Dimensions in Ministry

Steve Elliott: Pastoral Coaching - Part 1

Steve Elliott, guest speaker for the 2011 U.S. Regional Conferences, discusses the value of coaching for ministry leaders. Steve is president of Church Assistance Ministry, an organization providing training and coaching to church leadership.

(29.2 minutes)
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Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott is president of Church Assistance Ministry, an organization providing training and coaching to church leadership. Since 1971, Steve has served as a pastor, church planter, Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) district superintendent, church planting director and missionary.

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Be sure to watch Part 2 of this series with Steve Elliott.

Mike Feazell: Steve, it’s a pleasure to have you on the program today.

Steve Elliot: Thank you.

MF: Thanks for taking the time out and coming down from Turlock.

SE: It’s good to be here.

MF: Tell us a little bit about what coaching looks like in terms of effective ministry, as opposed to mentoring, for example.

SE: Somebody shared this with me early on — the difference between coaching and mentoring. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, so it’s helpful for me to get some definitions and then work off of those.

  • The idea of mentoring was that mentoring is pouring my life into somebody else’s life. There’s obviously important things that happen when somebody who’s a little more mature works with somebody who’s younger and less experienced in mentoring, and pouring a lot of what you’ve learned over the years into their lives.
  • On the other hand, coaching is drawing out of the other person that which is already in them — the ability to use the giftedness that God has placed in them and the aspects of their personality and to draw it out. A lot of times we’re hindered by the experiences that we’ve had before or just have not thought about the possibilities, and so coaching is able to accomplish that.

MF: If a pastor comes to you for coaching, or approaches you for it, what are they typically feeling or desiring or...?

SE: They’re usually frustrated. The ministry is plateau-ed, or they’re not accomplishing what they dreamed would be true within their local church, or they’re having sometimes relational struggles or leadership struggles, and so that’s when they will ask for help, obviously.

MF: So what is it that you as a coach are going to bring to them that they can’t find by themselves through reading or listening to others on their own?

SE: What we found is that a coaching relationship...I think there’s several aspects that are beneficial. One is simply that it is a relationship of somebody who cares and somebody who has enough credibility because of experience, or effectiveness in the ministry area that the other person is working in, that there’s credibility, so they’re willing to listen. So relationship is a big part of it.

I have found that in the pastoral ministry, a lot of times people are pretty lonely out there. They don’t have somebody with whom they can really share the struggles, the challenges, because the people in the congregation probably won’t understand, and it could raise some questions where people will be critical, because the pastor is talking about his own struggles. So to have somebody else relate is helpful.

MF: A pastor can get that from another pastor, though.

SE: He could, yeah. Relationships between pastors are very helpful. It’s just that if we do coaching, it seems to take it to another dimension. The two biggest aspects of coaching are asking the right questions to help a person walk through a process of ministry development and ministry accomplishment.

Let’s say it’s a pastor and I’m talking to them each month, they know we’re going to have a meeting, we can talk about what’s coming up and we can talk through the strategies by me simply asking questions. “Well, what are your options in accomplishing that objective?” “What are the pros and cons about that?” I help him think about things that he may never think about by simply asking those questions. “What are the possible obstacles?” “How do you suppose your people will respond if you put this proposal out to them?” “What are the possible objections and how are you going to answer those objections?” “What steps are you going to be taking to accomplish the plan?” “Who do you need to have alongside you, what resources do you need?”

And just helping a person think through all of those things ahead of time is a real big help. A lot of times when we’re alone, we don’t think all those questions. We’re kind of stuck in our old way of doing things, and this opens up possibilities of thinking about new ways of doing it. So even if I’m not instructing the person, I’m helping them think through the process.

MF: Now suppose they don’t have a clue about what to do next? Do you also have suggestions and ideas that...

SE: Of course. There comes a time when the input is important, and my experience might speak to their experience. But you know what I like to do? I like to wait on that to find out what’s really in there first. I enter a coaching relationship quite non-directive until they verify to me that they need some direction or some ideas. Then I’ll probably not just say, “Do this like I did it. I did it in such and such a church, and if you just do it you will succeed” because that may not be true because they’re a different person and have different giftedness in a different context with different people.

