During my 10 years as a senior consultant for the Alban Institute, my work with congregational leaders has revolved around three main roles: educator, consultant, and coach. Over time, coaching has become a much more prominent feature of my work. This shift was partly driven by cultural trends and fads. The term “coach” has been translated from the playing field into almost every aspect of human life—from childbirth to personal fitness, from dating to executive leadership. Sometimes this word is chosen more for its sound than its substance. One friend of mine who offers “executive coaching” in the world of banking often gets called in to give a failing leader one last chance to shape up before he or she is fired.
Beyond the hype and the euphemisms, coaching is an important option for clergy and lay leaders who recognize the challenges of ministry today and have given up the search for easy answers. Coaching can help leaders make critical connections—for example, between broad concepts and everyday leadership behavior, between their expected role and their actual gifts, or between the congregation’s historic strengths and its current options for ministry in a changing environment. Coaching is an ideal setting in which to forge these links so that more congruent and fruitful ministry can emerge.
The Coaching Relationship
Characteristics of a coaching relationship—as opposed to an educational event or a consultant intervention—might include:
- primary focus on one leader, typically a sole or senior pastor, or a very small leadership team (such as pastor and board chair, or senior and associate pastor)
- a declared intention or goal around which the coaching relationship is organized
- a consistent and supportive structure that keeps the stated intention in focus over time so that progress can be tracked
- an atmosphere of trust, in which the client(s) can explore any pain, fear, or confusion that may be experienced in the course of addressing the goal
- questions from the coach that elicit the wisdom and competence of the client(s), even as they explore uncertainties and vulnerabilities
- checkpoints when coach and client(s) assess both progress on goals and the experience of the coaching relationship itself
The exact structure and emphasis of coaching, however, will vary with the practitioner and the setting. For instance, when Nancy Sayer1, a consultant and coach with Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center in Naperville, Illinois, provides coaching for a pastoral team, she describes her work as helping the team members “to understand each other’s styles and preferences and to develop a team that is built on the strengths of each member.” While I might have classified that activity as a “team-building consultation,” Sayer and I would clearly be working in similar ways, regardless of the label we assign our efforts.
Sayer also notes the importance of coaching as a resource for the solo pastor. The clergy who seek her out, she says, “have discovered the benefit of sitting down with an outside person and exploring the obstacles in their personal and vocational life that are preventing them from performing to their highest potential.” As she puts it, alternative perspectives from the coach “broaden out the myopic view that often develops in a solo position.” Sayer typically uses a variety of assessment tools to help deepen pastors’ understanding of their personalities and leadership styles. With this knowledge, she says, a pastor can then “apply strategies that help him or her to interact with staff, church leaders, and parishioners more effectively.”
When to Use a Coach
Coaching is just one element in the ecology of church leadership development today, alongside seminaries, clergy continuing education events, published materials, and consultants who work onsite in the congregation to help larger groups of leaders with planning, visioning, or problem solving. Clients often approach me for coaching in order to deepen, contextualize, and apply learning that has begun in another setting. For instance, many of my coaching clients have just completed some sort of educational experience: they have attended a seminar, read some books, or visited other congregations known for innovative ministries. Such learning activities set the leader a bit off balance and generate energy for change by providing new concepts, new questions, and sometimes new relationships. But there is usually a significant gap between the intellectual understanding produced by an educational experience and full integration of that new knowledge into one’s actual practice of ministry. Follow-up coaching after an education event can help a leader reap the full benefits of the experience—to relate the new ideas to his or her own gifts and context and to develop new patterns of behavior.
Other clients approach me when they are “stepping up to the plate” to attempt a challenging piece of congregational change, such as breaking through certain barriers to growth or becoming an “open and affirming” congregation with respect to sexual orientation. While the client brings a particular goal to the table as a proposed focus for the coaching relationship, full commitment to the task cannot be taken for granted. Organizational consultant Peter Block offers leaders a clever maxim for such situations: “The answer to how is yes.” I translate this to mean that method questions (in other words, how to do something) sometimes obscure deeper commitment questions (whether to do it and why one would take the attendant risks). Coaching can help a leader clarify deeper intentions, size up the task, and test his or her commitment to doing the required leadership work.
In her practice, Sayer finds that her clients are receptive to coaching at certain characteristic times in the clergy life-cycle, especially the transition moments in a pastor’s life. Clergy settling into a new position, for example, may ask her to help them “understand the dynamics of particular personalities they encounter or the organizational dynamics of the system.” Other pastors, she says, may want to gain insight into the “energy drives and drains” in their ministry situation so that they can discern where God is calling them to serve next. Still others are facing retirement and getting ready to move to a new life stage; a coach can help pastors in this stage of life to explore their values and to envision what comes next so that they can move through the transition more easily.
There are some situations, however, where coaching may not be the best resource. Leaders whose goal-oriented energies have been swallowed up by persistent depression might benefit more from therapy than from coaching, while leaders who have lost their deeper sense of call may want to schedule a retreat or find a spiritual director. In other cases, a one-to-one coaching relationship may not be as effective as a consultative intervention that brings key parts of the congregational system into the same room for a wider conversation. Take, for example, the pastor who wants to engage church leaders in a demanding project related to congregational development, growth, or change. If the foundations for teamwork—including common language, knowledge of each other’s stories, and shared assumptions about mission and ministry—have not yet been built, or have been shaken by painful events, it is often helpful to bring in a third party to facilitate conversations on-site. Once a working relationship has been established, follow-up coaching may help the pastor to build on those emerging relationships or to bring other leaders on board as time goes on.
The life events, ministry challenges, and career transitions described in this article are just some of the instances where coaching would be appropriat
e. For clergy seeking to become more intentional leaders, integrate new ideas into their ongoing practice, navigate personal and congregational transitions, or sustain their focus on important goals, coaching can be an opportunity for deep and fruitful learning.
Questions for Reflection
How do you know you need a coach? If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, hiring a coach could be helpful.
1. Nancy Sayer is a licensed clinical professional counselor and master personal and executive coach who works at Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center in Naperville, Illinois, coaching clergy in the Chicagoland area.