The Coaching Toolbox

Cell Coaching

Taken from chapter 3 of You Can Coach

Joel Comiskey

In 2001, I started coaching pastors fulltime. There was one problem. I didn’t know how to coach. I thought I knew, but in reality, I equated coaching with giving advice. As a result, my coachees were not responding well. I have always asked for evaluations, and they were becoming more and more negative. I even had some leaders who were so frustrated with me that they released me from further coaching obligations. It was one of the most difficult times of my life.

The good news was that I could only move upwards. I began to devour every piece of literature on coaching. An entirely new way of coaching opened up to me. The gracious leaders that stuck through my trials welcomed my changed perspective, and they found that I had something to give.

I learned, for example, the importance of listening. Previously, I thought I had to impress the coachee with my wisdom and answers. But I realized that my job was to primarily draw the answers from the coachees. I learned about the importance of asking powerful questions and the importance of encouraging and empowering leaders.

I developed a framework for my coaching based on listening, questioning, encouraging, and helping the coachee find answers for him or herself. I even asked an experienced coach to counsel me about how to coach. I met with him often, and he instructed me on basic coaching principles. He kept pressing me, for example, to remember that coaches, like myself, should not be quick to teach, consult, or give advice. Rather, they should place the coachee in the driver’s seat and simply guide the discussion through questions.

My coach, as well as other experts in coaching, was quite dogmatic about what a coach should or should not do. I repeatedly learned that my main job was to draw answers from the coachee. The coachee had to make the decision for him or herself. The role of the coach was to ask questions to guide the coachee to make his or her own decisions.

I began to practice this 100%. I would not give advice. If the pastor asked me a question, I would turn it around and ask a question back, “What do you think you would do?”

Learning from Feedback

As I implemented these coaching patterns, I discovered that some of my coachees were frustrated because I was not providing teaching and direct answers. Since I asked the pastors for regular oral and written feedback, I learned that some wanted more than listening and powerful questions. Yes, they liked the listening part, but they also wanted my expert advice and knowledge. I could ask and ask, but the bottom line was that often they simply didn’t know the answer. They needed skilled input as well.

I began to realize that if I was truly going to serve these pastors, I needed to give them what they needed, which often included consulting, teaching, and training. Yes, listening, encouraging, and asking questions continued to be the basis for my coaching, but I needed to expand the scope of my coaching to meet their needs.

I had to be willing to listen, teach, consult, encourage, challenge, and really do whatever it took to minister to my coachees. When I started opening up the horizons of my coaching, the coachees gave me high marks in my evaluations. They began to like my coaching and even recommend me as a coach.

Using Everything in the Toolbox

I’ve learned that I have to do what it takes to make the coachee successful. I’ve termed this concept, “throwing out the rulebook” or put more positively, “using everything in the toolbox.” This is probably the most important discovery I’ve made about coaching.

I’ve discovered that sometimes I have to confront and challenge. Other times, I listen to their concerns about cell church, ministry in general, or personal struggles. I have found that there are times when I need to tell them to go back and re-read a book that has all the answers to their concerns. I’ve learned to create new approaches as circumstances arise.

I have found that I have to bring my entire self to the table when coaching. I’m not just focusing on one aspect of my life but the entire spectrum (e.g., personality, upbringing, cell experience, and knowledge). Whatever I can draw from, I use. I’m not just pulling out my PowerPoints, my cell notes, or coaching rules; I’m giving my entire self.

My goal is to serve the pastor, and so I ruthlessly place his or her agenda as the top priority. I’m sure this is also true in coaching a sport like tennis. ESPN wrote about coaching tennis stars, like Federer, saying,

In today’s game, most players — top stars as well as journeymen — put great stock in having a full-time dedicated coach as an appendage. The role of a coach can vary from tactician and strategy expert to psychologist, travel agent, babysitter, substitute parent, and best friend, and often is comprised of all those facets.

The phrase “all of those facets” is critical. There’s no one way to do coaching. The best coaching is comprised of “all of those facets.” For example, I spend a lot of time praying, listening, and waiting on God before I coach. I bring my spiritual life to the table. I also bring my own character and my relational skills. How I relate to people will come out in my coaching. I also bring my friendship. Sometimes, the most important thing I can do is engage in lighthearted conversation, laughter, or just have fun together.

While coaching, I relate what has worked for me and what has not worked for me, but I also share knowledge of what others have done, books written on the topic, and online information that often goes beyond what I’ve tested or personally experienced. Often an illustration will jump out at me, and I share it with the one I’m coaching.

Coaching is not all about the coach. It’s really about the pastor/ coachee. Coaching is getting out of the way and allowing the coachee to share, communicate, and make decisions. The coach’s job is to guide that experience.

Variety of Leaders and Situations

I coached one church planter who saw me as a supervisor. This particular pastor was a sharp, independent thinker. He wanted to make his own decisions. He appreciated the in-depth study I did of his life and church plant. He also liked my questions, listening, and encouragement. Since he was not connected with an outside denomination, he saw me as an accountability authority in his life. I moved him onward through asking questions.

