Coaching Leaders and Congregations to Reach their Full Potential

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How can you connect the dots between where your church needs to be headed and the steps needed to get there? Doug Powe interviews Chris Holmes on how coaching can help leaders draw on their own resourcefulness and creativity to move a congregation forward.


Doug Powe: I think people sometimes aren’t quite sure what coaching is. What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

Chris Holmes: Mentoring is a more familiar helping modality to most of us than coaching. If you’re my mentor, I’m coming to you to sit at your feet metaphorically and learn from your experience and your wisdom. There’s an innate power differential. You are the expert. I’m coming to you because you have expertise I want. The main difference between mentoring and coaching is, in coaching, we believe that the client, or the “coachee” is the expert. So, it’s a different kind of partnering. It’s more “come alongside.” It’s more equal. As a coach, instead of sharing your experience and your wisdom as a mentor, you would help me figure out a way forward, asking me questions about some of what I already know, what I need to find out. One way we talk about coaching is the “archaeology of the soul.” It’s a process of partnering with a client to help them dig deep, to do the work that they really need and feel called to do.

The main difference between mentoring and coaching is, in coaching, we believe that the client, or the coachee is the expert. So, it’s a different kind of partnering. It’s more come alongside. It’s more equal.

Doug Powe: As you describe it, the coach is not the expert. So, what do you say to people who have the image of a Bill Belichick or Tom Izzo in their mind when they think of a coach? How is your vision of coaching similar or different?

Chris Holmes: I will just acknowledge up front that the word “coach” doesn’t quite fit. It’s an awkward labeling of the work that a coach does, in my opinion, partly because of the connotation it has in athletic competition. But Serena Williams has a coach. Most high-performance athletes who are reaching their full potential have a coach, and it’s not because they don’t know what to do. Their coach is not telling them, “Run 30 laps, drop, and give me some pushups.” The coach partners with the athlete, as in the case of Serena Williams, in a way to help them be their best. They’re kind of on the sidelines and they become a critical thinking partner, a problem solver, with the athlete. So that may be a better image as you bridge the gap between athletic coaching and this kind of coaching.

Coach at a whiteboardDoug Powe: I think people can really relate to the image of Serena Williams because you’re absolutely right. In her case, a coach isn’t teaching her how to play tennis, but the coach is working with her to make sure that she’s doing her best.

Chris Holmes: Counseling is the other modality from the helping professions that most of us are familiar with. The difference between coaching and counseling is that a counselor will likely be probing what’s not working well. Where’s the brokenness? That’s kind of the starting point and, even in therapeutic work, it’s to diagnose a problem. In coaching, we start in a whole different place. It’s not a place of brokenness. It’s a place of wholeness.

Doug Powe: I want to return briefly to the metaphor of coaching as the “archaeology of the soul.” As a coach, how are you “digging” to help leaders or groups achieve their goals? How does that archaeological work actually move someone forward?

The work of coaching is becoming fully present to the individual or the group: listening very deeply; becoming a creative thinking partner along the way; asking really good questions, not from a place of knowing, but from a place of curiosity;

Chris Holmes: The work of coaching is becoming fully present to the individual or the group: listening very deeply; becoming a creative thinking partner along the way; asking really good questions, not from a place of knowing, but from a place of curiosity; and helping the client think more expansively about their situation. So often we lock into either/or binary thinking. Either I’ll do this or that. And for someone to come along and ask, “What’s the third option?”, can lead to new discoveries. And then to get just a little pushy at the end and ask, “Well, what steps are you willing to take?” There are a lot of leaders who know what needs to happen. They can envision it. But it’s in the realm of a wish or hopeful thinking — an aspiration. What coaching does is connect the dots between that wish and the reality of making it come into being.

Doug Powe:  If you were coaching me and I said, “Hey, Chris, what I really need is to get more people into my congregation,” what would you try to get me to think about? Is the actual question, “What does that mean?”

Chris Holmes:  I would say, “So, that’s the hope, the wish to have more people in the congregation.” But the deeper work to get there would be asking questions around what’s the purpose of your church. Why does it exist? What’s attractional about your church? How does discipleship fit into the desire to have more people in the pews? So often it feels like we are doing subterranean work. We coach not just the subject the person brings to the conversation, but we’re looking for opportunities to coach just below that surface. And very often that means more questions about the “being” of the person and not just the “doing” of the things that they brought for conversation.

Two people engaged in cheerful conversationDoug Powe: I like the difference between being and doing. Because many of us who work in congregational settings are really focused on doing what needs to be done. How can I accomplish this? And it seems you’re trying to help us take a step back. Of course, you want us to accomplish what needs to be done, but sometimes we miss that it also requires understanding the being that goes along with the doing.

