A youth minister called. He was at the end of his rope!
His church was falling apart. The preacher had been fired, the elders were fighting, members were fleeing and he felt a responsibility to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” The counselor inside me wanted to put him in therapy. The mentor inside me wanted to give advice. The coach inside me knew to start asking questions and to set up a schedule for listening, brainstorming, and strategizing. Six months later, I’m more of a friend and mentor than a coach because–in most cases–relationships that begin with coaching often lead to healthy mentoring.
Definition of Terms
Life Coach–an advisor who helps people make decisions, set and reach goals, or deal with problems (Merriam-Webster)
Mentor–a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter (Dictionary.com)
Counselor–a person trained to give guidance on personal, social, or psychological problems
Jesus was a leader and a mentor. As important as his leadership was, the fact that he was a mentor and teacher is what has blessed the world for generations. Otherwise, when he died, it would have been over. Jesus knew the exponential power of mentoring others. Because of this, we desire to become mentors of the next generation.
Church leaders regularly get thrown into crises and are asked to serve as counselors, not mentors. Expected to provide psychological services, they are untrained and ill-equipped. Church secretaries, volunteer elders, young youth ministers–we all find ourselves being pressed into service as crisis counselors.
Counseling is a skilled profession often referred to as the “helping profession.” Helping professionals teach pastors the first principle of lay-counseling, “Do no harm.” This is a warning to church leaders, pastors, and elders that counseling requires years of understanding, training, and techniques.
Experimental, novice counseling can ruin lives; you can actually do harm. Many pastoral situations thrown on church leaders would be difficult for trained counselors and yet, leaders are expected to respond on the spot and often feel responsible for the outcome.
This feeling of responsibility can become an overwhelming burden leading to guilt, defeat, and despair. We invest hours talking, counseling, offering solutions. Many times our efforts end badly and even end relationships. Countless sessions of “pastoral counseling” (a technical term designed to limit untrained counseling and reduce liability) have left many people empty, frustrated, deflated, and depressed.
Recently, our leadership underwent an initiative to get professional coach training for our core pastoral team. In the initial training, we were emphatically taught something I should have been told in early ministry training, “You are not responsible for the agenda, outcome, or results of those we are working with. As a matter of fact, you cannot be responsible for another person.”
This truth is obvious: We cannot control other people and cannot be responsible for them. The reality? Many church leaders have bought into a belief that we are responsible for the actions and outcomes of the lives and choices that others make. Coach training sent me down the opposite path: a path of freedom and healthy leadership resulting in natural mentoring relationships.
Coaching provides a catalyst for growth and structure for change from an observational perspective. A coach has the ability to stand at a close distance while processing thoughts, actions, and ideas. A good coach becomes a catalyst for change as you process life, goals, challenges, and resources.
The coach intentionally seeks an observational perspective. Just as a sports coach stands off to the side to observe tendencies, motion, action, and follow through, the life coach takes a relationship position that makes observation possible. Too often, our nature is to engage personally and so closely that we cannot back up and take an objective view.
Coach training emphasizes that most solutions–and the best solutions–usually reside within the client. The coach isn’t as interested in offering solutions as they are discovering solutions. Solutions are found through a process of listening, reflecting, and discussing thoughts, actions, and ideas. The coach asks great questions like the following:
What solutions have you already tried and what were the results?
How committed are you to experiencing resolution?
How far are you willing to go and what are you willing to do?
What will you do next?
Okay, those are great ideas. Now give me five completely different ideas. What else could you do?
The goal of the coach is to act as a sounding board and to provide support as clients process the effectiveness of what they have tried already. Often, they have an idea of what would be more effective, but simply need to talk it out.
Through this process (and I’ve oversimplified the complexity of coaching for time and space), the coach becomes a catalyst for change. The coach does not cause change, but provides an environment where change can take place. Coaching sessions are typically an hour a month and provide intentional, focused time.
We all need healthy mentors. As we grow older and gain experience, we also need to become mentors for those coming up behind us. However, beginning the mentoring relationship can be awkward. Why? Well, for one reason, you cannot effectively assign someone to be a mentor. Mentors are chosen and the relationship is invited. Even approaching someone and saying, “I’d like to be your mentor,” can be loaded with unintended overtones and implications.
By nature, mentoring begins after a relationship exists. However, initiating a coaching relationship is very non-threatening. Offering to coach someone (once you have received training) does not communicate any superior knowledge, experience, or expertise. Because of this, I have found it very easy to initiate a coaching relationship.
Basics of the approach include:
- Explaining how I have been blessed by being coached myself
- Discussing the nature of coaching (I am not an expert, just an intentional listener who explains what I am hearing, observing, noticing, etc.)
- Inviting the relationship with the understanding of the client responsibilities (The person being coached sets the agenda, initiates the calls, follows through with the feedback, etc. The coach does not feel responsible because he/she is not responsible. This concept puts accountability where it should be.)
Why shift to mentoring if coaching is so effective? The truth is that many clients get stuck and find themselves needing advice. They often want to benefit from the experiences of the coach or others who have walked down the same path. While this is permitted in coaching and even encouraged, it begins to change the relationship.
As the relationship grows and trust is built, it is natural for the client to begin asking more personal questions and advice. This often transforms the relationship from coach/client to trusted mentor and valuable friend.
As a minister, I am personally more interested in serving as a mentor!