With the stench of decades of sweat fixed permanently in the air, its tile floor, and its fan-shaped basketball hoops mounted to the brick wall—the only protection against which being a thin, worn wrestling mat—the Community Center was the epitome of an old-school gym. Besides the hoops, there were two other fixtures: the janitor and I, whom I can still see clearly. He was also my first basketball coach. He he seemed to know what he was doing. He handled the ball well and he could shoot. He would play 3 on 3 with us and gave us advice. When he told this 8-year old that it was important to eat my Wheaties every day, I walked the 1.5 mile trip from the gym to home, thence to Louie’s Market to buy a box of Wheaties, and back home again whereupon I began eating a bowl of Wheaties daily for a year. My second coach was some kid’s dad.
My third coach, and one who made an impression, was Mr Hudgens (pictured above), a former semi-pro basketball player. He recruited a community-league team (we practiced at school but played at the Kellom Gym on Saturdays). I played for him for two years. He ran us until we nearly passed out. He made us do finger-tip push ups. We practiced for hours at a time. He made me choose between my paper route and basketball. He also sat me on the bench, where I belonged. There were no participation trophies back then, except for making the team. We lost most of our games the first season but the second season he found some big guys and we were good. We had one of the best point guards I ever saw, Tony Jackson. Even as a 7th grader he could score against the high school players who sometimes scrimmaged with us. He averaged 30 points a game one season. Coach taught us the basics and how to compete.
Over the years in basketball I had a number of coaches. There were coaches at camps and coaches during the season. Those coaches helped to shape me as a teacher. One of my more important functions as a teacher is to coach students, to encourage them, and to give them the opportunity to grow. I certainly understand the value of coaches and coaching. Indeed, over the years, I’ve coached a few basketball teams. Nevertheless, despite years of experience with coaches and coaching I was puzzled when I first learned about the phenomenon of the “pastoral coach.” These are (sometimes) high-priced professional consultants whom pastors or congregations hire to advise pastors on how to “succeed” in ministry. I think the rise of the “pastoral coach” reveals three things about the nature of late-modern evangelical church life.
First, that there is a demand for pastoral coaches and that pastors and congregations feel the need to hire consultants says something about the degree to which ministry has become professionalized. Please do not misunderstand. This is not a plea for more amateurism in the life of the church. Rather, we should be troubled by the ease with which pastors borrow from 20th-century business models. Certainly, there are natural truths that the church can learn from business but ministry is not a business, it is grounded, first of all, in revealed, saving truth. Ministers are ministers of the law and the gospel. They are ministers (servants) of Word and sacrament. Yes, there are entrepreneurial skills (e.g., advertising) and business management (e.g., work flow, time management, and personnel management) practices to be learned from experience and “the light of nature” as the Westminster Divines might say but ministry, bringing the Word to people, counseling, shepherding, guarding, and loving God’s flock is a divine vocation with its own methods. The practice of hiring outside experts to fix things comes from the “efficiency” experts that arose in the wake of industrialization. The overriding metaphor for ministry, however, is not the factory but the farm. The noun pastor is Latin for shepherd. They have flocks not assembly-line workers. Changing metaphors brings with it unintended consequences, chiefly, it re-describes what the church is and what it has been called to do.
Second, the turn to consultants says something about the degree to which pastors are isolated from one another. This happens for two reasons: because of natural, unavoidable reasons (e.g., geography) and because of competition. This second reason is an unhappy development. Perhaps it has always been but it seems to be related to the professionalization and commercialization of ministry. If ministers are service providers and cities or neighborhoods are markets, then guests and members become clients. Ministers can find themselves competing with one another for what, in the post-baby-boom era, increasingly secularist era, seems like a diminishing pool of potential members.
Third and finally, the rise of the consultant model within the church says something about the broken polity of American evangelical congregations. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian congregation, why do you hire consultants for wisdom, have you not elder to whom to turn? Many evangelical congregations are independent congregations in which the pastor is a de facto bishop. To the degree the “rancher” or CEO model reigns he is the head of an organization with possibly a board of some kind. This structure is inherently isolating. In a presbyterial arrangement, in which the minister is the servant of the Word and the servant of the elders and deacons, there are three or four sources for help. In a presbyterial system, a minister should be able to consult with his elders, whom God has given to the church precisely to give both practical and spiritual wisdom. He has the deacons whose ministry largely revolves around solving practical problems in the church in godly ways. If the problem lies with the local elders or deacons then there are regional bodies (presbyteries or classes) composed of elders and ministers whose function it is to help in such situations. If that body cannot help then there are either regional (in some polities) or national synods (or general assemblies) who are intended to field tough questions.
More informally, in a connectional Reformed polity, a pastor is connected to other pastors and elders in other congregations. In a confessional Reformed congregation in NAPARC there may be sister congregations whom might contact for advice or help. There might even be people within the congregation who can help. As a last resort, pastors have been known to call their seminary professors for advice and, from what I can tell, they don’t charge anything.
The business model seems attractive but success in ministry is not defined by buildings, bodies, and budgets. Our Lord said “my kingdom is not of this world.” He did not call legions of angels to deliver him because he was called to die. There is a corollary with ministry. It is a kind of daily death. Sometimes, in the history of the church and in too many parts of the world today “success” in ministry means martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. No consultant can organize the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit through the foolishness of gospel preaching and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There are real world problems in ministry but they are better addressed on our knees than on a conference call with a high-priced consultant.