Chris Holmes: Exactly. I also think that for a long time, church leaders have thought the answers were out there in a book somewhere. If I just went to the right big church, the right institute or whatever, and learned how they do it, there are my answers. And I think we’ve matured to a point of saying that the answers for an individual congregational context are not “out there.” It’s much harder work than finding the answers in a book or somewhere else, and that’s where the power of coaching comes in. Most leaders who are moving from a place of not knowing to a place of knowing, can listen to lectures, podcasts, read books, whatever. But there’s another way of getting to a place of knowing, and it’s more internal work. I think the Holy Spirit is very active there. Say you’re doing a planning retreat and you have never led a planning retreat before. Instead of telling you the six easy ways to lead a planning retreat, as a coach I’m going to ask a question like “What is a time in your life when you did something new and what did you learn from that and what might apply here?” So, you get the difference. It’s a path of discovery from the inside rather than information from the outside. And the interesting thing is that research says the retention from reading articles is only 20% to 40%, whereas if I help you discover the way forward from a place of discovery and knowing, the retention is 60% to 80%. And you’re going to own it differently.

Doug Powe: Right. One of the benefits is that, while I am discovering how to move forward, I’m giving it deeper thought than when I simply read an article. Even though it might be very informative, the information doesn’t stick with me as much because it’s not something that I own in the same way as if I had to reflect upon it myself.

We are in a place of discovery, not just because of the pandemic, but because of where the church is in the world. Now we’ve got to figure out more from the inside what works, rather than what kind of worked in the past for some others.

Chris Holmes: That’s exactly right. I think in congregational settings, the answers we have don’t even fit the questions that are being asked right now. So, we are in a place of discovery, not just because of the pandemic, but because of where the church is in the world. Now we’ve got to figure out more from the inside what works, rather than what kind of worked in the past for some others.

Doug Powe: You’ve talked about coaching an individual. But if you’re coaching a congregation, what does that look like? Or a group in a congregation?

Chris Holmes: That’s much more demanding work, in my opinion, and exciting work, because you’ve got a lot of dynamics at play when you’re coaching an administrative council or a vestry or a session in the Presbyterian system. I find that in many church committees or structures, we assume the group is operating as a team, but they are really operating as group silos without a commitment to the overall goal and the overall mission. Some of the coaching work is to help leaders and their teams transition from being individual groups committed to their own agendas, to teams committed to the overall agenda. Coaching can also be helpful in planning processes. Very often a coach is brought in to help lead a planning or vision retreat so that the pastoral leadership can fully participate in the process rather than try to be both leader and participant.

Doug Powe: You made an interesting distinction between groups and teams in congregations. If I’m hearing you correctly, a collective leadership committee could be just a group of individuals. Something else has to take place for them to become a team that can move the vision forward. What work do you do to try to help a group become a team?

Part of the coach’s role is first to be present, to observe and listen deeply, and to ask themselves questions as they observe. Where’s the energy in this group? Who are the big energy suckers in this group? Where are the voices that are not present and not being heard?

Chris Holmes: So much of the work that I do as a coach is training other coaches. And some of the people who go through our training are pastors, but most are not. They’re laypeople and they’re bishops, and they take the training not to put out a shingle and become a coach but to really adopt the mindset of coaching in their leadership approach. In that training, we help a coach read the “system intelligence,” which is like “emotional intelligence” for understanding individuals and the quality of human interaction between individuals. So, part of the coach’s role is first to be present, to observe and listen deeply, and to ask themselves questions as they observe. Where’s the energy in this group? Who are the big energy suckers in this group? Where are the voices that are not present and not being heard? And then to take the risk along the way to either use direct communication or powerful questions to raise some of those issues to a group. Most leadership teams just get together and do their work. They only infrequently pause to consider how they do their work together. When are we at our best? When do we struggle? So, the role of a coach can sometimes be to call time-out and to ask, “What’s going on here in the team? What are you all noticing about the dynamics right now? What will help the system do its own work?” That’s different than the coach saying what they see. Because the goal here is to help that team do their work of spiritually maturing and working together and moving through the stages to “forming, storming, norming, and performing.”

Photo of two people engaged in a difficult conversationDoug Powe:  I think that in many congregations, you are nominated, elected, “volun-told” into a position. You’re not really thinking about how to work with others and how you all can figure out a way to move the vision forward, so I can see how having help in cohering as a true team would enhance group accomplishments.

Chris Holmes: Can I just add one thing? If I could wave a magic wand, I would challenge every pastor to hold a training for their elected leaders and call it “How to Run a Stellar Meeting.” Because I think we set lay people up for failure. We ask them to do a job and we assume that they have the skills to lead a team or lead a committee without equipping them. Just give them some basic tools — sending out an agenda ahead of time, starting on time, ending on time, ending with the action steps we’ve committed to this week — because, frankly, in the church, we can talk things to death and return a month later and talk about it all again. It can be really helpful to train our leaders to actually get to the steps of moving things forward.

