In the spirit of Ephesians 4:12, part of your calling is to equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. Especially if you are equipping multiple congregations and ministries. You want to equip leaders well for the work of the ministry and you’re looking for ways to do that most effectively. A missional cohort is a powerful method for equipping leaders.
But let’s stop and take a step back to look at the bigger picture. Equipping them for what? What are you hoping to help them accomplish? If people were fully equipped for every good work, what would that look like? What would we see? We would see people everywhere living and loving like Jesus, serving as his disciples and being a light in the world. As they’re growing and blessing others, they would discern those in whom God seems to be especially at work and invite them in to follow Jesus as well, getting them established in the faith. Everyone would be growing personally as a disciple at the same time as they are helping others to grow as disciples, for everyone has something to learn and something to share. To whom much is given, much is expected.
These disciples would then gather into groups for mutual support and encouragement, spurring one another on to continue to live and love like Jesus. Some would become leaders, shepherding the flock and reaching out to the world simultaneously—not as two opposite actions, but as one whole. For shepherding well includes the challenge of an outward focus. New people would be reached, new disciples developed, new ministries started, new leaders sent out, and new churches planted. In this way, we see the coming of the Kingdom of God.
That’s what we all want. That’s what’s really needed. Yet the methods we’ve been trying in the past haven’t been resulting in the full fruit that we had hoped for. Why not? Maybe they’ve been too piecemeal, too partial, or too short-term. And of course, continuing to do what has not worked in the past will not lead to success. We’re going to need to try something new… and something bigger. To see true Kingdom transformation—a sustained movement toward the desired goals—that’s worth investing in. Short-term efforts aren’t the answer. Piecemeal fixes aren’t the answer. What’s needed is fundamental systemic change over the long haul. What’s needed is the truly comprehensive approach of missional cohorts.
Missional Cohorts Bridge the Gap
Missional cohorts are a proven process that works. They provide a structure for resourcing people so they can achieve key ministry results… results that effect lasting change.
With missional cohorts, you can get the kind of traction needed to build and sustain a whole ministry flow: people living and loving like Jesus, engaged in serving others with compassion, growing as disciples, helping others grow as disciples, and blessing the community. Missional cohorts provide a way to reimagine and retool the equipping process for whole networks of churches. This approach can get you where you want to go.
What is a Missional Cohort?
A missional cohort is a gathering of people from multiple churches or communities who come together to journey intentionally toward a shared goal. And to be missional, of course, that goal that is Kingdom-oriented. It could be a group of church planters and their key leaders who want to band together to support one another as they plant new churches. It could be ministry teams focused on the spiritual development of children. Or it could be a group of leaders wanting to foster more holistic, compassionate discipleship coming out of their congregations.
In working with various groups focused on their own specific goals, I’ve designed an adaptable process that keeps them on track. I’ve found that certain relationships, environments, and processes need to be present for missional cohorts to get traction and make optimal progress. If done with intentionality and discipline, this process will yield reliably positive results, resulting in vast ministry potential. So if you are ready to create a missional cohort, here’s how to do it.
4 Essential Components of Missional Cohorts
These 4 components help you develop a healthy and effective cohort that can help you accomplish your vision. I’ve broken down each of them for you.
1. Clarify the desired outcomes of the Missional Cohort
Before equipping people to do anything, you need to know what you’re aiming for—a rubric or a standard of some kind. No one can hit a target if they don’t know where it is. Clarify specifically what you’re trying to accomplish, and define it in measurable, behavioral ways. How would you know if you’re achieving the desired result? What are the indicators of progress? Too often we focus on activities or events, but not on whether those activities or events are yielding the intended results. Be sure you’re measuring the actual outcomes, not the means.
What would it look like if we fully engaged with the mission of Jesus together? These would be some of the desired outcomes:
- Living and loving like Jesus
- Discerning those in whom God may be at work
- Bridging people into discipleship
- Growing as whole life followers of Jesus, while making disciples
- Serving others in the name of Jesus
- Gathering with other believers for encouragement, worship, and prayer
- Developing and multiply leaders for ministry
- Sending leaders to plant new communities and churches
Bridging people into discipleship
Now how do we make each of these clear and behavioral? For instance, how would we know if someone was bridging people into discipleship? Here’s a sample of how we might fill that out to create a clearer picture:
- Praying for people God brings across your path
- Building and strengthening those relationships
- Beginning spiritual dialogues
- Listening to the person and to the Holy Spirit
- Having purposeful conversations about the gospel
- Encouraging others to become followers of Jesus
- Establishing them in the body of Christ
- Teaching loving obedience to Jesus
However you choose to word your specific missional goals, make sure they are clear, behavioral, and measurable. We need to be able to see how the outcomes look from a practical standpoint: spell it out concretely.
2. Establish covenant relationships.
Individuals, or teams from just one church, can certainly pursue missional goals on their own. But how much better and easier it is to work alongside a like-minded group of people who can provide structure, support, and accountability for progress? And it’s certainly more biblical. We were never designed to be on mission alone, but to give and receive support from each other. Almost all effective ministry comes via groups and teams.
