“Our goal is to build up, not shut down. Empowerment looks a lot like discernment: discovering together where a person (or a parish) is called and equipped.”
Engaged and caring parishioners inevitably approach us with new ideas to address the vitality of the congregation. These are committed church members, eager to serve God and ready to get to work. They are people with skin in the game, so to speak. Still, it can be overwhelming to take these ideas and try to fit them into a previously determined visioning process or an already jam-packed program year. We can’t just brush aside these parishioners–So how can we accommodate their ideas? How can we encourage people to be engaged in the planning for formation, outreach, liturgy, and other aspects of church life while not stretching ourselves and our congregation too thin?
Coaching in a Parish
One approach is for church leaders to use elements of coaching in responding to big ideas. Coaching, in the same family as mentoring, counseling, spiritual direction, and consulting, can be applied by church leaders as a way to empower the baptized to live out God’s mission in a way that is unique to their own strengths, in a way that honors their creativity, resourcefulness, and wholeness in the context of the larger faith community. Chris Holmes, author of The Art of Coaching Clergy, says it best: “We begin with an individual’s amazing resilience, believing each person is tremendously capable, wonderfully insightful, gifted, and competent. This is our bedrock conviction: the person being coached is ‘naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.”
God has equipped each of us for ministry. Seeing ourselves as coaches frees us from the simultaneously soul-crushing and self-aggrandizing notion that we can do it all ourselves. The message is not you cannot do it alone; the message is you should not do it alone. Coaching allows us to look at the variety of gifts offered by the Holy Spirit and see that each comes from God, and each is valuable. Here are four coaching strategies to practice in your community.
The first coaching strategy is to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are not binary- yes/no, salmon/steak, Rite I/Rite II. Rather, these are open questions that make space for ideas. Powerful questions come from actively listening to your conversation partner, and wondering aloud. Imagine listening to a member of the parish and saying, I wonder if… in response to their big idea.
A powerful question caveat: it isn’t a powerful question if you are sure you already know the answer. The coach who asks powerful questions makes herself vulnerable to the truth that she does not know what is next. That’s okay.
Personalization may not feel like a “strategy,” but it is so important! Coaching is personalized, and this only happens through time and honesty. It takes time to get to know the needs and strengths of a congregation; the same is true for its individual members. A relationship needs to develop, one based on mutual honesty and a shared belief that the goal is important and achievable.
Empowerment is another key coaching strategy. Because coaches begin with the belief that the person being coached is ‘naturally creative, resourceful, and whole,’ it is important to find, name, and celebrate an individual’s or a congregation’s gifts. Our goal is to build up, not shut down. Empowerment looks a lot like discernment: discovering together where a person (or a parish) is called and equipped.
In coaching, scaffolding refers to supports that are tailored to an individual’s needs. Like scaffolding on a building, the term covers both the idea of structure to support as well as a ladder to take smaller steps. If your big idea feels unmanageable or far-away, setting incremental goals will soften the panic. What can we begin now that will set the stage for where we want to be in three years? Scaffolding can be about making smaller steps to help someone who cannot make a big leap. It can also be nudging someone who can do more, inviting them to take another step towards their goal. Scaffolding also includes boundary-setting. It sets limits for what is possible in the larger project.
What Does This Look Like in Action?
Let’s imagine a scenario. You are the church leader. Linda approaches you at coffee hour on a Sunday in July and says, “You know what would be awesome? A coffee shop at our church! We don’t use the kitchen much during the week, and it would be a great way to get to know the community.” Deep breath. How do those shiny coaching strategies help you support Linda while not agreeing to a massive project?
- Empowerment: What a creative idea! I love how you value the community, and the idea of bringing them in and getting to know them.
- Powerful Questions: I wonder if any other churches in the area have tried this. Would you be willing to research that?
- Personalization (Candor) and Empowerment: Linda, that sounds like an awesome idea. It fits well with our mission of getting to know the community. We do not have room in our budget this year, but that doesn’t mean never. The outreach team is trying to find ways to meet that goal as well. Can I put you in touch with that committee? They could use more dedicated and creative members!
I hope this quick introduction to coaching in a parish setting gives you some concrete tools for coffee-hour conversations. The individuals in your pews are equipped by God for the work of the Church. It is our job as leaders to listen, notice their strengths, and help them use those gifts for the good of the community and to the glory of God.
Margie Baker is a 2019 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, currently serving a parish in Connecticut. Her call to ordained ministry was deeply influenced by her career in public education, and that background informs her understanding of Christian formation. Her ministry is greatly shaped by her commitment to baptismal ecclesiology. When she not churching, Margie enjoys running, reading, and music.
 Holmes xxii