Adjusting Our Coaching to Match Present COVID-19 Realities

As one who coaches professionally, I’ve observed how my interactions with clients, most of them pioneering leaders or church planters, have been changing due to COVID-19. Here’s some of what I’ve been noticing that’s proving helpful in many of these coaching relationships, and I’d welcome hearing the thoughts of others who also regularly coach pioneering leaders and pastors:

1. I see how important it is to coach the whole person.  In this wild pandemic, this starts with me vigilantly working to keep myself in a frame where I can offer the gift of my undivided attention/presence. I try to patiently come alongside them as a listening, consoling ear, while also helping them process some of the dominant emotions, demands, and struggles immediately before them. I do test their desire or readiness to respond to the emotions and issues they express, and often they’ll want to describe what they’re doing or they’d like to do to address these. But, I’m acutely aware of how important it is to allow vulnerability and raw sharing, and not to move too hastily toward helping them resolve the emotion or find solutions that deflect attention from addressing important stuff going on inside them.

After being with a coachee in such a manner, and it may take a call or two, coaching the whole person often involves helping them look wider than the normal field of their vocational aims and goals. I also try to help them set their own holistic developmental goals, and usually that’s for the six month horizon ahead. To do this, I have found SOULeader’s (www.souleader.org) way of giving attention to six primary areas a helpful way to insure a more full-orbed undergirding of the coachee’s leadership formation. To become like SOULeader’s founder, Michael Bischof, calls a “whole leader,” we need to help leaders give attention to growth in six key formational areas:

a. Relational formation (social)
b. Emotional formation (feelings)
c. Spiritual formation (heart)
d. Mental formation (mind)
e. Missional formation (will)
f. Physical formation (body)

Like many of us, our clients are likely experiencing an uncomfortable tension in the midst of this present slowing of all things. On the one hand, we may all enjoy the space and time to loiter with family, putter on various long-awaited home projects, and pay attention to things we’ve tended to take for granted.  On the other hand, we see ourselves engaging in certain behaviors we recognize are unfruitful or even damaging to us or to others, some of which are carryovers from the “normal” pre-COVID-19 life we’ve been living.  I think it’s helpful both for us as coaches and also for those we coach to wrestle with these two forward-looking developmental questions right now – we can seize this crisis as an opportunity for growth and wholeness!

a) What are we presently liking or experiencing as life-giving in this time that we want to carry forward as this pandemic subsides (e.g. meaningful family rituals, living more simply in kindness to the planet, etc.); and, more importantly, what measures will we take to insure those are sustained?

b) What new awareness do we have of behaviors and ways of living that we find depleting or life-stealing for us and for our fellow creatures that we don’t want to carry forward (e.g. looking at the news too often, comparing on social media, capitulating to the rugged individualism of American society, etc.)?; and, what will we do to stop or reduce our complicity in those behaviors?

2. Helping a client to undergird not only their personal formation and interior shalom is critical in these times, but the other side of the formational coin also involves helping them give sufficient attention to strengthening their “social base.”  Social base refers to the leader’s support net, that web of relationships and resources from which the leader draws to sustain their calling at any given moment.¹  This includes the ecosystem of one’s home life, social connections, personal finances, etc.

During this COVID-19 crisis, it’s easy to imagine how compromised this ecosystem that fuels our coachee’s journey can become. These points of vulnerability are extremely important to dig into as a coach, as they can present huge drains in terms of both immediate impact and also cumulative impact over time.

3. Most coaches encourage their coachees to self-assess their growth needs/preferences through some version of a “coaching wheel.” This is a graphic tool that generally focuses on a set of life roles and developmental areas to which a coachee must give attention in order to support their well-being.²  If a sponsoring agency is underwriting the cost of the coaching, the wheel will often include growth areas that not only relate to the coachee directly but also to the success metrics of the sponsor.

In this period of high change and uncertainty, I find it’s important to revisit and update any multi-angle self-assessment the coachee has done to determine arcs/lines for coaching.  Assuming they’re able to adequately attend to self-development and the undergirding of their social base, they may find it very helpful to consider all the roles they presently assume in life, and then choose those that seem to need the most attention (from the coachee’s perspective) in the next six months ahead.

