Coaching Church Planters: What Does it Take? by Bob LoganFeb 15th, 2010 | By Tony Stoltzfus | Category: Featured Content
Ive been coaching church planters for over twenty years now. Church planters are a unique breed, often presenting distinctive challenges to their coaches. I know this because Ive also beenand currently ama church planter. I know firsthand how challenging we can be, and I also know what we need from our coaches.
Our international qualitative research project shows the outcomes of what good coaching accomplishes. We have isolated the competencies and microskills a coach needs to accomplish those outcomes. But one question Im often asked is this: To coach a church planter effectively, what else is needed besides the basics of being a good coach? Essentially, are there specific skill sets, competencies, or qualities needed beyond the essential foundation of good coaching skills?
The answer is yes, but those skills are not what you might think.
The Impact of Experience
Once when I was training coaches who wanted to work with planters, a participant was insisting on how critical it was for the coach to have planting experience. The coach of a church planter must be an experienced church planter, he said. I responded, Your experience as a church planter is irrelevant. And can actually be detrimental.
At that point, another participant got upset and started arguing with me. He was angry, and I let him go on for quite a while telling me why I was wrong. Because this was coach training, I eventually stopped him and said, Now, if you were a good coach, you would have asked me a clarifying question so you would understand what I meant by what I said. So why dont you ask me a good coaching question to unpack my thinking?
The participant, being a habitual teller, sat there for a full minute or two without being able to formulate a question. At that point, I decided to help with the discomfort in the room. Well, one question you could ask is, Bob, could you help me understand what you meant by that statement that your experience as a planter is irrelevant?
Then I went on to answer my own question, explaining that our experience colors our coaching and we can easily try to project our own experiences on the planter we are working with. Really, the fact of how I did it in my situation is irrelevant. I have different gifts than the planter I am coaching. The situation and the context are different. Its not one-size-fits all. Just because God worked one way in my situation, I cant assume God will work the same way in yours.
Experience can certainly help with bonding, but the crucial issue for a coach is understanding the principles. The coach who can walk the planter through the process of applying the principles to the planters unique situation is the one who will be helpful. Allowing our own experience to be superimposed over the planters experience is not helpful.
In the training session, I exaggerated the statement up front in order to communicate to this group of hard-charging people. They were relying heavily on their own experiences. Because they were practitioners, they felt they knew all they needed to know about coaching church planters. But really what they needed to learn was the difference between being a leader in their own situation and being a coach to help others be leaders.
Principles vs. Methodologies
In many cases where an experienced church planter is the coach, their experiences color how they coach. When looking at the situation methodologically rather than from a principle-based perspective, the coach is tempted to steer the planter in certain directions. For example, if the coach has had negative experiences with a multi-site approach, the temptation may be strong to focus on the methodology: The multi-site approach wont workas opposed to looking at the deeper principles that are at work regardless of what methods are being used. Good church planter coaches need to think in terms of underlying principles rather than in terms of methodology.
So what about credibility? Planters do want to know about the credibility of the coach theyre working with. In theory, an excellent coach could be useful to a church planter. But an excellent coach would be much more useful if they have an understanding of the principles of church planting. Sometimes a planter will disrespect a coach who doesnt have planting experience. Thats not the coachs fault, but the planters prejudice. But if you as a coach can help them unpack their thinking and understand the dynamics involved, theyll see that youre useful.
Establishing a personal connection with the planter, which includes credibility and trust, is essential. The three questions planters are asking are these: Can I trust you? Are you helpful? Do you care? The successful coach is one who can listen deeply and help the planter unpack their unique vision and dreams so they know they are understood. By doing that well, these three questions will be answered in the affirmativeregardless of the coachs planting experience.
To effectively help unpack who a planter is and what they are trying to accomplish, a coach will need to go through the due diligence of processing the planters proposal and assessment. Properly interpreted, these two documents unlock a wealth of information about each planter, allowing you as the coach to know precisely where to probe more deeply. Coaches of church planters need to be able to read and interpret planter assessments and proposals effectively.
Another area when I often see coaches stumble as they are working with planters centers on the cultural complexities involved in church planting. Cultural barriers often play out on a number of different levels: understanding the culture of the target group, understanding the culture the planter is coming from, and understanding the relationship between those two.
One planter working in the trendy, upscale community of Huntington Beach, California was convinced that unchurched people were looking for traditional music in a church environment. By missing the ways his culture intersected with the target group culture, he led his church plant straight into a stone wall. They didnt last too long in Huntington Beach. One of the benefits a coach can offer in this area is to help the planter identify and get in tune with the culture of their target group.
When we are planting churches today, it’s a cross cultural experience, even if the planter is engaging with their own culture. Its easy to miss nuances that are important to the target group because we make assumptions that what we like or prefer as Christians is the same as what unchurched people want. In this sense, Christians and non-Christians represent two different cultural groups. Coaches can help planters think through what good news really looks like to those they are trying to reach not just to those who have already been reached.
Addressing Common Roadblocks
At that point, what if a planter has been successful? What if they are effectively reaching their target group? What then do they do with those people? Commonly planters need help from their coaches in organizational development. Planters tend to be big picture kind of peoplesometimes showing a disregard for the underlying structures that make that picture possible. How many planters, especially postmodern planters, have you heard say, We dont need anything organized. Were just going to be relational, be missional, and reach people. A good coach can help this planter think through the hows of their vision in a way that doesnt diminish its relational, organic nature, yet still sets it up for success.
The more church planters Ive known and worked with, the more Ive become aware of the common areas where planters tend to self-destruct. There are specific symptoms to look for and specific areas to ask abouteven if the planter isnt bringing them up. As a group, planters tend to neglect their own spiritual and relational health. They become so focused on their goals that they forget about themselves and their relationships with God, their family, and their friends.
Unlike a standard coaching relationship, where you address the issues the client is bringing to you, when youre coaching a church planter, you need to ask about these areas even if the planter isnt surfacing thembecause they are related to the planters goals whether they realize the connection or not.
These areas weve discussed all accentuate the importance of coming at the coaching relationship from planters perspective, understanding them, and being on their side. That doesnt mean youve necessarily been a planter yourself, but it does mean youve taken the time to understand the world through a planters eyes.
Dr. Robert E. Logan is founder of CoachNet and is an internationally recognized leader in the coach development and church leadership fields. CoachNet Global has done extensive work in the area of focusing coaches on the specific challenges facing church planters. We’re launching a specialization track for coaches who want to more effectively serve church planters. Components of this track include coach mentoring, face-to-face experiences and online peer support. A baseline of coaching skill is required, and specific competencies will be built on top of those core skills. This specialization will be offered several times in 2010-11 in a number of areas around the country. Visit www.coachnet.org for details.