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Mark Naylor M.Th.

The Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach:

See also the  follow-up article: Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach II

Helping people trade their lives for significance

Our home church is searching for a senior pastor.  My wife is on the search committee and so we have been discussing the type of pastor we would like to see come and serve in our church.  Our preferences seem to be at odds with some of the accepted and assumed pastoral roles.

Since my church experience has been primarily with the Fellowship, my perspective has developed out of that environment. As I understand the usual practice, formulating the vision and direction of the church is considered to be the responsibility of the church leadership, primarily the pastor. Many hours are spent in meetings talking and praying for God’s leading as they develop a vision that is then presented to the church. Some discussion and minor adjustments are made, a vote is taken and the vision is adopted.

Unfortunately, a positive vote does not necessarily result in commitment to the vision.  A “yes” vote can mean one of four things:

  • Unspoken Dissention (I don’t like it, but I don’t want to be a wet blanket or be viewed as divisive)
  • Permission (not my thing, but go ahead.)
  • Encouragement (I like that, but I can’t be involved) OR
  • Commitment (Count me in, I want to be part)

leadership-developed-vision1The hope of the leadership is that a “yes” vote indicates commitment to a new direction. But I have seen many times when the actual result is frustration, with the pastor trying to convince people to believe and participate in the adopted vision. A key concern is “will enough people support this new vision?”  The pastor has to create “buy-in” so that they will get involved – often with a plea that it will take minimal commitment (“only a couple of hours a week”). Many people will still participate even though the projects do not fit with their vision.  They are willing to cooperate, but the lack of ownership can be detrimental to their sense of connection to the church.  In this paradigm, a church is identified by its overarching vision.

The concept of “church” and the pastor’s role that Karen and I prefer is somewhat different. The pastor and leadership do not develop, create or control the vision.  Instead, they facilitate and network the visions (plural) of the believers.  Based on a conviction that the Holy Spirit indwells and guides each believer, the pastor’s role is not to cast an overarching vision, but to help people integrate their lives with their Christian faith, while guiding them to meaningful engagement in Kingdom service.  The leadership, and primarily the pastor, encourages and facilitates each believer’s desire for service, significance and expression of Christian faith according to the believer’s personal vision.  This requires an ability to relate to people in significant ways in order to discover where God has given them a passion and conviction.  This could be connected to their business or their favorite form of recreation.  It could arise from a concern for their family or from a desire to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.  But it is their vision.

member-developed-visionsThe role of the pastor in this scenario is to cultivate such visions and coordinate their efforts with other people and organizations.  The pastor networks believers who have a common vision and passion and acts as a spiritual coach guiding them to explore how their Christian faith can be intentionally lived out.  The leaders’ key concern is then “how can I help people fulfill their vision?” In this paradigm, the church is identified through the relationships people develop as they minister to others.

According to this view, the essence and vision of the church community is the establishment of each believer in their God-ordained role as intentional Christ followers in all of their day-to-day relationships. The pastor facilitates, coordinates, networks, guides and teaches from a biblical perspective to ensure all believers have the connections and support they need to fulfill their purpose as God’s people.  The pastor initiates, challenges and supports believers to discover and pursue the opportunities God has given them to serve and to fulfill the call of Jesus in their lives.  The pastor’s orientation towards the congregation is to ensure that people feel connected, cared for and that their contribution to the kingdom is valued. Recognition and support for each person’s ministry goals together with the collaboration of others will lead to fulfillment of the congregation as well as significant engagement with the community.

“If you want people’s hearts, they need to know what they are exchanging their lives for.”1 The kind of pastor Karen and I would like to see in our church is one who guides people as they exchange their lives for what is significant to God’s mission.  Rather than being satisfied that people are cooperating with a leadership driven vision, the pastor acts as a midwife to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in the lives of believers and helps bring to reality their vision and passion as the people of God.
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1 Rusaw R. & Swanson E. 2004. The Externally Focused Church. Loveland: Group. P. 179.


