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The Power of Coaching in the Local Church

Learn the power coaching can have on your congregation and its impact on the way you lead and serve.

By Chad Hall

Author's introduction

Near the end of 2 days of training in Portland, I noticed Gary gazing out the window. While we discussed what a shift to a coach approach would mean to ministry, Gary seemed lost in his own world. His participation in class had been normal up until this point, so I was a bit perplexed by his sudden disengagement.

I approached him at the next break and asked him what was on his mind. “This is either going to change everything or kill my ministry,” came his cryptic reply.

“Pretty strong options,” I said. “What do you want it to be?”

Soon we discussed how and if coaching should become a part of Gary’s role as lead pastor. As students returned from break, their eavesdropping evolved into a full-class discussion

The topic of how coaching can bless a church made for an excellent ending to the class that day. Gary walked away with fresh ideas for serving Christ and his congregation. Since that day with Gary, I have witnessed many ministry leaders wrestle with what coaching is and how it might impact the way they serve.

I, too, have faced this question. I became acquainted with coaching while planting a church. I learned firsthand the power coaching can have on a congregation. Through my experience and by witnessing the ways others have used coaching, I know that coaching can produce powerful and positive results. (See “Christ-Centered Coaching — Seven Benefits for Ministry Leaders” by Jane Creswell on page 48 to learn more about the benefits of coaching.)

Coaching can help churches, but coaching is not a silver-bullet solution, and it is not a replacement for the mysterious and essential presence of God’s Spirit. Coaching can be, however, a fresh way of relating and conversing so a church can create new possibilities, take new and intentional actions, and reach new places in the journey toward serving Christ and His world.

Like Pastor Gary, many pastors struggle with coaching because it is so different from how they typically serve and believe they add value. Most ministry leaders think their strongest assets center on what they know and how well they can tell people what to do. Coaching assumes essentially the opposite: That our strongest role is to draw out from others what they know and help them tell themselves what to do.

Not every situation calls for coaching. Some opportunities we address are best done by telling or delivering truth. Those situations call for mentoring, teaching, counseling, or consulting. For instance, when a person or team is in a remedial stage of development, each needs instruction and direction, not coaching. Also, when someone is learning a rote set of principles, facts, or procedures, coaching is not helpful or appropriate.

Other situations are less about identifying action and creating forward movement and more about healing and hope. Those situations call for counseling, spiritual healing, and perhaps anointing. Coaching is not therapeutic, nor is it diagnostic. When people ask, “What is wrong with me?” or are in a state of depression, they typically need counseling or therapy, not coaching. Working with a coach can help people get a clearer sense of who they are and what obstacles are impeding growth. But the aim of coaching is not to address issues of abuse, addiction, psychosis, or dysfunction, or remove obstacles originating from pain.

Key Distinctions between Coaching and Other Relationships

Who is the Expert?

Assumptions About the Other Person

Purpose of Questions

What is the Outcome?

Coaching

Person being coached

Healthy, ready to move forward

To promote discovery for the person being coached

New awareness and action

Counseling

Counselor

Pathology; has experienced a wound that continues to cause hurt

To provide a diagnosis and/or to better understand “why?”

Understanding and acceptance to promote healing

Mentoring

Mentor

Experiencing circumstances similar to those previously faced by the mentor

The one being mentored asks questions to solicit advice and gather information

The one who is mentored resembles the mentor in knowledge and action

Discipling

Discipler

A follower of Christ who wants to learn and grow

Often scripted or planned in advance, aimed at learning from Scripture

A clearer understanding of Scripture and closer walk with God

When is coaching the appropriate approach? Coaching situations are characterized by a person or group who:

These are broad characterizations, so you can imagine that coaching has a wide application in the church.

Let me mention a few applications where coaching can make a significant impact.

Pastoral Care

For most congregations, pastoral care focuses primarily on supporting people who are in pain, suffering through crisis, or experiencing severe change. Such care is important and often takes on a counseling or therapeutic nature.

When ministry leaders are capable coaches, they expand their pastoral care ministry to help their flock deal with positive change, create new awareness, and take action.

Cindy is an associate pastor in the Midwest who was getting burned out providing pastoral care amidst issues that almost always had a negative flavor. She told me, “With the exception of the occasional opportunity to minister to new parents, my ministry is limited to very negative experiences and crises. Unless a church member is sick, lost a loved one, or is struggling with their marriage, they do not need me. Not only is the work sucking the life out of me, but I provide very little value to most of our church members.” Through coaching she has been able to help members as they shift jobs, improve already healthy marriages, navigate the college application process, and a host of other challenges and opportunities.

