Episode 77: “Coaching Leaders and Congregations to Reach their Full Potential” featuring Chris Holmes

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 77: “Coaching Leaders and Congregations to Reach their Full Potential” featuring Chris Holmes

How can you connect the dots between where your church needs to be headed and the steps needed to get there? Chris Holmes shares his expertise on using coaching as a strategy to help leaders draw on their own resourcefulness and creativity to move a congregation forward.

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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? Chris Holmes shares his expertise on using coaching as a strategy to help leaders draw on their own resourcefulness and creativity to move a congregation forward.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Chris Holmes, the founder of Holmes Coaching Group and the author of The Art of Coaching Clergy. Our focus for this podcast is coaching. Chris, welcome to Leading Ideas Talks. I’m excited to have you join us today and to talk about coaching.

Chris Holmes. Well, thank you, Doug. Thrilled to be here.

Doug Powe: I want to begin, Chris, I think people sometimes aren’t quite sure what coaching is. So, 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 kind of 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 in an area that I want. The main difference between that and coaching is, in coaching we believe that the client is the expert — the coachee. And so it’s a different kind of partnering that’s “more come alongside.” It’s more equal. And as a coach, what you would do with me then, instead of sharing your experience and your wisdom as a mentor, you as a coach would be helping 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.

Doug Powe: I really like that phrase “archeology of the soul.” And I’ll come back to that in just a minute. But I want to follow up on this idea of what coaching is. We often see images of coaches in football. And right now the NCAA tournament is going on in basketball. And you talked about the coach in this case is not the expert. So how do you help people who have that image of a Bill Belichick or Tom Izzo in their mind when they think of a coach. What you’re doing is different, but also maybe similar?

Chris Holmes: You know, I will just acknowledge up front that the label coach, the word coach doesn’t quite fit. I mean, 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, you know, here’s the thing. 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. That coach is not telling them to run 30 laps and drop and give me some pushups, and that kind of relationship. The coach partners with the athlete, 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 kind of image as you bridge the gap between athletic coaching and this kind of coaching.

Doug Powe. That was very helpful. And I think the image of Serena Williams is really one that people can relate to. Because I think you’re absolutely right that a coach in her case isn’t teaching her how to play tennis. But the coach is working with her to make sure that she’s doing her best as she is playing tennis. So thank you. I think that image is extremely helpful.

Chris Holmes: The other modality that most of us are familiar with from the helping professions is counseling. And often when we reached out for help from somebody else in our life, it’s either a counselor, a mentor, or a consultant. And 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. And we start in a whole different place in coaching. It’s not a place of brokenness. It’s a place of wholeness.

Doug Powe: I want to return briefly to this “archaeology of the soul.” I really like the way you said that. As you think of this archaeology of the soul and the work you’re doing, how is it that you are sort of “digging,” or I don’t know what phrase you want to use, to help a leader achieve her or his goals? Or if it’s a group, achieve their goals. So how are you doing that archaeological work to actually move someone forward?

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 from a place not of knowing, but a place of curiosity. And helping the client or the conversation partner think more expansively about their situation, because so often we kind of lock into either/or binary thinking. Either I’ll do this or that. And for someone to come along and say, “Well, what’s the third option?” can lead to new discoveries. And then to get just a little pushy at the end about, “Well, what steps are you willing to take?” And what I find in my work is that 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. And what coaching does is connect the dots between that wish and the reality of making it come into being.

Doug Powe. So just to play this out a little bit further. If you were coaching me, and I said, “Hey, Chris, what I really need is to get more people into my congregation.” I’m sure you’ve never heard that one before.

Chris Holmes: Never heard that!

Doug Powe: So, then from what you’ve just said, what you would try to get me to think about, is the actual question, “What does that mean?”

Chris Holmes: Yeah, 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 kind of subterranean work that we do. We coach not just the “thing” that the person brings to the conversation to talk about, but we’re looking for opportunities to coach just below that surface. And very often that is more questions about the “being” of the person and not just the “doing” of the things that they brought for conversation.

Doug Powe: I like that the difference between the being and the doing. Because I think, again, the challenge that many of us face who work in the congregational setting is we’re really focused on doing what needs to be done. How can I accomplish this? And it seems to me you’re trying to help us take a step back. Of course, you want us to accomplish the doing. But it also requires understanding the being that goes along with the doing. And that’s sometimes what we miss.

Chris Holmes: Exactly. And I also think that in congregational settings, church leaders for a long time have thought the answers were out there in a book somewhere. Or, 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 kind of 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, to get there. 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. Like if 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’ve done 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 about that is, the difference between those two, is that research says the retention from reading the 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. So one of the benefits is that when 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 have owned in the same way as if I had to reflect up on it myself.

