May 29, 2024

In the last while, I have been thinking about how to strengthen our mentoring within SEND. In a recent analysis of leadership development within our organization, I noted that we needed more intentional mentoring of developing leaders by our current leaders. This is a gap in our current leadership development. Thinking about how to fill that gap has naturally led me to try to define mentoring. How is mentoring different from coaching? SEND U has already sought to create a coaching culture within the mission. More than 200 people in SEND have received some type of training in coaching. So, do we need both mentors and coaches?

Defining coaching and mentoring

A significant difficulty in answering this question is that the definition of coaching varies so much. For example, Lois Zachary and Lory Fischler in their mentoring fable, “Starting Strong” say,

Coaching is more instructive, but mentoring is more of a relationship. It’s not about me telling you what to do and you doing it.

Lois Zachary & Lory Fischler, Starting Strong: A Mentoring FAble, p.21.

Zachary and Fischler see coaching as primarily focused on improving short-term performance by giving tips and feedback. In their minds, mentoring, on the other hand, is focused on helping a person develop their career path and preparing them to reach their life goals.

Keith Webb’s definition of coaching

However, this view of coaching is much more directive than the approach to coaching that we have adopted in SEND. Keith Webb was my coach and trainer in coaching, and we have used his coaching workshop curriculum for all our SEND U training in coaching.

Webb emphasized that coaching is non-directive. It is not about giving advice but about guiding the coaches in discovering their own solutions.

Coaching isn’t about teaching someone what we know. Coaching is about helping people to learn.

Webb, Keith E.. The Coach Model for Christian Leaders. Kindle Edition, Loc 337.

Here is the definition of coaching that we discussed in the workshops:

Coaching is an on-going intentional conversation that empowers a person or group to fully live out God’s calling.

Keith E. Webb, The COAChing Workshop

Similarities between mentoring and coaching

This last definition also demonstrates that helping a person discover God’s calling on their lives is not the exclusive domain of the mentoring relationship. There is apparently a lot of overlap between mentoring and coaching. Both are generally one-to-one relationships (although it is also possible to coach or mentor a group). Mentors and coaches both seek to help individuals reach their desired goals. Both relationships require the person being helped (the mentee or the coachee) to take responsibility for reaching their goals.

Books on mentoring talk about mentors using coaching skills when working with their mentees. 1For example, see One Minute Mentoring by Ken Blanchard and Claire Diaz-Ortiz, p. 115. Mentors can also use powerful questions to prompt the mentee to reflect on personal growth and development. They may not be as well trained in designing these questions as a coach, but they do seek to use them. Coaches are often asked to share their experiences and wisdom. However, a trained and disciplined coach will resist the temptation to give advice and talk about what they have done in similar situations.

Do we need both mentoring and coaching?

So, if there is so much similarity between coaching and mentoring, do we need both? Should we offer both to the missionaries in our organization?

I was very intrigued by an article by Keith Webb on his website, entitled, “Why we need both mentors and coaches. Despite giving much of his life and ministry to training coaches, Webb also sees the need for and value of mentors in one’s life. Simply put, “Mentors put in” and “Coaches draw out.” In this article, Webb notes that mentors have knowledge or experience that they share with their mentees to help them develop. The books I have read on mentoring also talk about the network of contacts and referrals that the mentor passes on to the mentee.

I think of several more senior trainers that gave me invaluable help and guidance 12 or 13 years ago when I was just starting to create SEND U. They also introduced me to their network of other trainers, which further multiplied the help they had provided.

In contrast, coaches provide a different sort of help. Since they are non-directive, coaches do not share their experience, knowledge or network of contacts. Instead, they rely more on asking powerful questions that prompt the coachee to reflect and develop their own solutions.

When is each most appropriate?

When should you look for a coach and when should you look for a mentor? Webb has a few helpful indicators of when each would be most appropriate.

When to coach: 1) when you don’t have good answers, and sometimes even when you do, 2(See this article.) 2) when the coachee needs to learn how to create their own solutions, 3) when the coachee has a lot of experience in the topic at hand.

When to mentor: 1) when you have experience that lines up well with the protégé’s needs, 2) when the protégé needs doors unlocked for which you hold the keys, 3) when the protégé is gifted in adapting ideas and models to implement her own version, rather than simply copying models “as is.”


To help you decide

To add to what Keith Webb has already said, let me add a few questions of my own to help you discern when you might need a coach and when you want a mentor.

1. Whose experience is more valuable?

Whose experience and understanding of the context is going to be most important? If your understanding of your context and your experience in that context is going to be most important to help you find solutions, then you need a coach. If the mentor’s experience and understanding of the question you are addressing is more extensive than your own, then a mentor might be better. The more specific your questions are to the particular ministry situation you find yourself, the more you will need a coach. But if the questions you have are more general in nature, and deal with matters that any leader or older person has already dealt with, mentors can be of great help.

2. How ready are you to accept learning assignments from someone else?

Coaches, at least coaches trained in the Keith Webb curriculum, do not give assignments to their coachees. Each coaching session ends with action steps but those action steps are proposed and accepted by the coachee, not by the coach. 3In SEND U’s MOP-up coaching, the coachee works on assignments prescribed by the MOP-up program, and not by the coach herself. In the subsequent meeting, the coach then asks their coachee to report on progress toward their own action steps.

Mentors, on the other hand, will give various learning assignments to their mentees. They might ask them to read a book or fill out a self-assessment. The mentor may give them a person to go and talk to. He may ask them to write up some goals or put together an action plan for a project. The assignment might be as simple as spending some time in reflection on a passage of Scripture. But the assignment comes from the mentor, and the mentee fulfills these assignments as preparation for the next meeting. Now mentors do not propose all the action steps nor will they so in every meeting. But giving learning assignments is a standard part of the mentoring process.

