What's the Difference? Coaching vs. Disciple Making

You know what a coach is. You’ve seen them on TV. You’ve heard them interviewed at post-game press conferences. They break down their team’s performance, explain in-game decisions, and look ahead to the next game. Coaches lead. They build strategy, direct the execution of strategy, adjust strategy, and take the blame if that strategy leads to defeat.

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The word coach originally referred to a horse drawn carriage from Kocs (pronounced coach), Hungary. Outside the carriage was an elevated seat for the driver, or coachman. The coachman ensured the horses and passengers reached the intended destination. Coaches lead, but it’s not that simple. Sometimes a coach is a coach, but doesn’t coach. Sometimes coaches don’t lead.

Confused? Don’t worry I was too. A few years ago, as I began a year-long journey to become a certified life and leadership coach, I learned a different meaning of the word coach. Long ago a coach was like a tutor, someone who helped a student through an exam. Coaches of this type would help a person move from where they are to where they want to be. Today there are coaches for just about everything, leadership, dating, career, organizing your home, finances, health, etc.

One strand of coaching helps people develop spiritually. This is great! The Church needs more people intentionally investing in others. Since disciple makers also intentionally help others become mature many people think they are the same. They aren’t. Still, I’ve often heard Christian coaching and disciple making used interchangeably. But words matter and just as a sports coach is different from a financial coach, so too are disciple makers different from spiritual coaches.

So what exactly is the difference between coaching and discipleship?* Was Jesus a coach, a disciple maker, or both? Here are four ways coaching and disciple making are different:

1. Coaching is non-directive, but disciple making is directive. One principle of coaching is the coachee is the expert on what’s best for the coachee. So, the person being coached sets his goals. The primary job of a coach is to help the coachee clarify his goals, determine appropriate action steps to reach those goals, and provide accountability for those action steps. A coach accomplishes this support through the use of honed questions. Since the coachee sets the goals, the coach’s role is best characterized as non-directive. The coach doesn’t enter the relationship with a direction or destination in mind for the coachee.

Disciple making however is directive, but don’t mistake directive with inflexible. Disciple makers are experts/models for what it means to follow Jesus. A disciplee is someone who recognizes his need to learn from the discipler. We see this clearly when Jesus said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” He offered them a specific direction and destination that was different from their current path and goals. They dropped their nets and followed knowing they would learn from Jesus and later addressed him as “Master”(Luke 5:5, 8:25, 9:33, et al) and “Teacher” (Mark 10:45, Luke 6:40)

2. Disciple making requires faithfulness to Jesus, coaching requires faithfulness to a process. Since disciple making is directive, to make a disciple you must be a disciple. Jesus said, “A student is not above his teacher, in fact everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Since the discipler is the model, she will reproduce who she is—now—not who she’s been in the past. Faithfulness to Christ is essential. A discipler can’t develop someone further than she’s developed. She must not only be a maturing disciple, she must also know how to help another become a maturing disciple.

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Coaching however depends on the process of listening and inquiry. This allows a coach to coach doctors without being a doctor or lawyers without being a lawyer. Intentional listening and question asking allows the coach to skillfully draw out uncertainty, unclear thinking, and emotional dissonance that helps the coachee progress towards her goals. The coach doesn’t even need to know or be familiar with the area the coachee seeks to develop in.

3. Coaching assumes you know what you need to know, disciple making assumes you don’t. Since the coach-approach presumes you are the expert on you, the coachee needs help untangling, clarifying, and unearthing what he knows. He doesn’t need a coach to teach or present alternatives.

Disciple making assumes you know some things and don’t know others. Since the discipler is further down the road, he is active in teaching and helping the disciplee to understand and practice a new way of life. This doesn’t mean healthy discipleship ignores who the disciplee is and what he already knows. Rather it’s a relationship that co-creates. There’s give and take as the discipler discerns how to encourage the disciplee and how to challenge. In disciple making, both questions and answers are needed from the discipler.

4. Coaching is primarily self-focused, but disciple making is primarily others centered. Coaching relationships begin because the coachee has a gap she wants to bridge in her life. She wants to change her current reality, to reach her goals. It’s coachee-centric. Even if those goals will benefit others, in order for it to be passed on the coachee must provide that vision and motivation.

Disciple making relationships begin because the discipler wants to help another grow to maturity. Jesus discipled others in order to reproduce himself in morals, methods, and mission (Matt. 28:18-20, John 12:24). He had a vision for His disciples and when they tried to insert their own vision He rebuked them (Mark 8:27-38). A disciple maker does the same. She disciples others who will disciple others who will disciple others. A disciple who hasn’t reproduces hasn’t become a mature disciple herself.

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Much like the difference between mentoring and discipleship, the difference between coaching and disciple making lies at the root. In mentoring and coaching the mentee or coachee sets the agenda, but in disciple making becoming like Jesus is the agenda.

As you can see, coaching and disciple making are not the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-coaching! Coaching skills are especially fruitful when working with leaders or mature disciples who struggle with focus and motivation. But the high level listening and question asking skills of coaching can benefit any disciple maker.

*This piece contrasts disciple making and non-sports related coaching. Since coaching is unregulated and diverse, I’m using the coaching framework laid out by Daniel Harkavy and Tony Stoltzfus as the basis of this comparison.