I coached another pastor who wanted an in-your-face approach to coaching. This pastor wanted me to confront him and even tell him what to do. Another pastor wanted a combination approach. One was so relaxed that any style would have worked. He just wanted me to hang out enough to make the coaching experience worthwhile.

One church staff wanted me to teach them using PowerPoints over the phone for a time period. Between the teaching times, I asked questions, listened, and resourced them.

I coached another pastoral team that preferred asking me a list of questions each time we came together for coaching. I could have turned their questions around asking, “What do you think?” but the fact is, they were coming to me with questions, and they wanted answers. Servanthood required answering their questions and training them through the question/answer methodology. Of course, I did ask questions, practiced active listening, and sought to encourage this pastoral team.

Pastors are on such distinct places in their journey that one coaching technique simply doesn’t fit all. The key is to evaluate each situation and not be content until the pastor is satisfied with your coaching style.

As I coach each pastor, I need to realize that I’m moving in and out of so many distinct cultures and experiences. I’m often jumping back and forth between the personalities of each pastor, even on the same day.

Naomi, an experienced coach in Hong Kong, shared at the CCMN Hong Kong summit in 2008 about her coaching experience. She said that she had to adapt to each situation. Some months she is more of a counselor. Other months she exercises mentorship, or teaching, or just listening. She has come to realize that coaching is all these things wrapped into one. It’s not just about one discipline, but it’s a variety of actions and activities. “Naomi really understands coaching,” I said to myself as I heard her speak.

The coach of pastors wears all and every hat necessary to get the job done. God gives wisdom to help the coach know what to focus on at any given time.

Get to Know the Leader

I seek to know the person I’m coaching, meditating on the person’s life and ministry , which I gather into a document I call a case study. Some of my case studies become very extensive. I write down every possible fact I discover about the coachee, such as background, personality, family, church information, church doctrine, philosophy, and cell church ministry–or lack of it. I try to observe the pastor, listen to what he or she says, and then document what I hear.

As I prepare for each coaching meeting, whether a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting, I review the case study first. I try to remember what we talked about the last time. I then jot down questions I want to ask the leader. I’ll target points of need, past prayer requests, and future goals. However, I’m prepared to respond in an appropriate way if I sense an immediate need or problem.

After the meeting, I make sure to document things I’ve learned. I then use that information as a resource for prayer and preparation for the next meeting. My normal preparation routine is:

  • Look at notes from the last meeting.
  • Think and pray through the areas I want to probe.
  • Prepare the actual questions.

Bedrock Foundation of Coaching

It seems to me that the bedrock foundation for coaching is servanthood. The coach is the servant. The coach is trying to place the coachee in the driver’s seat. The coach doesn’t lord over the one being coached but attempts to wash his or her feet. The coach draws out the wisdom that already resides deep within the coachee. The one being coached may already know what’s going on but often can’t sort it out. The coach pinpoints the problems and brings them to the surface.

Servanthood requires doing whatever it takes to make the coachee successful. The best way to do this is through listening, asking questions, encouragement, and challenging the one being coached to fulfill his or her vision. Yet, the coach should not hesitate to use other instruments in the toolbox, always focusing on the question, “How can I best serve the one being coached?”

Following the Spirit of God

Ultimately, the Spirit of God must lead coaches. Before I coach, I seek to listen to the Spirit of God and find His direction. I realize I need to completely trust God and His grace when I’m coaching.

While I’m listening to the coachee, I’m also listening to the Spirit of God. Listening to both the coachee and the Spirit allows me to flow into a wide range of disciplines and to meet specific needs.

I constantly attempt to improve my coaching through reading and observation, but ultimately the Spirit of God must bring to my attention the principles that are the most important.

I’ve found that coaching is tougher than seminar speaking because so many more disciplines have to be utilized in the coaching session. A seminar speaker dispenses knowledge, prepares a great PowerPoint, and attempts to balance the event. Coaching is more subtle. Coaching requires every part of the coach’s life and ministry to come through. Coaching is much more intuitive. The coach must trust the Holy Spirit’s prompting and truly believe that God is leading.

I do not approach my coaching contact times with my own agenda. Rather, I remain completely dependent upon God to guide every thought during my coaching.

I come to each coaching situation on my knees and praying that God would help me to minister to the coaches. He’s the Master; I am His instrument!

Coaching Is an Art

Coaching is not a hard-science. It’s an art. As I prepare for each coaching appointment, I sense the importance of getting ready to have just the right word for that particular person.

I prepare myself. I study the coachee. I’m ready to the best of my ability. My blood starts flowing quickly. I’m nervous. Everything is in high gear as I prepare for the coaching appointment.

Ultimately I coach to the best of my ability. That’s all anyone can do. When the coaching moment arrives, I know I’ve done the best I can do to prepare myself. And that’s all that God requires of me.

