Coaching Helps Clergy Run the Race Well

 on June 13, 2024

This summer many of us will be glued to our TVs or social media sites to watch the Olympics in Paris. A few of the lucky among us might actually be there in person. The feats of these top athletes are the culmination of years of intense training and rigorous disciple. They are now at the peak of their performance, and what a thrilling spectacle to watch!

As I write this, we are also in the early days of the NHL post- season playoffs.

What is common to both is not only great athletes but, behind the scenes, great coaches who have assisted the players to review, assess, and tweak their performances to consistently achieve their best efforts. They encourage and support them when they face challenges, and are their chief cheerleaders to celebrate their accomplishments. Elite athletes do not grow out of using coaches; they seek out the best in order to continue to grow. Coaches are critical for high performing athletes but they are not centre stage—their work is to help someone else to get there.

Over almost five decades of ordained ministry, I have had the benefit of several coaches or mentors who have been invaluable to me as I have grown in ministry. They have opened opportunities, shared their experience, gently (and sometimes bluntly) pointed out bad habits that I was developing, guided me to new learnings and skills, and helped me reflect when things went badly wrong. They were men and women, clergy and lay. They pushed me to do better and to be better. I am deeply indebted to them. I name them as my personal saints.

The sports coach analogy is apt for an experiment that we are trying in the Diocese of Niagara. Apt, but like all analogies, not exactly translatable. Let’s change the image from sports to the theatre. We never exercise ministry alone. All members of the Church—laity and clergy—are essential agents of God’s mission to God’s world. Within that, though, there are differentiated roles like actors in a drama. Each part is important to the unfolding of the action but only occasionally do the actors all have the same lines. Drama coaches enhance the performances. Parish rectors have a specific responsibility in relation to their parishioners, the parish community in which they are located, and the wider diocese in which they serve. That responsibility entails a set of competencies, which are dynamic and can expand.

One of several projects I took on as the very part-time assistant bishop is to set up a coaching program for clergy newly appointed as rector. A few other dioceses are experimenting with this, too, in different ways. In Niagara, we are blessed to have a curacy training process, placing new ordinands in parishes with an experienced rector for the first couple of years. The new coaching program is designed to augment this for priests who are moving into a new parish. It is not intended for (or rather, only for) first incumbencies. Every time a well experienced rector moves to a new parish, there are new opportunities and challenges to face in a different context.

While it is still in its early stages, we have invited a small, initial group of seasoned, recently retired senior clerics to form a pool of coaches and mentors whom Bishop Susan and I have begun to assign one-on-one to accompany a recently appointed rector in the new ministry.

The rector and coach covenant to meet for a couple of hours monthly for a year. This provides a confidential opportunity to reflect on what is happening in the practice of ministry with another experienced person “outside the system” to gain perspective, explore options, enhance growth, and to pray for one another.

It is not intended to be “the eyes and ears of the bishop.” It is not intended to remediate underperformance. It is to help a competent rector to offer the best of themselves to those they serve. It is consistent with the life-long learning that is expected of us as disciples of Christ. As St. Paul writes, we are called to run the race set before us with perseverance looking to the goal, to Jesus the author and perfector of our faith.

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