The Blue Brothers may not have said it first, but they certainly said it best: Everybody needs somebody. For the leader, this is especially true. The loneliness and difficulties inherent in ministry can lead us further and further into isolation. And for those of us in pastoral leadership, the anxiety, depression and poor decisions that can be brought on by isolation mean we should avoid isolation at all costs.
So, you need someone, but who?
There are four main options for leaders seeking to connect with someone who can help them in leadership and ministry.
The first is a mentor. A mentor is one who gives you the benefit of his or her experience and learning. You ask them questions and they tell you theiranswers. Like a mother or father-figure, they invest in you by giving you their time and their stories. The expertise in the relationship lies with them as does, by and large, the agenda. They have some lessons they think you will benefit from learning. The problem is, mentors are few and far between- if you want one, you’ll need to pursue him or her. Find someone whose life and ministry you admire and want to emulate, and then ask them for some of their time. Don’t be surprised if they say no- if you see value in having some of their time, chances are others do too. You may have to ask more than once.
The second is a coach. A coach is vastly different than a mentor. While a mentor tells you their stories and comes to the relationship with their own agenda, a coach flips that and works completely on your agenda. Their concern is in asking what your goals are, and then asking good, open-ended questions which will help you figure out how you are going to get there. Good coaches ask rather than tell. The expertise in the relationship lies with you, the client, and your agenda- you are the only one who knows where you want to go, and what you’ll have to do to get there. The coach is merely there to help you figure it out. The good news is there’s an abundance of coaches out there. But since most of them don’t work for free, you’ll have to invest if you want good coaching. And trust me, there’s a difference between good coaching (client-focused, question-based) and poor coaching (coach-focused, with more telling than asking).
Beyond mentors and coaches, there are therapists and spiritual directors.
A therapist is someone who listens to your stories and gives you the benefit of their learning. The vast majority of them, working with a cognitive-behavioral orientation, are focused on your current thinking and beliefs that lead to issues and problems in your life. The agenda is set by you, and the problems you’d like help untangling. They ask what you are thinking when you do such and such, or when such and such happens, and then help you adjust that thinking to achieve different outcomes. Good therapists ask good, open-ended questions and spend a lot of time listening, but ultimately the expertise in the relationship lies with them, as they diagnose the thinking errors they are hearing and help you come up with alternate ways of looking at things. While a mentor is (hopefully) a long-range or even life-long relationship, and a coach a mid-range one year to two year relationship, a relationship with a therapist can range from weeks to months to years, depending on the need. There are a lot of therapists out there, but finding one that “fits” can sometime take a couple of tries.
Lastly, a spiritual director is something of a combination of all three of the above. Like a coach or therapist, the agenda is set by you and what you feel is important to talk about. But like a mentor, they may share the benefits of what they have learned, particularly as it relates to listening to God and living the spiritual life. Their concern is helping you to hear God and figure out what it looks like to respond appropriately. The agenda is ostensibly set by you, but really by God, as He is invited to be at the center of the conversation, directing, nudging, speaking. The expertise in the relationship is spread between you, as you relate what it is you are hearing from God, the spiritual director, as he or she expertly helps you listen and tune your ears to hear the voice of God, and God Himself, as He directs the conversation and relationship in a way which brings formation in your life.
I was lucky that God brought me into just such a relationship at just the right time. I was about 6 years or so into a church plant and staring down the barrel of burnout. I hadn’t yet fallen off the cliff, but I could see it fast approaching and knew that if I didn’t get some help, I would surely tumble over. I knew of a man in town who had spent years in ministry and after getting his doctorate in spiritual formation had transitioned to being a coach and spiritual director to pastors. So, after seeking him out, I told him over coffee the state my soul was in.
We talked for awhile that day and I immediately felt encouraged. I was encouraged to know I had an objective listener, one who was willing to listen to me complain about my situation and gently, so gently, push back on the pieces I was maybe fooling myself about. I came back the next month, and in fact nearly every month in the nine years since. It was bracing to find support, counsel, a listening ear, and a wise presence all in one place. He has helped me listen to God, and figure out what I should do in response. What my coach/spiritual director has provided for me has been invaluable, and so certainly worth the roughly $75 a month our church paid to support what he is doing.
So- back to the beginning. Everybody needs somebody. Most of us need a mentor or a coach. Many of us could use a therapist. Nearly all of us need a spiritual director.
If you are in the first few years of pastoring, you may think your top need is a mentor- someone to tell you what they did so you can do the same. That’s not going to be as helpful as you believe. Mentors are at their best when they are sharing life lessons with us, not ministry strategies that may or may not translate into our own context. Seek out a coach instead- maybe one who has done something similar to what you are doing, so there can be a bit of mentoring mixed in, but who will ask you the good questions that will help you define your priorities, goals and ways to get there. Church planters especially need coaches, as they often have vague-yet-exciting ideas about what they want to do and create. A coach can help you drill down to nuts and bolts, and see the best way to achieve what you want to achieve.
Additionally, coaches can help those who have been pastoring for awhile but are beginning to realize that what got them where they are probably won’t take them any further. They know they are facing more complex ministry issues than they have had to in the past, and need someone to help them figure out how to make it all work. A good coach can you unlock your thinking, clarify what’s really important, and see the way forward.
If you are deep in the weeds of ministry, seek out a good mentor or a therapist. A mentor can provide a sympathetic ear (they’ve been there, after all) and let you know how they were able to endure what you going through and answer the questions you are currently facing. Or maybe a therapist if you sense that what you are experiencing is more than simply the rigors of ministry and may, in fact, be depression or higher-than-normal levels of anxiety. A therapist also provides a good listening ear, some concrete solutions and strategies, and truth be told, they’re a lot easier to find than a mentor.
But wherever you are in ministry, you need a spiritual director- someone to help you hear the voice of God over the din of ministry. A spiritual director can come in many shapes- maybe another pastor who will be a sounding board and who will commit to helping you discern how God is speaking in your life. Or maybe someone who works formally as a director and has training.
It’s possible to find someone who will combine the best aspects of mentoring, coaching and spiritual direction. Someone who’s been-there-and-done-that when it comes to your stage in life and stage in ministry, someone who’s trained as a coach and knows the coaching process, but also is keenly aware that they best thing they can do, even more than helping you figure out your own goals and how to reach them, is help you listen for the voice of God and figure out how to respond appropriately.
But whoever you find, I would urge you to find someone. Loneliness is rampant in ministry, and between the increasing number of people being trained as coaches and spiritual directors, in addition to technologies like Skype or FaceTime, there’s just no reason why everybody can’t have somebody.
(Interested in finding out more about coaching? Click here.)
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.