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Perspectives from a Coach

After 15 years of working in business and finance, in the summer of 1999 I left that world in my rear view mirror and drove across the country in a U-Haul in order to shift gears in my life and vocation.  I had turned down an opportunity for partnership in the financial planning firm where I worked from 1996-1999 as a result of realizing that I wanted to do more than help people work toward financial freedom.  I wanted to journey with them toward true freedom.

During the second year of graduate school, one of the main decisions that comes up relates to what kind of practicum/internship experiences to find.  As I talked with my professor and told him that I wanted to work with people like my financial planning clients (dentists), but instead of focusing on tax and pension planning, I wanted to talk about their relational and vocational lives.  He said, “Oh, you mean coaching!” As it turns out, I was actually describing discipleship, but it took me a few years to figure out the difference. 

And so, in 2001, I moved to Nashville and started my life-coaching practice. I could never have predicted how God would mold and shape me through the years, and I have a sense that there is still quite a bit of molding and shaping yet to come. But for now, here are a few of my reflections on the work of coaching, mentoring,and discipleship and some of the key distinctions between them.

What is Coaching?

According to Wikipedia, “Coaching, when referring to getting coached by a professional coach, is a teaching, training or development process in which an individual gets support while learning to achieve a specific personal or professional result or goal.”  Sometimes people engage a coach to help sort through a specific decision, to work through a relational conflict, to discern vocation/career direction, or to develop a specific skill or quality. The focus of life coaching is the accomplishment of the self-identified goals of the client.

In the coaching relationship, there are no right or wrong goals.  Whatever the client determines as a desired goal/outcome becomes the focus of the coaching relationship.  The coach’s role is to provide a safe, confidential context for the client to discuss their goals and to help the client move toward the goal, one step at a time.  Sometimes this involves clarifying desires and/or values, addressing internal or external obstacles, or challenging assumptions and beliefs about self, situation,or others.

The bottom line goal of coaching is movement.  Often clients engage a coach because they feel stuck, either personally or professionally, and they want someone to help them gain perspective and momentum.  Similar to the way that athletic coaches provide strategic insight and guidance for the team players, life coaches provide the same kind of objective input and questions for their clients.

And in order to facilitate movement, one of the most important aspects of the coaching process is to clarify the client’s coaching goals.  This is challenging for many new clients,because often when they arrive, the main thing they know is that they want to be “unstuck,” but they are often only vaguely aware of their hopes and desires. 

Although the goal of coaching is movement, I have found that our lives are more like stories than machines,and in order to move forward, it is often necessary to look at previous chapters in the story.  For example,the messages received during our lives about “what is success?” can have a huge impact on our decision-making process.  For some clients, this is one of the most significant moments of the coaching process: examining their unconscious, yet powerful, beliefs about things like success, rest, productivity, gender roles, money, etc.

Coaching is ultimately project-oriented.  A client establishes the coaching goals and the coaching relationship continues until the goals are completed.  Often, new goals arise during the course of working toward the initial goals.  But a hallmark of coaching is that it is not an indefinite process.  There are clear markers to begin and end coaching, and while the client may continue to work with a coach to address new goals, it is important to have clear goals in mind that guide the coaching relationship. 

From Coaching to Mentoring

As I began my coaching practice, one of the things I noticed was that I was increasingly drawn to the spiritual hunger that clients would inevitably express as they talked about their desires and goals.  As a follower of Jesus, one of the things I know about every person is that they are created in the image of God and that He loves them and has good purposes for their life.  In a way, you could say I have insider information about their deepest desires.  I know that every person, at their core, longs to be known, loved, and significant, to participate in a Story bigger than their own personal happiness, and to experience freedom from guilt and shame.

One day during a supervision session with a woman I had engaged to help me deepen my skills as a coach, I described the growing number of female physicians that I was seeing in my practice,and specifically, there were the spiritual issues I was observing as I learned more about the medical training process and its impact on people’s hearts and minds.  She suggested I contact a local physician who was the faculty advisor for the medical student ministry at Vanderbilt Medical School.

After meeting him for lunch and discovering that there was an opportunity to join a group of Christian medical and nursing students as well as Christian physicians and nurse professionals on a mission trip to Peru, I sensed God inviting me to “come and see” this world of medical training up close and personal.  During the two weeks of our time in Peru, I was given the task of working in the eye clinic, and the rest of the time I assumed the role of chief listener and learner.  I wanted to talk to as many of the students as possible, to hear their stories, and to understand a little more about what they saw as the primary needs and struggles during the years of training.  The message couldn’t have been clearer: the main thing they were asking for was mentoring.

So what is mentoring?  The first recorded modern usage of the term can be traced to a 1699 book entitled The Adventures of Telemachus,by the French writer François Fénelon.  The book recounts the educational travels of Telemachus, son of Ulysses, accompanied by his tutor, Mentor, who is revealed at the end of the story to be Minerva, goddess of wisdom, in disguise.  According to Wikipedia, “because of Mentor's relationship with Telemachus…the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.”  (Francois Fenelon was a French Roman Catholic archbishop, theologian, poet and writer.)

Mentoring, then, is a form of tutoring.  The mentor, or tutor, teaches the student, and the student assumes a posture of receiving and learning.  Mentoring occurs when someone with experience or knowledge or wisdom in a certain area or discipline engages someone who wants to grow and learn in that same area or discipline.  Often this occurs through conversations between the mentor and student.  Sometimes, however, the mentor is an author or speaker who provides mentoring without ever meeting the student(s). 