Chris Holmes: That’s exactly right. And I think in congregational settings, people have been around for a while who have the answers, the questions being asked right now, the answers we have don’t even fit those questions. 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: Let me shift the dialogue one more time and talk about the differences between coaching individuals and coaching groups. You’ve talked about coaching an individual a little bit more in depth. But if you’re coaching a congregation, what does that look like? Or a group in a congregation?

Chris Holmes: Yeah, 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. And so what I find is that in many church committees or structures, that we assume are operating as a team, are really operating as group silos without a commitment to the overall goal and the overall mission. Some of the coaching work is to work with leaders and their teams, in the transition from being individual groups committed to their own agenda, to teams that are 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. We can have a collective leadership committee that comes together, and if I’m hearing you correctly, it could be just a group of individuals. But there is something else that has to take place for them to actually become a team that can actually move the vision forward. First, is my reflection, correct? And then, what is the work that you’re doing to try to help a group to become a team?

Chris Holmes: So much of the work that I do as a coach is actually 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. So, in that training, we help a coach read the “system intelligence.” I believe that just like there’s “emotional intelligence” for understanding individuals and the quality of human interaction between individuals, that’s going on within the groups and leadership teams, too. And so part of the coach’s role is first to be present, to observe, and to 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. The thing about most leadership teams is that they just get together and they do their work. They only infrequently pause to consider in an introspective way and talk about 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 say “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.”

Doug Powe: Well, I think that’s helpful. Because I do think that in many congregations, you are nominated, elected, “volun-told” that you’re going to be in one of these positions. And you’re not really thinking about how you are working with others and what you all have to do to figure out a way to move the vision forward. So I can see where someone helping you to cohere as a true team would be helpful in the work you’re trying to accomplish. So I think that’s helpful.

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 in the church and call it “How To Run a Stellar Meeting.” Because I think we set lay people up for failure. We asked them to do a job and we assume that they have the skills to lead a team or lead a committee, without equipping them to do that. 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. But actually getting to the steps of moving things forward can be really helpful just to train our leaders to do that.

Doug Powe: Thank you. I agree with you 100%. And I think if more pastors did that, it would certainly help a lot of the meetings to be much more efficient and to run more smoothly. I want to shift the conversation a little bit. You have a philosophy that I think is interesting. That each person is whole, resourceful, and creative. And that’s your starting place for helping people move forward to reach the goals we just talked about. 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: I sure can. And I will say upfront, this isn’t a philosophy I developed. It’s one I adopted whole hog. It is one of the pillars of the coaching profession, that 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, it might be helping them find the resources they need to move forward, rather than just assuming that “I’m that resource.”

Doug Powe: So, let me push a little bit. And I agree, I think everybody is probably creative. And prayerfully, we all are moving towards wholeness and resourceful. But is it possible that if you’re coaching me as a clergy person, that I may not actually have creativity when it comes to ministry? So what do you do in that situation? It seems to me that that’s a huge stumbling block.

Chris Holmes: Yeah, 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.

Doug Powe: I like it. The easy way out. “Get a mentor! You need help.”

Chris Holmes: Really, 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. So there may be times to refer, especially when it’s all new. But for most of us, you know, we’re trying to figure out a way forward and it’s not new. We just need someone who can have a confidential conversation, who we can be truly honest with, and who’s going to show up and be 100% honest and authentic, and push us where we need to be pushed, and hopefully be a truth teller, where truth needs to be told, and help us get moving on the things that we need to accomplish.

So one way to think about wholeness is — it just depends a lot on your theology — but I would encourage folks to think about wholeness from a perspective of a “hidden wholeness.” We were all created and God said “We were good.” It’s a good creation. Now, we don’t all live out of that wholeness, you know, every moment of our lives. But that’s the basic imprint of my being. I am created in God’s image and whole. And 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 that person is not whole and resourceful and creative.

Doug Powe: I think you’re right. But let me push just a little bit further. It also seems to me there could be a challenge, as I’ve been hearing you talk, of culture or ethnicity. So how do you make sure that there’s a good fit? Do you have to have conversations to really get an understanding of where a person is coming from? Because given what you’re saying, I can see where there could be some real mismatches that could be frustrating on both ends and would not help a person or a group to move forward in a way they would want to.

Chris Holmes: Yes. So 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. And 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. And 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. And we need to do everything we can up front, ahead of time, in terms of our own awareness to be helpful.

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

Chris Holmes: So as we 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 discovery and openness to God’s wily, creative spirit may lead us in some new directions. So, 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. So, 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. I appreciate the time you spent with us this morning and wish you well as you continue to work with others to help them bring out their best so they can do the necessary work to lead congregations.

Chris Holmes: Oh, thank you so much. I hope it’s been helpful and I’ve enjoyed it. Thank you.

Announcer. Thank you for joining us, and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

The Art of Coaching ClergyRelated Resources


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 also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; 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.