So I might say, “You know, some people have tried this, and some people have tried that, and here’s a third option. Let’s evaluate these possible options as maybe part of the answer to your challenge.” I would rather still keep it somewhat open so that he can think about it. I would like for him to succeed using his abilities that God has placed in him uniquely rather than trying to make a clone of myself.

Very often what happens when an older pastor or a more experienced pastor works with a younger one, we just tell the other person what to do and how to do it. And they may not succeed. It may be very frustrating , it may be very ineffective. But if I help...in a process, you know? We’re meeting every month, so this is over a period of time — a person not only gets used to the relationship and gets used to being coached (and it’s a skill to be coached as well as to coach). As he gets used to being coached and thinking that way, great advances seem to take place in people’s lives. Sometimes they become more creative than they ever dreamt that they would be — creative in an effective way of taking what they are and succeeding.

MF: A lot of those techniques you’re describing also sound like counseling... not that everybody does use those techniques when they’re counseling, but you wish they would, but it sounds very similar to counseling. What’s the nuance?

SE: I think an aspect of counseling, a positive way to counsel, would be to use coaching as part of the process because you’re encountering relational difficulties or struggle in a marriage or whatever — to ask those questions would be helpful to get the person to think before I tell him what to do or even before I take the Bible and give him the instructions, it would be nice for him to have thought through the diagnosis of what’s going on himself. So counseling can contain coaching in a very effective way, and I’ve used that.

MF: When you are coaching pastors about becoming more effective in their ministry, what are some of the areas that typically are negative paradigms that, let’s say, lots of pastors carry into their ministry work? Are there common threads that a lot of pastors tend to...or assumptions, presuppositions, they bring to ministry that you have to help them think through or kind of come to grips with?

SE: Yeah. In my experience, one of the biggest things to overcome is the idea that being a pastor or being in Christian leadership is just a matter of teaching, and it becomes sort of like an academic classroom experience. We have a lot of people with a lot of knowledge, but they have never learned how to actually integrate that knowledge into their experience. It often doesn’t become a part of their faith. So when they hit the challenges of life, the illnesses, the unemployment, relational difficulties, they know the truth, but somehow the truth is not ever brought into it, and they react and respond just like anybody else would who did not have a relationship with the Lord.

I think the academic approach to the Christian church has hurt us because we have thought that knowledge is the be-all and end-all. If we can get our people to know and understand the theological truths, that’s enough. What I have found in my life is that it takes relationship, it takes interaction about these things, it takes sharing experiences, and relationship is key. I often say in training events that I do, that all ministry, all effective ministry, requires significant relationships. The longer I’ve been at this, the more I believe that’s true. So to take the theological truth and have it be part of my life requires a sharing of the stories of life with each other so that we can begin to see how it really works to apply the truth, the promises of God, et cetera.

MF: Applying Jesus’ story to each individual’s story.

SE: Yeah.

MF: Do you find that a lot of pastors who are struggling don’t have relational skills, in other words, the kind of skills that a pastor really needs, or let’s say gifts, that a pastor needs in terms of relationships. Not everybody has that. So what does a pastor do if they find that their temperament and personality and their gifting is, let’s say, academic or... Many people just simply don’t have relationship skills on that level. What’s the next step? What do they do? How do they deal with that as a pastor? Do they find another job, or do they bring in people to fill that role?

SE: The two things that come to my mind in response to that is that you develop a ministry leadership team in which you bring people who have those skills and gifts alongside you, value those people very highly, and allow them to use those abilities that are complementary to mine so that it becomes a team leadership more than a solo leadership. I’m a real advocate of developing teams of complementary people who all have the same values and passions and mission, and they share all of that together, and vision, but they each contribute a different piece to it. But they’re all considered part of the leadership. So they help each other formulate the plans and direction of ministry and the different aspect of the church.

MF: Most situations where the pastor is like that and they try to develop a leadership team where others with those strengths can fill those roles to some degree, but what happens is that...you’ve no doubt experienced in this process...the congregation tends to not like it when the pastor doesn’t have good people skills and he or she tends to not respond to the people in the way that they expect a pastor to... and is very academic but not... Somebody’s suffering and he doesn’t know how to respond to that. It’s not like it’s his fault, it’s how he...

