Coaching for On-field Development

by Keith E. Webb

It is time mission leaders rethink how they help missionaries develop. Coaching is one answer to effectively developing missionaries on the field.

“I haven’t told this to anyone, but I’m thinking of leaving the field and going to work for my father back in the UK,” confided Terry*, a team leader based in Bangladesh.

Terry and I met at a conference. When he found out I coached leaders and had church-planting experience among unreached people groups, he shared his difficulties with me. He explained that for the past three years he has felt isolated, has experienced frequent interpersonal conflict and slow ministry results, has run out of ideas, and has sensed his vision for ministry slowly draining from him. Terry lives in an isolated region with four other foreign families from his organization. They are spread out in various villages. Terry became team leader more or less by default. He moved there eight years ago and the other team members joined several years later. Terry needed more than an encouraging pat on the back or a couple hours of listening and advice. He needed someone who would walk with him through these challenges.

Terry’s case is not unusual; in fact, it is all too common. Although field personnel may receive adequate pre-field training, they often receive inadequate on-field development.

On-field Development
On-the-job, field-based development is a key factor in missionary longevity and effectiveness. Research demonstrates that regular personal contact with field workers increases the effectiveness and longevity of workers on the field. A study of missionary attrition showed that nineteen out of twenty-six attrition factors related to holistic pastoral care and supervision (Kang 1997, 251). More recently, a study in the United States demonstrated that church planters with regular mentoring or supervision produced churches with twenty-five percent higher attendance than those who had none (Stetzer 2003, 5).

Many mission organizations attempt to provide on-going holistic care, supervision, and development through mentoring, supervising, coaching, or member care. Each organization means something different by each of these terms, but essentially the organization seeks to provide emotional, spiritual, and strategic support for their workers. The problem is, for most organizations it is not working.

Mission agencies point to a lack of experts, time and money constraints, geographical distance, or simply a lack of follow-through for why this is the case.

• Lack of experts. By far, leaders lament that there are not enough experts to mentor all their field workers.

• Lack of time. Those who do have expertise in field work are usually the ones with the busiest schedules and the most fruitful ministries. Many are reluctant to give time to newer workers instead of the local co-workers or converts with whom they already partner.

• Lack of money. Few mission organizations have the finances to visit staff more than once a year. Even counting an additional visit at a conference twice a year is simply not enough for effective on-going development.

• Geographical distance. Many mission workers live in remote locations. Agency leaders are stretched by time and money constraints in getting out to where their field workers live.

• Lack of follow-through. A number of organizations have field mentoring or member care plans that include regular monthly meetings. In reality, these plans often break down because of one of the above factors.

It is time to rethink how we help people develop, where it is done, and who can do it. Coaching is one answer to effectively develop missionaries on the field. Let me explain what I mean by coaching. Later, I’ll tell you how things turned out with Terry.

Coaching is an ongoing conversation that empowers a person or team to fully live out God’s calling in their life and profession. The goal of coaching is to develop a person or team to more effectively reflect, correct, and generate new learning. It includes learning new ways to learn, listening to the heart and the Holy Spirit, and taking action to reshape their lives around that learning.

Coaching is an advanced form of adult learning. Adults learn better through dialogue and discovery than by someone teaching them. Maybe you can relate to Winston Churchill when he said, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” Passively reading or listening are not the best learning styles. The learner should be active in choosing the learning topic, reflecting, asking questions, searching for answers, and applying the learning. Coaching is personalized, active learning.

Coaching focuses on learning rather than teaching. Coachees (those who are coached) are in the driver’s seat. They choose their own growth goals, reflect deeply on their current situations, think through their options, and decide their next steps. All the while, the coach actively listens and asks reflective questions, supportively challenging limited beliefs and behaviors.

Adults learn best through dialogue, and questions promote dialogue. Adult educator Jane Vella writes, “Open questions are the single sure practice that invites critical thinking and effective learning” (1994, 73). Good questions cause coachees to dig deep in their souls to find answers. Many people are not naturally reflective. Coaches provoke coachees to reflect deeper than they could on their own in order to find answers.

