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Fall 2007, Vol. 4, No. 1

Coaching: A Christian Overview and Response

Gary Collins

Gary R. Collins, Ph.D.
Author and Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Rick is the assistant pastor of a growing church where he does more counseling than he ever anticipated. Most often he listens sympathetically, makes a few suggestions, reads a Bible verse or two, and prays with the people who come into his office. Still, he knows that something is missing in this part of his ministry.

“Some people need to be referred to more experienced and better trained counselors,” he told me recently. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that most of these people don’t need counseling at all. They need a coach who will help get them unstuck and moving in new directions.”

Ask anybody in your church for a definition of coaching and most will think of the athletic coach who guides players in competitive sports. Go into the corporate offices of almost any progressive business and you will hear instead about “executive coaching” that helps managers and business leaders deal with change, develop new management styles, set new visions for their companies, make wise decisions, become more effective, cope with their hyperactive lifestyles, and deal with stress.

Despite these examples, coaching is not limited to sports or businesses. Coaching is becoming popular almost everywhere. Many people are turning to nutritional coaches, fitness coaches and financial coaches for help in improving their lives. Musicians, public speakers and actors look for coaching to improve their skills, overcome obstacles, remain focused, and get to where they want to be. People known as life coaches now help individuals find direction for their lives and careers. With increasing frequency, coaching also is coming into the church and invigorating the ministries of pastors like Rick.

What is Coaching?

Like the horse-drawn stage coaches that would get people from where they were to where they wanted to go, coaching is the practice of guiding a person or group to get from where they are to where they want to be. Coaching helps people expand their visions, build their confidence, increase their skills, and take practical steps toward their goals. Unlike counseling or therapy, coaching is less threatening, less concerned about problem solving, and more about helping people reach their potentials. Coaching is not for those who need therapy to overcome disruptive painful influences from the past. It’s not about healing. Coaching is about growing. It focuses less on overcoming weaknesses and more on building skills and strengths. Usually coaching is less formal than the therapist-patient relationship and more of a partnership between two equals, one of whom has experiences, perspectives, or knowledge that can be useful to the other.

How Does Coaching Differ from Counseling?

Counselors help people deal with problems like depression, anxiety, guilt, insecurity, uncontrolled anger, feelings of failure, sexual struggles, or marital conflicts. Each of these implies that something in life is wrong, missing or negative. These are issues that people bring to mental health specialists or pastoral counselors. All of these topics concern what has come to be known as negative psychology. The goal in most cases is to bring counselees from their negative experiences and difficulties into a place where they are well-functioning, better able to cope, and living lives that are not plagued by problems.

Since these problems differ in their severity and intensity, it can be helpful to put them on an imaginary scale from -1 to -10 where minus ten is the worst. For example, a marriage problem may be not be very serious or disruptive (-1 or -2) or it may be dominated by intense conflict including violence (-9 or -10). Counselors seek to understand and help people overcome the issues of negative psychology regardless of the severity. Christian counselors work as servants of Christ, helping others deal with the causes of their distress, get free of the symptoms, find inner peace, reach a point of stability and find mental and spiritual healing.

A few years ago some secular psychologists began to speak and write about something known as positive psychology. These writers argued that traditional psychology and counseling has focused too much on the negative issues in life and has ignored more positive issues like hope, creativity, optimism, courage, responsibility, forgiveness, and others issues that make life worth living. Within the only a few years, positive psychology has grown significantly in its influence, popularity, and research support. The founders show no awareness of Galatians 5:22-23 and there is no mention of the Holy Spirit in any of their writings, but these psychologists appear to be discovering many of the traits that Christians know as the fruit of the Spirit.

Positive qualities also can be put on an imaginary scale in which the characteristics are ranked from +1 to +10 with plus ten as the most desirable and positive. Many of us have careers, marriages, spiritual lives, or sexual experiences that we would rate at +1 or +2. There are no major problems and there does not appear to be any need for counseling but neither is there a sense of deep fulfillment and satisfaction. A person might view his or her work at +2, for example, but that person may long to have meaningful and significant work that could be rated at a +8 or +9.

Whereas counseling deals with negative psychology and helps people move from their problems to the point of stability, coaching deals with positive psychology and helps people move to higher levels of fulfillment. Counseling focuses on problems and frequently considers the past. Coaching focuses on possibilities and looks at where people want to go in the future. The Christian caregiver’s work is to meet people on the following scale and move them further to the right.

Why Is Coaching Helpful for Christians?

I have a friend who works for a computer company. He has a good job with a very good income. Several times he has been promoted and his future looks bright. Now 38 years old, he and his family live in a comfortable home in an attractive neighborhood. The whole family is actively involved in a good church.

