Story Magazine - Third Quarter, 2002

Clergy coaching helps strengthen ministries and uncover dreams

John Martinson (M.Div. '70, D.Min. '83) sees the difficult side of ministry in his line of work. As supervisor of Ministerial Health for Fairview Hospitals in the Twin Cities, he often works with pastors who are at the end of their rope, who feel broken and isolated. What is frustrating for Martinson is that, according to him, many of the pitfalls into which these good people fall could have been avoided if they had been well-supported along the way by mentors who were there to listen, to help talk out problems and re-direct energies.

"I'm saddened by the pain, the emotional struggle and the conflicts [pastors face]--to some degree all unnecessary," he said. "I really think pastors have to have someone they can talk to about responsibilities in their ministry and the challenges that they face."

An ordained minister himself with several years of parish experience, Martinson understands that, because congregations are complex organizations, "pastoral leadership is a very demanding, complex calling."

Add to this complexity a church culture that, until fairly recently, encouraged a kind of pastoral self-sufficiency when it came to dealing with personal and professional difficulties.

"This culture of independence, of going it alone, still persists," he said. "We need a cultural shift away from the one that says pastors can't get help from others. One reason I really value what I do is pastors deserve the very best support. I'm glad to focus on ways to be supportive."

For this very reason, Martinson is a major proponent of the Clergy Coaches Program. The program links seasoned, healthy, trained pastors with other pastors who wish to strengthen their personal growth and advance their skills in professional leadership.

The church leaders who would particularly benefit from the program include new pastors, those who are going through a transition--perhaps going from an associate position to a senior position or going from a solo pastorate to a multi-staffed congregation--and those who are experiencing a challenging time in their ministry and would like to have someone available to help them process the situation.

The idea for the Clergy Coaches was developed by Martinson's predecessor at Fairview Hospitals, Mark Anderson, and by Allen Nohre, a former Fairview chaplain who went on to become president of Corporate Coach U International.

Nohre has been instrumental in bringing the concept of coaching out of the playing field and into the corporate office. Specifically, his organization trains the coaches.

Coaching establishes a collaborative relationship between the coach and the recipient. Together, they go through a process of discovery, goal setting and strategic planning. As with an athlete, corporate coaching is results-oriented.

You are coached so you can reach a specific goal. Anderson and Nohre looked at the growing number of burned-out clergy and thought, why not apply coaching techniques to ministry, as well? Martinson now heads up the program, recruits clergy for coaches, co-leads the training sessions and gives ongoing support. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota administers the program and serves as liaison with the pastors interested in participating in the program.

How coaching works

Clergy coaching works like this: The program consists of 18-20 coaching sessions that cover a span of six to 12 months. The pastor and coach communicate in half-hour phone conversations about two to three times a month. The sessions are always by phone because it's easier to schedule for both parties, says Martinson. In addition, geography can never be a reason why a pastor cannot receive coaching. A few days before each session, the coach faxes or e-mails a worksheet to the pastor to be filled out. The worksheet helps the pastor think through key issues and gives the pastor and the coach specific talking points.

Why coaching works

Martinson knows firsthand the power of coaching. He has been in a mentor relationship with Luther Seminary professor emeritus Bill Smith for more than 15 years. "There is a value of having someone to help you process. Bill Smith has been that person for me. If I hadn't had somebody outside my immediate circle, I think I would have been less effective [in ministry]."

Most of the pastors involved in the Clergy Coaches Program participate because they have a conscious dream, often as simple as, "I want to do my job as well as I can." But sometimes the process of coaching helps new discoveries emerge that neither the coach nor the person being coached ever realized.

The coach doesn't just affirm the person, but challenges as well, encouraging the pastor to stretch his or her boundaries. Martinson makes it clear that clergy coaching is not therapy. But it can bring to light issues that may help the person determine that professional counseling is needed. Providing the best to help sustain the best

In particular, Martinson wants the best of our pastors to receive support.

"There's always the greatest gain when we invest in the best. Often our energies are directed toward those who are the most oppositional. Pastors certainly understand: those are the people, the issues that swallow up their time. Let's identify those committed pastors and find time for them," he said.

To those who think coaching pastors is a crazy idea, Martinson likes to put it in perspective: "If athletes at the top of their game, like Tiger Woods, need a professional coach, why do we think we don't need one in our professions?"

True, top athletes pay top dollar for their coaches. Martinson says that the genius of the Clergy Coaches Program is that, by using trained pastors and through the use of phone calls, it is affordable and accessible to all.

For more information and an application form, contact Ms. Ginger Fish, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, 1-800-582-5260, ext. 276, or by e-mail: clergycoaches@lssmn.org