Research shows that change begins the moment a question is asked (Cooperrider, Whiney, and Stavros 2003, 8). Church consultant Lyle Schaller’s experience confirms this. He writes, “The most effective way to influence both individual and institutional behavior is to ask questions” (1997, 15). A coach encourages discovery through questions.

Advice-giving is kept to a minimum so that the coachee can discover Holy Spirit-inspired solutions. Advice-giving short-circuits the “discover” process and puts the coach in the driver’s seat. The coachee passively receives the advice and may feel he or she will offend the coach if he or she does not do as the coach advises. This awkwardness may be felt more strongly in cross-cultural situations. Coaches believe that by tapping into the Holy Spirit’s wisdom, people can create their own best answers; coaches are trained to support them in that process. Proverbs 20:5 says, “Though good advice lies deep within a person’s heart, the wise will draw it out.”

Coaching works because it brings out a person’s best—what God put in. Coaching is based on the theological understanding that every believer already has an advisor—the Holy Spirit. Jesus explained the Holy Spirit’s role in a believer’s life: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). Christian leaders are not a substitute for the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we forget this and jump into teaching or advice-giving before the coachee has had a chance to reflect and hear from God.

Every believer has the Holy Spirit and thus a direct link to God. Spiritual discernment, however, is not the process of the individual alone. God has set up the Body of Christ as a social setting where God’s will is made known, interpreted, and applied. The Apostle Paul wrote that we become mature through the service of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). The writer of Hebrews instructs us to keep meeting together to encourage one another (Heb. 10:24-25).

A person outside an active role in the Body of Christ cannot fully understand and apply God’s will in his or her life. The coach’s job is to stimulate reflection in the coachee regarding every area of life, thus leading him or her to the Holy Spirit. In this task, a coach functions similarly to a skilled spiritual director. Richard Foster writes, “What is the purpose of a spiritual director?….His direction is simply and clearly to lead us to our real director. He is the means of God to open the path to the inward teaching of the Holy Spirit” (1988, 185).

The coaching process requires both the coach and the coachee to trust the Holy Spirit and maintain a listening posture. Spiritual maturity is the ability to hear from the Holy Spirit and put that guidance into practice.

God uniquely created each person to become someone special and to do something special. This is calling. Calling is not just for certain people. Every believer has a calling in at least three areas of his or her life: calling to character or personal holiness (Eph. 1:4), calling to relationship with God (Eph. 1:5), and calling to ministry—a unique contribution to God’s kingdom (Eph. 2:10). Coaching honors the uniqueness of people and their calling by not assuming an advice-giving role.

Coaching believes that coachees can find their own answers, but may need help getting there. Coaches provide a supportive environment to help coachees to “discover” what God has for them. This process prepares coachees to find their own answers when the coach is not around. Missionaries particularly benefit from this ability because of their often isolated locations.

Coaching emphasizes application more than knowledge. My problem is usually not a lack of knowledge; it is too little living out of that knowledge. Chinese philosopher Han Fei Tzu said it well: “It is not difficult to know a thing; what is difficult is to know how to use what you know.”

One study demonstrated that training produced a twenty-three percent increase in performance behaviors. Following up the same training with coaching produced an eighty-eight percent increase in performance. That is an increase of three hundred percent over training alone. Why? Because coaching reinforces and gives helpful feedback on the integration of new knowledge and skills in the real world.

Coaching naturally provides on-the-job training. Coaching topics are all real-life and happening right now in the coachee’s life. They focus the session toward what the Lord has directed the person to work on. It could be something ministry related, or it could be focused on improving a relationship, or a fitness goal, or on getting “unstuck” in a situation. The coachee learns what he or she needs to learn. Motivation is high because it is real life and right now.

As coachees generate their own solutions, they are prepared to generate future solutions.

Coaching is an effective cross-cultural tool. A coach can remain a learner, ask open questions, and listen actively. It takes the burden off the missionary to come up with solutions by him or herself.

