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A Fresh Approach to Coaching in Churches by Jenn Peppers, CPCC

May 8th, 2009 | By | Category: Coaching Ministry Leaders - Guest Posts

What's the most effective way to bring coaching to the church?

How do we explain coaching to ministry leaders when the term coaching is already used within churches to mean so many different things? This is the first barrier coaches run up against when they want to help ministry leaders leverage the power of coaching for empowering and transforming people. Small group ministries often refer to their overseers as coaches, and for every church that uses the term there seems to be a different meaning or responsibility associated with it. Many life coaches are left asking, “How can I communicate how helpful life coaching can be in the journey of following Christ?”

But here’s the deeper problem: Too often, we’re trying to answer questions that ministry leaders aren’t asking. We’re starting with a one-size-fits-all solution (usually a certain structure of coaching or a coaching program) rather than first discerning the needs of that particular church. How’s that for a basic level coaching no-no?

One eager life coach—we’ll call her Shana—was helping the senior pastor of her medium-sized church interview a potential small groups pastor when she first learned that some larger churches used “coaches” to shepherd small group leaders. Her wheels started turning and she began searching for more information, which led her to a manual used at one of these larger churches to train its coaches. A brief scan of the material revealed that very little of the coach training overlapped with what Shana had learned during her certification process for life coaching. And she rather quickly concluded that the impact of these coaches would be so much more if they only had some life coaching skills. It felt like a no-brainer to her.

When the small groups pastor was hired she met with him and was very convincing. She created a scaled-back life coaching skills training program for their church while the pastor recruited coaches. And although she wasn’t very passionate about training coaching skills, the new coaches responded well to what they learned. But the whole concept and structure never really stuck. There wasn’t enough buy-in or understanding. The small group leaders viewed their assigned coaches as a superfluous layer in the ministry structure rather than an opportunity to be engaged in powerful conversations for the sake of spiritual growth.

Many of us can relate to this story—life coaching is hard to explain whether we’re talking with church leaders or potential clients. It shouldn’t surprise us that this church both wanted and needed life coaching skills. But a disconnect and communication barrier prevented those skills from taking root in this scenario. Shana’s lack of experience contributed to that, but what could she have done differently?

We often see life coaches making the same mistakes that churches in general make: taking an idea that has worked well for others and implementing it in their community. Rather than starting by asking, “What are other churches doing?” and “How could I do that in my church?” Shana could probably have had a far greater impact if she had started with asking different questions. She missed an opportunity to help the leaders of her church discern where God was directing. What would have been more helpful is asking questions such as:

  • What is the ultimate vision or mission of our church?
  • What are the felt or real needs of our church?
  • How do you think life coaching might be able to help deepen peoples’ relationship with the Lord?

And then asking herself:

  • How can I help meet our church’s needs using what I have learned as a life coach?
  • How else can I use my coaching skills help this church fulfill its vision or mission?
  • What would I be really enthusiastic about offering?

I worked on a project for my church where we asked, “What if—instead of training coaches for the small group leaders—we trained the group leaders themselves in coaching skills?” The result was the book Finding the Flow: a guide for leading small groups and gatherings (published by IVP) and it addresses just that question. It’s essentially a coaching skills-based approach to small group facilitation—geared toward the group leaders themselves. Beginning with a focus on knowing yourself and what you bring to the group, Finding the Flow then moves on to covering essential coaching skills like asking good questions, listening, surfacing conflicts, and developing others.

But we don’t call them coaching skills. Sometimes the label just adds to the confusion. Imagine if Jesus said, “Okay, I am here to preach the gospel.” People would have been confused. They would have been so focused on wondering what this “gospel” thing was that they would likely have missed the message. Instead, Jesus just lived out the gospel without putting a label on it. Likewise, as coaches, we can simply go forth and coach. And in doing so, we will help churches find creative ways to integrate coaching skills in ways that will address their needs.

Jenn Peppers is a life coach and coauthor of Finding the Flow: A guide for leading small groups and gatherings.

Excerpted from “Beyond Pyramids: Fresh Approaches to Coaching in Churches” written by Jenn Peppers and Tara Miller and originally published in the Journal of Christian Coaching, Fall 2009 (

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