When You Don’t Know What to Do

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month will focus on the art of coaching and the practice of ministry. Some posts will layout insights or frameworks of coaching and some will be stories of coaching that transformed a pastor or congregation. We hope they will inspire you. We hope that inspiration will turn into actual movement in your own life and ministry so that we might move closer to that vision of the church we long for, closer to the vision of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by JC Austin

“I don’t know what to do.”

That was how a lot of pastoral conversations began for me when I was a congregational pastor. People would come to see me because they were wrestling with some significant question that they wanted to answer, needed to answer, but didn’t know how. My child is really struggling emotionally at school, and I don’t know what to do. My job is eating away at my soul, but I can’t afford to quit, and I don’t know what to do.  My aging parents can’t take care of themselves anymore, but won’t accept help, and I don’t know what to do.

next stepFor a long time, therapeutic counseling has been the default mode for the practice of pastoral care, to the point that it’s often taught as “pastoral care and counseling.” And I’ve never really been comfortable with that. Not because I have an inherent problem with a therapeutic approach, but because it is a tool for a particular set of problems, but as the saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A therapeutic approach is a particularly effective tool for addressing a particular set of problems, usually ones involving spiritual and emotional healing from some form of trauma or brokenness. And that’s great, except those problems are only a portion of the kinds of things which people seek the help of their pastors to address: “I don’t know why I feel/act this way” is a very different problem from “I don’t know what to do.”

The names themselves help illustrate the distinction. The word “therapy” come from a Greek word for healing: recovering from some form of injury or illness and returning to wholeness. But the word “coach” comes from the name of a town in Hungary that invented and produced a new kind of horse-drawn carriage that had a free-floating suspension, allowing it to absorb the shocks of going over bad roads at speed. These “coaches,” as they came to be called (after the town that created them), enabled people to get where they were going much faster and more safely than they could otherwise, often on roads that they simply couldn’t have traversed otherwise.

That’s why I wish I had known about coaching when I was a pastor; I think that coaching can have a real impact on helping people get “unstuck” and moving forward when they are facing an important problem and don’t know what to do. The basic goal of coaching is to help someone take action, to get where they want to go; thus, it is particularly well-suited to helping people whose primary question is, “I don’t know what to do.” A coach helps someone articulate the problem they’re trying to solve, envision possibilities and evaluate options and resources for moving forward, commit to a particular course of action and be accountable for it, and evaluate its effectiveness.

When done well, coaching can help catalyze astonishing transformation in people. Recently, I was talking with a pastor who had just completed a course of coaching for some leadership challenges he had been facing. “The truth is,” he admitted, “I was really looking for an exit strategy. I felt like my congregation needed a cultural transformation, and that it just wasn’t willing to change. I felt like I had tried everything and nothing worked, and I didn’t know what to do other than get out.” But after only a short time with his coach, it was he who began to change. “Coaching helped me see possibilities that had never occurred to me before, and then figure out how to try them. When I did, suddenly things began to click, because I started finding ways to help people explore change that didn’t require them to give up their whole identity in the process. I haven’t been this excited about ministry in years!”

That’s the kind of help that many people are seeking from their pastors, as well: moving from “I don’t know what to do” to finding a faithful way forward in the direction they feel called to go. And that, in a sense, is not a new form of ministry but a very old one. In the days of the early Church, before disciples of Christ were called “Christians,” they were called “followers of the Way.” As pastors, we are partners for people on the journey of faith, helping them along the Way into the abundant life which Christ intends for all of us. Coaching can be an extremely helpful way of fulfilling that sacred vocation.

JC Web 1

JC Austin is Vice President for Christian Leadership Formation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.