Without coaching, it isn’t going to work.
Perhaps the world of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is not that much different from a number of other Christian denominations across the United States. Approximately 80% of our congregations are plateaued or declining. Shrinking congregations are often replete with fear, anger, grieving and a sense of loss. And tough questions hover in the air: Will the pastor leave? Can we pay him? How long can we hang on?
Church members and clergy can both fall into cycles of blame and guilt and a sense of hopelessness — even as they worship a God of eternal hope and promise. Yet what can be done? Is there a magic bullet that will solve the problems associated with decline and propel the church to a more happy and fruitful time? Certainly faithfulness to the Word and promises of God and the ongoing nurture through the sacraments are indispensable in caring for hurting people. But solutions that are easy and quick (magic bullets) exist only in our imagination. What we need are real solutions.
At a recent meeting of our denomination’s District Presidents, our discussion facilitator summarized the three things necessary for revitalization: “the significance of coaching and encouragement (for both pastors and congregations), the understanding that revitalization is an ‘inside out’ view, and the recognition that one needs to be connected to the world outside and acknowledge that fear is often present.”
That is exactly what we have found in the Transforming Churches Network. Our process utilizes a consultation weekend for a congregation where prescriptions for revitalization are given. In addition, the pastor attends an ongoing learning community with other pastors which is then duplicated on the congregational level with key lay leaders. Then finally, and most importantly, there is coaching for the pastor and congregation to support and encourage the change and revitalization efforts. Because revitalization is not quick and easy, coaching is vital for success.
Coaching is where the transformation process gets harder and easier. It gets harder because the change takes on a serious tone. The consultation weekend was not just an exercise in creative thinking where the report can be forgotten on a shelf. Coaching means that we really are going to do this thing. Implementing change will mean that priorities will shift; years of the way we’ve always done ministry will change. It means the hard work of changing behaviors will be addressed and those things that were long shoved under the rug of ministry will have to be faced. In addition there are the financial costs associated with coaching and there is this often new thing called: accountability.
The costs and challenges of coaching have led some who are involved in the process of revitalization to consider cutting costs by cutting out the coaching. My experience with this strategy makes obvious that the revitalization process doesn’t work without coaching. We are creatures of habit and in our sinfulness and stuckness we tend to avoid the tough stuff. Coaching is an indispensable part of the hard task of revitalization.
But change doesn’t have to be so difficult. With coaching it can get easier instead of harder. Coaching, while it involves a financial cost and the challenges of facing difficulties and changing behaviors, can produce rewarding and God-pleasing results. Coaching ensures accountability to the prescriptions of the consultation weekend, and facilitates the working through of what we have identified as the eight core competencies to change and revitalization. Coaching in our process is also about support, encouragement, celebration, and love.
It is lonely slogging through the day-to-day demands of ministry. Not too many people really understand the highs and lows of dealing with the fallout of the human condition that pastors have to face. Pile on top of that the emotion and challenges of a plateaued or dying church, the challenges of learning to do it differently for the purpose of revitalization, and it gets exponentially harder. Yet when coaching is introduced there is someone who comes alongside the pastor to “hold up their hands” much like Aaron and Hur in Exodus 17.
As I have coached pastors through revitalization, some lessons have become clear, and I have identified some best practices for coaches in these situations. Coaches who work with pastors in a revitalization process need to:
- Believe in the person being coached. There is discouragement with any person who is facing decline. Often they have done everything they know to do and are getting nowhere. Many want to throw in the towel. Through faith in God, the coach can have confidence that God will bring His grace to bear on God’s servant.
- Be reliable with integrity. That means the coach will show up for the coaching prepared, on time, and ready to give their best effort.
- Hold the person being coached accountable with love and support rather than condemnation and contempt. Nothing will happen with a manipulative coach. Christian coaching at its heart creates a “grace space” to allow change to blossom and grow. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” Isaiah 42:3.
- Prayer. The coach regularly prays for the person being coached in his own prayer life but also with them in the coaching session. This points us to “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
And what will be the results? We are finding that when these steps are followed, and good coaching is added, there are more people giving praise to God on Sunday morning, angels are rejoicing over the baptisms of children and adults, and formerly discouraged members are finding that God can use them in powerful ways to make an eternal difference in the lives of those who have not yet come to saving faith. In short, congregations are being revitalized, fear is evaporating, and hope is returning. As one pastor said, “coaching made ministry fun again.”
by Scott Gress © 2011 ChristianCoachingMag.com