toward that end, I’d recommend rereading Genesis 6-9 and remembering the following:
- Who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men and had children by them? Angels? Fallen angels? We don’t know. Given the context, many interpretations have a very sexualized nature to them, but Noah filmmaker Darren Aronofsky says they took a more metaphorical approach to avoid being too graphic for families.
- Who were the Nephilim? These “heroes of old, men of renown” are also a mystery to us. Personally, my favorite interpretation is found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, but that, too, is just a guess.
- What did the “wickedness of man” at that time involve? Well, apparently violence, corruption, and evil — the Bible doesn’t get any more specific than that. We should be careful not to project our own ideas of the most heinous sins onto the situation and assume we’re correct. The Noah narrative occurs just a few chapters in Genesis after God gave man stewardship responsibility for the earth, so an interpretation that part of the wickedness involved stewarding the earth poorly is valid and not necessarily an attempt to create environmental propaganda.
- How did the people of Noah’s day respond to his building of a boat? Here again, we don’t know. Regardless of how many sermons we’ve heard on how we need to be “fools for Christ” just like Noah seemed to be when he built a boat in the middle of the desert, the Old Testament narrative is silent on this question. The New Testament does refer to this time, but simply to draw a parallel with the Second Coming and state that most people were oblivious and caught unawares by the flood.
- How did God speak to Noah? You guessed it — we don’t really know. The Bible says He “spoke” which we tend to assume means a big, booming voice from heaven, despite the fact that our own experience of God’s voice tends to be different than that.
- How did Noah respond to God? He obeyed. But apart from his actions, we have no record of him speaking to God in response to what God tells him. When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham urged Him to show mercy. Why didn’t Noah do the same? Apparently this question drove much of the film’s explorations of what it means to be righteous.
- How did Noah refer to God? Well, as noted, typically he doesn’t — his conversations with God are almost all one-sided with God speaking to him. But on the one occasion he does speak in reference to God, he uses Yahweh and Elohim, which we usually translate “The LORD” and “God.” However, it’s worth remembering that out of respect many Jews today are cautious about pronouncing God’s name and instead use substitute names for God (e.g., “the Creator,” which we hear in the film trailer). That’s worth keeping in mind when considering criticizing the film for not including the word “God.”
- Did Noah get drunk and naked? Yes, he did. The film may or may not merit criticism for how it portrays that, but remember that it is in fact part of the Biblical narrative.
- Was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”? Yes, but that doesn’t come from the Old Testament narrative, that’s from 2 Peter 2:5. Since the film seems based on the Old Testament narrative, I’m not sure we can fault them if that’s not part of their characterization.
- Isn’t the film adding extrabiblical material? Well, yeah, but so does the Son of God every time the actor playing Jesus changes his facial expression. Any portrayal of Bible stories is going to fill in gaps, hopefully they just do so in a way that doesn’t contradict what’s actually in the text. And hopefully we as Christians are aware of when we’re projecting extrabiblical understanding of our own (if you believe there were 3 wise men, you need to re-read your Bible — but that’s another post for another time).
Rather than prejudging the film and staying away, I’d encourage Christians to see and evaluate it for themselves and, more importantly, engage friends, family, and coworkers in the discussions of faith the movie is already provoking.
A major movie is highlighting a Bible story and drawing out themes of goodness, wickedness, mercy, and justice. The culture is ripe for frank and honest conversations about faith. Are we ready?
I’m continuing to work through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey in conjunction with our team of small group coaches, which I lead. Lesson two is on learning – specifically, learning from failure, learning from your own small group leadership experiences, and learning about your leaders by spending time with them.
Learning from Failure
Comiskey points out that there are no shortcuts – we learn from experience and we gain experience by making mistakes. While mistakes invite self-condemnation and attacks from the enemy, the reality is that Jesus uses inadequate people – it is in our weakness that He becomes strong. We must continually cling to that truth and keep trying.
God hates passivity. Comiskey quotes Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Boundaries: “The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try.” As Hebrews 10:38 says, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”
Learning from Leading
For small group coaches, one of the best experiences to learn from is leading small groups ourselves, which is why we make that a prerequisite for coaches. This allows us to draw from our own experiences – both positive and negative. In fact, often it is our failures that are more helpful to our leaders than our successes. I’m always amazed at God’s ability to redeem anything, and in coaching one of the most gratifying experiences is to see God repurpose our own negative experiences to benefit our leaders.
Learning through Spending Time
Simply put, we learn about our leaders through spending time with them. But how much is enough? And how much is too much?
While we ask our coaches to meet with their leaders a minimum of three times each semester, over the long term we seek to learn how much time a leader needs from us. That will vary depending on the leader. As Comiskey notes, the key question is whether or not the leader feels cared for. It may be as simple as asking, “How much time do you need to spend with me to be a more effective leader?”
We are life-long learners. Comiskey identifies the foundational coaching principles as listening, caring, developing, strategizing, and challenging (which he explores in the following lessons). As we learn from our failures, from our own leadership experiences, and from interaction with our leaders, we can build upon those principles and continue to grow in our ability to coach.
Our small group coaches have begun working through Joel Comiskey’s training manual “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I highly recommend.
