by Lesleigh Carmichael

A coach is someone who cares that people create what they say they want and that they follow through. The coach is there to hold people accountable and keep them moving forward toward their dreams and goals. —Co-Active Coaching, p. xxi

Over the last nine years the Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) has coached more than 50 churches and graduate residents. One of the things we know from our experience is that coaching isn’t just helpful for a youth leader’s development; it is essential. Most youth workers fling themselves (or are flung by others) into the turbulent waters of ministry without the knowledge or skills to navigate the unexpected currents and rapids awaiting them downstream. Church politics, organizational systems, unsupportive senior staff, frustrated parents, and worn out volunteers are but a few of these hazards. A good coaching process for both the youth leader and the church allows youth leaders to enter the same ministry waters, but with a life preserver and river guide.
There are many ways to define the role of a coach. For CYMT a coach is, in a nutshell, the person who walks alongside the church and the graduate resident through the messiness of learning how to do youth ministry in the local church. Coaching also makes classroom concepts come alive. It helps our residents apply principles and concepts learned from books and lectures to real-life youth ministry and all that swirls around them in the church. Throughout these past seven years, we have learned much in regards to coaching and below are a few of the key things we feel every church and graduate resident need to pay attention to in order to survive the rapids of youth ministry. I am confident that nothing on the list will provide any new insight, but the unfortunate reality is few churches and youth ministers actually embrace these concepts. As one of our residents stated, “I have an undergraduate degree in youth ministry and I thought I knew what to expect, but I had no idea doing youth ministry meant I had to be so organized.”

  • Expectations: Churches that clarify and define clear expectations for their youth ministers create the foundation for a smooth path for open communication, as well as a measuring stick for what tasks are expected to be accomplished, rather than assuming one or the other will instinctively know what those expectations are. Those that don’t create clear expectations can expect heavy road construction ahead when one has to take time to repair the damage created from ambiguity.
  • Relationships: Relationships with youth are critical but so are relationships with staff, volunteers, and parents. Many of our residents are still gaining the confidence to approach adults for support and the church can assist by creating and equipping a team of leaders (the youth committee) to walk with the youth minister. When our resident walks in the door for the first time, she is often expected to recruit adults to support the program before she is even given an opportunity to meet anyone in the congregation. Without support from a team, this task is both unrealistic and unfair. The youth minister has the responsibility to engage the youth and the adults in the congregation, but the church has the responsibility of tending the soil those first couple of months to ensure he or she has an opportunity to plant seeds for the harvest.
  • Organization: As one of our residents states above, organization is not what most people think about when they feel a call to youth ministry! However, it is a key ingredient in creating a sustainable and solid ministry. A lack of organization creates a climate of uncertainty and frustration with parents and staff. Why would a parent trust the youth minister with their children if they have no idea what is going on, where the youth minister is going to take them, or what they are being taught? Organization and communication create security and confidence in the ministry as well as an invitation to support it through volunteering. The same is true for the church. We push our residents to create a calendar of major events for the year in order to communicate dates ahead of time to parents and youth, but when the church operates on a month to month basis it sets the organizational bar low for all involved. Without organization, the fruit of the ministry will rot because there is no system in place from which to harvest it.
  • Shared Vision: Youth ministers often feel the best way to increase momentum is by adding a program or an event to the ministry. If they could just add this or change that, the grumblings from the sidelines would be silenced. The problem with this reactive thinking is that changes like these are typically done from a single-minded approach instead of a collective and shared approach. Thus, there is no buy-in from anyone other than the youth minister. One of the key pillars in our coaching at CYMT involves leading the youth ministry through a visioning process. Visioning is a key piece because as Mark DeVries states in his book Sustainable Youth Ministry, “A clearly articulated vision protects churches from becoming a sort of Christian club that exhausts itself in trying to keep its members happy. A shared vision protects youth ministries from competing agendas and paralyzing silos.”

I have served as a youth ministry coach for more than 10 years and each youth minister and church has taught me that there are many ways to define and view the role of a coach. Certainly coaching includes helping youth workers understand the need for planning, tending to task lists, and learning how to navigate church politics. But coaches also tend to the spirit in which youth workers are doing ministry, ensuring that their souls are also being coached along the journey. Whether or not it is immediately apparent, good coaching is vital to a new youth worker’s development. During her first semester, one of our residents said, “I know it’s your job, but THANK YOU for your support in this. I was really beginning to wonder if it was me who just didn’t get it (which there is probably some truth to, but thankfully, not entirely) rather than (my senior pastor) communicating ineffectively…I was never more sure of my call than I was when I applied to CYMT and this was making me crazy thinking I was wrong. I trust there will be other such occasions but I never expected it so soon and on such a thing as curriculum. I really appreciate all you do for me! I would have run the other way by now if it weren’t for you.”
My first coaching experiences taught me that coaching someone isn’t just about explaining the tasks of youth ministry, like how to plan a calendar, organize a trip, or recruit volunteers. Coaches also need to help youth ministers pay attention to those “inner voices”—to feel and embrace the ministry to which God has called them. Additionally, youth workers can’t dance to the music if they don’t believe in their ability to move their feet. Coaches are taskmasters at times, to be sure, but they are also responsible for motivating the team, both the church and the youth minister, to work together to build their ministry into one that is both theologically formed and practically effective. You cannot have one without the other, and a youth ministry coach helps to navigate the balance between the two. Coaches are in place to open lines of communication and collaboration between the youth ministry and the church as a whole, to help guide the raft of the youth ministry out of the rapids and into smooth waters where hazards can be efficiently navigated.
Lesleigh Carmichael directs the coaching process for the CYMT graduate residents. She has been with CYMT from the beginning and transitioned to her role of Director of Coaching in the Spring of 2008 from the many jobs she had before. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When she is not working at CYMT, Lesleigh enjoys spending time with her husband, Jamey, and their two daughters, Anna Lauryn and Karaley. Lesleigh also serves as a lead consultant with Ministry Architects.