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H & D

The Differences Between Coaching, Discipling, and Mentoring

The Differences Between Coaching, Mentoring & Discipling – Michael McLaughlin

Coaching carries familiarity and power because the world of sports is ubiquitous. In athletics, a coach typically has played the sport in view, and therefore possesses a databank and history that qualifies him to teach. There is clearly an implied transfer of knowledge or technique from coach to player.

My favorite coaching analogy features parents training their teens. When their children are young, parents discipline, instruct and train them “in the way they should go” – pointing out what it is to live a godly, prosperous and virtuous life. But as teens enter their first “white water,” discerning parents recognize that if they don’t shift from training to coaching, they’ll likely lose influence. If parents don’t allow their children to “play the game of life”, most teens learn the hard way, or not at all.

Parents who coach well allow their children on “the field” a little at a time, while they walk the sidelines. Good coaches don’t throw their teens into the game of life all at once. They send them on the field for four downs and see how they do. If that goes well, it’s eight downs, and then 12, and so on. When the teen errs, the wise parent-coach pulls them off the field for further instruction, discipline, or even punishment. When the time is right, the coach sends his player back on the field.

In the growing practice of adult “life-coaching”, data, skill, or knowledge transfer is not required. A life coach can assist a ‘rocket surgeon’ as easily as a high school teacher or a politician.

Life coaching occurs when a learner contacts or contracts with an instructor for the expressed purpose of accomplishing a new project or “moving from one chair to another”. Examples include writing a book, initiating a healthier lifestyle, resolving interpersonal conflicts, or securing a professional promotion. Nearly any situation in which a coachee wants help making a change qualifies for life-coaching.

Not everyone can be coached. Life-coaching requires a certain degree of intellectual and emotional health on the part of the coachee: the ability to answer questions honestly, to see reality for what it is, and the will to make agreed-upon changes – and to do this on their own.

Mentoring takes place when one person desires to emulate the life of another, usually including the mentor’s personal patterns and habits. This often includes several specific skills, especially pertaining to leadership or business acumen. Mentoring is commonplace in the world of business and in the professions of law, medicine and religion.

Discipleship, conversely, occurs strictly in a religious context; it’s training someone as it relates to their faith in Christ. If done correctly, discipleship encompasses all aspects of life, including how one operates in the worlds of business, family, and church. Today, the concept and use of the term “mentoring” has largely replaced the term “discipleship”, even in the church.

Jesus mentored his disciples, that is, he trained them to live as he lived, so they could thrive in his absence. In fact, he practiced mentoring that has the greatest level of influence--the kind that doesn’t revolve around set meetings and formal curriculum.  Jesus opened his day-to-day life to his trainees. They shared his eating, traveling, teaching, healing, resting, visiting, and interacting with detractors and devotees alike.

In this context of walking along side the mentor, mentees often ask questions and make comments that apply directly to a given situation that enhance and grow the relationship. This takes time, much more time than other relationships, but the time is already being invested as the mentor is simply living his or her life and the mentee is coming along for the ride.

But giving a student or resident access at multiple touch points in your life every week increases the benefit of influencing their life for the Kingdom or God.  It should be obvious that this is more threatening, but if properly set up, you can inform the mentee that s/he will see you at your best and at your worst, shining like a knight in shining armor, but also stinking like the sinner you are.

In order to delineate several differences between coaching, mentoring and discipleship, perhaps the following will help:

Distinction #1: Focus

Consulting is task or information oriented. The focus is on concrete issues, such as how to manage more effectively, speak more articulately, or learn how to think strategically. This requires a content expert who is capable of directing the one hiring the consultant how to develop these skills.

Life-Coaching focuses on any issue that a coachee wants to talk around, such as managing more effectively, speaking more articulately, moving from merely coping to thriving in a difficult relationship, learning how to think strategically or even writing a book. But a good coach simply asks excellent questions designed to probe and challenge the coachee. Unlike hiring a consultant who is the outside expert, in this case the coachee is the expert on his or her life. They, better than anyone else, really know how to do what they want to do, but hires a life-coach to walk them through the process. The life-coach motivates by asking provocative questions that probe the mind of the coachee and assists him/her to set measurable goals or action points to that end. But again, the coachee determines the action points.  

Mentoring (discipleship) is oriented toward relationships but also includes all aspects of the mentor/mentee’s lives. It seeks to provide a safe environment where the mentor shares whatever issues affect his or her professional and/or personal success. Although specific learning goals or competencies may be used as a basis for creating the relationship, its focus goes beyond these areas to include things, such as work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception, and how the personal influences the professional. Over the past few decades, this larger context of all aspects of life has allowed, even facilitated the now common use of this term in place of discipleships. Mentoring is now common vernacular in the context of the church, to include what was formerly restricted to discipleship.

