When I received my review copy of Gospel Coach from Zondervan, I was prepared to fall in love with the book and start recommending it to all my students and peers. After all, I am deeply committed to the gospel and find the resurgence of gospel-centered ministry encouraging, plus I am a professional coach who teaches coaching at a seminary that aims for “gospel-centered transformation.” By my calculus, gospel + coach must equal something great. I was wrong.
Don’t get me wrong – the book provides a worthy contribution to the discussion of what pastors and other ministry leaders need in terms of support. However, the book is less about having a gospel “coach” and more about having a trusted supervisor who can help a ministry leader ensure the gospel is being lived out in the minister’s life and work. My real disappointment with the book is that the authors chose to emphasize shepherding by discrediting proper coaching. As the coaching profession has picked up steam in the past decade or so, I see some Christian leaders exhibit two not-very-helpful responses, both of which are found in this book.
First, there are some who react with strong negativity to coaching because of what they perceive as an inherent entanglement of coaching with humanism. The authors of Gospel Coach invest the first chapters of their book attacking what seems like a one-dimensional straw man they call coaching, tying it to theories of Carl Rogers who taught that people are basically good and therefore a therapist’s role is to engage in a client-centered process that helps a person discredit outside voices of constraint in order to become self-actualized. They then make the assumption that Christian coaches who emphasize helping others reach their potential are in the same humanist boat as Rogers and other non-Christian life coaches. They are wrong in that assumption.
I have never met a Christian coach who believes his or her clients are basically good or who relies only on a client-centered approach as it’s described by the authors. I know our program at Western Seminary and our curriculum at Coach Approach Ministries clearly describe the coaching relationship as being a three-person relationship that includes coach, client and Holy Spirit. I also have never met a Christian coach who believes coaching is the only relationship a person needs or that the answers to our deepest problems can be solved by “looking within.” Mind you, I co-authored a book in which I specifically apply coaching for evangelism and discipleship and even I do not hold that coaching works to save a person by helping him or her experience self-actualization.
What can a person find by looking within? A lot – they can discover hidden strengths, latent talent, unused knowledge, unapplied wisdom, dormant values, and self-evident evidence for the ways their life is not aligning with scriptural principals. Can they find salvation? No. Can they maximize their potential and increase their performance in ways that address the intrinsic needs of their soul? No. Do Christian coaches believe the most essential and important challenges all people face – challenges such as our rebellion against God, our intrinsic worth, our eternal destiny, our relationship to God – can be met if only we believe in ourselves and have a good support system? Of course not. Every Christian coach I know places the practice of coaching in a humble position under the lordship of Jesus.
I wish the authors had taken the time to read more widely and deeply in the Christian coaching literature and to interview some leading Christian coaches. I also wish the editors at Zondervan would have caught the sloppy research and overstretching criticisms. The authors should have done the work to gain a much more accurate understanding of how Christian coaches actually practice coaching. The one explicitly Christian coaching book they reference (briefly) as falling into person-centered humanism is Christ-centered Coaching (written by my close friend Jane Creswell). Mind you, the title of her book clearly connotes that coaching should be Christ-centered, not person-centered. The authors of Gospel Coach totally misunderstand or misconstrue a brief passage from Jane’s book to support their point that some Christians who practice coaching do so from a humanistic foundation that replaces the person and work of Christ with the potential of every person. Such an accusation is silly at best.
Those who cry loudly about humanism seem to assume that asking questions to help a person discern, discover and decide is automatically born out of a person-centered humanistic anthropology while missing the irony that an approach that forgoes questions in favor of teaching, directing, instructing and other “shepherding” functions also relies on a person – just a different person. If sinful ministry leaders cannot be trusted because they are not morally good (46) how can we trust the sinful shepherd, who also lacks inherent goodness? Every Christian coach I know recognizes his or her own fallibility (in addition to the limitations of those being coached) and therefore sees the coaching relationship as a three-way conversation in which the coach supports the client in discerning – discerning not just “what is inside” of the client, but what God is saying to the client through scripture, revelation, community and tradition. Again, to say it as clearly as I can: I’ve been coaching for 15 years and I have never met a Christian coach who agrees with (in theory or in practice) the Rogerian/humanist principal that people are inherently good and that the client simply needs to look within for all the solutions to the problems he or she faces (48). We do believe people have strengths, wisdom, talents, skills, knowledge, and other latent resources that can be leveraged to support solutions for lots of challenges, but not for salvation.
A second not-so-helpful response I see from some Christian leaders involves cashing in on the rising popularity of coaching by calling what they do coaching even though what they do comes nowhere close to the widely used definition of the role among coaching professionals. The authors of Gospel Coach could easily have written a book called Gospel Shepherding or Gospel Directing or even Gospel Mentoring. Probably those titles wouldn’t sell as well because coaching is trending upward. In my opinion, if you don’t like the concept of coaching, that’s fine – but don’t use the term to label something else. By that logic I’m going to start using the word “chocolate” in describing that creamy white ice cream that’s flavored with the beans of the vanilla plant. What the authors of Gospel Coach describe is a very helpful type of relationship that every ministry leader needs, it’s just not coaching. Shepherds lead from above, while coaches support from the side. The two are just very different, so I don’t understand why two authors who don’t seem to like coaching very much want to use the term.
Some of my favorite coaching clients are pastors, church planters, and other local church ministry leaders. Each one is a front-line servant to the King who is engaged in incredibly important and challenging work. This is why I’m of the opinion that ministry leaders need a 360-degree constellation of supportive relationships. They need mature ministers who can shepherd them, provide mentoring, and help them keep an eye on the long game. They need skilled partners who can come alongside as an equal to provide coaching. They need other peers whom they can learn with and from as colleagues and collaborators. They need those who are less mature in their faith yet can provide support through prayer, resources, and in a myriad of other ways. To be clear: each of these is needed, none of these is a replacement for God, and each of these can support the ministry leader’s ongoing gospel-centered transformation.