Missional cohorts provide a relational commitment to support and encourage each other in pursuit of that mission. In joining intentionally with others, we are agreeing that we want to see the mission succeed and we’re willing to work together with others who want the same thing. It’s a relationship with a purpose, a team we are committing to join for the accomplishment of a clear outcome. Functionally, a cohort is not a family or a church or a community, but a team with a goal.
Building trusted relationships
So what kind of relational commitments do we need to make to each other in order to journey together effectively toward biblical mission? We need the kind of covenant relationships described in Hebrews 10:23-25: Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
That means learning from one another, challenging one another, supporting one another, meeting together, and encouraging one another while moving toward love and good deeds. It means being transparent and accountable; it means listening to God together to discern how he wants us to pursue his ends. A missional cohort is that kind of committed relationship. It’s not just a support group, not just an accountability group, not just a task group, not just a prayer group, not just a learning community. It’s a relationship including all of these components, but also a cohesive group of people on mission together. A common shared vision is that of more and better disciples, leaders, groups, and ministries. A goal of blessing the surrounding communities in Jesus’s name has been committed to by all.
Commitment to the Missional Cohort
Since the purpose of the cohort is to work together toward a shared goal, it’s vital to ensure that every person and team joining the cohort has full buy-in to the mission and agrees on the desired outcomes. In a word, they are all aiming at the same target. They don’t all have to get there in the same way, but they all need to be aiming toward the same thing. Agreement on the outcomes to be pursued is essential.
3. Create an optimal environment for growth.
Just as a greenhouse provides multiple elements necessary for health and growth—light, heat, moisture, soil, trellises to attach onto as they grow—the same is true for missional cohorts. Certain environments, relationships, and process should be in place for the missional cohorts to be as effective as possible. Essential components for journeying together well include the following:
Get the right people in the room
From my experience, when you’re doing a multi-congregation or multi-ministry cohort, you need to make sure to get all of the right people in the room. I led a cohort once for new church planters, and we discovered it was far more powerful when spouses and key lay leaders were also a part of the cohort gatherings. They would travel together, be part of the discussion, get on board with the ideas, and then have critical mass for follow up when they got back to their setting. In this way, the planters were not doing the work of the ministry all on their own. They were part of a team of people who were equally invested and called and were part of the process. An ideal cohort will include at least two or three people from each church or ministry represented.
Maintain focus on the mission
Cohort gatherings need to be facilitated in a way that helps people stay focused and make progress—a way that keeps the goal in mind. Ideally a skilled coach will help facilitate the cohort meetings so they don’t veer off into unprofitable directions. Having someone serve as the leader of the meeting will help ensure that the agenda is covered, items are not forgotten, next steps are confirmed, and forward progress is made. A cohort—at its core—is a relational coaching environment. It’s not teaching; it’s discussion and processing toward a clear end. Having a coach facilitate the gathering provides accountability, consistent movement toward implementation, and a way to maintain focus on the mission.
Foster supportive relationships
Peer relationships are usually the most attractive part of a missional cohort for participants. Even aside from the learnings and the insights yielded by the interaction, there is nothing like a roomful of people who are sharing the risk, joy, and adventure of being on mission together. Be sure to allow enough time for supportive relationships to develop. Several factors are key to the creation of a healthy, connected, supportive cohort:
- Create a safe environment by allowing for the sharing of different opinions.
- State the expectation of confidentiality within the group.
- Allow plenty of time for personal interaction and relationship building.
- Enjoy a meal together before, during, or after the cohort gatherings.
- Remember that the people are more important than the content.
- Be sure to incorporate prayer.
- Allow time for sharing and encouragement, with plenty to time to process.
- Encourage people to hold one another accountable on progress on their action steps between meetings.
Being sure to include space not only for ministry goals but for personal goals and growth as well makes a big difference in the tenor of the gatherings. That means caring for one another as people, not just as representatives of ministry projects. It means celebrating successes together and mourning losses together. It means forming a community that truly supports one another.
Translate ideas into action steps
Effective missional cohorts must conclude every gathering by being intentional about translating the ideas discussed into concrete priorities with actionable steps. Without this element, participants walk away inspired but without any clear direction. By translating critical ideas into concrete action steps, light is shed on the path ahead. In this way, you make progress each time, revisiting the planning again when you come together. In this way, you make consistent progress toward the desired goals.
Provide consistent coaching
Much of the work of the ministry will need to be accomplished between cohort meetings, so don’t neglect the needed follow up during that time. Incorporating consistent coaching makes the biggest difference between effective implementation and plans that never come to fruition. Coaching between meetings dramatically helps with follow through on action points and with making mid-course corrections when needed. It helps individuals and teams accelerate their development and maintain their focus. Essentially, coaching is what keeps the whole cohort process goal-focused and moving forward productively.
4. Strategic accountability conversations.
For a missional cohort to be more than a support group or a learning community, intentional time needs to be set aside—approximately every four months—for everyone to report on progress toward their goals. These strategic conversations keep the cohort outcome-focused, reaffirming the commitment to the stated goals. For each participant or team to share what got accomplished and what didn’t get accomplished helps people shape their goals for next time. The accountability aspect isn’t about micromanaging, but about assessing overall progress toward goals. It essentially answers the question, “Did you really accomplish the results you set out to accomplish?” which takes us back to point number one: clarifying the desired outcomes.
