Coaching has become a popular topic in Christian leadership. A number of books and resources, as well as training opportunities, are available to help church leaders adapt coaching techniques to the practice of ministry. What can be learned from these resources?
While training and supervision generally occur around a prescribed set of goals and expectations, coaching occurs around topics selected by the person being coached, who sets the agenda and determines his or her own goals.
Defining coaching. Although the subject of coaching comes up frequently in leadership discussions, there is often confusion about what coaching is and how it differs from other developmental relationships, such as training, supervision, consulting, mentoring, counseling, or spiritual direction. This confusion is understandable given that there is considerable and legitimate overlap in how these activities are practiced. Experts in coaching, however, would describe the distinctions in the following ways.
While training and supervision generally occur around a prescribed set of goals and expectations, coaching occurs around topics selected by the person being coached, who sets the agenda and determines his or her own goals. Coaching and supervision are both aimed at developing accountability, but coaching generates self-accountability around one’s own expectations, rather than external accountability around someone else’s standards.
Consultants have specialized expertise or problem-solving abilities, and mentors use their personal knowledge and experience to guide their protégés. Coaches, however, are not necessarily experts and may not even share the same profession as those they coach. Coaching assumes that the person being coached has the requisite knowledge and skill, but can benefit from having someone guide them through the process of drawing out ideas, strategies, and actions. Coaching is future-oriented and directed toward intentional action, whereas pastoral counseling sometimes deals with unresolved past hurts with the goal of restoring emotional well being.
Gary Collins, one of the pioneers in the arena of Christian coaching, defines coaching as the “art and practice of guiding a person or group from where they are toward the greater competence and fulfillment they desire.” Focused listening, precise questioning, honest feedback and encouragement are some of the means skilled coaches use to facilitate discovery and motivate action. Coaches are disciplined in setting aside their own agendas and suspending personal judgments and evaluation to foster improved awareness, accountability, and accomplishment in those with whom they work.
Why coaching? Coaching offers a highly personalized, adaptable approach to problem solving and personal development. By placing the impetus for change and idea generation back on the individual involved, it reinforces a sense of ownership and responsibility for outcomes. Also, people are more motivated as learners and more likely to retain what they learn when they figure things out for themselves. Because coaching is flexible and lends itself to open responses, it is particularly well suited to environments of rapid change. It does not privilege yesterday’s competencies or approaches.
But coaching is not always appropriate. It requires a substantial commitment of time and energy by both parties. If the persons being coached truly do not have the skills or knowledge to deal with their situation, coaching cannot help them. And not everyone makes a good coach. Some people are too self-focused or preoccupied with their own responsibilities to invest so much time in another. Others may lack the discipline of thought needed to stay fully and constructively engaged in someone else’s situation.
Coaching and leadership. Unfortunately, much of the literature on Christian coaching focuses rather narrowly on the formal discipline of paid professional coaching — a luxury not available to all in the church world. But there are still some quite useful things to be gleaned, such as how coaching skills can be used in informal settings and how the principles and practices of coaching can enhance the general practice of church leadership.
Being a good coach is not tantamount to being a good leader. But coaching skills are becoming an increasingly important part of a leader’s repertoire. Helping others develop focus and identify goals and strategies is a way to navigate a healthy course between two unproductive extremes — a top-down, “command and demand” style or a laissez-faire attitude that abdicates constructive engagement. (Miller and Hall, Coaching for Christian Leaders, 2007) A leadership stance built around asking the hard questions, rather than convincing people of the right answer, and constructively engaging people in creative problem solving can positively impact preaching, teaching, evangelism, team building, and the empowerment of new leaders.
What makes coaching Christian? To some the answer is as simple as a coaching partnership that occurs between two believers or one that incorporates prayer and scripture. But coaching can be profoundly Christian at a deeper level. It is premised on deep relationality, vulnerability, and trust. Coaches must be humble enough to recognize that they do not know all the answers and willing to put themselves at the service of someone else. In this sense, it is a form of servant leadership that inverts customary power relationships, often putting the more experienced at the service of the less experienced.
Despite coaching’s current popularity, in these ways it is deeply counter-cultural. This is precisely why it has so much potential for transformation and Christian growth, but also why it can be challenging to implement successfully.