Cindy summed it up well: “If this were medicine, coaching would be considered preventive care. It allows me to care for people who are not in crisis and who, by moving forward, are much more likely to avoid crisis.”

Evangelism

Of all church ministries, evangelism might seem to be the one least fit for coaching. After all, shouldn’t we tell people about Jesus and His good news? Of course we should. But people do not do or believe what we tell them to do or believe. Our neighbors have become less and less responsive to our appeals, our delivery of the gospel, our tracts, our postcards, and other forms of telling. Telling does work some of the time and is appropriate. However, our evangelistic efforts can also be upgraded when we add a coach approach to sharing the good news.

In our book, Faith Coaching: A Conversational Approach to Helping Others Move Forward in Faith, my coauthors and I explore how churches can increase their witness by asking questions that help others discover where they are in life, what’s working, what’s missing, and what’s next. Our coworkers, neighbors, family members, and the people we happen to meet most likely shut down when we start telling them about Jesus. But almost anyone is willing to engage in a conversation that consists primarily of questions that helps them take forward steps. When we stop selling Jesus and start engaging in honest conversation, those around us will move forward in life, and Jesus is always forward.

Discipleship

Just as coaching can help non-Christians discover where they are in life, move forward, and discern their need for Christ, we can also coach fellow Christians to a deeper walk with the Lord and toward more meaningful ministry and mission. Too much of our discipleship efforts rely on studies and lectures that do a good job of informing but not always a good job of forming. This is because formation is personal.

When we coach for spiritual formation, we start with where the disciple is in his or her walk, explore what is next, and what actions are required. When we coach for discipleship, we explore:

Teams and Committees

When I stumbled upon coaching as a church planter, the first place I took a coach approach was in my work with teams. One team I coached was our hospitality team. They were responsible for greeting guests, helping them feel welcome, and connecting with them. I asked them how well, on a scale of 1 to 10, they thought they were doing. Answer: about a 6. I asked, “What would it take for you to be at an 8?” For 20 minutes they brainstormed and problem-solved. Tossing out ideas before settling on three key actions that fit our church, they said: provide home-baked food and coffee each week; greet all who enter, whether they are first-time guests or not; strive to get into conversations with new people rather than stay in the safety zone of talking to people they already know.

Coaching teams involved major and oftentimes awkward shifts for me. As the lead pastor of an infant church, I was used to being the answer man: teaching, training, and motivating the team to carry out an assignment — typically with limited results.

As I experimented with coaching teams, I realized how important it is that I trust the team members and believe they have valuable and workable ideas. It takes time to figure out a truth: If team members are not capable of being coached, then I have the wrong people on the team.

Another shift involved my willingness to allow others to have good ideas. I sometimes hear pastors and leaders say that delegation means you have to be willing to live with solutions that are not as good as what you would have offered. Maybe. But to coach our teams, I had to believe that differing ideas are seldom about better or worse. For most issues, there are many good options and solutions that are equally valuable. Coaching works because it brings out the ideas from the people who are willing to carry out the ideas, so there is ownership, which promotes an okay idea to a great idea.

When coaching teams, remember:

Board Meetings

Coaching can have a positive impact on board meetings. Some might refer to these as elder meetings, council meetings, or something similar. Whatever the name, the function is to provide high-level oversight and direction for the church.

Many board meetings follow a rule of order or process (such as Robert’s Rules of Order) and are constitutionally bound to such a process. This might cause one to think there is very little room for coaching. Not true. While coaching cannot replace a predetermined order or process, a coach approach by the leader and/or board members can have a profound and positive impact on how the process unfolds.

When a church takes a coach approach to board meetings, the quality of listening increases among the board members and therefore the quality of discussion improves, resulting in better decisions.

I have seen coaching make a difference in board meetings that have to do with distinguishing interests from solutions. Coaches are savvy at knowing the difference and at helping clients distinguish interests (what the client wants) from solutions (how the client might go about getting his interest met). Too often board meetings are a battle of proposed solutions when the underlying interests are not clear.