SE: It’s who he is...

MF: He doesn’t have it.

SE: That’s who the person is.

MF: But they expect that out of a pastor. Even though there are other people in the congregation leadership who can do it, there’s this sense of, “I don’t like pastor so and so because he doesn’t seem to care.” He does care, perhaps even more than most people care, but he doesn’t a way of expressing that. What do you do? It’s can be a problem.

SE: You mentioned something when you first started asking on this subject, should he find another job? Sometimes, yes. People should be in another role. It’s individual. I don’t want to imply that I’m saying that about any specific person right now. But yes, sometimes people get into the wrong roles simply because of...many reasons, but personal desire, family pressure, and that’s why we in the organizations that I’ve worked with, we developed pre-deployment assessments so that we can find out if at least the basic components of effectiveness of a person in that role are present.

MF: You mean before somebody gets sent to be a pastor, you find out whether he can do the job.

SE: Exactly. It makes sense to know ahead of time because if you don’t evaluate that to at least some significant degree, you put people in the wrong place and they’re destined to failure, and that’s not a very helpful thing.

MF: Doesn’t it help the person sometimes to know that this is...in other words some sort of a temperament personality assessment...

SE: Evaluation, yeah.

MF: It helps them to know, this is how I am. And knowing how you are can help you be honest with that, which can also help you in the relationships you have. In other words, if you admit it, and they know that you struggle with interpersonal things but you’re doing the best you can, then there’s a different dynamic from people who just simply won’t admit anything, don’t even understand themselves or others.

SE: What you’re saying here is something that puts coaching and assessment into the same part of the process. If you’ve been assessed and you have a self-understanding and you know the areas of your weakness and then you bring a coach in to help you with those areas, there can often be development in the very areas that are my weaknesses. We use that assessment as a tool for the coach so he knows that there are these three areas that for Pastor Jones are not as instinctive, they don’t seem to come out, especially when the pressure of life and ministry is on him. But the coach is always asking about those things. “What are you doing in that area of developing new leaders in your church,” for example. “Well, I don’t think of that.” But you do think of it if the coach is asking you about it each time and then asking you to develop a plan by which you’re going to be doing that process or to learn about it by reading or interacting with an effective pastor who’s doing that thing well. The coach then can help the person fill the gaps of weakness in his life.

That’s in addition to having a team, but there are certain things you can grow in. I think there are certain things that we just can’t develop in our life because they’re simply not there. But if they are there to a certain extent and we just haven’t developed them, that’s where the coach can really, really help in the process. So we use assessment and coaching as kind of two sides of the same process to help in that gap-filling experience.

MF: In the United States, in Western culture in general, but especially here in this country, there’s this sense of individualism where we all feel like the Lone Ranger or the John Wayne Western macho character...

SE: Right. That’s valued.

MF: If you know what you’re going to do and you don’t care what anybody else thinks, you don’t need to get advice or you don’t need all these relationships because you’re your own man and all this kind of thing. But in the church context, the whole point of the gospel is the restoration of good relationships with everybody.

SE: And the whole concept of the body of Christ and the interrelation of the various parts of the body.

MF: When you look at the fact that so many pastors...this isn’t something that just three or four out of 100 pastors have difficulty with. We’re talking about a culture in which even a macho standalone pastor is a valued commodity. We look at pastors who have built up successful large one-man ministries and we think wow, that’s what I want. But not only does hardly anybody have that set of gifts, but you don’t necessarily want that set of gifts in that way, necessarily, if you’re going to be pastoring a group of people who need to learn to be a community of faith.

SE: That’s right.

MF: What I’m trying to say is that any pastor who finds himself struggling could benefit from some kind of pastoral-level relationships that are apart from the congregation where they can get some feedback, self evaluation and all...in other words, everybody’s got lacks and gaps and holes.

SE: Exactly.

MF: We talk about the pastoral gift mix. Well fine, but most pastors don’t have that, I guess I’m trying to say, but they can be successful pastors if they can know themselves and know something about others and be led down that path.