And he is miserable.

This man has no spare time. His life is filled and overflowing with activity. Every morning he gets up early, rushes off to work and goes non-stop all day. Coming home for dinner is only a pause on the treadmill of hyperactivity. There is no time for solitude, no time to relax, no time alone with God. He and his wife both feel a depressing weight of pressure on their lives and they see no way to escape.

This man does not need counseling, although he might benefit from an understanding of why he is so driven. Instead, my friend needs coaching to help in managing his life and career. No coach will tell him to how to control his life, but coaching can help him make decisions, evaluate his lifestyle and career, deal with his stress, manage his time, reconnect with God, and feel hope once again. There can hardly be a more needed service in our culture today or a more crucial ministry for the church. There are at least seven reasons why people today use coaches. These reasons help to explain why coaching is becoming so popular among Christians.

Coaches guide Christians in their spiritual journeys. Many believers understand the basics of the faith and aren’t looking to be discipled. Instead they need focused time with somebody who has the skills and maturity to help others grow in Christlikeness and move their spiritual lives from a ranking of +2 or +3 to a higher level.

Coaches help people grow through life transitions. Whenever we encounter major changes in our lives--like a promotion, new job, unexpected illness, death of a loved one, or retirement--we face uncertainty and the need to readjust. Friends, family, and churches will always give encouragement in times like these, but experienced coaches can help people reassess their life goals, find new career options, change lifestyles, get more training, or find information that lets them make wise decisions as they transition from one situation in life to another.

Coaches build skills. Good coaching helps people anticipate what they could become, identify their strengths, develop new competencies, overcome self-defeating habits or insecurities, manage relationships, and learn effective ways to keep improving.

Coaches build teams. Significant accomplishments often come when people work together. Trained coaches can help people in groups resolve differences, cool tensions, deal with miscommunications and misunderstandings, build trust, overcome competition, and learn how to work together as members on the same team.

Coaches stimulate vision. How many churches have no clear vision of their purpose or God-given mission? They keep doing what they have done for years, without much awareness of the culture that they are called to reach, with little impact outside of the church walls, with no desire to change and with little expectation that things could be better. Many individuals are similar. They go on with their lives and have neither the time nor the inclination to look beyond their current circumstances. Coaches help individuals and organizations think beyond the present so they can envision God’s future for them and plan how to get there. Coaching helps people set and reach short term and long range goals

Coaches speak the truth in love. Coachers have no desire to harm others or to make people uncomfortable. But when they spot harmful behavior patterns, coaches challenge people to deal with thinking, behavior, habits, and situations that should be faced and changed.

Coaches facilitate improvement. Coaches help individuals and organizations cope with change. Sometimes coaches nudge people into making changes for the better. Jesus helped others make changes that would improve their lives both here on earth and in eternity. All of the great saints of the Bible had similar missions. Christian coaches are the same.

What Happens in Coaching?

Like counseling, every coaching situation is unique. Some find it helpful, however, to have a road map for coaching similar to the one shown in the diagram.

Usually coaches will begin by exploring the issues that the person wants to change. In what areas does he or she want to grow? Soon there will be an effort to get a better awareness of where the person is at present. What are his or her strengths, weaknesses, abilities, interests, spiritual gifts, values, and hopes? Often the coach will use tests to help people learn more about themselves. This brings us to vision. What does the person bring coached have as a vision for the future? Where does he or she want to go? Often coaches will guide people, organizations or churches to formulate life-vision or life-mission statements. For example, coaches might ask, “Considering your gifts, abilities, driving passions, and unique God-given personality, what is your life mission? What is God calling you to do?” It takes time to answer questions like these and usually the answers only emerge following long periods of prayer and reflection. Without a clear answer, without a clear vision, people, churches, organizations and even governments tend to drift with no direction.

Once we have a vision we need a strategy for getting there. That includes goal setting and making decisions about education, changing attitudes, managing life differently, or building new relationships. Even with a strategy plan, it takes courage and encouragement from someone like a friend or a coach if a person is to take action and not quit when things get difficult. At times like these, coaches are motivators who keep people accountable. During this whole process of growth there will be obstacles to face, including discouragement, temporary failure, or self-defeating activities that prevent the person from moving forward. Coaches are present to help people get past the obstacles so they can move from where they are to where they desire to be.