I facilitated a church board meeting where the discussion (shall we say argument?) revolved around what style of worship the church would conduct at the 11 o’clock hour. One camp wanted to stay with the traditional hymns while another wanted to go contemporary — not an uncommon discussion among churches in the past decade. I posed questions aimed at exploring why each camp wanted what it wanted. One of my tactics was to push each side to complete the sentence, “I think we should do ______ because ______ is important to me.”

While their solutions were incompatible (traditional versus contemporary), their interests were not. One side was most interested in honoring the longtime worship pastor (a classically trained and very gifted conductor who was nearing retirement), while the other was interested in attracting young people to the church. The board meeting turned when the board members let go of either/or thinking and began to ask how they could meet both interests.

Both/and thinking is at the heart of great coaching. The board decided that the 11 o’clock worship service could continue to meet the first interest, and that they could add an early service to meet the second interest. They also decided to honor their current worship pastor as long as he remained at the church and that, upon his retirement, they would openly and honestly explore altering the style of worship at the 11 o’clock service.

I have also coached boards that, when they revealed their true interests, cared less about Christ and the gospel and more about their petty preferences and grievances. Yet, the coach approach to these meetings is what finally allowed these board members to express and deal with their deep and unsavory interests.

Leading

Coaching is not synonymous with leading, yet neither are the two incompatible. Leading is about influencing others toward a better future. Leaders who want to extend influence and have followers are wise to employ a coaching mindset and skills. Nowhere in the church is coaching more important for leaders than when it comes to vision.

Too many leaders isolate themselves from the congregation to become inspired with a vision they will then share. Such vision casting can even fall into a dictatorial style when pastors declare their vision is directly from God and that any opposition or question is an affront to God.

As the authors of The Leadership Challenge write, a strong leader is one who “inspires a shared vision,” not someone who shares an inspired vision. The first problem with inspired visions is that they often are informed less by God and more by a leader’s own preference. The second problem is that inspired visions often fall on deaf ears and reluctant hearts so the leader must invest much energy getting buy-in. Coaching can help avoid both of these problems.

Leaders who adopt a coaching approach are constantly accessing the wisdom of their followers through the use of coaching questions and active listening. I call this skimming the vision. This method discerns vision by inquiring the followers and assuming that many of the followers carry some portion of the larger vision for the church. This is not vision by committee. Rather, it is vision by community where a gifted and called leader listens discerningly and assimilates prayerfully the vision in a clear and compelling way.

When shared, a skimmed vision sounds familiar to followers because it is already familiar — after all, it comes from them. The vision is inspiring because the coaching leader extends beyond his wisdom and preferences by tapping into the wisdom of others who are also listening to God. The vision is also inspiring because it has faint rings of familiarity, having come from the members of the church body.

Just as leaders must avoid taking a dictatorial approach to visioning, they must also be cautious not to fall into a laissez-faire or hands-off approach. While there is much wisdom in members, they need a catalyst to ask, listen, provide feedback, and challenge them. Leaders need to be engaged in helping members explore options and motivations, challenge their current thinking, and help them get clear on goals and actions.

Managing Staff and Volunteers

Church leaders who manage others can also benefit from coaching. As with leading, coaching does not replace managing, but it does upgrade our approach. Managing involves sound utilization of resources (time, energy, equipment, money, etc.) to accomplish an end. When we manage staff and volunteers in the church, we can fall into the trap of believing people are simply resources like money or equipment. Of course this is not true. Individuals we manage have their own abilities, motivations, expectations, and history.

A wise manager takes a coach approach by getting to know what is unique about each person and then partnering with that person to decide how best she can accomplish the end. A manager is a keen observer of the resources (strengths, skills, habits, personality, knowledge, preferences, etc.) a person possesses and helps this unique person contribute to the fullest potential.

A pastor (manager) who coaches does not pull out from the staff or volunteer what she should accomplish (since outcomes are typically set), but he does pull out from the person how to accomplish the outcome. When I managed a student minister, I often took a coach approach. I set the outcomes (involve kids and parents in programs aimed at their spiritual formation), but how the student minister went about her role was up for discussion. Rather than encourage her to fill the role like someone else would, I helped her discover how God had wired her for fulfilling the role. She enjoyed and was successful spending time with the parents and adult volunteers more than with the students. This allowed her to concentrate her efforts into helping the adults be involved with the kids and do most of the ministry with the students while she equipped and encouraged them. She also took a coach approach to working with her volunteers, helping each find where they fit best in the program (from behind-the-scenes volunteers who planned activities or ran the technology for student worship, to the out-front parents who had time and ability to eat lunch with kids at school). A manager (pastor) who employs coaching is able to live out what Marcus Buckingham implores of managers in First, Break All the Rules: reach inside each person and release their unique talents into performance.

