Christian leadership coaching

A closer look at Christian leadership coaching

Mentoring is a process that ministers need throughout their lifetimes, and is also something they can provide to others who have also been serving for many years.

Nick Howard, PsyD, is the founder of Cypress, a leadership development firm that specializes in providing coaching and training services for Christian leaders and executives.

The call to Christian leadership invites individuals into privileged territory—the opportunity to carry the torch handed down by Jesus. The call centers on building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:13; Matt. 28:19, 20) and includes growing in gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12). Responding to that call fills our hearts with anticipation, commitment, and gratitude. However, seasoned leaders know that Christian leadership can be very difficult. Struggles with overextension, isolation, and personnel problems can create demands and drains that are often overwhelming, and with that, the hope of fruitful labor (John 15:2, 6; Phil. 1:22, 25) can seem more and more remote.

As one moves into positions of greater responsibility, the challenges become more complex, and often the solutions that worked in less demanding roles no longer fit. Leadership books and seminars do have value in helping leaders grow and navigate through difficult times, but they are limited. They are not able to provide personalized feedback for a leader’s unique context nor do they speak to a leader’s unique dreams.

All of these realities demand a new avenue for helping leaders bear fruit and grow in their gifts in today’s increasingly complex world. That new avenue is Christian leadership coaching.

Why coaching works

Coaching works because it addresses the biggest hurdles that hinder effectiveness in demanding leadership roles: overextension, isolation, and a lack of clarity. The combination of these three can put even the best leaders in a reactive, maintenance mode where the vision and mission become mere wishful thinking.

Speaking to these daunting hurdles, there is something profound about the importance of not going through life—or any major challenge— alone. God addresses this need for sounding boards in leadership through examples like Jethro and Moses (Exod. 18), Ahithophel as a counselor to David (1 Chron. 27:33), and Jesus sending out the disciples two by two (Luke 9:1, 2; 10:1, 2).

At a deeper level, good coaching works because the pattern follows how Christ entered our world and came alongside us filled with grace and truth (John 1:14). As humans, we thrive when we are relationally connected in healthy ways. We struggle when we are isolated and overwhelmed.

Christian leadership coaching can be defined as a relational process between a coach and a “coachee” (the one receiving coaching) that creates a unique context for leaders to gain greater clarity about their values and vision, identify priorities, and process obstacles. Leadership is about coming alongside a leader and skillfully drawing on grace and truth skills to support God-honoring visions and helping a leader gain greater clarity, confidence, and effectiveness, over time, in growing God’s kingdom.

In good coaching, the coachee feels connected, safe, honored, and supported. They feel free to talk candidly about struggles and hopes, dreams and drains. That kind of a relationship, perhaps more than anything else, creates a context for new possibilities, growing gifts, and a greater impact.

How coaching works

The format for Christian leadership coaching involves building around a series of regularly scheduled conversations called sessions. Depending on the approach of the coach, sessions can last between 30 minutes to an hour. Ideally, the coach and coachee talk twice a month for growth, although sessions can happen once a month as well, depending on time or fi nancial realities. Coaching is done over the telephone on most occasions although sometimes in person. The conversations are confidential (within limits), which creates a sense of freedom and safety for the coachee, and allows for more authentic sharing.

Early in the coaching process, the leader’s personal values and vision are clarified through a few exercises. These exercises help the leaders begin tapping into what matters most to them and what brings energy and hope to their dreams. Vital to the coaching process, these exercises help the leader orient around the most important priorities in their role. When this work is done well, it creates a unique kind of energy that enables the leader to increasingly engage their work from a place of strength and commitment.

After the values and vision are clarified, the next step, typically, is for the coachee to set short-term goals based on top priorities. This brings greater structure to the coaching conversations and provides an excellent context for future work.

From that point forward, the coaching process unfolds very naturally. As the coachee feels increasingly comfortable, they are able to discuss what is most important to them at the time of the coaching conversation. Often a conversation will start with a brief review of what has transpired recently, or with some things that have gone well, and then the focus shifts to a substantial challenge or obstacle that needs to be addressed in order for the coachee to move forward in their role, and move closer to their vision.

As time goes on, the conversations proceed to deeper levels that strengthen the coachee’s confidence and identity as a leader. By engaging in the coaching work over a span of time, from six months to a year or more, the gains increase as the coachee continues to grow, resulting in greater internal resources that can be drawn upon when pursuing greater challenges.

Three major tenets set Christian leadership coaching apart from other forms of relational ministry: The coachee sets the agenda. The coachee decides what to talk about. The coach spends the bulk of the time listening, summarizing, and asking exploratory questions that are designed to help the coachee get to the heart of the issue being tackled.

The answers to the coachee’s struggles are found in the coachee. The coach cannot be classed as a problem solver or solution provider. The coach’s role is to help the coachee discover the answers, and share perspective and perhaps suggestions—only after the coachee has really “tilled the soil” in pursuing a deeper understanding of their challenge.

Coaching focuses predominantly on the present and the future. Coaching is thus distinct from therapy, which often focuses on the present and the past. Further, therapy concentrates on individuals who are really struggling, whereas coaching works well for those who are in a good place and motivated to take their life and ministry to a new level.