Doug Powe: You have an interesting philosophy that each person is whole, resourceful, and creative, and that’s your starting place for helping people move forward to reach their goals. Can you share more about how you developed this philosophy and why you think this idea of “whole, resourceful, and creative” is important?

Chris Holmes: This isn’t a philosophy I developed personally. It’s one of the pillars of the coaching profession that I’ve adopted wholeheartedly. Our starting place is to believe that the persons we are working with have what they need to move forward. And in cases where they don’t, we might help them find the resources they need to move forward, rather than just assuming that “I’m that resource.”

Doug Powe: I agree that everybody is probably creative and that, prayerfully, we all are moving towards wholeness and resourcefulness. But is it possible that a clergy person you’re coaching may not actually have creativity when it comes to ministry? What do you do in that situation? It seems to me that would be a huge stumbling block.

Most of us just need someone who can have a confidential conversation with us, who we can be truly honest with, who’s going to show up and be 100% honest and authentic, and to help us get moving on the things that we need to accomplish.

Chris Holmes: So, if I’m your coach and this is all new to you and you really don’t know what you’re doing, I would probably coach you to get a mentor. In any helping profession, part of the art of it is knowing when you can be helpful and when to refer to someone else who can. There may be times to refer, especially when it’s all new. But for most of us, we’re trying to figure out a way forward and it’s not new. We just need someone who can have a confidential conversation with us, who we can be truly honest with, and who’s going to show up and be 100% honest and authentic, to push us where we need to be pushed and hopefully be a truth-teller when truth needs to be told, and to help us get moving on the things that we need to accomplish. I encourage folks to think about wholeness from a perspective of a “hidden wholeness.” It’s a theological idea. God created us and God said we were good. It’s a good creation. Now, we don’t all live out of that wholeness every moment of our lives. But the basic imprint of my being is I am created in God’s image and whole. If I believe that about my client, my conversation partner, my coachee, then we’re going to have a very different conversation than if I believe that person is not whole and resourceful and creative.

Doug Powe: It seems to me there could be a challenge in culture or ethnicity. So how do you make sure that there’s a good fit? Because given what you’re saying, I can see where there could be some real mismatches that could be frustrating on both sides and would not help a person or a group move forward in a way they would want to.

Photo of people meeting around a conference tableChris Holmes: Yes. I’m glad you’re bringing that up. I think it’s really important for anybody in the coaching profession to do their work around cultural appreciation, around cultural awareness. If I’m the creative conversation partner with somebody who comes from a different cultural background than mine or even a different place of privilege in society, it’s not their work to help me get on board and understand where they’re coming from. It’s my work ahead of time to adapt and be aware so that I do no harm in the conversation. For some folks, I may not be the best coach, which is why I have a coaching group with great diversity. I do coach across gender, across ethnicity, but I do that with a certain sense of awareness and emotional intelligence, I believe, around what may be appropriate and what may not be. In cases where I may do harm in a conversation with anyone — I think this is true of all of us — the next right step is to back up and to apologize and say, “How do we need to move forward in this relationship?” The only agency I think we have in ministry and any of the helping professions is relationship, and sometimes we need to take a step back in relationship and apologize if we’ve not been helpful. We need to do everything we can up front, ahead of time, in terms of our own awareness to be helpful.

Doug Powe: Chris, I want to return to something you hinted at earlier — where the church universal is currently. I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but what one or two questions do you think mainline Protestant congregations need to consider as we transition out of the pandemic into a post-pandemic world?

Discovery and openness to God’s wily, creative spirit may lead us in some new directions. I think one of the most important things that we can be doing in the church right now is staying wide open and, in some cases, trying to catch up to where God may have already moved.

Chris Holmes: So, as we come out of the pandemic, I’m hearing a lot of voices saying, “You know, there is no return to an ‘old normal’ and there’s not going to be one ‘new normal.’” But it seems to me that discovery and openness to God’s wily, creative spirit may lead us in some new directions. I think one of the most important things that we can be doing in the church right now is staying wide open and, in some cases, trying to catch up to where God may have already moved beyond the church and into the world. We need to figure out those places and try to figure out what it looks like to be the church in ways that we probably haven’t envisioned before. I think we’re looking at landscape we’ve never seen before, and the way forward then is not a way of knowing from past experience. It’s a way of discovering, which I think is pretty deep spiritual work. Staying attuned. Trying to stay attuned to where God is leading because there’s a huge gravitational pull in congregations to go back to the way we were. And that’s not going to be helpful in the time moving forward.

Doug Powe: Chris, thank you. I appreciate that response and I like the idea of discovery because I think you’re right. Those who are curious and willing to discover where God is leading are the ones that are going to do well as we make this transition.


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About Author

Chris Holmes is founder of the Holmes Couching Group. He was previously a pastor and superintendent in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and he is a past president of the Maryland Chapter of the International Coaching Federation. He also serves on the coach training faculty of Auburn Seminary.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.


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