by Tom Messer
Most of my ministry responsibilities have been in roles for which I had little or no previous experience. Right out of college I began my career in fulltime Christian work as a recruiter and basketball coach for a Christian college. My first two years of coaching were marked by mixed success. I knew we could win with good talent and hard work, but I did not know how to build a sustainable and consistently successful program.
After my second year of coaching, I was introduced to Ron Bishop, who was, at that time, the head coach at Tennessee Temple University. Ron became a great friend and mentor as we spent hours talking about everything from recruiting, to practice schedules, to utilizing assistant coaches, and game strategies. He gave me a simple formula modeled off his success and I went on to apply that formula for eight successful seasons.
In 1992, I was called to be senior pastor of a fairly large, well-established, and multiple-ministry (church, college, academy, rescue mission, and youth camp) church. I had no previous pastoral experience beyond staff experience in the church where I was called to serve.
I quickly realized what I did not know far outsized what I did know. When you are in over your head you look for someone holding a life preserver. Since then, my involvement with mentoring and coaching and my commitment to it has only intensified. Good coaches are essential to building winning teams in the church as well as on the basketball court.
The pattern for mentoring is found throughout the Scriptures — Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, Jesus and the disciples, and Paul with Timothy and Titus.
The need for coaching centers on personal development. John Maxwell, among others, is known to say, “You will be the same a year from today as you are right now except for the books you read and the people that you meet.” Effective leaders are constantly growing and refining their skills. I would constantly stress to players when I was coaching that good teams are made from October through March (basketball season) and good players are made from March to October (off-season). The key to improvement and sustainability in ministry is a personal growth plan that should include education and coaching.
KINDS OF COACHING
There are a number of ways to get coaching, and you will need different kinds of coaching for different seasons and to meet different challenges.
Early in my ministry, I relied on informal coaching. I had relationships with people who were willing to take me under their wings and impart wisdom and advice. One such man was Mac Heavener, who was a real estate executive and leader in our ministry, and who had leadership skills and experience he was willing to share. God also allowed my path to cross with Elmer Towns at a time when I was trying to understand systems and processes for church life. He helped me balance the need for processes that made sense without minimizing spiritual anointing.
Included in my informal coaching were conferences where I gathered with other leaders and learned from experts in the field. These conferences were more likely to be inspirational and often required follow-up to learn and apply what was being taught.
The second type of coaching I received was from an executive coach who focused on personal development and leadership skills. After about 15 years of ministry, we were not getting the results I thought we should be getting and I sensed a growing frustration. I went through a process of self-discovery to learn about my leadership styles, the importance of being clear about where we were going as a ministry, and creating a plan to help us get there. This was primarily one-on-one coaching, although we used a process to report to our leadership team on our progress.
The third type of coaching is through coaching networks. This is where you join in with others and go through coaching groups, often focused on specific outcomes. Leadership Network is known for innovating in this area and has helped develop many effective and growing leaders who are impacting church life and culture.
As a note, I regularly teach and coach as part of a network of related churches. We typically go through a six-month season with preselected topics and a group of 12-18 pastors who want to sharpen their ministry skills.
Currently, I am using a coach to lead our senior staff through ministry systems to simplify and clarify what we are doing in vision, mission, and strategy. These are monthly sessions that involve four of our senior staff with one coach who has served as lead pastor in a church of over 5,000.
BENEFITS OF COACHING
In preparation for this article, I contacted those who have helped me in leading coaching networks and those who participated in them as ministry leaders seeking help. We believe there are many benefits to coaching, including:
- A resource for answers to complex questions regarding ministry philosophy and practice – What may seem simple and clear to you, can almost always be improved with an outside set of eyes and perspective.
- A sounding board for ministry vision and ideas that are in development stage – Some ideas are not ready for primetime and you need a place to work through your plans to help refine them for implementation.
- An unbiased, non-agenda driven voice who is pulling for you and ministry – feedback, both instructional and encouraging, can be critical. You do not always get that from your own ministry context and an extra set of eyes can be invaluable.
- Accountability – coaches can evaluate and voice feedback in a way staff and lay leadership cannot.
- An opportunity to be stretched in your thinking and leadership ability by someone who has been where you are – good coaches teach what they know and on subjects where you can really benefit from their expertise.