The first lesson focuses on our ability to receive. As it’s been said, ministry flows out of being. The effectiveness of a coach depends on his or her own relationship with Christ. Comiskey reminds us that you can’t lead a person beyond the place where you are and that your character will eventually find you out. No matter how talented or gifted you are, that’s no substitute for virtues like honesty, faithfulness and good judgment.
So what’s the key to receiving well? Comiskey points to spending time with God each day, taking a day off each week, and prioritizing relationships with those closest to you.
Time with God
Henry Blackaby has said that what we need more than anything is unhurried time with God. Spending time with Him each day enables us to know Him better, learn from His Word, be empowered by His Spirit, and grow accustomed to His voice. It’s essential, but far too often we allow it to be crowded out by other activities or by liberal use of the snooze button (or maybe that’s just me). We need to remember Who it is we are meeting with and make it a priority.
After being convicted by Blackaby’s “unhurried time” statement, I’ve tried increasing my often rushed morning quiet time to a full hour so I have plenty of time to read a devotional (by Blackaby, coincidentally), read my Bible (a friend and I pick a new book to focus on each month), journal, pray, and spend time silently waiting on God. Rarely do I actually spend a full hour (that darn snooze button) and it fails to happen altogether far more often than it should, but the key is to be moving in the right direction.
A Day Off
God didn’t design us to work 7 days a week. That’s just the way it is. If we do so, we’ll get out of balance and burn out.
Several years ago Heather and I read “The Rest of God” by Mark Buchanan (which I also highly recommend) and began being much more intentional about setting aside a day each week where we refrain from “work” and only do activities that recharge us. I’m an introvert and she’s an extrovert, so it may not always look the same for us, but we’ve both found it extremely helpful. I’m able to be much more productive during the week when I know that I have a day off approaching. And implementing Sabbath gave me time to add back into my life activities (like cooking and reading) that bring me joy but had gotten squeezed out by busyness. More joy is always a good thing.
We all need close, intimate relationships where we can know and be known. We grow in our relationship with God as we are able to share our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with our spouse and close friends. If you don’t prioritize your family life and those closest to you, you won’t have much to offer those you are coaching.
Heather and I always have room for improvement, but we have established many ways to ensure we remain close and connected, including date nights every other week, monthly goals/calendar/budget breakfasts, and an annual prayer retreat. Keeping our relationship on solid footing enables us to more effectively minister to others.
So how are you doing in terms of receiving? Do you have a daily quiet time, a weekly Sabbath, and are you cultivating your relationship with family and close friends?
What is it you need to do? Don’t just ponder it – go do it.
I’ve heard it said that the Christian 4-letter F-word is “Fine.” As in, “how are you today?” “Oh, I’m fine.” I can’t remember the last time I had a meaningful conversation with my spouse, my boss’s criticism is causing me to question my self-worth, and I don’t understand how a good God could let my cousin’s kids lose their dad to cancer, but “I’m fine.”
If everyone in your small group is “fine,” they aren’t going to experience much life change.
When someone brings their hurt and pain to the group, rather than thinking “Oh no, what do I do about this?” your inward response should be, “At last! Now we’re getting somewhere!”
All of us have experienced the hurts and wounds that come throughout life and small groups should be a safe place for God to bring them to the surface and deal with them.
So don’t freak out.
Depending on how you’re wired, your tendency may be to shut down those expressing their hurt in fear that they’ll bleed all over the furniture (figuratively speaking), make the other members uncomfortable, and derail the direction you planned to take the group. Instead, you swiftly and smoothly tell them you’ll pray with them after group and then refer them up the ladder to a church staff member who can guide them to the “professional” help they need.
Yes, there’s a time and place for that, but don’t short-circuit the process of what God wants to do in and through your group. A healthy group should be a place where members can process and deal with hurts and wounds from both the past and the present.
So what can your group do?
- Be present. Most often, people who reveal their hurts simply want others to be there for them. Hear them out and demonstrate a commitment to walk with them through the pain.
- Validate their pain. Acknowledge the legitimacy of their emotions. Let them know you’ve been there too – their reaction is totally understandable.
- Clarify the situation. Depending on what hurt or pain they’ve experienced, they may have a skewed perspective of the situation. Help them to think it through and gain clarity.
- Supply strength. They may need the group to provide emotional support and strength that they are lacking on their own. How can you as a group come around them and provide the resources they need to deal with or walk through the situation?
- Make a plan. Will time heal wounds and you simply need to walk with them through the process? Or do they need to take specific steps to deal with the situation? Where steps are called for, help them to think them through clearly and realistically.
- Maintain group identity. Be aware of how others in the group are responding to the situation. While other group members can grow through providing support to the hurt person, don’t allow the group to become solely about that person’s issues. Maintain boundaries that permit the rest of the group to continue to grow and process their own issues.
It’s been said that you can’t know you are truly loved until you are truly known. Through being honest about the hurt they are dealing with, your small group member is letting you know them at a deeper level.
As the other members experience this and come alongside the hurt member in their pain, they know that they can be real and honest about the hurts they experience and the group will be there for them as well.
Say hello to true community.
Previously posted at BibleStudyInsider.com.