The Coaching Approach to Care
Bill Howard was on the brink of burnout. In the last ten years, the church he pastored had changed worship and leadership styles, ministry model, name, and location. The congregation was growing, but the decade of transitions and the accompanying conflicts had taken their toll.
When conflict erupted on his staff, Howard began questioning how his church conducted ministry. If the pastors of the church can't put its teaching into practice, he thought, we must be doing something wrong.
"I was burned out on the 'telling' model, which assumes, If we tell our hearers about Christ and give them answers, they will grow in maturity," Howard reflects. "I'd been giving answers for 18 years when I realized that discipleship requires pastors to teach not just answers, but also the process of arriving at them."
The "telling" model of ministry, centered on teaching and preaching, has a vital place in ministry. But it's not enough. "No one would raise children with only a 'telling' model," explains Howard. "When our kids reach a certain age, we stop dispensing answers and begin transferring skills."
To supplement his "telling" ministry and nurture maturity, Howard drew on skills from the field of coaching.
"Whereas counseling focuses on internal issues and on the past," says Chad Hall, former pastor, church planter, and author of Coaching for Christian Leaders, "coaching is about moving forward, taking steps into the future. It's for people who are fairly functional and don't necessarily require the healing that comes through therapy."
Fortunately, pastors already possess many traits necessary for successful coaching, including asking and listening. "Most pastors are pretty good in those areas," Hall explains. "They need only certain tweaks to tap into the resources of coaching."
But those tweaks are critical. They involve new assumptions and actions.
"When a person came to me and said, 'I need to talk,' I would assume, This is a healthy person who needs coaching," explains Hall. If it became clear, as he directed a parishioner toward action and spiritual growth, that the person was uncoachable, Hall would revert to counseling. "But if a relatively healthy person—someone who 'just feels stuck'—receives counseling when he needs coaching, it's like giving the wrong prescription."
The goal of coaching is not to diagnose pathology, but to facilitate discovery and action. "In counseling, you're listening to diagnose, and that makes you the smartest person in the room," says Hall. "But coaches serve as thought partners, listening in order to help the other person have 'aha' moments."
For Bill Howard, the goal of coaching is to answer the question, Where would God have you be in one year, two years, five years? and to help a person develop a plan for getting there. This is done by listening for major themes in a person's understanding of her life and what she feels is missing.
Coaches do not listen in order to solve problems. Instead, they listen to mirror back thoughts and insights to the person being coached. Therein lies its effectiveness. People seldom act on insights provided by others—which was the discouraging reality that led Bill Howard into coaching. But when a person comes to that conclusion himself, he is more apt to embrace the implications.
"A great coaching question is one that fits the moment," says Hall. Such questions share certain characteristics: they are open-ended and exploratory, and they do not lead to a particular answer. For instance, "What would make this conversation most useful right now?"
"Even if you know where a person's issue is leading, you have to hold back," says Hall. Citing Marcus Buckingham, he explains: "With water, the most efficient route between two points isn't a straight line, but rather the path of least resistance. We may know everything about where this person is going, but we have to work with him to discover the path."
Howard, who is transitioning from senior pastor to focus on coaching in his church, sees many applications for coaching in pastoral care. "In the pulpit, we are pressured to say something different every week," he says. "But coaching allows me to work with people for a season and develop their skills. It can help people discover what God has gifted them for and how they can embrace that calling. It's a wonderful tool."
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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