As I reflected on the students’ desire for mentoring, a major theme of what they were asking for was mentoring in the area of decision-making. One of the things I learned from them was how much pressure they often felt to be who others expected them to be rather than be honest about their true desires and values.  Since decision-making had been a major focus of my work with coaching clients, I saw an opportunity to help students establish a solid foundation of identity and purpose early in their years of training, which I hoped would ultimately serve as an anchor for their lifelong decision-making process. 

So, being the “Action Jackson” person that I am, I landed back in Nashville with a plan to respond to this need for mentoring. One of my first initiatives was to offer an elective course for medical students on the subject of decision-making, providing a process for them to reflect on aspects of their lives that impact decisions and to hear personal stories from physicians about their experiences of struggle and sometimes failure related to decision-making.  I also met individually with students at coffee shops to talk about specific questions on their mind as well as, I did some speaking for various conferences and workshops, and I wrote some articles for medical association publications.

As I got more involved with students one of my main roles needed to be connecting students with other mentors.  While I have some ability to provide mentoring in certain areas of their growth and development, the specific questions they have about becoming a physician (or nurse) and navigating the various personal and professional decisions that come with the territory can be best answered by someone who is actually working within the profession of medicine. 

Specifically, students I met through the campus ministry were interested in meeting Christian physicians or nurses who could help them navigate questions about integration of faith and profession.  If you are a physician or nurse, I cannot stress enough how important you are to the development of the next generation of healthcare professionals.  They are hungry for mentoring and friendship with those who are willing to openly share the successes and failures of their journey through medical training and offer a vision of establishing life practices that anchor both faith and profession.

While I loved (and still do love) this work, I sensed God inviting me to scale back my time that was focused on direct service (i.e. coaching and mentoring) and invest more of my time and energy in discipleship and leadership development among the students.

From Mentoring to Discipleship

The longer I worked with students and engaged with the questions they were asking and learned more about the current state of our healthcare system, I realized I was in way over my head.  While I longed to see the medical training process and the healthcare delivery process itself be transformed, it became clear that the strategy for transformation was not more mentoring or coaching.  I sensed the Holy Spirit reminding me that Jesus’ strategy for infiltrating the world with the transforming power of His redeeming work is discipleship.  In the words of Eugene Peterson: “You can’t do Jesus’ work in a non-Jesus way.”[i] [Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons,Christianity Today 3/05]

While I had been involved as a volunteer in the campus ministry, if I’m honest, I saw it as an addendum to my real work of coaching and mentoring.  I believe there is a place for each of these gifts, as I’ve described above.  However, as I meditated on the metaphors that Jesus used for the process of transformation (salt, light, yeast, seeds, etc.) I began to imagine the students and faculty who already spent most of their time on campus catching a vision for partnering with Jesus in His work of redemption and transformation through the work of healthcare. 

As one person running a non-profit and working to provide life-coaching services, the scope of my ability to be a catalyst for transformation within the healthcare system was very small.  However, I started to catch a vision for how God had prepared me and placed me in the midst of this community for the purpose of raising up and equipping students to establish their first love and loyalty with Jesus.

As I open my heart for Jesus to pour His life out through me into students who also have a desire to follow Him and be part of what He is doing in this part of His world, the leaven of His life works its way deeper and deeper into the healthcare system and into the world.

One of the main things that differentiates the work of discipleship is obvious and yet overwhelmingly significant: a mutual commitment to joining God in His work.  The work of coaching and mentoring is often focused on a specific goal(s) of the individuals involved.  The work of discipleship is focused on learning the ways of God, through relationship with Jesus and empowerment by the Holy Spirit.  In short, coaching and mentoring help us become a better version of ourselves or more like someone else, while discipleship engages us in a process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ.  And the journey of discipleship always involves the pattern of death and resurrection.  

I believe there is a continuum of spiritual formation that often begins with asking good questions about one’s life (coaching) and is cultivated by developing solid relationships with people who have more experience and wisdom in specific areas (mentoring).  I think the church has often overlooked the great gift of this part of the journey: engaging people in conversations about the reality of their lives, work, and decisions, etc.  In spite of appearing busy and fully occupied by the countless responsibilities and technologies of our day, almost everyone I meet is hungry for connection and, relationship, and a sense of meaning and purpose.  Coaching and mentoring can help people move toward these goals, but only the life of Christ can satisfy the hunger.

While I want students to be mentored in areas where they seek growth and, development, and are coached through various decisions and challenges in their life, my primary desire is for them to know Jesus, and early in their years of training to establish their primary allegiance to Him and His kingdom early in their years of training.  There are powerful gods vying for their allegiance everyday, gods rooted in the lie that self-fulfillment is the purpose of our lives and that personal happiness is the primary goal.  Without a commitment to a Story bigger than accomplishing our own goals, coaching and mentoring can sometimes inadvertently be tools to assist us in maintaining the illusion of control of our lives rather than submitting to God’s design and purpose for us.

I am still learning everyday about the cost of discipleship, and the radical contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of this world.  The tie that binds the discipleship relationship isn’t my skill or expertise – it is the cross of Jesus, and the power of His resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

[i]Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons,Christianity Today 3/05

Debbie Smith is the Executive Director of The Center for Women in Medicine in Nashville, TN. The Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources and guidance for women in medical training and practice. Our mission is to help women preparing to be or practicing as a physician to build a solid life foundation from which to live out their professional calling

After 15 years of working in business and finance, in the summer of 1999 I left that world in my rear view mirror and drove across the country in a U-Haul in order to shift gears in my life and vocation.  I had turned down an opportunity for partnership in the financial planning firm where I worked from 1996-1999 as a result of realizing that I wanted to do more than help people work toward financial freedom.  I wanted to journey with them toward true freedom.