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September, 2011
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Why Every Minister Needs a Coach

by Melissa Clodfelter with Molly Lineberger

“I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now…” (Numbers 11:14-15). Does that sound healthy? Even Moses, arguably the greatest leader of all time, had limits. He needed help to bear the heavy burden of leading God’s people. So do clergy today. I am an executive coach and my specialty is working with ministers. I can say, without a doubt, that every minister needs a coach.

In our down economy, ministers are being asked to do more with less. Surrounded by suffering, they often want to cry out for justice for themselves. Ministers face the tension of balancing self-care with care for others and often neglect their own emotional, physical and spiritual health.

At other times, a pastor needs help to find the balance between “the way we’ve always done it” and her or his idea of a better way. “How long do I listen,” my clients often ask, “before I can start making changes?” Transitions are challenging.

More and more clergy are discovering that coaching can dramatically increase the health and effectiveness of their ministry. Ministers thrive in their work when they are connected to their passion and empowered to see their goals. My own passion is helping ministry leaders name their dreams and move toward them with confidence.

As a coach, I am trained to ask questions and to listen. How many leaders, especially those in ministry, have someone to listen objectively? Coaching takes place on two levels: First, there are the tangible things to be done, then there are the deeper issues that make the tangible things difficult. Often, a pastor has the answer to a problem, but needs me to help break open the a-ha moment that leads to a healthier place.

Most of my clients are quick to offer forgiveness to their congregations, but strive for perfection, themselves, often denying their own guilt and shame. I ask pointed questions, like, “Are you willing to accept the same grace you give to other people?” Other times I ask whether, after a conflict, they are prepared for someone to be unhappy with the outcome.

One of my clients, David, is senior pastor of a Baptist church in Richmond, VA that averages 300 in worship. His staff includes three other ministers. We have worked together for four years. I have coached him and each of the other ministers, individually, and as a team. There were many staff issues when our relationship began. There was also a need for restoration within the congregation.

What David says: We first used Melissa for a staff retreat. I was somewhat new to the church and understood the real need for team building. She asked the questions that helped us create a cohesiveness and shared vision. She guided discussion of congregational issues to help the staff deal with those issues constructively. Our church feels like a new place today; there is a new spirit within our congregation.

I have found coaching to be an invaluable tool. Processing decisions with a coach is more helpful than with a fellow minister or spouse because the coach is objective, is for you, and can give you opportunities to see your mistakes through honest reflection. I recommend coaching for anyone and require that my staff be in a coaching relationship with Melissa.

Some important components of a coaching relationship are:

1. Acknowledging that the client has the power within himself or herself to see possibilities and move toward them

2. Asking hard questions

3. Unearthing possibilities for reaching goals

4. Holding the client accountable for plans and actions to move toward established goals

5. Support in developing a focus for the client and for their congregation

With coaching, ministers can rediscover their passion. I ask them to consider what was important to them when they were first getting started in ministry and whether they want to reconnect with that. I want my client to set the goals of our coaching relationship. My goal, as a coach, is to provide enough support, encouragement, depth and accountability to help them get where they want to be.

I ask clients to dream bigger and to live better. To see clearly where they have been, where they are going and how they are going to get there. “Whose life are you living?” I might ask. “Whose expectations are you trying to meet?”

Another client, Mandy, is a part-time associate pastor at a Baptist church in Charlotte, NC that has 150 members and three pastors on staff. Mandy and I have been in a coaching relationship for three years.

What Mandy says: Working with a coach is the smartest decision that I could have made going into ministry. Melissa and I started working together during my discernment process. She asked me to consider the strengths I would bring to a ministry staff and what strengths I would seek in other staff members. We discussed practical issues like maternity leave as well as areas of visioning and dreaming. As a result, my present job is a very good fit. She has helped me to work with intentionality and authenticity. Because of this coaching relationship, I can tell a positive difference in myself, my soul and my ability to minister to others.

Coaching is beneficial to a congregation in a number of ways. It helps ministers become strategically focused – more effective at establishing goals and working for results. Happier, healthier ministers have more energy for the congregation. Those who are aware of their strengths and weaknesses are more effective, and life long learners are creative and innovative.

A third client, Lucas, five years out of seminary, is a youth pastor at a Baptist Church in Orlando, FL, with over 500 in worship. We have worked together for two years.

What Lucas says: Melissa’s coaching provides wise counsel in moments of crisis as well as ways to think strategically in my day-to-day ministry. With her guidance, I am better able to navigate the often-uncertain waters of church life.  

The hardest part of my coaching relationship has been when Melissa has suggested that I find the patience to “suspend the decision making timeline.”  While this process may be painful, it does open up time and space for the best possible result.  Ministry is complicated and at times lonely, and I cannot imagine doing church work without a coach.  

Sometimes ministers ask for coaching expenses to be covered as part of their compensation package. In David’s case, coaching for him and his staff is covered by a grant. I advise ministers to ask up front about funding when they are considering a new position. I usually meet with clients by phone once per month, but we talk more often during a time of transition or crisis. The conversation is tailored to the client’s needs.

Coaching for ministers is becoming widely accepted as an important resource for clergy and congregational health. To learn more about using a coach, contact the Center for Congregational Health at

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