Most important, this all revolves around the person of Jesus Christ. He is like the axle at the center, keeping the wheel from spinning off in a variety of directions. In practical terms, what does it mean to have coaching revolve around Jesus? It means that coaches commit all of their coaching (and their lives) to his Lordship and direction. It means that through Scripture reading, prayer and worship they seek to know him and be more sensitive to the leading of his Holy Spirit. It means that coaches seek to be clear on their values, politely declining to coach anybody who wants help in developing behaviors or lifestyles that are inconsistent with Christian principles and thus self-defeating. Christian coaches don’t judge but they do maintain their integrity by deciding what is right and living in ways that are consistent with that decision. Having Jesus Christ at the center means, as well, that coaches commit to praying for the people with whom they work, asking God to change their lives.

What Makes Coaching Christian?

Jesus came to point people to the Father, to show how we could have life everlasting and lives that are more full and abundant (John 10:10). The Christian coach helps people imagine ways in which their lives can be better. The coach walks alongside as people make changes that will improve their careers, their families, their journeys with God, and their world. Like all other coaches, the Christian helps people get from where they are to where they want to be.
Christian coaching has a greater, nobler and more eternal purpose, however. At its core, Christian coaching is the practice of guiding a person or group to get from where they are to where God wants them to be. Human goals, dreams, aspirations and gifts are not discounted because these often come from God. But Christian coaches encourage others to find God’s vision for their lives and to move “from following their own agendas to pursuing God’s purposes.”1

Christian coaches use many methods that are used by their secular counterparts. Whereas some Christian coaches work only with believers, others work effectively with clients, groups and whole corporations where there is no commitment to following Christ. Wherever they work, however, Christian coaches have worldviews and attitudes that reflect their beliefs and, in turn, influence their work and the people they coach.

What is the Place of Coaching in the Church?

The interest in coaching has grown significantly during the past few years. Over 250 independent schools of coaching now exist and more than fifty organizations offer certification programs. There are numerous seminars, training workshops, coaching courses in seminaries or graduate schools, and even degree programs in coaching. The quality of these programs differs significantly but the interest in coaching and coach training continues to grow. In the midst of this activity, churches leaders are beginning to utilize coaches and coaching as part of their ministries and for their own personal development.

Coaching Pastors. Coaches help church leaders clarify their vocational directions, make changes in their lives, lead more effectively, strengthen relationships, and avoid debilitating stress. Pastor Lee, for example, ministers at a large and growing church. He is recognized as a deeply spiritual man, a good communicator, and a leader with integrity who shows no evidence of psychological, marital or other problems. Recently he spent two days with a coach who helped the pastor evaluate his life, clarify his calling, reconsider what appears to be God’s agenda for his life, better understand his strengths and passions, learn some new relationship skills, and change in ways that can make his ministry more effective and Christ honoring.

Pastor Andy Stanley has written that as a pastor “you will never maximize your potential in any area without coaching....To be the best [Christian] leader you can be, you must enlist the help of others. Self-evaluation is helpful, but evaluation from someone else is essential. You need a leadership coach.”2 Few pastors feel this strongly about the value of coaching and certainly the majority of pastors will not get coaching, but many have experienced its potential to help themselves and their churches move to new levels of impact and to new ways for connecting with God’s agenda. Some pastors are using coaching in their ministries and finding this as a new tool to supplement and improve their pastoral care.

Coaching Church Boards and Other Groups. Some coaches are specialists in working with church boards, denominational leaders, or other teams that benefit from help in clarifying their mission, reaching goals, resolving conflicts, and working together more smoothly. Sometimes a spiritually sensitive coach from the outside can assist as a church goes through the process of relocating, building a new facility or making major decisions about the direction of ministry. A number of churches are using coaches and the principles of coaching to guide and improve the value and purposes of cell groups and other small groups.

Coaching Individuals. Church members can and often do benefit from coaching. This can focus on a variety of individual issues, especially those that are related to career choices and direction, stress management, and help with transitions.

How Does Coaching Relate to Leadership?

According to one university professor, “coaching is destined to become the leadership approach of the twenty-first century.”3 The nature of leadership appears to be changing as we move further into this century, as postmodernism takes a greater hold on the culture, and as technology changes the ways in which we communicate and relate. Fading is the old image of leaders as vision casters and superstar motivators who rally their followers and lead like military generals charging into battle. Increasingly, leaders are seen as men and women who stimulate environments that enable people to discover their unique gifts and learn how to influence others through principles that are very similar to coaching.

Coaches are showing managers, CEOs in business, executives of organizations, pastors, and others how to lead through coaching. Several large parachurch organizations have determined to provide coaching for the staff members and to work toward teaching all of the staff how to lead using the principles of coaching. Many would agree that if you want to be a good leader you need to be a good coach.

How Should Coaching be Evaluated?