4.  Typically, I’m pressing my coachee to dig in the fields of their relationships and networks and base of written and online resources to discover helpful ideas, approaches, trainings, best practices, etc. that might serve their needs or the needs of their team. Cohorts or communities of practice involving other leaders in a similar boat as our coachee can be a superb well of practical helps for leaders, and I’m often encouraging a given coachee to look well beyond their grassroots ideating for just-in-time resources within these circles.

But in these times I also find it’s important to maintain a readiness to resort to impartational moments according to the needs expressed by our coachee.  In other words, given the urgencies/limits created by time, social, emotional and other constraints, I ask permission to put on the mentor hat quite a bit more often. And I remind myself that this kind of strategic coaching is okay and appropriate to do in a discerned fashion, given the rocky realities we’re all navigating.³

5. Finally, I’m finding that it’s really critically important to help our coachees adjust their metrics or how they measure success.  And this applies to the setting of their formational goals (as per the six areas above), as well as those aspects of their social base and whatever else appears on their version(s) of the coaching wheel (vocational roles, sponsoring agencies growth categories, etc.).  Of course, such measures of progress will need some serious reinterpreting or postponing during this pandemic. For many leaders, just getting through the week ahead intact is a win. So the progress horizon will be very short term, but I still recommend asking a given coachee what they would like to see happen in terms of critical priorities, followed by: “And how will you know you’re making progress? What signs would you expect to see to verify that?”

In my experience, the setting of useful progress targets is not something the body of Christ does very well. We tend to set fuzzy or poorly discerned progress metrics, or we rely on supervising agencies or leaders to whom we report to set the metrics. As to the latter, sponsoring agencies do need to weigh in with their desired metrics, but the focus should be much more strongly skewed toward helping teams on the ground discern their own progress targets.

And this takes us to what constitutes a decent metric. First of all, it should situate itself within a clearly articulated, hoped-for outcome. That statement can be somewhat general, but don’t let the coachee stop there. Take them to the next step and help them develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals around that desired future outcome. And finally – perhaps most importantly – help the coachee unpack each progress target by answering “as evidenced by…” This gets them thinking of concrete ways to actually evaluate or gauge progress, rather than simply naming generic targets like “I will be a leader who better demonstrates the Galatians 5 fruits of the Spirit.”

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  1. This phrase “social base” is derived from Dr. J. Robert Clinton’s work on leadership emergence theory. Clinton argues that the emotional, strategic, economic support and relational environment out of which we minister is key to both sustainability, health and fruitfulness.
  2. For an excellent example of a coaching wheel and how to use it, see the free Coaching Manual put together by the 1001 New Worshipping Communities team in the Presbyterian Church of American (PSUSA): https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/1001-Coaching-Manual.pdf
  3. I have written a piece on some of the nuances that I (and a good number of other coaches with which I’ve consulted) have observed in coaching church planters versus standard coaching (see link below). In this document I give more extensive attention to this practice of strategic coaching, which does employ a much more impartational stance by the coach to supplement coaching along the International Coaching Federation’s (ICF’s) newly revised 8 competencies.  Here’s the link:
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/dan-steigerwald-3b561b7/detail/overlay-view/urn:li:fsd_profileTreasuryMedia:(ACoAAAFWVXkBETy2kmc-WGg7j0k07uZkv8YwI78,1585877783510)/
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Dan Steigerwald

I help pioneering leaders and pastors engage fresh ways to lead and multiply mission-shaped communities while tending to their holistic formation along the way.  Having worked for 30+ years in cross-cultural missions, church planting and pastoring, I know personally how hard and soul-depleting ministry can become. Some wells from which I draw:  I hold a DMIN in Leadership in the Emerging Culture from Portland Seminary. My coach training is through Creative Results Management, and I have ACC credentialing under the International Coach Federation (ICF). Also, I have authored several practical books (see Amazon) around which I coach, train and teach: Dynamic Adventure: A Guide to Starting and Shaping Missional Churches (2017); Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard (2014); and Grow Where You’re Planted: Collected Stories on the Hallmarks of Maturing Church (2013).