12 Responses to “The Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach:”


  • Hi Mark,

    Interesting thoughts and ideas. I love your perspective in that it is “Based on a conviction that the Holy Spirit indwells and guides each believer…” This is so true and so often overlooked by some. Before I disagree with your model of pastor, let me first say that I love this statement: “In this paradigm, the church is identified through the relationships people develop as they minister to others,” but I feel it can be like that in a different model.

    I have 2 major issues I’d like to point out:
    1. Vision is not vision if it is not focused:
    In your model of “Pastor as Spiritual Coach”, I feel that there is no real room for the church to be focused and dedicated to a single purpose. Sure the people are guided by the Spirit & we trust that God is leading them to have a heart for the lost and are reaching out in their own sphere’s of influence with the Gospel, but are they working as a team or as a bunch of individuals? You say that the Pastor works to guide the peoples’ visions as the Spirit works in and through their lives. And as much as I would like to see that, I feel that an ounce of realism here would point out that many times VISION is not purely vision, but rather an AGENDA and as such is not always beneficial to the team’s efforts for the Gospel. The team only works as a team when it is focused on one thing. Which leads to my next point.

    2. Who, then is the leader?
    I am a big believer in role distinction. The Pastor for the Church is Jesus Christ, and we are to follow him (you, no doubt agree). As he leads, he has clearly gifted some (Eph 4:11) to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds(pastors) and teachers to follow him. And practically speaking, someone has to lead. The pastor you are talking about is in fact a shepherd/teacher & more commonly the very type of pastor we’ve had in much of traditional North American churches for the past 1/2 century. What the Church needs is one who will LEAD. The Church needs a man who is willing to be the kind of Pastor who can actually take the lead and declare a vision for the Church (the people) that they can see and grab hold of and follow whole-heartedly as they all together follow Christ. As we trust that God is working in their lives, through the Spirit, as this type of Pastor leads, the Church will follow because they find themselves desiring to be focused on the same vision for the Gospel that their leader is focused on. They can with confidence, put aside their own personal agendas, and follow the leader as he follows Christ.

    Anyway, I appreciate your love for the people. I constantly need to nurture a great heart to care for the people of God and love them as Christ’s Bride. At the same time, I firmly believe that the Church is in need leaders who are willing to take the lead, and not merely be content to politic with people’s agendas.

    Blessings.

    Mark Myles
    John 3:30

  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your great comments and response to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to do so. I think that you raise some good issues and cautions that I would see, for the most part, as a nuance to what I laid out as my preference for a pastor, rather than as a contradiction.

    You wrote:
    “I feel that there is no real room for the church to be focused and dedicated to a single purpose.”

    I think that your concern here is in the sense of unity and togetherness that binds a church together in its identity. However, if the purpose is broad enough to be singular, then it must be general enough to encompass all the believers in the church. Our church has something like, “Following Jesus fully and helping others do the same.” This purpose statement can be phrased in many different ways, but it expresses the unity that we have a Christian congregation. Within the parameters indicated by that purpose is room for many different visions.

    You wrote:
    “are they working as a team or as a bunch of individuals?”

    This is an “either-or” question that proposes a false dichotomy. Either there is only one vision and project the church is concerned about and engaged in and everybody is coordinating their efforts towards that, or everybody is doing their own thing without connecting with others. But the option that I am proposing is that the Pastor (or leadership team) work with the passions and visions that emerge from the congregation and coordinate them, validate them, encourage them and promote them. This will promote teamwork and cooperation while building up people in the ministries God had given them.

    You wrote:
    “many times VISION is not purely vision, but rather an AGENDA and as such is not always beneficial to the team’s efforts for the Gospel.”

