Discipling as Coaching

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We typically think of discipleship relationships in the category of mentoring. A mentoring relationship is where someone who has more experience or knowledge seeks to transfer that information to someone younger or less mature. One person, the mentor, sets the agenda and the content for the relationship. The person being mentored either seeks out the mentor or is assigned a mentor with the hopes that they will become like the mentor. Sometimes the idea of a mentor is one who is “above” or has gone before the other person and pours into that other person.
The image of a coach is different. A coach is alongside the person and draws out of the other person. While the analogy of a sports coach has its limitations, it can also be very helpful in trying to understand how a coach might function in helping another person grow in the area of discipleship.
Think of any professional athlete, such as a tennis player. The tennis player has a coach that conducts their training. The coach is likely not a better tennis player than the person she is coaching; otherwise, she would be playing on the professional circuit herself. Even if the coach previously played professionally, she may not have been a world-class player. Consequently, the coach does not try to replicate herself in the player. Rather, the coach comes alongside the player, drawing out the best in her so she can compete at the highest level.
Coaches are not only used in sports. There are also, for example, coaches in business. Business executives have been meeting with coaches for years, and it is becoming more and more of a common practice to pair middle- and even entry-level managers with a coach. Oftentimes, executive coaches are not experts in the various fields they coach, but they create an environment that allows clients to think strategically about short- and long-term goals.
The coach does several things to help the person being coached.
First, the coach always starts off with the understanding that the person being coached has the capacity within them to solve the vast majority of their challenges. In a Christian context, I would add that the person being coached has the ability to hear from God and be the primary agent in clarifying their own agenda. Contrast this relationship to the process of mentoring, where an expert is the mentor and the client depends on the expert to tell them what to do.
Second, because the coach believes that an individual or team can hear from the Holy Spirit and think through their own challenges and opportunities, the coach’s default mode is to ask questions rather than to give answers. The coach might occasionally offer suggestions, as will be discussed later in this chapter, but the coach first and foremost wants to help the person being coached to unpack their own thinking to the fullest.

Third, the coach helps the person being coached consider their situation from all facets. For example, a coach will likely begin by helping that individual develop a plan to address particular challenges or opportunities. The coach may then ask, “What could derail this plan?” or “What might be missing from this plan?”. This allows the person being coached to look at their situation from different perspectives and modify their plan accordingly.
The coach also provides a level of accountability to the person they are coaching. The person being coached sets the purpose for the coaching relationship and only commits to action plans that they are comfortable with. Having a coaching relationship means that the coach will check in with the person during their next session. The person being coached will talk about progress and pitfalls since the last coaching session. This individual is not in trouble with the coach if they don’t do what they have committed to doing, but having a meeting where goals are discussed helps ensure the person being coached is involved in an action plan.
Oftentimes, we want to approach discipleship relationships like traditional mentor-mentee relationships. We think that it is faster and more effective to tell people what to do than to accompany them through a careful, deliberative process. The example of Shari and Emily at the beginning of this chapter assumed that the discipleship relationship would involve someone who is older and more spiritually mature pouring into someone who is younger and less spiritually mature. There are certainly times for these types of relationships. However, in most discipling relationships, a coaching posture will be much more effective long term, for two very important reasons.
First, people tend to make greater progress on action plans that they create versus plans that are prescribed. I learned this early on in my ministry career. People would come to my office for counseling. I thought of myself as pretty insightful, so within a relatively short period of time, I would tell them what do to. If they followed my direction, I assured them, then things would turn out relatively well. I certainly recognized that some situations were especially challenging and couldn’t be fixed with simple answers. But most of the time, I thought I could give people a list of three things they should start doing and three things they should stop doing and everything would be great.

In many cases, I might have even been correct about my prescription! The track record of people doing what I told them to do was relatively unimpressive, however. I think of numerous pastoral-counseling situations when people came into my office wanting advice about what to do in a situation. I would give them advice, and most of the time, they would incorporate only a small portion of the suggestion. They would return to my office asking my advice again, yet they hadn’t done what I suggested previously.
I later switched my methodology to that of a coach. I helped the person articulate the situation and their ideas about handling the situation. Through the conversation, the solution would become apparent to them as they were processing. And then I noticed something: Individuals were much more likely to follow through on the action plans they had articulated than folks I had prescribed solutions to. I just needed to ask clarifying questions to help test and refine their plan.
I was in a group of coaches who were talking about this concept when one person said, “I have learned that a half-baked idea from the client is better than a full baked idea from me.” When we help people design the type of action plans that we discussed in the previous chapter, they are much more likely to follow through on that discipleship design than if we were to design an action plan for them and hand it to them to execute. A person’s discipleship design may not be perfect, and it may not be exactly how we would have designed it, but the disciple will be able to grow much more effectively if we allow him or her to create that design.
The second reason that a coaching model is effective is that the person who helps the other person grow as a disciple doesn’t need to be an expert or have significantly more knowledge than the person they are coaching. In fact, just as a sports coach may not be as good as the player she coaches, so may a person be less spiritually mature and still help someone else grow in their discipleship.
A coaching approach to making disciples allows for a greater opportunity for reproducing disciples. Both the model of discipleship presented in the previous chapter and the coaching approach to helping people in discipleship are relatively simple. A simple process is easily repeatable and reproducible, and since the person who is discipling others doesn’t need to have all of the answers and isn’t trying to clone themselves in the individual, it takes the pressure off.

You’ve been reading from Simple Discipleship by Dana Allin. A personalized approach to discipleship is possible, effective, and less labor intensive than complex programs. Create a simple path for making disciples. Click here to read chapter one for free.

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