Mentoring, Coaching, and Confusion

by Janet Woodlock

Ah, the internet! It is a glorious way to find information in seconds that used to involve hours scouring through journals in libraries. (I’ve just outed myself as an old person to all you digital natives out there!)

The internet is also a fabulous way to become completely confused over masses of conflicting information.


Google “mentoring” and you’ll find a plethora of articles on professional and business development, or about helping young people (particularly those at risk). There exists a diversity of models and explanations of the mentoring process.

The Oxford Dictionary describes a mentor as:

1 An experienced and trusted adviser.

1.1 An experienced person in a company or educational institution who trains and counsels new employees or students.

But… those of us in the ACMN would say that mentors should give advice sparingly: rather we help our mentorees process their own issues by asking good questions and listening well. We would say our role is not primarily to train, but to support. And we would point out the counselling is a discipline in its own right, and recommend our mentorees seek an appropriate professional if they are wrestling with anxiety, depression, or major relationship issues.

We would, however, affirm it is helpful to seek out a mentor with some relevant experience and wisdom.

A distinctive of the ACMN our focus on Christian mentoring, which is a whole of life approach to personal and spiritual development. John Mallison defined Christian mentoring as:

“a dynamic, intentional relationship of trust in which one person enables another to maximize the grace of God in their life and service”

20 years on, I still think that’s pretty good!


Here is the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of a life coach:

Life coach: “someone who you pay to give you advice about how to improve your life”

But… writing as a qualified life coach, I can only respond by screaming “Arrrrrrrrgh!”and smashing my head repeatedly into the nearest brick wall.

The international peak body for coaching (ICF) would say that “if a coach almost exclusively gives advice or indicates that a particular answer chosen by the coach is what the client should do… a credential at any level would be denied.” In other words… even an entry level coach knows not to “give advice about how to improve your life.”

Instead, ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Coaches ask open questions and listen well. Seeing a coach is particularly helpful when someone wants to clarify personal, vocational or ministry goals, or wants assistance in developing an action plan to achieve known goals. A coach is also helpful when tackling complex projects. For example, research suggests a coach is a key factor in the success or otherwise of church planting. A coach can help a client navigate major work, ministry, or life transitions. Generally coaching is shorter term than mentoring (however, mentors are also expected to contract for specific periods of time, and some coaches will work with a particular client for years).

Because coaching is not tightly regulated by the government, there are all kinds of people calling themselves coaches. This link demonstrates the confusion within coaching, and confusion about what mentoring practice should look like. To add the confusion, some areas such as sports coaching are unambiguously based around skills, expertise, and advice, rather than the discipline of asking empowering question.

So where does this leave us?

When looking for a mentor (or coach, or supervisor)

Firstly think about the kind of support that would be most helpful. Are you looking for spiritual growth? Accountability? Are you starting a new role and want some expert advice? A new project and need help with goals and planning? Are you experiencing unease or distress? While a little simplistic, this article might help you reflect on what you might need right now.

Secondly… because people do mean different things by the words “mentor” or “coach” it’s good to ask a LOT of questions before entering a mentoring relationship. What do they think their role is? Does it fit with what you need?

Thirdly… find out what kind of training / qualifications / experience a potential mentor has. If you are a person in ministry and your church or organisation requires you to have professional supervision, make sure your potential mentor has the appropriate qualifications.

When looking for training / upskilling as a mentor or coach

ACMN is focused on those for whom mentoring is a significant part of their ministry, not simply for those who do a bit of mentoring on the side. Therefore, we encourage our members to gain qualifications in mentoring, coaching, supervision or spiritual direction. Note we do not promote only one model of mentoring.

But let the buyer beware! These areas are not tightly regulated.

Now for a bit of shameless advertising: You can do an amazing Christian mentoring course with Tim Dyer or Sally Jones! This can be now done as an accredited Graduate Certificate in Ministry.

Any professional coaching course should offer a pathway to ICF accreditation.You can become a Certified Coach through the Christian Coaching Institute (where I work) which offers a Cert IV and Diploma in Christian Leadership Coaching.

While the aforementioned courses can be pathways to ministry supervision, I suggest you check if your church / denomination has a particular approved course for ministry supervisors. There are examples of tertiary supervision courses here, here and here. I expect there will be increased demand for trained ministry supervisors due to the final recommendations of the child sexual abuse Royal Commission.*

So that’s it for me. Little tip… if you want to know the difference between coaching and mentoring, don’t Google it… you’ll end up with a sore head like mine.

Janet Woodlock

*Of particular significance is recommendation 16.45: “Consistent with Child Safe Standard 5, each religious institution should ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry, including religious leaders, have professional supervision with a trained professional or pastoral supervisor who has a degree of independence from the institution within which the person is in ministry.”

2 Replies to “Mentoring, Coaching, and Confusion”

  1. Hi
    I’m interested in becoming a professional life coach
    would appreciate information on life coach
    Look forward to your reply

    Lisa Arrow

    1. Hi Lisa, the ACMN does not do anything in the area of Life Coaching accreditation. You would be best to use Google to search for organisations that do this.

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