    This is an excellent caution. But rather than ignoring these agendas and visions and substituting a leadership generated vision that does not resonate with people, I believe it is more productive and spiritually healthy for the leadership to help people evaluate their visions according to God’s kingdom purposes. My proposal presupposes true visions, rather than tangential or unhealthy agendas. Where agendas come into play, the leadership provides the mechanism for strengthening the church through intentional analysis. Also, it is important to note that letting the leadership set the vision does not necessarily avoid the danger of have a leadership driven agenda that is not always beneficial for the gospel.

    You wrote:
    “The team only works as a team when it is focused on one thing.”

    I would agree with this principle in general. However, I would disagree with the assumption or implication that a church is a team. The biblical analogies of “body” and “bride” provide better metaphors for considering the nature of a local church.

    You wrote:
    “The pastor you are talking about is in fact a shepherd/teacher & more commonly the very type of pastor we’ve had in much of traditional North American churches for the past 1/2 century. What the Church needs is one who will LEAD.”

    Sadly, I believe the opposite is true. I believe that we have had many strong-minded leaders in churches who have been insensitive to the people they were supposed to be shepherding. They have been threatened by others’ visions and instead of empowering them in their concerns, they have either marginalized them, or engaged them in activities that have taken them away from the vision that God had for them. My description of the pastor as shepherd is not one of babysitter, but one who empowers people to be all that God has called them to be. I believe there is real danger when pastors, under the guise of being strong leaders, assume that they are the ones to determine the vision of another person.

    I would suggest, using the phrasing you gave with a twist, that pastors put aside their agenda and focus on the visions that God has given the congregation (and in many cases the people are already pursuing their visions) and seek to coordinate and facilitate those visions so that people with similar desires and passion can work together to bring to fulfillment their calling as intentional followers of Jesus Christ.

    Finally, I would like to point out that my proposal does include a single, unified vision for the church and the pastor. The pastor’s vision is that all people in the congregation discover and fulfill the calling that God has given them. The church’s role is to respond to the pastor’s guidance and encourage and network with other believers to see each other’s vision come to pass.

  • This is funny…Mark & Mark. ;)

    Thanks for the good response!

    I have a great love for the Church and I see that you do as well.

    I think we can agree that we need Pastors who deeply love God and love his Church. I believe I can speak for both of us when I say that the type of Pastor we need are those who want to see the Church accomplish that which he has created her for. Eph 2:10

    Blessings,
    Mark Myles
    John 3:30

  • Amen, it is by living Christ-centered lives that our potential and purpose as the people of God is fulfilled. He has redeemed us in order to bring that “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15) into the world. The pastor I desire is one who sees their role as a servant of God’s people to that end.
    Mark

  • Mark (Naylor) and I have talked a lot about the role of church leadership and in our discussions have come across some helpful resources. One of the best is Organic Community by Joseph R Myers. The focus is on building community in a church rather than relying on cooperation with a master plan. For church leaders who want to look at things differently, it’s definitely worth a read.

    Karen

  • I came across this and although it is not talking directly about church leadership, the points are well-taken.

    Profile of successful non-profit executives (Brian O’Connell)
    Current profile of persons most likely to succeed is as follows:

    They can subordinate their personal needs and preferences to the needs and goals of volunteers. This characteristic eliminates the majority of candidates. Most of us cannot consistently subordinate our needs, aspirations, and satisfactions.

    But the really successful staff persons in the voluntary agency must have this capacity; otherwise competition between staff and volunteers develops and chokes off opportunities for maximum involvement.

    I believe this is a realistic assessment of what can be expected in churches. However, not being a pastor, I’m looking at it all from the outside, ie. as one of those whose personal goals and needs may or may not be valued by the leadership.