Start with celebration
I’d recommend setting aside the first part of each accountability conversation to focus only on the positives, which people are usually far too quick to gloss over or move on from. Too often we start with what fell short. Psychologically and spiritually, it’s hard to deal with that. Beginning instead with the positives shifts our perspective to how we’re seeing God at work. Take time to answer questions like, “What has been accomplished? Where have we seen God show up? What has been going well? How can we thank God together?” Stopping to dwell on the positives—and being intentional about celebrating them—has a surprisingly significant effect on long-term progress and on the energy level of the group as a whole. Starting with the positives then provides people with more courage to face the challenges that need to be addressed to move forward.
From there, you can branch into an evaluative process similar to that described in John 15, the parable of the vine and the branches. What branches need to be pruned? Nurtured? Grafted? Redirected? Scheduled strategic conversations can help keep everyone accountable to their goals so they can measure results and take appropriate action to continue to move forward most effectively. After all, continuing to be faithful in doing what isn’t working will not yield fruit. Reflecting on and examining processes that work—and processes that don’t work—allow us to identify the elements that led to success. Then we can replicate the items that work and eliminate the ones that don’t work, improving the process for everyone.
Invest beyond team building
Remember that in addition to going through this type of strategic accountability conversation as a team, you can also use the opportunity to develop people as individuals. Build in some questions throughout the process like, “How have you grown as a leader?” and “What might be next for your personal development?” In this way, you are investing in individuals at the same time as you are helping the team move forward toward their corporate goals. Both elements can be part of strategic accountability conversations.
Sample plan for a missional cohort
This provides a basic framework for creating one, although it will obviously need to be adapted for the specific goals and needs of each group.
Principles of the cohort model
Here are the basic principles, in chronological order, for how to move forward in a cohort:
1. Initial consultation:
You need an initial conversation to communicate the structure and purpose of the cohort.
2. Selection of participants:
Carefully select the practitioners and influencers that you need in the room.
3. Cohort meetings:
Gather together every four months for about a day and a half to tackle a key area you’re working on.
Provide coaching for cohort’s participants between cohort gatherings to help them work through implementation.
5. Launching of pilot projects:
Underscore your value for innovation and outward momentum by regularly launching new pilot projects.
6. Additional coaches trained:
You’ll need to regularly raise up new generations of coaches to continue expanding the movement and the cohorts.
7. Opening of additional cohorts:
As your movement grows and your number of coaches and ministries grows, your cohorts will also grow– proactively plan for that expansion.
How to run a cohort group:
We recommend gathering the whole cohort together three times per year for a period of two years (for a total of six gatherings). Usually two to three days is sufficient for a cohort gathering. Then when you gather, focus on the most important strategic issue that needs to be addressed. Send preparation resources and ask each member of the cohort to come prepared to discuss the questions during the cohort gathering. Based on your conversation around the questions, you will then engage in strategic planning during the remainder of your cohort gathering.
Key questions for planning cohort meetings
- Focus – What needs will we seek to address in this cohort meeting?
- Engage – What activity will engage participants as we begin?
- Skill – What skill(s) will we seek to develop?
- Action planning – How will we help the participants prioritize their next steps?
- Relationships – What activities will encourage relationships between participants?
- Prayer – When and how will participants be engaged in meaningful prayer?
- Coaching – What opportunities will participants have for coaching conversations?
Sample Missional Cohort meeting template
- Reporting, celebrating, getting everyone on same page, prayer
- Introduction of the major theme.
- Processing with the team to identify the key issues they need to be tackling and addressing.
- Begin working through key implementation issues and questions.
- Continue working through key implementation issues and questions.
- Identification of key issues
- Introduction of tools and resources: orientation and instruction
- Working/planning implementation
- Consolidating, focusing, figuring out how to be coaching forward. Assignments and clarification of issues you’ll be coaching people on.
- Clarification of coaching support between now and next cohort meeting. ∙
- Scheduling of next cohort meeting and setting of agenda.
- Team presentation of their plans.
- Celebration of learning, breakthroughs.
- Commissioning and sending.
If you are serious…
If you are truly focused on Kingdom progress, the missional cohort is a critical tool for getting there. That means you’ll need to get serious about developing and facilitating them. By helping leaders learn from one another, you can help keep the focus where it belongs: on ministry results that reflect what God is calling you to do. This type of accountable peer leadership will help keep you on track during the difficult times.
We can help
Please let us know if you would like us to come alongside you as you engage this process of raising up and multiplying missional cohorts coaches focused on the mission of Jesus. We can help guide your experience with best practices and proven principles, learning from the successes and mistakes of others who have gone before you. We’ll listen with you as you discern what God is calling you to do in this next season of faithful focus, so that you can one day stand before God and say you have completed the work he has called you to do. Together, we can create supportive environments where we can spur one another on toward love and good deeds… so we can move into the future of all that God has for us.
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)