Coaching is a mix that is not easily understood. The coach must have the listening mix, the empathy mix, and the teaching mix. Coaching is trying to find the right mix for the coachee. It’s not always clear and concise. There’s not an easy 1,2,3 sense to it. Each person is different. I don’t believe, in fact, that a coach ever fully arrives. Rather, it’s a continual learning process.

I know when I’ve coached well because I feel it. Other coaches can testify of that same feeling. I don’t know if great coaching is definable. It just happens. It’s an ongoing relationship. Every time I get on the phone with a pastor, I’m becoming vulnerable. I’m trying to make something work—we’re in the process. Because I’m growing as a person, I’m always changing. Coaching is ultimately Joel Comiskey giving all he has.

The coach can easily think that he or she has wired the art of coaching. Easy. Presto. Yet, it’s just at the point of supposedly “figuring it out” that the coach might start sinking. It’s probably best to feel inadequate so that our inadequacy compels us to depend on the Lord. Only Jesus can make it work.

Only Jesus can change people and fulfill goals and desires that have eternal benefits.

Coaching remains in the realm of mystery. There’s no secret formula to working with people. Yes, it’s harder this way, but I suppose that’s the way it should be. I’ve had magical moments, and I’ve had very hard moments. I’ve been high in the clouds and down in the depth. It’s best to keep coaching in the realm of mystery, so we always learn to depend on Jesus Christ for success.

Evaluations will show how the coach is doing. In fact, I often don’t know how I’m doing as a coach until I receive my regular evaluations from the coachees (more on this later).

Freely Giving to Others

Coaching is marked by a friendly, giving spirit. The coach should be ready to pass on knowledge in a friendly, loving way. The coach needs to be willing to give everything and be completely open and honest.

A good friend of mine, René Naranjo, a very successful architect in Ecuador, once told me that he always tried to exceed the expectations of those who bought homes. He wanted those buying homes from him to tell their friends, thus creating a snowball effect. This generous attitude has worked wonderfully for René because in a country of poverty and problems, René has always had plenty of work—even beyond what he could accept.

Scripture says in Proverbs 11:25, “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” I believe in providing information freely. I must give, give, and give some more while expecting nothing in return. I must not hide anything. Everything is on the table. Generosity reigns. Stinginess is out of the question. The more I can give, the better. My coachees receive everything I have.

Paul said in Acts 20:17-21:

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

One time in Slovakia, missionary Kevin Wood, asked me about my methodology of coaching. I shared with him the concept of using everything in the toolkit and freely sharing everything with the coachee. Kevin, who received his doctoral degree in counseling, agreed 100% with my method of coaching. He said, “Counseling as a profession is more and more steering away from the “therapeutic listening” model to offering advice and holding the counselee to that advice.” While coaching is different from counseling, we both agreed that a coach shouldn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to minister to the coachee.

If we love people we will give them everything we know. The key is how we share the knowledge. If we do all the talking, we’ll never really know if the one being coached has internalized the information. Often the best teaching method is asking questions because when the coachee answers for him or herself, their ideas may stick.

Yet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of not freely teaching and giving needed information when the coach is only listening. The fact is that the one being coached needs information to achieve personal improvement.

A Few Steps Ahead

I learned how to coach through coaching. I grew as I coached. I failed and learned from my mistakes. I’m still learning. Coaching is still pioneer effort, and that’s why I’m constantly asking the coachee to tell me how I’m doing. I need to know. I need to understand.

We grow in our coaching ability as we get out there and coach. Being involved in the battle is the best way to learn and grow.  The coach has experienced ministry sufficiently to pass on his knowledge to others. I’m inferring that the coach is one step ahead of the individual he is coaching. Notice that I didn’t say a lot further ahead. I said one step ahead.  You don’t need to be a lot further ahead. You do need to be a little bit ahead. A great coach should have played the game at one time. It doesn’t mean that he or she was super successful—just experienced. Some are under the impression that the coach must be as good or better than those he’s coaching. Untrue. The coach of cell pastors needs to establish a solid track record of helping pastors make it. He needs to be able to point to those who are stronger as a result of his or her coaching.  The great sports coaches are strategists who love the game and have played the game. However, what’s great about them is their strategic thinking, knowledge, personality, and leadership. They know how to move a team on to the next level.  As a coach, your job is to take the person to the next level. To do so, you must use all the tools in your toolkit.

Evaluating What Works

How does the coach know if he or she has done a good job? The only way I know is by receiving regular evaluations.

Before I start coaching someone, I ask them to commit to a quarterly evaluation. I rotate those evaluations between oral and anonymous. At the end of the first three-month quarter, for example, I will personally ask each coachee if they have any suggestions or critiques for me ( oral evaluation). I write down whatever they say. At the end of the next three month quarter, I send out an evaluation sheet (anonymous evaluation). In the appendix, I give more detail about each of these evaluations, and I even include a sample copy of the anonymous evaluation.

Asking for regular evaluations helps ensure that the coachee is not bottling up hidden criticisms or concerns. It will help the coachee to know that he or she will have an opportunity to express concerns as well as positive feedback. Most of all, a regular evaluation will help the coach to fine-tune his or her coaching.