    Karen

  • Leadership Goals. Surely we have Christ as our prime example; he submitted his will to God the Father.God said of him this is my Son in whom I am well pleased. The fact that God raised Christ from the dead was his seal of approval. Obedience to the will of God was essential for God’s plan to work. Christ subordinated his own will and needs all the time. So why does the Leadership of His church always seem to miss out on this point?
    Perhaps they misinterprete the concept of the Leadership role because of cultural influences linked with the Western ideas of leadership e.g. the role of businesses are often linked with power, normally they are very successful. Powerful leadership is often seen and copied from North American Corporations. Church leaders wish to be seen to be successful! You can argue that the church has subconsciously used this type of imagery along with others, when defining the role of leadership.
    Yet the Biblical image we have of the successful functional church is one of the body all linked together. No one part can do without the others. No one is above another, we are all equal etc… Yet why do most members feel so isolated from others? A two tier system operates in most churches, with the odd business meeting allowing the body parts to put up their hands to say yea or nay only. No ideas, suggestions are welcomed because there is already one vision in place devised by a strong leadership, seconded by the Board, Deacons and Elders. Even if a Vision document questionnaire is handed out to everyone to allow them to ask and answer questions, it is forgotten within a few months by the members. However it remains a mantra for the Leadership to work through regardless of it’s real meaning -if it ever had one in the first place.
    Being part of the body means you have to know you belong to a living structure. You have to have purpose. And no you don’t have to be purpose driven! Your involvement depends if you believe in whatever you are being asked to do. Your gifting should be part of the whole body doing the will of God. It does not matter whether it is washing the floor or preaching on the washed platform floor if it helps to bring the Good news to others. It is all part on the whole work.
    Members are all different but our unity is in Christ. To be part of the body means each part has a role and purpose. It is the leadership’s role or that of the shepherd who gets to knows his flock who will eventually enable each one to fulfill their role and use the gifts that God has given him. This is the key to a vibrant and successful church. Not successful as in the eyes the the world perhaps but then we are not to model ourselves on the world are we? This is where the church has malfunctioned in believing that the cultural model within society is the way to success. The evidence in most churches says differently. The leader/shepherd needs to get personal with his flock…what is more important people or programmes?

  • Generally I like the article. However, I think it assumes that typical lay believers are far more mature and in tune with God’s Spirit than they actually are.

  • Thanks for your comment, Jon. I would view the situation of believers somewhat more optimistically. My faith tells me that the whole body of Christ has the Spirit of God, and therefore God is at work in all believers to one extent or another. That is where the spiritual coach would begin. The spiritual coach would work with those who are “not in tune with God’s Spirit,” to help them develop a vision for what God wants from them. Traditional structures call for conformity by creating programs that often allow people to participate without a personal challenge to discover what God wants from them.

  • I guess I see this as a classic AND not OR scenario. I think a pastor can be an inspiring leader AND a spiritual coach.In fact most research on transformational leadership indicates that both leaders & followers are transformed thru the process of engagement with mutually satisfying goals.

    During my 30 yrs of pastoring I’ve endeavoured to both nurture spiritual growth & maturity whilst leading people into God’s future for our church. There’s no doubt I’ve been deeply changed as much as anyone else as we’ve been on this journey.

  • Good comment. I would affirm the need for the “and” approach. I would also suggest that the key to your comment is the “mutually satisfying goals.” This requires dialogue and sensitivity as to how God is at work in the congregation. That is, I find it difficult to picture a pastor as an inspiring leader in our Canadian cultural context who is not also a spiritual coach.

  • I am an educator in a small christian school, and current best practices in education run parallel to your concepts. Research shows us that differentiated instruction is the best way to ensure that students are engaged and growing. Do’t we need the same goal in churches?
    Engaged and growing christians?
    I am excited by a concept of church where God can inspire me as a unique being, to grow i. his cause and work, without having to squeeze myself into the mold of someone else’s vision. The fact that we can all come together and receive nourishment as separate parts of the body, by having the common Blood run through our veins is very biblical….but unfortunately very rare.
    Thanks for carryng and expressing an approach that resonates deeply ad brings new hope.
    But are there any pastors out there who really understand this concept?

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