The common flow of a coaching conversation

In a typical coaching session, coachees “think out loud” or share a complex or challenging problem that they don’t have clarity on—such as a personnel issue. The coach listens, empathizes, and asks questions that help the coachee move further into the heart of the issue. As the process continues, greater clarity tends to emerge. As the core issue becomes clearer, the issue is eventually “named” (a way of saying the core emotional and logical aspects of the issue are distilled in a manner that creates clarity and often illuminates the wisest course of action). Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, notes that “a problem named is a problem solved,” which often brings confidence and strength to the coachee.* After the issue is named, action steps are explored with a timeline developed to help hold the leader accountable for the desired steps. As appropriate, the coach may then share other things to consider about moving forward well or affirm the coachee in ways that will encourage positive movement.

By continuing in this process, leaders emerge with greater clarity and confidence to tackle tougher issues that are often neglected in their work—issues that can seem insurmountable without a place to process them.

To make this process clearer, let me provide a real-life example of how this works. Joe, who was a congregational pastor, had recently been placed in an administrative position. As a pastor, he had found a way to have a healthy rhythm in his role. He had his day off in place, had developed a strong set of lay leaders, and was bearing fruit in his ministry. The change to administration was a lot tougher than he expected. He told me that his new job made pastoring feel easy in comparison. Now, there were so many more expectations and responsibilities that he was often overwhelmed, not to mention the travel demands that swallowed up hours at a time. Before long, he wasn’t exercising, wasn’t having date nights with his wife, and wasn’t maintaining his devotional time.

In the first few sessions of our coaching experience, Joe focused a lot on how overextended he was and how hectic his schedule felt. He was stunned by what had happened to his life. As I followed the coaching process by listening, empathizing, and asking questions, it became more clear to him that his pace just was not sustainable and that his capacity to lead would be truly compromised if he did not begin to set better limits on his schedule. He also expressed clearly that he didn’t want his marriage or his wife to suffer over the long term.

Having the chance to talk out loud in our coaching sessions about what was going on, and hearing himself describe how out of balance his life was, helped Joe gain clarity and develop a positive resolve for healthy change. From there I asked about what steps he could take to change things around. He decided to schedule a new day off, resolved to communicate that to his boss, and committed to carving out time for his wife, his devotions, and exercise.

Since we began the coaching process, his schedule can still be hectic, but Joe has moved much closer to a more balanced schedule. He enjoys his role much more and feels more grounded and effective as a leader.

One may ask the question, “Couldn’t Joe have just figured this out on his own?” Yes, he could have. But it likely could have taken him much longer to acknowledge the problem and develop the resolve to make the necessary changes on his own. In my experience, many leaders do not find a way to set appropriate limits and grow in effectiveness over time when they do not have an accessible ally to help them talk about their experiences and find ways to overcome role or cultural expectations that push so hard for overextension.

The point is, Christian leadership coaching provides a supportive and challenging context to address positively the kinds of issues that can make a substantial difference in one’s effectiveness and fulfillment as a leader. Coaching creates a chance to be heard and grow in ways that would be much more unlikely without it.

Finding a coach

If a leader or conference decides to pursue coaching, finding the right coach or group to work with becomes very important. At this point in the profession, there are no formal requirements that must be met in order for a person to call themselves a “coach.” Most people who enter the profession of coaching come from the field of human resources, mental health, or have already had successful leadership careers. Ideally, a coach has at least obtained a certificate in coaching from a reputable coach training institute or received extensive training from a skillful coach. (As coaching skills are increasingly recognized as valuable for leaders to possess, coach training is becoming more common for leaders as well.)

From my vantage point, a good Christian leadership coach embodies all of the following: is mature emotionally and spiritually; is able to enter a person’s world well; has a rich understanding of leadership, systems thinking, psychology, and spiritual formation; and has the skill required to help people grow.

After finding a list of qualified coaches, the next step would be to contact a few of them and set up a brief discussion to learn about their respective approaches. The goal is to see which of them the coachee would most naturally engage with. After a coach has been decided on, the coach and coachee should discuss expectations and their respective roles. Then the coaching process begins.

That coaching is not a quick fix for deeply entrenched problems must be highlighted. Nor does coaching become a vehicle for growing as a leader overnight, but a process that allows a leader to grow over time in gaining stronger skills, deeper insights, and greater maturity, enabling them to bear fruit in more powerful ways.

While I do not believe this is commonplace, a coach must recognize the importance of being careful not to slide into a problem-solver mode or an advice-giving posture that effectively stalls the process of helping the coachee grow through the conversations. It is also important that the coach spends 70 percent or more of their time listening, summarizing, and asking questions. The session should not become a forum for the coach to fill with their stories.

Ideal outcomes

When a skillful, insightful coach connects really well with a leader who has a strong thirst to grow, powerful things can happen. In my experience working with pastors and administrators, substantial growth can take place in as little as six months, and can continue over the span of years.

When the coaching goes well, certain common outcomes are expected. The leader gains a capacity to set better limits in dealing with overextension. They gain skills and insights in confronting personnel issues and become more vision and priority focused. As the work goes past the year or two mark, a deeper level of peace and confidence in one’s leadership often emerges, and the leader becomes able to engage their top priorities with greater effectiveness, develop their key reports with greater skill, and move into a greater awareness of God’s leading in their life.

In summary, through the avenue of Christian leadership coaching, some of the main tactics Satan uses to drain and overwhelm leaders are chipped away, allowing them to carry more faithfully and fruitfully the torch in growing God’s kingdom for their generation and beyond.


* Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (London: Piatkus Books, 2003).

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Nick Howard, PsyD, is the founder of Cypress, a leadership development firm that specializes in providing coaching and training services for Christian leaders and executives.

September 2009

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