SE: As I was learning to be a coach and becoming more effective in applying the principals of coaching, I was being coached as well. I have found that being coached is very important for me. Even though I’ve been several decades in ministry and have had some effective ministry, I’m always facing new challenges. The culture is changing, and the challenge of a specific situation is changing. So to be coached, for me, is extremely helpful.

MF: Keeps you out of a rut...

SE: Right. Just being asked the questions of, “What are the possibilities?” “How are you going to do that?” And then, the next month, coming back together and saying, “Well, how did it go? You said you were going to do these three steps to develop this thing in your church, how did it go?” And I’ll say, “Well, you know, the first two they went pretty well, it seemed like I was able to get a grip on the concept of what I was trying to do, I put together a plan with the help of my team and it seemed like it was good. But the third step was bringing everybody on board, and there’s one guy that just will not accept any new thing that we’re doing, and so we’re having a roadblock there.” Having a coach help walk me through dealing with this person is very helpful. I have found that being coached is valuable for me as I’m coaching other people.

MF: Have you ever run across somebody who comes to you for coaching and you’re working with them, but they really don’t want to be coached?

SS: Yes. And I’m not going to force them to be, because if they don’t want to be...it’s just like being counseled. If somebody doesn’t want to be counseled about a struggle that they’re having in their own personal life, I can’t force them.

MF: So you’re asking them things and leading them along the path, but they already have all the answers and really want to show themselves to be on top of it.

SE: That’s right. I’m not going to take the time to continue that relationship. I might still be their friend, I might still have other relationships, but to apply coaching, which implies making progress in your life and moving along pathways that maybe you haven’t been walking before, I’m not going to force somebody to be in that. It will be a waste of time for both of us, and there are plenty of people out there who want the help, so I’m not going to force it.

As we were developing a strategy for starting a lot of new churches in our association, there came a time when one of the requirements to be a church planter under my leadership was that you would be coached and that you would welcome coaching, because I found that Lone Ranger types usually didn’t succeed — the ones who knew it all didn’t succeed. I’ve had guys where I was being more gracious to them and saying, we’ll see how it goes. In two occasions the guy came to me later, when the thing was already falling apart, and saying, “Steve, I think I need your help now.” And I say, “Well, let’s give it a shot,” but it turned out in both cases it was too far gone to recover, and they lost their ministry.

MF: Aren’t there coaches that you can go to for help and then they’re like what you were just talking about — they’re the kind who aren’t really going to coach, they’re going to just tell you what they’ve done, what they know to be right. And so you try what they’re doing, but they’re really more of a tell-you-what-to-do kind of a person as opposed to helping you.

SE: Right. Maybe that will work sometimes, but most of the time it doesn’t work that well.

MF: So if you find that the coach you’re working with is like that, then you probably need somebody that’s going to walk you through a process instead of tell you how to do it.

SE: Yeah. I was involved in a pre-deployment training process for new missionaries for our denomination, and they asked me...because coaching has not been developed within the mission outreach of our church...

MF: The EFCA? [Evangelical Free Church of America]

SE: Yeah. It’s starting to be, but it wasn’t at that time...but there wasn’t a real coaching emphasis. What they asked me to do with the new missionaries was to do a module in their workshop on being coached. I taught them what being coached, or what the coaching process was, and what they ought to look for in somebody on the field who was more experienced than they, and, in effect, train them from the one being coached to the one who will be doing the coaching — to ask for that kind of relationship. I hope it worked a little bit. At least I hope that they got a hunger for having this kind of relationship.

MF: We have about ten seconds left, so maybe in 30 seconds or so could you just talk about a success that sticks out in your mind of a coaching experience.

SE: Yes. We have a man who was an immigrant to the U.S. from the Philippines who came here not knowing that he was going to be a church planter but discovering through a long process that that’s what God had called him to do. He was one of the guys that I coached through the early development stages and walked with him also through the training process — Church Next training... similar to that. And today, they are planting their ninth church, effectively developing disciple-making within those churches, and reaching new people for Christ, and now starting work internationally as well. He has become the model of a person being coached (some people call them coachees, I don’t like that term). The person who took it seriously and utilized the relationship in such a way that he’s very effective, a very effective leader now. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work with him.

MF: Well, thanks for being here.

SE: Thank you for having me.

MF: Good to talk to you.

SE: Thank you.

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