There’s recently been a wave of interest by judicatories in starting Peer Coaching events among their church leaders. With the inevitable failure of the “Let’s assign the new kid an experienced pastor to mentor them” program, peer coaching seems like the next best thing since frozen Snicker bars. The problem is, although Peer Coaching is a relatively “new” program, it’s already getting a reputation as a general waste of time. Which, in fact, most Peer Coaching programs are. It’s not that the concept isn’t good. It is. Peer Coaching can be extremely effective, but the fact is, there’s more to it than reading a book together, watching a video, or sitting around and complaining about how life as a church leader in the new millennium is difficult.
The question is, why do most Peer Coaching Groups end up being disbanded at best and just another ongoing black-hole of wasted time at worst? I’ve been watching and I can put my finger on four reasons Peer Coaching Groups ultimately fail and I’ll follow that with Seven Keys to Successful Peer Coaching Groups.
First, Peer Coaching Groups seldom help participants achieve many (more often any) long term gains in their ministry. It’s the Peer Coaching corollary to Faith without works are dead: Peer Coaching programs not producing results will die. Church leaders tend to be pretty busy folks. Those in growing churches have more on their plates than they know what to do with. Those trying to lead a transformation are generally dealing with one conflict after another. If they’re going to add one more thing to their schedule they want some assurance there’s going to be a payoff. They’ll only willingly attend if they see real results.
Second, Peer Coaching more often than not becomes a quasi-group therapy session that ultimately degenerates into a cheesy whine party. Now, let me quickly say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with getting together and sharing ministry burdens, anxieties, and frustrations with your peers. Indeed, we all need to vent every now and again in a safe environment and this kind of thing takes place even in healthy and productive Peer Coaching Groups. However, Peer Coaching programs must encourage church leaders to get past the griping to find real-world solutions that actually work. Cheesy whine parties virtually never regenerate into positive-change agencies. And it only takes a couple weeks of never-ending complaining before healthy church leaders decide they’ve got better things to do than hang out with a group of malcontents.
Third, it doesn’t take long in a typical Peer Coaching program before somebody makes the observation that in general, peers who coach each other are often like Ecclesiastes’ blind-leading-the-blind. Peer Coaching, at it’s best, doesn’t absolutely need a brilliant, successful leader. In fact, the best of Peer Coaching is available to virtually any group, but the key to that success is almost always having access to a leader who not only understands “coaching” as a practice, specifically Peer Coaching practices, but who has experience in Peer Coaching. The sad fact is, however, that the vast majority of Peer Coaching sessions depend more on group-think and a lot less of vital coaching concepts, and so the group seldom rises above the lowest common denominator rather than achieving the highest greater good.
Fourth, Peer Coaching, by its very nature, was designed with an egalitarian structure. A group of leaders mutually agree to meet regularly to encourage, inspire, and motivate one another. This band of brothers and sisters covenant to put aside their congregational steeple-sizes in order to share on an even field. However, the fact is, those who are in smaller churches perceive they have much to learn from those in higher steeples. And it doesn’t take long for those in the larger congregations to realize they’ve taken on the role of mentor, which may be nice for the ego, but it takes even less time for them to realize they’ve become the teachers and the only thing they’re getting from their Peer Coaching relationship is a stroked ego—which is hardly a good reason for making a long-term commitment to a group. And so, most Peer Coaching Groups end up bereft of healthy experienced leadership.
With all that working against effective Peer Coaching programs, it’s surprising how much pressure some denominational folks are putting on their clergy to form and participate in Peer Coaching events. I believe, however, they’re invested in Peer Coaching because, at its best, Peer Coaching is one of the most effective tools for encouraging personal growth and effecting behavioral change in church leaders. Successful Peer Coaching programs avoid the previous four failures. And yet, there’s more to great Peer Coaching than avoiding failures. In our experience, we’ve found there are seven keys to a successful Peer Coaching program.
- Successful Peer Coaching programs include both coaching and training. Programs where group coaching comprises the only agenda generally fail not only to bring about personal changes, but the program soon loses the more advanced leaders in the group (see the fourth failure above). A specific church leadership training curriculum will encourage attendance as well as provide a foundation for advanced coaching opportunities.
- Successful Peer Coaching programs are led by a respected coach. Programs where groups are left to take on the coaching themselves generally fail because effective group coaching skills take significant training and time to develop. By engaging a respected coach, the group not only succeeds because they receive effective coaching, but they learn advanced coaching skills through the coach’s modeling.
- Successful Peer Coaching is organized. Peer Coaching Groups often use an organizational model based on flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants. There may be a loose schedule of events, but there are no clear outcomes and no specific plan for achieving or measuring success. Effective coaching of any type is outcome oriented; indeed, that is the very core of what coaching is. However, unless the Peer Coaching program is specific in organizing itself around creating and achieving outcomes, then successful participants are likely to be rare.
- Successful Peer Coaching is goal oriented. Organizing around creating and achieving outcomes isn’t enough; successful Peer Coaching helps church leaders to create their own specific and achievable ministry and personal goals and then their peers help hold them accountable to the goals they’ve generated. Of course, this is the crux of the whole Peer Coaching movement, but you would be surprised how many Peer Coaching programs seem to downplay this key aspect.
- Successful Peer Coaching depends on personal responsibility. It’s nice to create goals, but they’re just words on paper if the participants don’t take responsibility for achieving what they’ve committed. Participants in Peer Coaching take this responsibility seriously because they realize if they don’t, they’re pretty much wasting their time.
- Successful Peer Coaching embraces group accountability. A number of Peer Coaching Groups take creating goals and personal responsibility seriously, but then minimize their role in holding one another accountable to those created goals. Often, the reason for this is a misunderstanding of what group accountability actually is. Group accountability is simply permission to ask the tough questions surrounding expected behaviors. It isn’t about finger-wagging nor about being judgmental in any way.
- Successful Peer Coaching is resourced beyond the group’s ability. Let’s face it, most church leaders have limited abilities to review the plethora of church growth, leadership development, and other resources that are being produced. When a Peer Coaching Group is left to their own resources, they often find themselves being caught up in either the classics or in the recently popular. Though there’s nothing wrong with either the classics or popular books and resources, the fact is, these aren’t always the best tools for church leaders. Successful Peer Coaching Groups are intentionally resourced by someone-someones who has access to wider resources than the participants themselves.
Peer Coaching Groups are really a good idea, but the common perception of “Let’s get a group of church leaders together and have them coach each other … oh, and here’s a book they can use” is a recipe for failure. Only when those developing a Peer Coaching Group or network take into consideration the four common reasons Peer Coaching Groups fail and the Seven Keys to Successful Peer Coaching can we expect a reasonable return on the investment.
Recently, Easum, Bandy, and Associates unveiled their Peer Coaching Leadership Tool for those Peer Coaching Groups looking for direction. You can find out more at http://easumbandy.com/services/peer_coaching/.