Differentiator #2: Duration

Coaching is short term. A coach can successfully coach a client for a short period of time, maybe even just a few sessions, though many coaches require a minimum of three months or 12 sessions. The coaching lasts for as long as is needed, depending on the purpose of the coaching relationship.

Mentoring is always long term. Mentoring, to be successful, requires time in which both partners can learn about one another and build a climate of trust that creates an environment in which both the mentor and the mentee can feel secure in sharing the real issues that impact his or her success. Successful mentoring relationships often last for 1-2 years, sometimes much longer, though the relationship changes as the mentee matures. Successful mentoring relationships often evolve into mutual mentoring as the two grow closer together. For this reason, most recommend that mentoring relationships, unlike coaching, should be two people of the same gender.

Differentiator #3:  Outcome

Coaching is results driven. The purpose of coaching is to assist the individual in achieving the outcome s/he desires in a particular situation. Once the desired outcome is achieved, the coach is no longer needed. But after realizing the benefit of a coach, many simply move onto another issue or goal, or hire their coach intermittently as issues arise. The most effective life-coaches I know would never be without their own coach.

Mentoring is development or maturity driven. Its purpose is to develop the individual in relation to professional skills, at least, and often includes personal habits and maturity. A professional mentor would limit their focus and outcome to the skills related to an individual’s employment. But a full-orbed mentor would consider and address all aspects of the mentee’s life, including but not limited to their professional skills (though they might not do that specific training). It would also include the discipline of one’s life, integrity issues, personal interaction with others in the workplace, neighbors & family members, punctuality, dress, financial goals, the life of the mind and even relationship with God – and all that comes with that.

Differentiator #4: Design

Coaching does not require design. Coaching can be conducted almost immediately on any given topic and is sometimes limited to the one coaching session, unless directed to back to the same issue by the coachee.

Mentoring as I have described it and designed it requires simply walking alongside one’s mentor in various aspects of life – observing how the mentor does life, asking and addressing issues raised by the mentee along the way. Seasoned mentors develop their own agenda’s along the way and intentionally expose mentees to a variety of topics and situations such as is pertinent to their profession and one’s spiritual life.

Differentiator # 5:  When to choose to hire a life-coach or seek out a mentor?

When to consider coaching:

  • When a situation arises at work, home, church or in the neighborhood where one desires to talk through an issue with a neutral party
  • When one desires to make a significant change or accomplish a herculean task
  • When one is stuck / frustrated in life and wants to make some changes
  • When to consider mentoring/discipleship:

  • I am of the opinion that one should always have a mentor in their life.
  • If just starting out in life, middle to late teen years, college, early professional life – seeking out a mentor is one of the best things to do
  • At some point, co-mentoring takes the place of mentoring as two people are accountable to each other, living life together at several touch points, going to the gym together, attending small groups together, having coffee together regularly, vacationing together, serving the poor together, etc. But co-mentoring should not squeeze out mentoring a mentee.
  • Concluding remarks: Seasons of life dictate much or at least some of the above. The current status at home, married with young kids or with teens, or empty nesters with adult kids with grandkids living in the area- or in another state, single, or single again, etc. – all of these situations require different needs, but the benefits of hiring a coach at certain touch points, at various times in life are huge.

    Likewise, regardless of circumstances or the structure of one’s life, we all need and benefit from regular accountability with a mature person, other than our spouse. Left to our own devises, sans the sharpening of iron on iron, we devolve into our base state as sinners, scratching and swearing in public, not bathing or shaving often enough . . .

    God knew this when he designed most of us to live most of our lives with one person, our spouse. But he also knew that women needed to share regularly with other women and men needed to work together, to smoke an occasional cigar and have a beer together in order to challenge the motives and thoughts of our hearts and minds.

    Living life in isolation is not God’s best for us. He designed us to live together in community. In our present day western culture, we must invest the effort to seek each other out. Relationships of the types discussed above require intentionality.

    God help us.

     Michael  was born and raised on the "left" coast in Seattle, WA. He graduated from Biola University in '75, did his graduate work at Western Seminary, earning a Masters of Divinity in '79.  After helping plant a church in Gresham, OR, he has served as the Western Regional Director for CMDA since 1984.  He and his wife Linda and two married children live in the Portland area.


    Jesus mentored his disciples, that is, he trained them to live as he lived, so they could thrive in his absence. In fact, he practiced mentoring that has the greatest level of influence--the kind that doesn’t revolve around set meetings and formal curriculum.  Jesus opened his day-to-day life to his trainees. They shared his eating, traveling, teaching, healing, resting, visiting, and interacting with detractors and devotees alike.