Conflict

All churches have conflict among members. While churches might not be able to avoid conflict, many churches engage in unhealthy conflict: arguments that linger, attacks that are personal, and divisions that block decisions and progress.

Coaching is not a cure-all for unhealthy conflict, but I have seen it make a positive difference in how churches engage in conflict by equipping leaders and members with more effective skills and attitudes. A coaching attitude helps people shift out of a debate mentality (where healthy conflict is almost impossible) into a dialogue mentality (where healthy conflict is much more likely).

Coaching helps make this shift by affording the skills to be clear and prompt others to be clear. The first place to be clear is in thinking. When I coach groups who are in conflict, I start by helping them get clear what their mental framework is. I share the core beliefs that lead to debate:

This is the default setting for many people, whether we are talking about the church, the marketplace, or even the family. It is so hard-wired that we find it difficult to consider an alternative. But there is an alternative. A dialogue mindset chooses to believe things such as:

When we train church leaders and members in coaching, they naturally open up to the possibility of a dialogue approach. This happens because coaches are trained to engage in conversation without trying to control the conversation. Also, coaches know that telling is not the only or the most productive thing in a conversation. Coaches practice the art of productive conversation.

Preaching

If ever there is a time to tell, it seems that preaching would be that time. Since coaching is less about telling and more about asking and discovering, one might conclude there is very little room for coaching from the pulpit. However, coaching can impact the way you preach in at least four ways.

1. Coaching reminds the preacher to seek balance between telling and asking. If all one did from the pulpit was to ask questions, few would consider it good preaching. But dialing down the telling and turning up the asking can add vitality and power to sermons.

One of the most life-changing sermons I heard ended with, “What tough decision are you putting off that’s standing between where you are and where God wants you to be?” I do not recall what the sermon was about, but that question (and my response) shifted the course of my ministry and family.

2. Coaching helps preachers become clearer in their overall communication. Too many preachers provide far more quantity than quality when it comes to words. One core coaching competency outlined by the International Coach Federation is direct communication, which they describe as the ability to communicate effectively for the greatest impact on the client, to use language of the client, and to draw on the language of the client in creating metaphors and analogies. Preachers trained in coaching will know their congregation and use language that fits them. Hearers should not need to translate the preacher’s lofty or limited vocabulary to learn and be transformed.

3. Coaching reinforces the preacher’s attention on creating awareness among hearers. Delivering truth is not the same thing as creating awareness. Learning only happens when hearers expand what they know to include something new. Time to reflect on what has been said, time to chew on it and ponder what it means for their life, and time to formulate a more meaningful awareness is often lacking in sermons. Preachers skilled in coaching and taking a coaching attitude into the pulpit will sprinkle in intentional pauses that prod people to reflect and reach new awareness based on what is said.

4. Coaching expands the preacher’s ability to motivate hearers to action. All good preaching has a “So what?” factor. Rather than tell people exactly what to do (one-size-fits-all hearers), preachers familiar with coaching will use questions and silence to provoke actions that are tailored to each person.

Small Groups

One fruitful expression of coaching within the church over the past decade involves training small-group leaders to use coaching. Whether the group focuses on study, community, missions, or even recreation, a small-group leader skilled in coaching can have productive conversations with group members — conversations that lead to new awareness and new action.

In groups that involve Bible study or the study of a book aimed at faith formation, coaches can move the conversation beyond learning and discussion and toward behavior, ensuring participants have clear take-away learning that will be expressed in action. These small-group coaches are action negotiators. They are also listeners who tie together the study experience, varying life experiences, and the challenge to live like Christ to garner tangible commitments and shifts in behavior from small group members.

Conclusion

Coaching can have a dramatic impact on the church. It would be inaccurate to overstate the power of coaching. Coaching, in and of itself, is not powerful. God is powerful, and He chooses to convey power through many channels, including people who coach. Adults who skillfully practice coaching under the guidance of God’s Spirit can bring about fruit within the church. The list and descriptions above are only glimpses of ways God is using coaching and coaches. As you learn about coaching and begin to practice coaching, my hope is you will add to this list and bring blessings to your local church.

CHAD HALL, PCC, Th.M., director of coaching, Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon. Chad lives in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

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