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Ask the Coach: The Difference Between a Mentor and a Coach

Dear Coach,

I am confused by the difference between a mentor and a coach. Some publications I have read put the two together and talk about them as if they are one and the same. Others tell me that there is a difference. I have a mentor who helps me by sharing his experiences with me and teaching me some great ideas and concepts that help me in my ministry. How is a relationship with a coach different?


Dear Perplexed,

Yes, those terms are sometimes used interchangeably. I even picked up a book from a major publisher from the East Coast that had the same words in their title – Mentoring and Coaching. So, I can understand your confusion. And I am grateful you have had a good experience with a mentor. A good mentor can be a helpful guide as you are experiencing something new or unknown to you. Their expertise can provide powerful guidance.

Yet, coaching has a different philosophy and expectation than mentoring. Coaching starts with the philosophy that you, as a leader, are creative, resourceful, and complete. God has given you the gifts, experiences, talents, and wisdom to choose the best paths for the journey in which you have been called. You understand your context and mission better than anyone else. Coaching starts with the idea that the best answers to your challenges and opportunities are found within you, your relationship to God, and the context in which you serve. You are the “expert” in your situation. Even if you do not have the answers readily available to you, your self-generated solutions will be more effective than someone else telling you what to do.

Coaching becomes valuable as you wrestle within your thoughts, choices, and action steps to walk into the future God has chosen for you. Rather than having someone tell you the steps you must take based on their experiences, a coach helps you think through the best solutions for your situation. The coach listens, asks great questions, and creates awareness in you to take the needed steps for those solutions. And they are your solutions, not the coach’s solutions.

Coaching assumes your health and openness to learning and action. Mentoring implies your need to learn from someone else’s expertise in the journey.

Paul reminded us that he was a mentor to Timothy in the New Testament. He served as someone who taught Timothy how to minister and serve in his church setting in Ephesus or wherever he served. The relationship was precious to Timothy as he was learning. So, I acknowledge the great value that some of us can serve as mentors and teachers for those who are inexperienced.

I serve as a mentor coach for people who are beginning to learn about the skills and models of effective coaching. Out of my experience as a coach, I assist them as they are practicing the basic skills of coaching and as they experience what it means to be coached. The participants are looking for a mentor with experience who can guide them as they attempt to be a coach. I coach; I mentor.

When I coach, though, I allow the person to explore and come up with ideas themselves that match who they are rather than who I am. I let them dream and take apart their thoughts about the context in which they serve. And I let them discover thoughts and actions that come from their journey rather than my own.

And when persons finish with a coaching session, they are empowered to take risks and live out their faith in what God is doing in their lives. They are accountable to themselves and those close to them. They do not depend on me for a solution; they rely on me to ask the right questions to help them discover their paths. Therefore, they take more ownership and commitment to the purpose and dreams.

So, yes, Perplexed, there is a definite difference. You will find the most significant value in the discipline which helps you at that moment to live into the person God has called you to be. Again, I am glad your mentor has helped. There can be high power there.

Now try a coach and believe in yourself and what God is doing in your life. You will find some fantastic results!

If you want more information about coaching, contact me at ken.kessler@bgav.org.