- Fresh ideas – over the years, most good ideas I have had are not original, they have come from other people or are adapted from those who are looking for creative solutions in ministry contexts.
- Comradery and relationship for what can be a lonely position – you can benefit from having people stand with you. Having a coach can help avoid burnout and will keep you from spending energy on things that do not produce good results.
FINDING A COACH
The first step for finding a coach would be to do an evaluation of where you are personally and where your ministry is. That may take gathering some key people to pray together, dream together, and walk down a new path together.
In 2015, I was asked to be part of a coaching group for church planters in Michigan. Many of these men were working by themselves and needed a coach.
The all-day event included training and a lot of practical, hands-on coaching experience. On a weekly basis I was involved in discipleship, counseling, and mentoring. But coaching is a game changer and I was able to quickly connect with just a few good questions.
This short experience gave me the desire to coach and be coached. I was able to share my celebrations and struggles and talk through what I wanted to do about them with someone who cared. Key questions helped me learn to concentrate on what is really important.
Since the training, I have used these coaching skills in coaching relationships and casual conversations. I would encourage everyone to be involved in a coaching experience. Coaching gives you a sounding board, accountability, and encouragement. With many church leaders feeling alone and susceptible to the unique pressures of ministry, coaching will keep many of us in the game.
Greg Burdine • Faith Baptist Church • Adrian, MI
When we moved to Africa, communication was poor and I found myself in the role of trainer/mentor more than trainee. Once ministry coaching became available online, I knew I wanted to get involved.
The skillset I was looking to improve revolved around church planting and ministry. The exposure to new books and authors was invaluable. Since there is accountability, work doesn’t get pushed to the back corner of the desk. The Q&A time with other pastors and missionaries drives one to evaluate and question his own ministry on a regular basis.
We must all be lifelong students and coaching is a good way to facilitate a challenging learning scenario.
Tim Downs • BBFI missionary • Ivory Coast, Africa
I have been blessed to be in many coaching networks since 2008 and I highly recommend coaching. Through it, I believe I was given keys that helped create systems and structure in various areas of our church.
Every pastor needs a Paul – someone with experience who can speak into his life. Every pastor also needs a Timothy – someone to pour themselves into. Coaching can satisfy both of those needs.
Brian Moore • Crosspointe Church • Yorba Linda, CA
In 2003, I set out on the arduous journey towards planting the church where I currently pastor. Like many of my contemporaries, I came to faith and served under a pastor who came from an admirable generation of men who went out alone as frontiersmen with tenacious grit, unshakeable faith, and a clear vision to win their community to Jesus. His no-nonsense strategy to church planting was also his approach to training and sending. God used that old-school method to build in me the character and fortitude needed to follow God’s call on my life. However, I still felt inadequate in the nuts-and-bolts of planting and pastoring a church. I knew I needed more training.
I deliberately sought out competent leaders who I could learn from. Through a series of providential relationships, I was introduced to a larger network that was planting churches across the region. Their commitment to coaching church planters and the subsequent success rate of new churches was very attractive to me. I was paired up with a seasoned pastor/planter who wisely coached me through the tumultuous process. His insights and guidance were paramount in the pre-launch and launch stages of SouthPointe Church.
This network also provided coaching groups of 8-12 other pastors/planters. We gathered every other month for focused instruction and peer interaction. We were then led in an activity that pressed us to apply the content by developing a personalized action plan. These gatherings were extremely beneficial to me, as well as for the health of our church.
Fast-forward to autumn 2015. I began to feel ineffective and questioned my leadership capacity. Thoughts lurked in the recesses of my mind that SouthPointe needed a new pastor. While in a conversation with a pastor friend, he told me he was engaged with an online coaching group. As he described the dynamics of his group, my heart was shouting, “I need this!”
As a part of this coaching group for the last year, I have been challenged and equipped with sustainable and transferrable tools to be a growing, confident, secure, and humble leader who is worth following … I just need to apply them!
We are not meant to journey alone. We need to be stretched. We need to be challenged. We need to be exposed to the experienced as well as the novice. Weave yourself into a network of men who value life-long learning. Perhaps you need to create an environment within your city, county, or region that focuses on mutual development and encouragement. Maybe you need an intense coaching experience that drills deep into your soul for the fount you have to give.
Charles J. Howard • SouthPointe Church • Whiteland, IN