Occasionally, I have experienced resistance to a lack of advice-giving in coaching from some people in hierarchically-structured cultures. They want answers! The cultural expectation is that the more senior person will give advice and solutions. However, I see my role not as a solutions-giver, but as an equipper (Eph. 4:12-13). I want to equip others to hear from the Holy Spirit, think through options, learn to find solutions, and make good decisions. Passing on these skills and the authority and confidence to do them are essential to producing an indigenous, sustainable ministry.
Coaching minimizes culturally inappropriate solutions by allowing coachees to solve their own problems in their own cultural way. The burden of contextualizing is reduced as coachees naturally contextualize as they explore solutions, choose options, and take action.

Someone will object and say that questions are culture-bound as well. True. However, questions are much less culture-bound than solutions or advice may be. And I have more confidence in the Holy Spirit’s ability to effectively guide and advise than my own. I see this lived out through the sometimes wild ideas that coachees think up that turn out to work brilliantly.

Coaching is very effective over the telephone. In fact, this is the main way I coach people from around the world. If I can meet the coachee in person, that’s a bonus. Even when we live in the same city, some coachees enjoy the focus of 60-minute telephone coaching sessions twice a month over face-to-face meetings. A recent study of cross-cultural church planters demonstrated that monthly accountability with a mission leader who lives somewhere else is more effective than with a team member. And of course, a monthly contact increases effectiveness over irregular or no contact (Lai 2003).

Discounted international telephone or free Internet communications like make coaching over the phone affordable. Compare the cost of a 1-hour telephone call twice a month for six months to that of an airplane ticket to a conference. Which will likely have longer lasting impact—the conference or the personalized coaching?

Coaching by telephone also increases the available pool of coaches. An organization can utilize trained staff as coaches no matter where they live—even if they are busy. Time away is no longer a factor. Neither are travel costs. Even the busiest mission leader could coach a couple of people by phone twice a month for an hour.

Coaching uses some of the counseling, facilitation, and mentoring skills you may have already learned. My observation of Christian leaders, however, is that although many know about active listening and inquiry, they do not practice them in daily life. Christians are partial to “telling” rather than “asking” methodologies: preaching, teaching, lay counseling, mentoring, discipleship, etc.

There is also quite a bit of ego gratification in teaching in front of a crowd or giving advice to others. It feels like a stronger leadership trait. Coaching, on the other hand, is about drawing out what God has put into the person being coached. It requires a high degree of trust in people and the Holy Spirit to speak to those people, and it requires a special set of skills. It takes time to learn to coach effectively. It is much quicker and easier to just tell people what they should do; however, that won’t develop them. Coaching requires a special set of skills. Below are some of the top coaching skills I have identified:

• Listening: taming the tongue
• Inquiry: provoking reflection
• Feedback: speaking the truth in love
• Expanding: facilitating discovery
• Focusing: designing actions
• Following-up: supporting progress

The time and effort I put into learning coaching skills has paid off a hundred-fold as I coach, supervise, and train others. These skills allow me to more effectively equip and empower others.

There are many coaching techniques and models that can enhance your effectiveness as a coach. Getting professional training will speed up the process of implementing coaching skills in ministry. Individuals can be trained through a number of marketplace coaching organizations. One of the largest and most established is CoachU (
For Christian coach training the choices are much more limited and further limited if you seek coach training with a missional and cross-cultural perspective.

Creative Results Management ( has developed two coaching skills courses specifically for mission organizations and cross-cultural workers. The first is a 3-day course aimed at learning essential coaching skills. It is useful for those doing small amounts of coaching or receiving coaching. For leaders with a part or full-time coaching role, the 60-hour Core Coaching Skills Certificate Program equips leaders to the level of a professional coach. As with any new skill, organizational change comes when a large number of people in the organization learn and practice the new skill set. Only then do those new behaviors begin to affect the corporate culture of the organization.

Terry and I began a telephone coaching relationship. We spoke every two weeks for an hour. Each session I allowed Terry to focus the topic of the conversation based on his need. During the first call we explored his reasons for wanting to leave the field and what his original vision was. We identified his continuing yet discouraged passion for ministry in Bangladesh.