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for coaching, there are issues that pastors and other Christian leaders would be wise to consider.

Is Coaching Effective? The coaching field has a large number of enthusiastic advocates but the effectiveness of coaching is still being evaluated. To date, the proof comes mostly from people who believe that their lives or businesses have been changed. This anecdotal, personal testimony is inspiring but it may not be the most reliable or objective. This has led researchers to find ways to evaluate coaching scientifically. Initial results have been encouraging4 and the research continues, but the focus thus far has been on secular coaching.

Is Christian Coaching the Latest Idea Imported into the Church from the Business World? Many things from the culture have been used effectively in the church. Examples include multi-media technology, sound systems, advertising methods, innovative teaching methods, and leadership or management principles. Coaching can be another one of these outside tools that can be used to honor God and be helpful to many people.

Even so, God’s work needs to be done in God’s way. It is wise to be cautious about bringing coaching or anything else into the church and trying to use these secular ways to do God’s work. Christians who use coaching must insure that their practices are consistent with biblical teaching and committed to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

What are the Dangers in Coaching? There are very few books or training programs on coaching that acknowledge Christian values or apply coaching directly to believers or to Christian settings. Most coaching assumes that goals and plans for the future are set by clients5 without any recognition of God and his calling or agenda. The methods for reaching goals are decided by humans who control their own destinies. Some coaching publications mention spirituality but this most often refers to the efforts of coaches to tap into forces or greater powers that are not Christian. Because of these values, coaching principles must be evaluated with care before they are used in Christian contexts. At the same time Christians must be cautious that they do not reject what God may be doing through secular coaches, ignore useful coaching methods, and re-define coaching into practices that is more like counseling, evangelism, or discipleship masquerading under the name of coaching.

Sometimes coaching has potential to be harmful. For example, some coaches might do more harm than good because they are not trained or experienced in the art of recognizing and helping people with in-depth psychological-emotional problems. In addition, coaching sometimes attracts people who are guided by questionable motives such as the desire to control others or to appear important. These people are coaching because of their own needs and are less sensitive to the concerns of their clients.

Can Anyone Be a Coach? Anybody who wants to coach can be a coach but some are more effective than others. Probably the most effective coaches are those who have some training. These coaches are familiar with the unique coaching methods that differ from traditional counseling or pastoral care.

Is Coaching Biblical? Of course coaching is never mentioned in the Bible and there is no biblical listing of coaching, counseling, evangelism, preaching, and Christian education methods. Coaching is not derived specifically from the Scriptures but we see examples that look very much like coaching as we define this today. Examine the ministry of Jesus and we can see evidences of coaching, especially as he worked with the disciples. His training methods are similar to what might occur in a coaching session. In Luke (9:1-6; 10:1-20) the disciples were given a vision or goal, a strategy for reaching that goal, practical guidance, an awareness of the obstacles that might be encountered, experience in practicing what the Master Coach taught, and subsequent debriefing. An Old Testament example comes from the coaching that Jethro gave to Moses who appeared to be overwhelmed by his work and in danger of wearing himself out. Moses benefited from the guidance of a sensitive coach.

Whether or not coaching is Christian or biblical largely depends on the person of the coach. When devoted Christ followers coach others and seek to be sensitive to God’s leading, the coaching will be consistent with biblical values. This is true even if the focus of the coaching is on making a business more effective, helping a group deal with change, improving an athlete’s skills, or working on some other issue that is not specifically dealing with religious or spiritual issues.

Christian coaching is a tool that God appears to be using, especially when it is in the hands of Christ-honoring caregivers who want to help others get from where they are to where God wants them to be.


1. The Blackabys describes this as “the spiritual leader’s task.” Henry and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2001), p. 20-21.

2. Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader (Sisters OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 88-89.

3. This quotation from James A. Belasco is from the Foreword to Marshall Goldsmith, Laurence Lyons, and Alyssa Freas, (Editors), Coaching for Leadership. (San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). See also Sharon Ting and Peter Scisco, (Editors), The CCL Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), and Daniel White, Coaching Leaders: Guiding People Who Guide Others (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). For a Christian perspective see Tony Stoltzfus, Leadership Coaching. Charleston, SC: Booksurge, 2005.

4. Some of this research is presented by Dianne R. Stober and Anthony M. Grant, (Editors), Evidence Based Coaching Handbook. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006). Several research journals on coaching have also made their appearance.

5. There has been debate about what term is best for the people being coached. Some coaches and writers use the term coachees but by far the greatest number of coaches use the term clients even though this implies that the people being coached are clients of a professional coach who charges for his or her services.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM