Be Virgil – A Coach as Companion on the Way
“Be Virgil,” reads the Post-It on the windowsill in front of my desk, a reminder of the role I am to play when I meet with a coaching client.
I faced my biggest crisis in ministry within weeks of arriving at my first call.
A difference of opinion about who would serve on the pastoral nominating committee festered during a two-year search process and exploded into a demand that I reduce my hours and relinquish my family’s health insurance.
The church could not afford me, claimed the co-moderators, who I would later learn had been on the losing side of the earlier debate.
At the time it left me wondering whether the committee that called me had misrepresented the church.
I knew I needed help, but who could I trust now?
Virgil served as a guide for Dante on his tour of the Inferno and the Purgatorio, answering questions, offering wisdom, and showing him the way to Paradise, although Virgil could never enter there.
I like Virgil as an image for coaching because he does not solve Dante’s problems but instead comes alongside, helping Dante do his own work to prepare for what comes next.
As a coach, I do the same for clients who face their own challenges in ministry.
Some serve troubled or declining congregations.
Some seek help while in transition from one kind of ministry to another, or when discerning whether it is time to leave the call they are serving.
Their goals may be as practical as improving their organizational skills or as personal as finding time for the things that matter most to them.
To be clear, I am not the one who solves my client’s problems.
I listen for whatever might be the source of a problem.
I ask questions intended to open up possibilities, whatever the scenario may be.
I assist in forming action steps aimed at achieving goals determined by the client.
And I provide accountability for completing those tasks.
The underlying goal of all coaching is to enable change that is not merely technical, such as changing the font for a newsletter or the time of a worship service or seeking a new job to escape what we don’t like about our current position.
Coaching empowers pastors to consider making adaptive changes that have the potential to transform both their ministry and the ministry of the church.
When the early moment of crisis came in my first call, I needed coaching.
What I got instead was a lot of conflicting advice.
Some colleagues thought I should leave the call and, in effect, to erase the position and start my search over again.
Others encouraged me to fight my way through the situation and address the conflict among church leaders later.
A denominational executive put the responsibility on me; had I not studied their budget before accepting the call?
I ended up feeling alone, as if any decision I made would displease someone.
What I really needed was a Virgil to accompany me through the process.
A coach might have started by asking questions intended to highlight a wider view, not focusing only on the two people who met with me but examining the church system as a whole.
Together we would have developed action steps that might have included who I would talk to, and how I hoped to proceed.
We would have unpacked what happened along the way and adjusted plans as needed, even role-playing conversations that I feared having.
As a coach, I offer that support to pastors who want to be both faithful and effective in their work.
While I sometimes give advice when it is requested, and I offer encouragement where it will be helpful, my primary function is to frame questions that invite deep and thoughtful consideration.
What would the situation look like if we pulled the lens back for a wide angle?
What stops you from following your instincts?
How long is too long to stay in the place where you feel stuck?
How might a coach help you?
By walking through it – whatever “it” is – with you.
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Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, an ICF-accredited coach, and the executive director of RevGalBlogPals. She is the co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).