Transforming from Pastoral Counselor to Pastoral Coach

New Tools for the Pastor’s Toolbox

by Linda J. Miller

As a senior pastor in a thriving metropolitan church for over 10 years, there were many aspects of ministry Todd enjoyed. And there were several he did not. One that fit squarely into the “not” category was when a couple facing marital challenges asked for counsel, especially when he deeply cared about both people.

On this particular day, Todd saw that his calendar included an afternoon counseling session with Bart, a young man with a passion for God and a troubled marriage. Todd instantly felt tired. He was in a dilemma. He sensed that his counseling was ineffective and knew it was draining him. He recognized that he could not continue being in the same uncomfortable role — a role that had unmotivated him for years. He wondered if this might be the time to try a different approach.

Todd had been learning about coaching — a way of being with people that focuses on the present and the future, rather than the past. Having recently attended coach training with other pastors, he found himself excited about the possibility of drawing answers out from others rather than always feeling that he had to come up with the solutions, especially in complex situations like the one he was facing. He wondered if he could really shift the responsibility for solutions to the other person rather than carrying it himself. He wondered if he could stay in a mode of asking discovery questions rather than telling Bart what to do. It was time to find out.

As the time for the meeting approached, Todd asked the Lord to help him stay clear about his role in this counseling situation, for wisdom on how to approach this time differently, and for discernment on when to speak and when to keep silent so Bart could hear from the Lord rather than from Todd.

Each of these, he knew, would be a challenge for him, especially staying out of the problem-solving mode. While this had always been a self-perceived strength, his recent training had suggested that it might be a hindrance to others interested in learning how to solve problems for themselves. As he pondered this, he looked up and saw Bart hesitating at the door.

“Come in, Bart,” said Todd. “It’s nice to see you today. Before we start talking, can I share something that might affect our discussion this afternoon?”

“Of course,” said Bart. “What is it?”

“Recently I have been thinking about our meetings. I am not sure that I am serving you as well as I could be. As your pastor, I have been in the role of counselor with you and Heather and feel quite a bit of responsibility for helping you sort out your differences. I am not sure we are making much progress this way, so with your permission I would like to try a different approach.

“What I would like to do differently today is twofold: First, I will try to keep the focus on moving forward rather than on trying to understand the past. Second, I will try to ask questions so you can figure out the answers rather than telling you what I think. Is that okay?”

Bart nodded in agreement, and the conversation started. As they continued to talk about Bart’s situation, Todd was aware of the pull toward giving answers. Several times he stopped himself from launching into problem solving, pausing to think how to turn statements into questions.

“Bart, what is one thing you can do differently when Heather has that look on her face you are describing?”

As Bart thought for a few seconds, Todd realized there were two challenges he faced in asking questions. One was not knowing where the conversation would lead, since he was not directing it. The other was the silence that sometimes followed. He realized that in the past he would either direct the conversation or interrupt the silences when he felt uncomfortable. While both responses made him more at ease, he was learning that they were not helpful for others.

Finally Bart said, “Rather than waiting and dreading the next confrontation, maybe I could ask her if she would like to talk.”

“If you take that approach, what do you think might happen?”

“Well, she will either be pleased and start talking, or she will say that everything is fine, or she will blow up. I am not really sure which. Usually I do not ask; I just wait and dread the time when we have to talk.”

“And, what is the benefit of initiating rather than waiting?”

“I hope she will see that I am noticing something and asking about it, rather than avoiding her and hiding out. I just do not know what I will say if she wants to talk right then. What should I do?”

When Bart asked the question about what to do if Heather wanted to talk, Todd could feel himself forming answers. Todd remembered his prayer about being clear in his role and determined to stay out of counseling and consulting, even though they were more familiar to him than coaching.

“That is a great question, Bart. Let us talk about it. What will you say if Heather wants to talk immediately?”

Bart was silent for several moments. Todd could feel himself wanting to interrupt the silence and tell Bart what to say. Somehow, with God’s help, Todd remained quiet and focused — intent on seeing what would happen next.

“I guess I could tell her that I noticed that she looked concerned about something and ask her again what it is about. I could tell her that I am available to talk about it if she wants. Wow, I can feel myself getting defensive already, and she is not even in the room.”

“Bart, if you are telling Heather that you are available to talk, and if you are feeling defensive already, you are probably not going to be able to really listen or talk with her. What can you do about the defensiveness?”

As Bart was silent, Todd was struck with how effective silences were, even though they were uncomfortable for him. In the space of just 20 minutes with Bart, Todd had endured three long silences, longer silences than he had experienced in months. However, a realization was coming that would set Todd free. Todd realized that the coaching skills he was putting into practice — focused listening, targeted questions, and productive silence — were being effective in shifting the responsibility for answers and action to Bart.

When Bart next spoke, his response was profound. “I think I might need to tell Heather that I am feeling defensive, and I want to try to be nondefensive when we talk. Maybe I could ask Heather to let me know if she feels like I am being defensive. Wow, that is a different approach. I am not sure either of us could survive it.”

Todd and Bart laughed together at the thought of such a different way of approaching the situation. It was not at all what Todd had expected, and he silently thanked the Lord for what He had been doing in the meeting.

When they finished their laugh, Bart commented, “I never thought I would come up with an approach like that. And, it just might work. At least we would both be talking about my defensiveness, which I know we both experience, and deal with it together, which we have never done before.”

“Bart, in taking this approach, when do you want to talk with Heather?”

“I had not thought about that. I just figured I would deal with it when it happens. It might be a good idea to bring it up so it is out of the way. What do you think?”

“I like it, Bart. Any risks you want to talk about now? When might you do it?”

Coaching is a subtle yet profoundly different approach from counseling or consulting, and for pastors, that can be challenging. It may test how well you listen and ask you to remember who is responsible for problem solving. It may cause you to think hard on when to share something and when to ask a targeted question, as well as when to speak and when to keep silent. It may cause you to face up to whether you really want to be in the role of expert, which many people do. It may demand that you decide when to use coaching and when to use counseling or consulting, all of which have an important place when working with people.

With that said, you might be asking, “Why should I do something different when what I am doing is working?”

Is it? If so, congratulations — there is no need to do anything different.

For many pastors, some things work and others do not. If this is a better description of where you find yourself, think about what is not working, specifically by identifying what drains you and makes you feel unmotivated. In Todd’s case, working with people in marital discord was not comfortable for him. It took him years to determine this, and years more before he found a new approach.

Maybe there are some aspects of your ministry that do not bring as much joy as others. If so, see if there is a different approach. Like Todd, you may discover new skills that you can put into your pastoral toolbox, so they are available when you need them.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Coaching

Throughout this article we looked inside Todd’s head to see what he was learning. But, what about Bart? As a result of the questions Todd asked, Bart may have learned some valuable lessons, even though they did not discuss them:

Taking initiative — Bart came up with the idea of being proactive with his wife about something difficult to discuss.

Clear communication — Bart began to clarify what he wanted to share with Heather. Clear communication is critical in all relationships.

Self-problem solving — Bart may be seeing that answers lie within himself as well as with others. This has huge ramifications for Bart as he addresses other challenges within himself and with others.

Linda J. Miller, MA, MCC, is an executive coach with Coach Approach Ministries and serves as director of coaching services with The Ken Blanchard Companies. This article is from 501 Building Blocks for Powerful Coaching, Materials developed by Linda Miller, MCC and Jane Creswell, MCC for Coach Approach Ministries, copyright 2010, all rights reserved. Used with permission.


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