Coaching Church Planters
Does it take more than just being a good coach?
I’ve been coaching church planters for over twenty years now. Church planters are a unique breed, often presenting distinctive challenges to their coaches. I know this because I’ve also been—and currently am—a church planter. I know firsthand how challenging we can be, and I also know what we need from our coaches.
Our international coaching research project shows the outcomes of what good coaching accomplishes. We have isolated the competencies and microskills a coach needs to accomplish those outcomes. But one question I’m often asked is this: To coach a church planter effectively, what else is needed besides the basics of being a good coach? Essentially, are there specific skill sets, competencies, or qualities needed beyond the essential foundation of good coaching skills?
The answer is yes, but those skills are not what you might think.
Once when I was training coaches who wanted to work with planters, a participant was insisting on how critical it was for the coach to have planting experience. “The coach of a church planter must be an experienced church planter,” he said. I responded, “Your experience as a church planter is irrelevant. And can actually be detrimental.”
At that point, another participant got upset and started arguing with me. He was angry, and I let him go on for quite a while telling me why I was wrong. Because this was coach training, I eventually stopped him and said, “Now, if you were a good coach, you would have asked me a clarifying question so you would understand what I meant by what I said. So why don’t you ask me a good coaching question to unpack my thinking?”
The participant, being a habitual teller, sat there for a full minute or two without being able to formulate a question. At that point, I decided to help with the discomfort in the room. “Well, one question you could ask is, ‘Bob, could you help me understand what you meant by that statement that your experience as a planter is irrelevant?’”
Then I went on to answer my own question, explaining that our experience colors our coaching and we can easily try to project our own experiences on the planter we are working with. Really, the fact of how I did it in my situation is irrelevant. I have different gifts than the planter I am coaching. The situation and the context are different. It’s not one-size-fits all. Just because God worked one way in my situation, I can’t assume God will work the same way in yours.
Experience can certainly help with bonding, but the crucial issue for a coach is understanding the principles behind planting. The coach who can walk the planter through the process of apply the principles to the planter’s unique situation is the one who will be helpful. Allowing our own experience to be superimposed over the planter’s experience is not helpful.
In the training session, I exaggerated the statement up front in order to communicate to this group of hard-charging people. They were relying heavily on their own experiences. Because they were practitioners, they felt they knew all they needed to know about coaching church planters. But really what they needed to learn was the difference between being a leader in their own situation and being a coach to help others be leaders.
In many cases where an experienced church planter is the coach, their experiences can color how they coach. When looking at the situation methodologically rather than from a principle-based perspective, the coach is tempted to steer the planter in certain directions. For example, if the coach has had negative experiences with a multi-site approach, the temptation may be to focus on the methodology: “The multi-site approach won’t work” – as opposed to looking at the deeper principles that are at work regardless of what methods are being used. Good church planter coaches need to think in terms of underlying principles rather than in terms of methodology.
So what about credibility? Planters do want to know about the credibility of the coach they’re working with. Sometimes a planter will disrespect a coach who doesn’t have planting experience. That’s not the coach’s fault, but the planter’s prejudice. But if you as a coach can help them unpack their thinking and understand the dynamics involved, they’ll see that you’re useful.
Establishing a personal connection with the planter, which includes credibility and trust, is essential. The three questions planters are asking are these: Can I trust you? Are you helpful? Do you care? The successful coach is one who can listen deeply and help the planter unpack their unique vision and dreams so they know they are understood. By doing that well these three questions will be answered in the affirmative – regardless of the coach’s planting experience.
To effectively help unpack who a planter is and what they are trying to accomplish, a coach will need to go through the due diligence of processing things like the planter’s proposal and assessment as well as the principles of planting. Properly interpreted, the proposal and assessment and introducing the key principles will unlock a wealth of information about each planter, allowing you as the coach to know precisely where to probe more deeply.
Another area where I often see coaches stumble as they are working with planters centers on the cultural complexities involved in church planting. Cultural barriers often play out on a number of different levels: understanding the culture of the target group, understanding the culture the planter is coming from, and understanding the relationship between those two.
One planter working in a trendy, upscale community was convinced that un-churched people were looking for traditional music in a church environment. By missing the ways his culture intersected with the target group culture, he led his church plant straight into a stone wall. They didn’t last too long. One of the benefits a coach can offer in this area is to help the planter identify and get in tune with the culture of their target group.
When we are planting churches today, it’s a cross cultural experience, even if the planter is engaging with their own culture. It’s easy to miss nuances that are important to the target group because we make assumptions that what we like or prefer as Christians is the same as what un-churched people want. In this sense, Christians and non-Christians represent two different cultural groups. Coaches can help planters think through what good news really looks like to those they are trying to reach… not just to those who have already been reached.
At that point, what if a planter has been successful? What if they are effectively reaching their target group? What then do they do with those people? Commonly planters need help from their coaches in organizational development. Planters tend to be big picture kind of people -sometimes showing a disregard for the underlying structures that make that picture possible. How many planters have you heard say, “We don’t need anything organized. We’re just going to be relational, be missional, and reach people.” A good coach can help this planter think through the how of their vision in a way that doesn’t diminish its relational, organic nature, yet still sets it up for success.
The more church planters I’ve known and worked with, the more I’ve become aware of the common areas where planters tend to self-destruct. There are specific symptoms to look for and specific areas to ask about – even if the planter isn’t bringing them up. As a group, planters tend to neglect their own spiritual and relational health. They become so focused on their goals that they forget about themselves and their relationships with God, their family, and their friends.
Unlike a standard coaching relationship, where you address the issues the client is bringing to you, when you’re coaching a church planter, you need to ask about these areas even if the planter isn’t surfacing them – because they are related to the planter’s goals whether they realize the connection or not.
These areas we’ve discussed all accentuate the importance of coming at the coaching relationship from planter’s perspective, understanding them, and being on their side. That doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily been a planter yourself, but it does mean you’ve taken the time to understand the world through a planter’s eyes.
Dr. Bob Logan has worked in full time ministry for over thirty five years as a church planter, pastor, mission leader, consultant, and ministry coach. He is internationally recognized as an authority in church planting, church growth and leadership development. Bob’s current areas of focus are coaching, speaking, and developing leaders in missional, incarnational contexts. Bob lives with his wife Janet in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Resources (On-line)
- Planting the Church: Coaching Guide with Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Planting the Church Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Church Planter Pathway: Coaching Guide with Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Church Planter Pathway Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
Related Resources (Hard Copies –Available in Australia only)