By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer, The United Methodist Reporter
When the Rev. Jonathan Todd became senior pastor of St. Andrew’s United Methodist in Cullman, Ala., in June, he repeated a transition he’d made several times before: leaving one church for the pastorate at a larger church with more members and more staff.
But this time, he didn’t handle it alone. Mr. Todd enlisted the support of professional life coach Jim Robey for the transition.
“We developed a plan to ‘finish well,’” Mr. Todd said. “That enabled my family and me to say goodbye to long-time friends and to approach the new ministry with excitement and enthusiasm.”
More and more United Methodist pastors and lay leaders, like Mr. Todd, are discovering the blessings of working with life coaches endorsed within the chaplaincy program of the United Methodist Church. Individuals partner with life coaches in making positive life changes: managing time, growing a particular ministry, setting goals or balancing work and life issues.
“A life coach helps you set goals and meet them,” said Randy Cross, assistant general secretary for clergy supervision and accountability for the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM). “There’s an element of accountability in working with a coach. It’s not just, ‘I hope you can do it, and God be with you.’”
As the “new cousin in the family of caring ministries,” life coaches differ from pastoral counselors, therapists or spiritual directors, according to Dr. Robey, who is endorsed by the United Methodist Church.
“Therapy tends to be present- or past-oriented, but coaching tends to be present- or future-oriented,” said Dr. Robey, an elder in the North Alabama Conference. “A coach helps you figure out what you need to do next, and how you will get there.”
The work of life coaches differs from that of pastoral counselors who focus on people and their problems, said Mr. Cross.
“A coach leads from strength,” he said. “They are people who can engage with pastors and really help someone understand their full potential and focus on their purpose in life.”
The United Methodist Church is the first—and so far only—denomination that is endorsing life coaches.
In 2008, the endorsing agency of GBHEM began credentialing professional life coaches in much the same way it does hospital and military chaplains and pastoral counselors. Today, there are 11 United Methodist life coaches in the U.S. To be endorsed, applicants must be ordained as elders or deacons in the United Methodist Church and be certified by the International Coach Federation.
The denomination’s endorsement process, proponents say, ensures that pastors or lay leaders can find coaches with solid grounding in the United Methodist faith. With so many people in the business world hanging up shingles as “life coaches,” the endorsement also helps winnow less-qualified practitioners.
“One of the current challenges in the field of coaching is the great disparity in the type and level of training being offered,” said Chris Holmes, Annapolis district superintendent in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and an endorsed life coach. Having the endorsement “ensures that UM-endorsed coaches are adequately trained, qualified and experienced in the field,” he said.
Most life coaches work in extension ministry appointments and charge monthly fees equivalent to an hourly rate of $50 to $250. Some are paid through annual conferences; in other cases, clergy pay for their services out of their own pockets or use money from the church’s continuing education budgets.
Coaches typically work with individuals either one-on-one or as part of a small group. Individuals sometimes set up a plan for phone conferences and e-mail support. Mr. Todd and several other clergy meet once a month with their life coach, Dr. Robey.
In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Mr. Holmes has set up coaching groups for nearly all the pastors in his district. He’s so sold on the coaching methodology that he plans to train 200 pastors and lay leaders next fall in the basic skills of coaching.
Coaching, he says, helps keep pastors focused on the bigger picture of ministry.
“We have very little in the church to help people set up crisp goals that have to do with the ‘God-sized’ business of the church—and then holding them accountable,” said Mr. Holmes.
The idea of having life coaches fits well with Wesleyan spirituality, proponents say.
“John Wesley would ask, ‘How is it with your soul?’” Mr. Cross said. “Coaching is very similar. I think it’s Methodist and Wesleyan, not just to become a better person but to help us become more focused and more faithful on the most fundamental things in our lives.”
Another distinctive of life coaching is that individuals work on balancing all parts of their lives. Dr. Robey uses a “Wheel of Life” model to encourage his clients to consider areas such as family and friends, recreation, health and finances as well as career and spiritual growth.
Mr. Todd appreciates that holistic approach. During a coaching session, Dr. Robey asked him: “Jonathan, what are you going to do about an exercise program? Have you thought about that?”
“His question enabled me to develop a plan to address my personal needs along with my professional needs,” said Mr. Todd. “I had not developed a plan for self-care.”
Coaches describe their approach as a combination of “powerful listening” and “powerful questions” that help clarify and motivate.
“One of the main philosophies of coaching is that the person is already whole, creative and resourceful,” said the Rev. Sharon Vandegrift, a life coach in Media, Pa. “It’s for someone in a good place who’s seeking to move forward to an even better place.”
Dr. Robey, for instance, recalled working with a very successful pastor of a large church. “He said, ‘I’m doing good now, but I’m going as fast as I can. If I don’t maintain balance I’ll burn up and not be of use to anyone,’” Dr. Robey recalled.
Together, the two identified ways the pastor could maintain balance—including regular family time and exercise—and Dr. Robey followed up to make sure the pastor was sticking to plan.
Coaches operate under the assumption that “the client already has the answers within them,” Ms. Vandegrift said. “I can’t provide answers, I can just come with some of the right questions.”
Ms. Vandegrift described her role as a “confidential partner” to the pastors she coaches. That’s something many United Methodist pastors don’t have, she added.
“They need someone who can hold them accountable and give them a safe place to try dreaming,” she said.
Ms. Vandegrift often works with clergy undergoing a transition: a move, a divorce or retirement. Coaching, she said, uses a tailored approach, making it more effective than workshops or courses.
“It’s not me telling someone, ‘This is how you deal with that situation,’” she said. “It’s asking, ‘What do you bring to this situation?’”
While many clergy network with their peers for support, Mr. Todd said the coaching group provides a more structured, focused approach that’s making him think strategically about his ministry.
“We spend one day a month addressing issues relating specifically to my ministry needs,” he said. “That gives us time to think through critical issues.
“It’s enabled me to feel connected to a group of colleagues that are going through similar issues. There’s a tendency at times in ministry to feel isolated. This helps me understand that we all face common problems in pastoral ministry.”
Mr. Cross says he expects great things from this new area of ministry.
“I have rarely met a more positive, forward-looking, energetic group of folks than our life coaches,” he said. “I think we can release a powerful force in our church. They’re fierce in their focus, in a good way.”
“Coaching is soul work,” Mr. Holmes said. “It’s one of the skills that if we could teach these at the seminary level to pastors and laity, I think it would make a huge difference in moving the church forward.”
This article is used with permission of the United Methodist Reporter (www.umportal.org).