“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.” Peter Drucker

Coaching today comes in a variety of forms, from personal exercise trainers, everyday life coaches, to expensive executive coaches. Coaching is a rapid growth industry in most areas of life. Coaching has grown out of the recognition that human beings function better when they are supported by another, when they apply a discipline of accountability to themselves, and when they spend regular times reflecting with a coach.

It was the psalmist who captured this principle in the words, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend’ (Proverbs 27:17 NLT). Scripture gives us some great examples of coaching relationships – Moses and Joshua, Paul and Timothy, Titus. The whole concept of discipleship is centred on the idea that the Christian movement is best driven by mentoring relationships. Theologically the church as an organisation is seen in Scripture as a body that needs to be highly relational and supportive as it utilises the diversity of giftedness found within its congregation.

How strong is coaching in the church today? Coaching ministries and strategies are increasing within the Christian world. The growth of formal coaching is hard to measure, but most likely reflects to a lesser degree what is happening in the secular world. Church planting movements have probably been the leading component of the church to utilise coaching. The church growth movement has always had some coaching/consulting services. However, for the majority of clergy formal coaching is still the exception. This is changing gradually.

Coaching is becoming more and more appreciated in the corporate world, particularly as a way to develop new leaders. According to the 2011 Development Dimensions International Global Leadership Forecast, two of the five most critical skills for leaders in the future are: managing change and coaching and developing others (www.ddiworld.com). A surprising finding in this survey was that half of the leaders surveyed rated themselves as ineffective at these skills. In the same survey, only 18 per cent of the HR respondents felt their companies had the quantity and quality of leaders they would need to run their companies 3 to 5 years beyond the present.

In my twenty-plus years of consulting and coaching church pastors, the issue of the lack of leaders or poor leadership has stood out as one of the key concerns for church health and growth. What coaching brings to the church and any organisation is a method by which to unearth hidden leadership talent as well as strengthen existing leaders. This is the dual benefit of a coaching system for the local church.

A survey conducted in my own denomination in 2007 of Australia and New Zealand ministers reported that around 25 per cent experienced a lack of friendship in the workplace and lack of anyone to talk to about their progress on a regular basis (Gane 2007). The survey said that nearly one third of ministers had experienced periods of depression caused by their work. Also, the majority of ministers experienced little support from their fellow ministers. Pastoral leadership by the nature of the role is prone to stress and isolation.

The stresses of leadership are compounded when leaders function without support. A lack of regular dialogue with a trusted person can have a detrimental affect not only on a leader’s emotional wellbeing but also on the quality of leadership they provide to their church. According to Christian Schwarz, of Natural Church Development (NCD), one of the distinguishing characteristics between pastors of healthy growing and non-growing churches is whether they have an outside support person. The first Natural Church Development surveys asked pastors if they ‘…regularly sought counsel from a trusted outside source…’. Of the fifteen questions that related to leadership, this had the strongest correlation to overall health and growth in a church.

However, this ‘outside help’ is no longer the item with the highest correlation with growth and quality. Based on data from about 60,000 NCD surveys the number one item is ‘Our pastor has an inspiring optimism’ (Schwarz 2009). Coaching is valuable because one of its core functions is to pour optimism into the thinking of their coachee. Good coaches help clients to find a way forward. Without optimism leaders lose motivation and experience a loss of focus.

Christian coaching is the ultimate form of optimistic coaching. The Christian coach brings a supernatural and eternal perspective to the relationship. Part of the coaching process is to discover God’s agenda for the coachee’s ministry and to boldly pursue that calling. The Christian coach reminds the coachee that they are not doing this alone, that there are heavenly resources available to them.

One of the pleasures of Christian coaching is to help lift the coachees’ vision to a higher level. When you add an ‘eternal perspective’ the discussion goes to another level. I have often reminded coaches that they are not working for a ‘country club’ but for people’s eternal destiny and that their vision should reflect that reality.

Most church systems do reasonably well when it comes to training and resourcing leaders. Unfortunately, it is in the implementation of strategies where church systems often fail. Many good plans and strategies have never gone anywhere because the person responsible is not sure what to do next, or does not know how to get the team on board or simply fails to delegate the tasks.

The ability of knowing how to implement a plan comes from experience and one’s personality. Some people are real ‘doers’ but need help in knowing what to do. Others are very creative but not naturally skilled in working out how to bring their ideas into being. In every people group there are a small number of people who excel at process. They can easily tell you what the options are in dealing with a problem. They enjoy mapping out the action steps for others. These people, when aligned to leaders, help leaders pickup on those missing ingredients that result in great outcomes. These people make excellent coaches.