In the next few calls Terry worked through how to: deal with a conflict with a teammate, find additional school resources for his teenage daughter, get his spiritual development back on track, and explore the job position in the UK. Each topic came from Terry.

As we talked, I asked questions, listened, challenged, and supported him as he moved ahead. Together we searched for God’s direction. Terry made several important discoveries about himself. Each call produced several action steps—homework—that Terry decided on and completed before our next call.

Within three months, Terry had regained his confidence and was enthusiastic about the future. He resolved the conflict with his teammate and helped the team to set up new ground rules for how the team would communicate and interact. He encouraged his wife to call overseas to find school resources. He changed his devotional pattern and reinvigorated his walk with the Lord. He explored the job with his father in the UK and quickly realized that its attraction was mostly to escape his difficulties in his current role. Last, he re-evaluated his ministry calling, identified his giftings more clearly, and began reshaping his ministry roles around that understanding.

Unusual? Not really. Through coaching, I have seen many people make similar discoveries and progress. But it cannot be done with once or twice-a-year visits, because it requires an on-going process and coaching skills.

There are few shortcuts in helping people develop. “Efficiently” helping people through a newsletter, conference, or yearly visit is not enough. People need on-going personalized learning. But they do not need the same amount of help all the time. Terry required a larger time investment the first six months. After that, we spoke on the telephone only once a month.

Are you getting the help you need to learn and grow? Is your sending organization providing on-going development to you and your team? Coaching may be part of the solution.

* Terry’s identity and details were changed to maintain confidentiality.

Cooperrider, David, Diana Whiney, and Jacqueline Stavros. 2003. Appreciative Inquiry Handbook. Bedford Heights, Ohio: Lakeshore Communications.

Foster, Richard J. 1988. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. New York: HarperCollins.

Kang, S. 1997. “Missionary Attrition Issues: Supervision Perspective of the New Sending Countries.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, 251-264. Ed. W. D. Taylor. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Lai, Patrick. 2003. Problems and Solutions for Enhancing the Productivity of Tentmakers Doing Church Planting in the 10/40 Window. Accessed August 17, 2007 from

Schaller, Lyle E. 1997. The Interventionist. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.

Stetzer, Edward J. 2003. An Analysis of the Church Planting Process and Other Selected Factors on the Attendance of SBC Church Plants: A NAMB Self Study. North American Mission Board, privately printed.

Vella, Jane. 1994. Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey Bass.

Introductory Books on Coaching
Miller, Linda and Chad Hall. 2007. Coaching for Christian Leaders: A Practical Guide. St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice. This is a helpful introduction to Christian coaching.

Starr, Julie. 2003. The Coaching Manual: The Definitive Guide to the Process, Principles and Skills of Personal Coaching. London: Prentice Hall Business. This is an excellent marketplace book on coaching skills.

Stoltzfus, Tony. 2005. Leadership Coaching: The Disciplines, Skills and Heart of a Coach. Privately published. Available at This is the best Christian “how-to” book on coaching.


The COACH Model: Five Steps to Guide You through a Coaching Session

Connect: Engage. Build rapport and trust. Question to ask: How are things going?

Outcome: Determine Session Goal. The coach and coachee determine how to best use the coaching session. Question to ask: What result would you like to take away from our meeting today?

Awareness: Reflective Dialogue. Encourage discovery, insights, commitment, and action through a reflective dialogue. Question to ask: What would you like to accomplish?

Course: Action Steps. Put insights into practical steps. Question to ask: What are two or three things you could do this week to move toward your goal?

Highlights: Learning and Action Steps. Ask the coachee to review his or her learning, insights, and what he or she found helpful. Question to ask: What was particularly helpful from what we discussed today?

© 2005 Keith E. Webb and CRM. All rights reserved.


Dr. Keith E. Webb trains mission leaders in coaching and on-field leadership development through Creative Results Management. He served as a church planter in Japan for eight years and more recently as country director in Indonesia for five years. He serves with Church Resource Ministries and lives in Singapore.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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