How do you learn best? Do you enjoy the freedom of choosing how you will learn and grow? Or would you prefer that someone with more wisdom would tell you what you should read or what you should work on?

How ready are you to let someone else give you assignments? Do you want to control your workload and make sure that your already busy schedule is not over-burdened with new assignments? Or are you ready for a challenge, and willing to be stretched with some new learning tasks that you might never have chosen for yourself?

3. How much do you want to focus on character development?

If you want to work on getting unstuck with a particular issue in your life or ministry, finding a coach to help you over a few months (or even for a single call) might be most helpful. The coach will help you to identify the problem and find workable solutions to address it. The coaching process will not need to take a lot of time getting to know your entire background. It is unlikely that a coach will give you feedback on your character flaws. This is both because of the limited amount of time you will spend with him or her and because the focus in each meeting will be on the problem you want to work on. Each coaching session begins anew with the question to the coachee, “What outcome would you like to take away from this conversation?”

Navigating life together

On the other hand, if you want someone to walk with you as you navigate a stage of life (e.g. your first term of ministry or your first leadership role), a mentor might be better. Generally, a mentor-mentee relationship is more long-term. 4However I do know of some coaching relationships that have lasted for years and dealt with many different issues over that span of time. I suspect that these coaches have also become mentors.

Over a period of months, the conversation will likely move through a number of questions from many different areas of life, both personal and work-related. The mentee will present the problem they want to solve at the beginning of the relationship. Maybe it will be a goal they want to achieve. But after that initial conversation, the mentor will often decide what particular areas of the mentee’s life need to be addressed in each of the subsequent meetings.

The agenda is open and continues to evolve over the longer term. Mentoring seeks to build wisdom – the ability to apply skills, knowledge and experience to new situations and processes.

Mentoring and Coaching, prepared by Alexa Michael and Technical Information Service, p. 4.
Heart analysis

Particularly in the Christian context, a mentor will address deep-rooted character issues. They do so without getting into therapy. Often the mentor will ask the mentee to do a deeper heart analysis than a coach would. The mentor will then provide feedback, accountability and support as the mentee works on those character qualities. All this takes time and a commitment on the part of the mentee to work on character issues, as painful as that might be.

4. How ready are you to develop your own solutions?

Both coachees and mentees often want the coach or the mentor to solve their problem and give them the solution. But neither coaches nor mentors will readily agree to do so. Any solution must be owned by the person who is going to implement it. Therefore, both coaches and mentors seek to put the responsibility for developing solutions and implementing them firmly on the coachee or mentee.

The temptation to copy

Yet mentors will often share their own life experience with similar issues in the past in the process of guiding the mentee to develop their own solution. Good coaches resist the temptation to tell their own stories. They do not want the coachee to copy their particular response, because it probably will not fit the context or the personality of the coachee.

I have made this mistake in my own coaching experience. A coachee presents a problem, and does not have an immediate solution. They then ask me for what I would do. Against my better judgment and training, I share a similar experience from my life. The coachee then enthusiastically embraces my way of dealing with the problem, and makes it their action step. So far, so good. But the next time we meet, the coachee reports that they have not fulfilled their action step. I am ashamed to say that this same scenario repeated multiple times before I realized what was happening! My way of dealing with issues sounded good to the coachee – but it did not fit them or their situation.

Doing the hard work

If you want someone to tell you what to do, do not expect either a coach or a mentor to comply. But you might find that a mentor will more readily cater to your desire to be given the solution. Leaders and disciple-makers in cross-cultural contexts need to learn the skill of developing their own solutions to the issues at hand. Blindly copying what someone else did in a different culture or in a different age will not work. It would be like building a replica of your home sending church building in your host culture and livestreaming your home church’s Sunday services in it.

A good coach will actually help you become more skilled in developing your own solutions. They will force you to do the hard work of looking at the problem from different angles rather than giving you suggestions or examples of how to deal with the problem at hand.

On the other hand, maybe you are fairly confident that you will not just blindly copy suggestions made by your esteemed mentor. Then mentoring might work well for you. As Keith Webb says, mentoring works “when the protege is gifted in adapting ideas and models to implement her own version, rather than simply copying models ‘as is’.”

Mentoring or coaching?

In summary, here are the four questions again. If your responses to those questions fall more into the middle column, then a mentor might be what you need. If your responses are more like those in the last column, then look for a coach.

QuestionsMentoring Coaching
Whose experience is more valuable?The mentor’s experience and wisdom will be invaluable in dealing with my big life questions.My own. Although I value the coach’s experience, I know my context best.
How ready are you to accept learning assignments from someone else?
Yes, I am open to my mentor giving me some new and potentially stretching learning tasks.I need to be cautious about not taking on more work than I can handle, or I prefer to choose how I will learn.
How much do you want to focus on character development?
I know that these issues will require me to grow in character and I need help in doing so.The help I need at this time is finding solutions for the issue at hand.
How ready are you to develop your own solutions?I am confident that I will be able to adapt the mentor’s solutions to fit my context.I need a coach to force me to develop my own solutions.
Four questions to determine whether mentoring or coaching is right for you

2 thoughts on “Do I need a mentor or a coach?

  1. Great blog post, Ken. I love your four questions. They really build on the distinction that mentors tend to provide you with solutions while coaches are motivated to help you find your own solutions (under their watchful and protective eye.)

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