Coaching Defined
What is a coach? Coaching is not supervising. Supervision has a hierarchical sense in which the supervisor is senior to the person being supervised and holds them accountable to the corporate goals. The supervisor typically takes some responsibility for the other person’s performance. A coach is not a therapist. Counselling is about treating a person’s personal problems, disorders and issues of the past. Coaching is about a person’s work. Coaches, on occasions, will explore an individual’s personal life but only as it relates to their work. A coach does some teaching but is not a teacher. If no learning occurs in the coaching experience then the coach would be failing the client and be at risk of creating a dependent relationship. The coaching experience is about teaching clients to think and act differently to the common issues they face.

However, the focus is not so much on the transfer of knowledge to the client but rather the changing of the client’s behaviours and outcomes. Mentoring and coaching are more closely aligned. Mentors do plenty of coaching of their understudy. Another term that could be used to describe this relationship is ‘discipling’. Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples. A disciple models, teaches and supports those who are new in faith to a level of maturity. The role of the mentor is to guide the development of the coachee based upon their greater experience. Mentors have attained a certain level of expertise that the client wishes to learn from. As a mentor I am more directive and give advice more easily than when working in a strict coaching relationship.

Coaching and consulting are very similar. Now when it comes to defining the difference between coaching and consulting, things become even more blurred. Gordon and Ronald Lippit (1978), in the preface to their book The Consulting Process in Action, isolates the core ingredients of the consulting process as ‘collaborative problem-solving’. They go on to say it is ‘…a two-way interaction-process of seeking, giving, and receiving help’. Consultants usually have a clearer start and finish relationship with their clients than do coaches. The consultant is often hired by an organisation to achieve certain organisational outcomes whereas the coach mostly works with individuals. However, this distinction is becoming more blurred as coaches facilitate peer coaching and carry out team coaching.

Figure 1.

Coaching Continuum
Figure 1 outlines the difference in emphasis between the different helping positions. The coaching leader tends to focus more on the task whereas the personal coach also includes the area of personal development. The coaching mentor is all about developing the coachee’s skills for the role they have been given. The personal coach position is fundamentally about being a helpful and supportive friend. What position you take as a helper/leader depends on the situation and what you are holding the coachee accountable to.

In a pastoral leadership context you are playing all three roles. However, what we know is that the most empowering position is that of the personal coach, where you develop a co-equal relationship and where you hold the coachee accountable to their own personal goals. In working with volunteers it is crucial that much of your helping is done from this position as this is the most motivating for the coachee.

Coaching Questions
In a church setting, my experience has been that the more formal the coaching relationship the better the outcomes. However, there will be some situations where an offer to coach an experienced leader would not be received well. In these situations you would take an informal approach and over time create a coaching relationship with the leader without announcing it.

Often I am asked in coaching training session, ‘How long are the sessions?’ ‘How often do you meet and for what length of time do you work with a person?’ Usually a session goes for 60-90 minutes. Any longer can be overwhelming and lack focus. A coaching relationship has no end. However, there will be times when the coaching is more intense and periods when it is occasional. I’ve come to the conclusion that all leaders do better when they are in a coaching relationship.

For the Christian leader there is a deep theological reason for establishing a coaching culture in a church. Joseph Umidi (2005, p.22) expresses it well when he says that the empowerment that comes from the coaching relationship is based on the principle of unconditional acceptance. He talks of ‘… the ability to have a heart posture towards another that is genuinely and authentically for them’. Here are the energy sources for change. Christian coaching should be the ultimate empowering relationship for developing people, for it is a reflection of God’s relationship with us.

Developing a coaching system in a church is the single most important strategy for developing members’ giftedness, for growing new leaders and ensuring that sustainable leadership practices occur.

Rob Steed

Gane, Barry (2007) Surveying Adventist Pastors South Pacific Division, Warburton: Record Signs Publishing.

Lippitt, Gordon and Lippitt, Ronald (1978) The Consulting Process in Action, California: University Associates Press.

Schwarz, Christian, ‘Empowering Leadership Revisited’, Natural Church Development Website, 03 April 2009.

Umidi, Joseph (2005) Transformational Coaching, USA: Xulon.

This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol.25, no.1, March 2015. pp.11-13.