Revised excerpt from a longer journal article “Coaching Religious Leaders”

John P. Martinson

Coaching is a one-on-one relationship in which a leader engages a coach to navigate complex leadership challenges, generate longer-range goals and further develop leadership knowledge and skills.  As such coaching is a uniquely personal form of continuing education focused on leadership development.  The coach brings to this relationship a strong commitment to the leader’s agenda along with a thorough understanding of the coaching process and well developed coaching skills.

Coaching is founded on confidence that the person being coached comes with significant knowledge and ability. The goal of coaching, therefore, is not to teach – not to provide new knowledge – but rather to help the religious leader discover new ways to think about and address issues – discover new more effective ways to lead. It is in the dynamic give and take between the coach and the leader that new possibilities emerge.  Beyond current leadership challenges and long range plans, the coaching relationship helps leaders get in touch with dreams, understand more deeply their life choices, and be aware of their core values so they might live more fully in ways that honor those values.

The coaching process begins with developing a clear vision for the future – where the religious leader wants to be in relation to long-term professional goals as well as specific leadership challenges. This is followed by a clear assessment of where the leader is currently in relation to these long-term goals and immediate challenges.  The differences between future goals and current reality define the gap through which the leader wants to move. To move through this gap the leader works with the coach to create a strategy for achieving the desired goals, identify both internal and external barriers to implementing this strategy, determine resources needed to be successful and a way to gain those resources, implement the strategy and measure progress. The process is not linear but cyclical as a discovery at one stage may necessitate moving back to a previous stage of consideration.

The coach assists the religious leader in moving through this gap by listening carefully to everything the leader says and asking open-ended questions that help the leader think of important issues in new ways. Listening and asking are two critical skills of the coaching relationship. A key ingredient to this conversation is genuine curiosity. Not fully knowing the nature of a specific leadership challenge opens the possibility for fresh questions that can lead to new forms of thinking. In addition the coach will encourage, challenge, hold accountable and celebrate the successes of the leader.  To reiterate, the coach is not a teacher in the sense of having superior knowledge and experience to impart to the leader. Rather, the coach is the facilitator of a process that enables the leader to draw more deeply from his or her own wisdom.

Underlying all coaching is the belief that people possess more capability than they are expressing. In the words of John Whitmore, “Coaching is an intervention that has as its underlying and ever-present goal the building of the other’s self-belief, regardless of the task or issue. . . . Coaching is not merely a technique . . . It is a way of treating people, a way of thinking, a way of being.”

As Susan Clark put it, “Especially as I coach executives, the client and I really focus on their values and decide how much they want those values to come to life and what they will do or not do to cause that to happen. … Coaching helps leaders get in touch with the parts of themselves that hold them back from being the truly magnificent human beings they were born to be”. 2

1 Whitmore, John. Coaching for Performance.  p.18
2 Susan Clarke leads the coaching resources for Fairview Health Services.  The quote is from an email she sent following her review of a draft of this article.