Robert1 texted me a few years ago, asking for my advice. He was at a crossroads of deciding between two job opportunities. Both were attractive, and both had components of ministry connected to them. Shortly after receiving the text, I called him to talk things through with him. Unfortunately, whenever I shared an idea, he had an argument against it. I remember longing to have the right words that might help him make the “right” decision—at least as I saw it. Reflecting on the conversation late that evening, I felt unsatisfied. He ended up not listening to any of my suggestions.
Some pastors always, it seems, know just what to say. Pearls of wisdom flow from their mouths. They are a rare breed. Most of us come away from such conversations knowing we could have done better. Is there another skill pastors can develop that will be helpful in those times? I believe there is—the skill and art of coaching.
What is coaching?
When referring to coaching, I am not speaking about athletic, music, voice, or similar coaching. Coaching is the “art and practice of enabling individuals . . . to move from where they are to where they want to be.”2 A more official-sounding definition comes from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) website. Coaching is “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”3 The main idea in these definitions is helping people become who they want to be.
It is important to distinguish between coaching and other pastoral care skills. As a pastor, I have mentored many young adults. A mentor’s role is to infuse skills and expertise into the mentee. Pastors also engage in discipling. In this role, the pastor has more spiritual maturity than the person being discipled. When a pastor disciples others, the aim is to help new converts grasp biblical realities more fully. This is accomplished by teaching, modeling, advising, and guiding.
At times, pastors are biblical counselors. A counselor has specific training that communicates things, such as what good mental health is or how marriages should function, and attempts to move their clients in that direction. These are all important aspects of pastoral care, but they are quite different from coaching.
A primary difference between these roles and coaching is that in each of these models, the pastor is the expert. The pastor coach lays aside the expert mantle. The aim is to assist the member’s thinking process so that the member uncovers their own solutions.
When to coach
When should a pastor use coaching as opposed to other methods of care? As frequently as possible, given the right conditions. Some of those conditions are when the member
- does not need therapy or spiritual healing,
- has a difficult decision to make,
- is in a holding pattern that necessitates new thinking patterns,
- has a vision for the future but is unclear as to how to realize that vision,
- is struggling with the tension between who they want to be and who they are, or
- faces a challenge that requires action.
Additionally, I have used coaching in board meetings, business meetings, and church planning sessions to help facilitate member participation and discussion.
The coaching conversation
Pastors have a variety of interesting conversations with members. But are those conversations useful? In contrast, coaching conversations follow a pattern designed to be of the most help to the one being coached.
The first step toward useful conversations is setting the flow of the conversation. Here, the pastor will ask what the congregant has on their mind or what would be helpful for them. This is called “setting the conversation” or “placement.” Its purpose is to help clarify where the conversation is headed. During this phase, many people are unclear about what kind of conversation they are looking for. You might encounter expressions like What do you think I should do? or I really want to . . . but I’m not . . . , or I’m not sure what to do next. These expressions indicate that the person needs help learning how to think clearly.
The pastor also needs to be cautious. Sometimes people come to the pastor for guidance, but what they really want is to vent. They are neither interested in thinking more deeply nor in the hard work of change.
A more helpful way to promote change is to facilitate new moments of insight. When someone gains a new insight through your thoughtful question, the person experiences a release of energy and a desire to move forward.
The second step in a coaching conversation is using thoughtful questions. Such questions should be open-ended, ones that cannot be answered with a yes or no. Powerful questions provoke thinking and create insights. Here are some useful questions:
- How can I help you think about this?
- How does this issue fit into your goals and desires?
- Where do your values fit in this situation?
- What would your life look like if you made the changes you are thinking of?
- What would be most helpful for you today?
- How long have you been thinking about this?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate this issue in importance?
- How do you feel about this circumstance?
- Where are you feeling it? In your chest, stomach, head?
When asking questions, pay attention to your tendency to jump to conclusions. Try to suspend your judgment. Instead of thinking of your response, listen to and watch the person speaking. This will help you hear things beyond the words being said. Learn to become comfortable with silence as the member thinks things through. Try not to stack questions. Rather, ask one and then pause for a response. I find the acronym WAIT useful when I am coaching. I’ll often ask myself to WAIT—why am I talking?
One of the difficulties pastors have in learning to ask thoughtful questions is the tendency to feel that we need to have all the answers. Five drivers to social connections that influence our interactions are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.4 Status shows our relative importance to others and is easily threatened. Let us be transparent. It is part of our status as a pastor to have answers, to be a guide on deeply important matters. However, in coaching, we relinquish this status to enhance the status of the member. The pastor does this by facilitating the member’s own discoveries and insights.
The final phase of the coaching conversation is to work with the new insights the congregant gains. The common method for helping others change is giving them advice, solving their problems, and assuming that they think the way we do. A more helpful way to promote change is to facilitate new moments of insight. When someone gains a new insight through your thoughtful question, the person experiences a release of energy and a desire to move forward. Noticing and encouraging these insights is an essential part of a coaching conversation.
When someone has a flash of insight, you can see it in their face. Their eyes brighten as adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin are released. This reaction is what prompted Archimedes to jump out of the bath, shouting, “Eureka!” Current neuroscience studies suggest that gamma-band waves are given off, which shows increased learning and attention.5 At this point, the coach encourages the person being coached to identify and decide to act on the insight.
This outline of the coaching conversation can be summed up with the acronym CREATE.6 First, the pastor explores the current reality, then explores alternatives through powerful questions, and finally taps the energy that is released through new insights.
Pastors work to help move people toward the kingdom of God. Coaching as pastoral care is an underdeveloped skill that the thoughtful minister can incorporate. It has a unique place in the pastor’s tool kit.
A privileged position
The following facts underscore how the pastor coach is in a privileged position while coaching.
First, there is an opportunity to incorporate prayer into the process. While breathing exercises help bring calm to a coaching exchange, prayer brings both calm and a holy influence.
Second, every coach has a worldview. The pastor coach’s worldview will include believing that God has a plan for the member’s life. It is extremely fulfilling to see a person move into harmony with that plan.
Third, the pastor coach can minister to the entire person, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Finally, the pastor coach has a unique advantage in that a close relationship already exists. The member understands that there are shared traditions and values. This helps facilitate change.
It’s different now
It has been several years since my conversation with Robert. We are still good friends and regularly speak about life and its challenges. Our conversations have a different tenor now. They are not only interesting but also useful. When he begins to ask for advice, I ask him questions. It is second nature for me to slide into a coaching conversation rather than trying to be the expert with all the solutions. I am appreciably more curious about what he is thinking and far less concerned about having just the right words. This brings depth to our conversations that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.
- A pseudonym.
- Gary Collins, Christian Coaching, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009), 13.
- “What Is Coaching?” International Coaching Federation, Central Florida Charter Chapter, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.icf-cf.com/What-is-Coaching.
- David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others,” NeuroLeadership Journal 3, 2008, no. 1, 1–9, https://schoolguide.casel.org/uploads/sites/2/2018/12/SCARF-NeuroleadershipArticle.pdf.
- David Rock, Quiet Leadership (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), Kindle edition, 107, 108.
- Rock, 152.