I recently introduced coaching in my ministry, and how it differs from traditional therapy, which has also provided benefit to me in my career.
I had my first therapeutic experience 25 years ago, after a ministerial training program exposed dimensions of my psyche that were new and frightening to me.This was the first of several therapeutic relationships I would have over the next two decades. Each began in the aftermath of an emotional trauma—a divorce, a job change, a challenge to my professional integrity—and each was remarkably helpful. Because I lived in different places over the years, I engaged with different therapists. Each clinician brought a unique style and giftedness to the therapeutic process, and each relationship—which ranged from six months to two years—was remarkably helpful. All three therapists, I noticed, drew connections between my past experiences and the current situation, doing so with a skill and compassion that went a long way toward resolving the issues I was grappling with and enhancing my self-understanding.
Coaching, I discovered, is equally powerful, but in a different way. A year ago I embarked on what turned out to be a year-long engagement with a professional coach. Unlike my therapeutic relationships, the impetus for this relationship was not trauma or crisis, but confusion: about my role in an ever more complex congregational system, about how best to lead a congregation into new opportunities and growth, and about what was “next” for me in my professional and vocational life.
During our first conversation, my coach asked me to define what it is that I do. He was not seeking simply a generic description; he challenged me to get as clear and comprehensive about my work as I could: what groups I was responsible for, what programs I led and participated in, what worship roles I played, which pastoral relationships I initiated and which ones others initiated with me.
I was then asked to consider what I wanted to do: Where were my passions? What were my gifts? Where were my energy and desire? What was my vision for this unique piece of the body of Christ? As I began to create my “vision portfolio”—on the basis of giftedness and abundance—I began to see the congregational system in a different light. Instead of a complex system of personalities, agendas, and diverse opinions on issues from worship to community engagement—a system I felt called to manage—I began to see my role as the vision bearer. This was not an easy transition. There was a lot of resistance to it—in me. For more years than I care to recall, I had taken pride in seeing how many tasks I could accomplish, how many obligations and responsibilities I could meet, how many problems I could solve. Vision and overall purpose were often lost in the midst of managing an endless list of tasks. From a clinical perspective, there was some secondary gain in my hyperactivity. There was a kind of martyr quality to it all. I took great pride in a line from Peter Drucker, the systems management guru, who said that parish clergy have the hardest job of anyone in America.
My coach was not impressed. (As it turns out, I don’t think many other people were, either). At one point, he suggested I fire myself from my job.The challenge, he said, was to live into the vision, not react to an archaic series of obligations. Clearly, some obligations were triggered by neurotic impulses, such as the need to be liked and needed, and while these impulses were sometimes identified, the real work was building on my gifts and strengths. And this was work. It was not only difficult to hold onto the developing vision in the midst of internal resistance and the reluctance to break some professional habits, but there were three critical components that needed to be put in place—communication, trust, and team—if this process was to have any hope of success.
Communication: In my case, the communication component was not so much about creating more reliable information and feedback loops within the congregation but about my being clear with others about what I was doing—and not doing—which meant I needed to take all the ideas and projects that I had always kept track of in my head or in my day planner and put them on the table for staff and parish leaders. It also meant that I needed to be clear with myself about my priorities. Too many unprocessed and uncommunicated ideas tended to spin too many people around,myself included.
Trust: For me, trust involved learning about the need to delegate responsibility. I had to trust that people would do, and would have the giftedness to do, what they said they would do. This had always been difficult for me; what I turned over to others had always been so shrouded in lack of trust that the person to whom I delegated ended up spending more time alleviating my anxiety than implementing the assigned task. No wonder people didn’t step forward, and if they did were often anxious about my anxiety, which certainly affected their work.
Team: The notion of team was a natural evolution of communication and trust. One coaching assignment was to share my vision with the staff and invite them to participate in reworking and reshaping it so that we could all be aligned with the same vision. This process was a bit bumpy (at first it was hard for some to really trust that I wanted their input), but as long as I worked at communication and trust, we moved forward.
Subtle shifts began to emerge. I think I first noticed them in my prayer life. While I had always given a conceptual assent to a God of abundance,my prayers were often taken up with atoning for errors and faults, forgiving slights, and seeking God’s comfort in periods of anxiety and difficulty. Through the “asset-based” orientation of coaching, I was less inclined to look back and more open to looking forward—and to seeing the opportunities, blessings, and abundance that were there for the reaping. Instead of managing the system (including my own internal system), I felt inspired to create a new one, trusting that opportunity and abundance would be part of the mix.
Instead of minimizing flaws and trauma, which tended to follow the therapeutic model (and which had become an ingrained part of my mindset), I was becoming more oriented to maximizing opportunities. Theologically, this was a movement from an atonement model to one of redemption.“Behold, I make all things new” is a wonderful homiletical flourish but one that I had always had a hard time allowing to take anchor in my soul. There had always been too many issues and memories to work through before I could even begin to think of anything new. I credit my coaching relationship with having provided a venue and forum for trusting the God of abundance.