Pastors as Mentors and Coaches: Equipping Lay Leaders in Small Churches

Together, Christine O’Reilly and Peter Bush are theauthors of Where Twentyor Thirty Are Gathered:Leading Worship in theSmall Church (Alban, 2006).

The number 99 is nowhere to be seen on the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes, a team in the National Hockey League. The man who made the number famous is there—minus skates and hockey jersey. Wearing a suit, Wayne Gretzky stands behind his players, teaching, encouraging, and mentoring them. The “great one,” who has given so much to the game, has become a coach, passing on his skills, expertise, and love of the game to veterans and rookies alike. Instead of lacing up his skates on game nights, Gretzky works all week and all season with those who are called to play. In hockey, being a coach and being a player are two different things.

Parish pastors, though, are called to both roles in their congregations. Pastors are always called to be worshipers, to remember that their chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But pastors are not called to always lead worship; their call is also to teach and equip. “[Christ] handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christians in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church ...” (Eph. 4:11-12, The Message). Since worship is the primary call of the church, there will be, in every congregation, Christians with gifts and skills in leading worship. The “pastor-teacher” is to “train Christians in skilled servant work,” which includes teaching Spirit-gifted believers “the skilled servant work” of preparing and leading God’s people in worship. Pastors are called to coach—to pass on the skills, expertise, and love of worship to others. Most pastors come out of seminary equipped to lead, ready to “play”; however, to fulfill the biblical mandate of the pastor-teacher, they must also be ready to “coach.”

Benefits of Coaching

From our personal experience and theological convictions, we believe the call to coach is an integral part of ministry. We contend it is profoundly unscriptural and outside the Reformed confession of the priesthood of all believers to deny Christians every opportunity to use and grow more skilled in their gifts; gifts that include leading public prayer, praise, and proclamation. In our ministry settings, in small town and rural churches, the call to “train Christians in skilled servant work” has included the area of worship.

Congregations in these contexts face particular challenges:

  • demographic decline
  • fewer clergy willing to serve and to stay in small churches and rural communities
  • difficulty in finding ordained pastors to “fill in” during vacations, congregational vacancies, or emergency situations

These congregations are blessed and benefit from those “on the bench” (in the pews) who are trained and skilled at leading God’s people in worship in several ways:

  • God’s people discover and use the gifts the Spirit has given.
  • They grow in their understanding of the meaning and purpose of worship.
  • They benefit from the depth and variety of gifts shared and the different styles, perspectives, and life experiences of multiple worship leaders and planners.
  • They develop a healthy sense of wholeness and confidence as they see God’s work in their midst.

Coaching Skills

Unfortunately, clergy are generally not trained for this part of their calling. Coaching is an art and a science, a skill pastors can learn and employ in their ministry. Coaching church members to plan and lead worship is an enriching and encouraging experience, but one that requires a different set of leadership skills than pastors might naturally use. What are these skills? Coaching in this context requires pastors who

  • are convinced that coaching is part of their ministerial calling. We encourage colleagues to study the Scriptures, reclaiming the Reformed heritage of the priesthood of all believers, and to pray for the ability to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church at this time in their context. If clergy are not committed to and enthusiastic about lay leadership, the practice and development of lay worship leaders will struggle.
  • remember that the church is God’s, and who believe that the Holy Spirit will gift the congregation with leaders. In any congregation, and especially in small congregations, people know who among them is spiritually aware, gifted in praying, blessed with speaking skills, and has leadership abilities. Pastors can actively seek out these gifted persons to plan and lead worship and even to bring God’s Word, either by reading a sermon or by delivering a message that has been developed under the care of the pastor-coach.
  • can navigate the line between “doing it all” and “doing nothing.” Pastors have critical, God-ordained responsibilities, including teaching and providing resources, guidance, and suggestions. They must take care not to take over the tasks of planning and leading worship. However, to ensure that worship is theologically, liturgically, and biblically sound, pastors must not abandon those who are preparing the services and leading the worship. Time spent listening to these leaders is one way of fulfilling the call to “train Christians in skilled servant work.”
  • trust God’s Spirit at work in lay leaders. Teaching and coaching are not meant to produce clones of the teacher or coach, but to awaken and refine the God-given gifts of each “player.”
  • recognize that their coaching role will change over time. In the beginning the pastor-coach will need to provide much instruction, be directly involved in the steps of planning and leading worship, and provide helpful evaluation. As worship leaders grow in experience and develop their own style and expertise, the pastor-coach may shift roles to provide encouragement, find and supply resources, and help fine-tune their skills.
  • are patient. Pastors need to understand that coaching lay worship planners and leaders takes time, and they need to commit time and energy to this training. Although clergy will find that the pressures of parish ministry may pull them away from “coaching” and towards “playing,” they must resist the temptation to neglect that aspect of their calling. Congregations must be taught to understand that this coaching ministry is faithful to Scripture, and that God blesses this ministry and strengthens the church through it.

Mapleton’s New Beginning

Shortly after her arrival at Mapleton, Pastor Amanda Jacobs began praying for ways to encourage her congregation to accept their calling as the priesthood of all believers. She invited four interested people to attend a nearby lay worship leaders’ retreat and workshop with her. It was the beginning of new vision, energy, and commitment for the little church.

During the weekend, the scriptural and theological foundations of worship were laid, along with ideas about music, children in worship, and how to explore scriptural themes for services. On Sunday afternoon, following a service of praise and communion, each team received a blessing and commissioning. Participants left deeply moved and motivated for the ministry of worship planning and leading. The team from Mapleton were particularly excited; they knew their pastor was eager to implement many of the ideas they’d heard. The ride home was anything but quiet!

“How are we going to actually do this, Amanda?” Charlie Davis asked, barely allowing time for the minivan to leave the retreat center road. All eyes focused on Amanda, who was driving. She smiled, inwardly thanking God for the work of the Holy Spirit in these faithful people.

“I think we begin with a meeting this week, where we pray and figure out when we could lead a Sunday service, and then just get started planning it,” Amanda suggested.

“Advent might be a good time to do our first service together. People expect something different anyway, and we could go beyond having families light the Advent candles this year,” Margo Weitz offered.

“We received some great resources this weekend that we can put to good use,” Bruce Clark noted. “I had a chance to look at The Worship Sourcebook and found a lot of excellent prayers and suggested Scriptures in the section on Advent.”

“I have some ideas for a sermon series at Advent,” Amanda said, “and I’ll be glad to give you the Scriptures I’m looking at—we could work out themes together and talk about music and about something special for the children. Let’s choose a Sunday that you can do everything except the sermon. How does that sound?”


Worship Planning Resources

In addition to Reformed Worship, we (and our lay worship teams and workshops) have found the following resources helpful:

  • Designing Worship Together by Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell. The Alban Institute, 2005.*
  • So You’ve Been Asked To . . .*
  • Develop a Worship Team
  • Lead in Prayer
  • Tell a Children’s Story
  • Read Scripture
  • Plan a Worship Service
  • A Wee Worship Book by the Wild Goose Worship Group, Iona Community, along with other resources from the Iona Community, all available from GIA Publications (
  • The Worship Sourcebook, Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2004.*
  • • Where Twenty or Thirty Are Gathered by Peter Bush and Christine O’Reilly, Alban Institute, 2006.
  • Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches by David Ray, The Pilgrim Press, 2000.


Sermon Sources

Note: In preparing to read a sermon to a congregation, it is important for the “reader/preacher” to read the sermon through carefully before worship. Make sure the illustrations used fit the context; use vocabulary and allusions that fit the hearers.

Here are some sources for sermons you may want to check out:

  • A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today’s Preachers by Thomas G. Long, ed. Cornelius Plantinga, Eerdmans, 1994.
  • The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized by William H. Willimon, Eerdmans, 2004.

Christine O’Reilly is pastor of the Thedford-Watford Pastoral Charge in Ontario.

Peter Bush is pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church, Mitchell, Ontario.

Reformed Worship 79 © March 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.