Book Review: Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God, by Scott Thomas and Tom Wood
Gospel-hyphenated book titles seem to be everywhere these days. I am thankful that the gospel is getting attention for more than “entry-level Christianity.” It is good to remind believers that, as Tim Keller puts it, a Christian never gets beyond the gospel. Yet it takes more than a title to center a book on the gospel.
Happily, the authors of Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God are truly interested in seeing church leaders grow in Christlikeness according to the call of the gospel. At the time of writing, Scott Thomas was the Network Director of Acts 29 and the Global Church Pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle (he has since joined the staff of The Journey in St. Louis). And Tom Wood is founder and president of Church Multiplication Ministries in Atlanta.
EVERY LEADER SHOULD COACH AND BE COACHED
Thomas and Wood summarize the main point of the book when they write, “Every church leader needs a coach. And every church leader needs to be coaching other leaders” (23).
The authors distilled their work into three parts. Part one (23-108) explains the need for gospel-coaching. Citing the failures of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the human-centered principles of the “life coaching” movement (44-45), they make their case for gospel-centered mentoring. They warn readers against Christian coaching that “suffer[s] from an unhealthy reliance on…therapeutic methods” (46). They tackle the problems of “performance-centered leadership” that lives by the flesh (Gal 5:16-17), that is, the idols of power, approval, comfort and security. And they argue that an important role for the gospel coach is to “be a grace giver and truth teller” (18) while being able to discern the difference between “doing good works for selfish reasons and extending generosity to display the gospel of grace” (76).
In part two (111-146), the authors turn to the qualities of the gospel coach. Above all, the coach is a shepherd-leader who knows, feeds, leads and protects. The coach is responsible to shepherd the disciple in three areas of life: spiritual, personal, and missional.
Part three (149-201) shows the practical application of gospel-coaching. And the conclusion of the book (202-234) offers appendices of coaching forms, accountability questions, and sample coaching sessions.
Gospel Coach is preeminently practical. If I were to reduce the book to a single phrase, it would be “the all-around value of gospel-friendships”—the kind where Christian leaders care for one other’s spiritual, ministerial and “missional” lives in the context of the work of ministry.
Three strengths of the book are worth mentioning. First, although the audience is church planters, the principles translate well to all sorts of Christian leaders and organizations. Because the gospel is central, one should expect these principles to work on the mission field, in staff meetings, on an elder’s retreat, or in children’s ministry planning sessions. The concern of the gospel coach is always the disciple’s growth in Christlikeness. A subtitle for this book could have been “Being in Christ before being in ministry.”
A second strength is the endnotes, where a veritable digest of gospel-centered authors will be found. The names of many of the authors will be familiar to readers of the 9Marks Journal; if not, they probably should be.
A third strength is more practical. Chapters 3 and 4 address the idols of the heart and will be a helpful antidote to pastors who “often drink in the poisonous cocktail of narcissism and isolation” (69). Only gospel-centered living that rests in one’s identity in Christ brings spiritual vitality. Chapters 11 and 12 illustrate a gospel-coaching conversation that gets to the heart of the matter.
The real value of gospel-coaching is accountability. As Wood told me, this is not the kind of accountability where pastors swap stories of failure and then do nothing. This is grace-filled accountability, listening carefully to the pastor’s heart and to the Spirit and calling the pastor to “live according to the gospel” (Rom. 16:25).
A first weakness is that there is way too much information here to assimilate without some coaching. In Wood’s ministry, it takes nine months to a year to train a certified gospel coach.
Second, the separate concepts of “Action steps” (163) and “Accountability agreements” (193) seem interchangeable, even after Wood’s explanation. Additionally, I found the use of “SMART Strategies,” “Action steps” and “Goals” too much like traditional “life-coaching” principles. This may be my biased reaction to a personal coaching situation that felt more like a straight-jacket than pastoral shepherding. Ministry and spiritual growth planning are wise; Solomon tells us so. However, I would recommend that readers follow their instincts to adapt principles as needed.
Third, I found the illustrated coaching conversation a little contrived (199). My sense is that many gospel conversations meander down messier paths. After all, we are dealing with the heart. The heart has many back alleys down which to escape the Spirit’s searchlight.
Finally, it was confusing to me what the authors believe about the role of the spiritual disciplines in the pastor’s life. On one hand, the authors seem to minimize the value of spiritual disciplines calling them a “tool” and “techniques.” They write, “I find it disturbing to see how many spiritual issues we try to address with a physical tool…We sometimes believe that rubbing the genie’s lamp of spiritual disciplines will provide the solution for the void in our heart” (100). They fear that pride and self-reliance will arise in the heart. Yet in another place, they argue that “help for troubled souls” only comes from “pursuing a relationship with our holy, loving God” through engaging in eight suggested activities, among them Scripture reading, prayer, confession, fellowship, and so on (103).
I understand the need to guard against the spiritual disciplines becoming a genie’s lamp or a checklist to earn brownie points with God. But they remain “habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.” Properly used, they promote spiritual growth, as the authors themselves seem to recognize.
Should pastors read this book? I’d say yes.
Apart from what appears to be a baptized version corporate or life coaching, the authors have rightly discerned that ministers of the church need these kinds of friendships and will greatly benefit from them. Therefore, I would recommend Gospel Coach, if only to stimulate more of these kinds of conversations among gospel-friends.
 I want to thank Tom Wood for speaking with me by phone about the book and about his collaboration with Scott Thomas.
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 15.