Leadership Coaching in the Local Church (Developing Leaders of Leaders)

By Janet McMahon

“The fruit of my work grows up on other people’s trees.” (Bob Buford)1

The phone call went something like this, “I was praying for you last night; how did it go?”

I was juggling my 6-month-old son on one hip while wedging the phone between my ear and shoulder. “It went OK . . . I think,” I replied.

What was this conversation? This was a coaching call. I had led my first women’s small group at Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, the night before. The call was from Sue, my coach. She wanted to know how things went at my small group. We held our coaching conversation while we both multitasked, me with my infant son, and Sue with her playful 1-year–old.

Sue asked: Who came to the group? Did I have fun leading? Did I have any concerns? She wanted to know how she could support me and pray for me. Wow. This was my first experience with volunteer coaching in the local church, and I loved it.

I was intrigued. So I picked up Carl George’s book, Prepare Your Church for the Future, and read about his model for leadership development in the local church. I saw that my coach was using this model to develop me as a small group leader.

Little did I know that I would spend the next decade and beyond developing my leadership and coaching skills as a volunteer in the church. Not only that, but ultimately I would leave social work for vocational ministry, where my main responsibilities would be to equip and empower volunteer coaches.

Over the years I have been a companion to coaches who have been responsible for developing leaders in the church. And when those with leadership gifts are encouraged to use these gifts without hesitation or reservation, the mission of helping people find their way back to God takes off.


Coaching has been around since the early days of the New Testament church. God, it seems, desired for a few leaders to equip the church to do his work. And as the Holy Spirit empowered their efforts, these early Christians saw amazing results.

Ephesians 4:11, 12 lays it out for us: “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (New Living Translation).

Dave Ferguson, lead pastor of Community Christian Church, puts it this way, “The dream of God is not for the church to be led by one person, but that it would be a playing field for great teams led by great coaches. And when the game is on the line and the final point needs to be scored, the ball will be in the hands of volunteer leaders, and those leaders need to be coached to make the winning shot.”

Create a Coaching Structure
My first staff role was in children’s ministry. At that time we were providing leadership for several hundred kids during two Sunday morning services. There were more than 30 leaders and volunteers to care for, develop, and train. Since I had experienced great coaching in small group ministry, I figured it also would work well in kids’ ministry.

I remember sitting down with my “coach” at the time, Jon Ferguson, and showing him a sheet of paper I titled “The Dream Team.” I had created a structure of hand-picked leaders who would become coaches who would care for and develop three to five leaders for each area of our kids’ ministry. I told him I had been reading Carl George’s book. He smiled.

One thing I often remember Dave Ferguson saying to our staff, “God will send us only the amount of people we can adequately take care of.” So creating a care and leadership development structure was a high priority for our staff from the very beginning.

It was much like Jethro’s advice to Moses.

When Jethro visited Moses, he noticed that the people would come to Moses for advice. All day long the people would stand in line to talk with Moses, and when Moses could not get to all of them in a day, they would go home unsatisfied. So Jethro challenged Moses to select capable, God-fearing men and “appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” to help him do his work (Exodus 18:17-23).

Jethro advised Moses to come up with a plan for developing others to help care for the people—a leadership structure, if you will. This advice no doubt served Moses well. I’m sure he was relieved and the people were more adequately cared for.

Give Away Real Responsibility
After several years of kids’ ministry, and then taking a break to have my third child, I joined the church staff again as director of the support and recovery ministry. It was in this role, through many mistakes, I learned valuable lessons about releasing leadership potential in the church. But one particular lesson stands out for me.

The conversation started like this, “Janet, I don’t think this coaching thing is for me. . . .”

Sharon had been a volunteer coach in the support and recovery ministry for a few months; she provided support, challenge, and encouragement to three support group leaders. From my perspective, Sharon was an ideal coach. She had worked hard on her own recovery and had led effective support groups for several years. She was a kind, compassionate, mature, and self-aware leader. She was a natural fit for our coaching model.

So when she approached me with these words, I was taken aback and disappointed. I asked her why, of course, and Sharon gave me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned as a leader.

“You don’t need me,” Sharon said.

What? I thought. Of course I need her. Doesn’t she know we are working to expand the ministry from one campus to three, and expand from offering about 12 support groups to more than 30 across the area? None of this can happen without great coaching for our support and recovery group leaders. What does she mean I don’t need her?

Sharon explained with grace and compassion. “Janet, you do everything yourself. If a leader has a problem, they come to you, and you work it out with them. If they have a question, they ask you, and you help them come up with answers and solutions. You decide what groups we are going to offer. You cast the vision; you make stuff happen.”

Yikes, I thought, she is right.

Sharon carefully described to me a lesson of leadership I have repeated and quoted to many other leaders over the years. When developing coaches, you have to give away real responsibility. It can’t be fake responsibility or pretend responsibility . . . it has to be real. Coaches need to cast vision, listen to problems, ask good questions, and draw out the best of the leaders they are working with. They need real responsibility to which they are held accountable.

But sometimes those of us in vocational ministry have a problem that creates a problem for volunteer coaches. We tend to misunderstand our role in the church. We act as if we believe we alone have the vision and all the leadership gifts; we attend to all the leaders and, in a sense, make everything happen.

When we do this, the only thing we accomplish is to slow everything down. When it all depends on our vision, our leadership, and our influence in the lives of others, we become the bottleneck that keeps the ball from moving down the court and stymies the rapid reproduction of leaders.

Imagine a basketball team on which one player is designated to dribble the ball down the court and to take, and make, every shot. The game will be lost. One person cannot possibly do it all. The player (or minister) gets tired and needs the help and input of others.

We were designed to play as a team and to do the Jesus mission in community with others.


While we realize there are many players on the team, often in the church we function as though the pastor and church staff, the professionals, are the coaches, and the people of the church are the players. But what if we saw the people of the church, those with leadership gifts, as the ones who coach?

If we began to release the leadership potential within our local communities of believers and encouraged leadership coaching among those with leadership gifts, we would have an unstoppable movement. Coaches would bring out the best potential for the kingdom from those around them.


1 See leadershipblog.blogspot.com/2005/09/leadership-blog-interview-bob-buford.html.

A mom of three children, JANET McMAHON serves as church planter and community life director with Restore Community Church, Kansas City, Missouri (www.restorecc.org). She and her husband Troy, “along with a gifted staff team and a volunteer launch team,” planted the church in March 2008. The congregation plans to begin a second campus in Liberty, Missouri, this March.

She holds a BSW from the University of Kansas and served as small groups and support and recovery director with Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois, from 1995 to 2007.

You Might Also Like

My Memories of Marshall Leggett

My Memories of Marshall Leggett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *