Leadership • Family • Church

Couch to Coach in Creation: A Reflection Toward An Anchored Theory Behind "Coach"

by Larry L. Foster MA, D.Min

"May the force be with you," is a phrase in the Star Wars movie series popular over the last few decades.  Luke Skywalker reached a point where he is poised to destroy the Death Star. As a Jedi Knight, his training drew on  experience with guides, gurus, trainers, and coaching that led up to the pivotal moment attacking the dark side forces. Yoda, a creature/character portrayed the wise mentor that set Luke on his journey to rescue the Federation's interests.  A former Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, came alongside Luke at a key time of misfortune and became a mystical/teaching coach at the moment Skywalker was vulnerable in delivering the destructive blow to the dark force. At the point of delivering torpedoes into the narrow hole on the Death Star, Luke was coached to "Let go, and use the force." This he did. A key victory then occurred and mass destruction of Federation people was averted. The forces for good and the forces for evil are projected though this epic story. Like most classic stories in this style, wise and insightful figures are essential for the unfolding of the skill, performance, and successful results of the hero. How then, might one describe or define the guidance-givers or trainers for people to acquire desired life goal results? Might they be seen as some kind of coach?



          Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi were not therapists, although Skywalker did learn improved functioning and self performance. If they were strictly mentors they were highly involved mentors. If described as teachers, they lived along side and gave their life for the cause.  Even delegating them as coaches puts a limit on their functioning character in the story. Whatever term is used for their relationship to the main character, they came alongside and interacted with encouragement, insight, challenge, and awareness of the life-struggle process, or so it seems to many viewers. The point is that such relationships are integral to effective life courses or journeys with most people.  Without teachers, guides, mentors, coaches, diminished potential and well-being would show up with more people.  The discipline of therapy itself has served a more formal purpose in helping people through difficulties and dilemmas. Less formalized influences such as Sages, oracles, teachers, and gurus have historically emerged in societies to address a need for successful living.

From ancient days to the present, sages, elders, and oracles gave supportive wisdom and guidance. Today, to some degree, coaching has emerged as an expanded and supportive effort for addressing the challenges people face during waking hours. Modern development of coaching styles and approaches have been on the increase as an effort to promote, train, and help a host of human enterprises. The upsurge of the coaching emphasis, initially considered a fad, is now becoming a built-in discipline. A relational process, "coaching" can be seen today in business, academia, organizational development, marriage consulting, and, of course, sports. Many religious leaders facing tensions, turmoil, and developmental challenges indicate coaching has become a sought after resource. Church hierarchies have incorporated coaching in ministry programs as well.

One can argue that coaching people is an old discussion topic. People have traditionally advised, taught, demonstrated, and coached children and adults since early societies found ways of passing on wisdom and knowledge for better survival. Schools and disciplines evolved for the teaching of values and primal stories about life. Experiences at living in families and relationships led to passing on skills and outlooks to the next generation.  The capacity to coach another person or group grew naturally from facing life's challenges in family households and villages.1

It is clear that in our life together it matters how we treat each other.  The personal relationship is a most powerful force in life, said Rabbi Ed Friedman. The opening sentence in his book, Friendship,2 by Dr. Martin Marty, states, "We have friends so we don't get killed."  Several years ago the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod conducted a research project that sought causes of an attrition in family traditions producing clergy for the church. The results indicated a number one reason or cause given for the change was how people treated each other in church:  Pastor with parishioner, parishioner with pastor, parishioner with parishioner.3And on a larger scale, recent trends in society have led to efforts by church leaders to find ways of toning down conflicts in congregations. The anxiety in our society is a key factor that prompts a search for resources that preserve  the health and well-being of congregations. Leaders spend a good deal of energy matching and mending congregations and clergy relationships. Clearly, there is a desire to work for maturity of functioning in our personal relationships which encourages more thoughtful decision-making and relationship satisfaction as we live together in faith communities.


The definition of coaching remains vague. There are many versions about what it is and how to do it. The effect of one person coaching another can vary across the board. Often basic assumptions or foundations for coaching can be confused with therapy. To become a therapist one must take courses, be supervised, pass tests, have clinical experience, and be licensed by a state. Requirements for third party payment usually require a diagnosis of a symptom or personality disorder. Coaching, on the other hand, generally focuses less on pathology and more on enabling insight and performance. Coaching can involve some therapeutic aspects and therapy can include some coaching. There is some overlap, depending on one's view of therapy.  There remains a lack of clarity when discussing these topics that can sound similar.

Points of view on coaching or being a coach vary in popular literature and training programs as well. To be a "trained" coach today involves careers and schools of knowledge that range over various techniques and philosophical approaches. Sports have traditionaly embodied a coaching process. There is even a Coach University4 as well as credentialing organization5 offering international programs for business and institutions. To become "credentialed" in some form of life coaching one may take a course and follow the requirements. Generally the field is open to relationship variations such as, teacher/pupil, master/disciple, supervisor/trainee, veteran/rookie, consultant/business, coach/coachee, each suggesting a variety of forms bent on a process promoting some type of result leading to skill, insight, and functional advantages. How then might one be better informed on what coaching is and how to do it. Is there a way to sort out limited fads as compared to more factually based or grounded approaches to helping others with real needs and aspirations?




The thesis here is that natural systems coaching is anchored in a science of human behavior (Bowen Theory) offering a sustaining resource for human relationships and functioning. In recent decades there has been a major shift in understanding the human relationship puzzle from many quarters. Systems thinking (the study of the interaction of many variables in a functioning field) has come into vogue and exploration. What is termed, Bowen Family System Theory, is an understanding of human functioning anchored in the living sciences such as evolution and biology--the processes of nature. To the observer, nature discloses relationship activity that can be more or less understood and utilized for the benefit of humankind.

Dr. Murray Bowen, one of the founders of the Family Therapy Movement, conducted clinical research on the human family as a living system beginning in the late 1940's. His work continued until his death in 1990 when others took his theory forward.  Bowen's research discovered that there are two basic forces with us, that is, instinctual forces operating among humans as well as other species. An instinctive force for togetherness and an instinctive force for individuality are always present in a relationship balance, according to Bowen. These basic forces are deep and involved in the instincts for survival, and reproduction. (Note: being the owner of an evolved brain it appears also that the human species has emerged with an additional urge to seek meaning in life as well as survive and reproduce.) For Bowen, the basic forces for togetherness and individuality are always with us.

          In the development of his theory, Bowen saw that what is automatic and instinctual in human functioning he called "the emotional process." That is, the balance of the togetherness and individuality forces embedded in nature is part of an emotional process that governs human behavior. The term "emotional" for Bowen has a deeper reference than feelings which are expressions of the emotional process. In his research on mental and emotional illness, Bowen observed these forces of interaction on a clinical ward involving families with a schizophrenic member. After five years of this unique kind of research observing family interaction, Bowen arrived at an integrated theory initially with six interlocking concepts. Later two more were added. What is now called Bowen Theory offers a frame of reference on the emotional or instinctive automatic process of living systems.

Bowen's research into human interaction prompts a major shift in the therapeutic field for those open to a new way of thinking about the human phenomenon. A reorientation toward viewing a larger picture involving more variables provides a fresh view of symptom formation and treatment. By studying and observing patterns in the natural system of a family Bowen saw patterns of interaction not observed with individual models of understanding human behavior. Observing the family as a unit from a systems perspective is like watching a football game from the top row of the stadium instead of the 50-yard line. One can see patterns from the back row not seen from the 50-yard line while the 50-yard line is still included. Seeing the larger picture leads to new questions and ways of responding to relationship challenges.

With continued research and theory development Bowen Theory integrated a different way to think about human problems and potential. In researching the family, a sought-after objectivity and accurate observational lens allowed a conceptual reorientation in thinking. The ramification for therapy resulted in a shifted focus from individual diagnosis and treatment toward assessing the family unit and the emotional process involved in symptom formation within the family unit. Less emphasis was placed on individual pathology. More emphasis was placed on a process view of human interaction. Another ramification of this new lens from Bowen's research points toward a "coaching" posture as compared to an intervening or prescriptive posture on the part of the therapist. The frame of reference for the counselor or therapist then becomes one of connecting with the family emotional process while staying separate enough in order to maintain more objectivity. In other words, the reorientation toward a family model moved the conventional therapy process toward a relationship whereby the therapist functioned more as a coach with the family emotional system.  The idea of coaching takes on a different mode or implication than other modes oriented to conventional social science typologies or concepts.

Out of traditional psychotherapy Bowen did retained the psychological notion of transference, popularized by Sigmund Freud, and redirected it from the individual patient and  psychotherapist toward the person's original family unit. Family members are coached to work on resolving  emotional issues through a process of differentiating a self in one's own family of origin, where transference processes naturally originate. In the helping professions this becomes a new way of thinking about emotional illness and relationship problems where the focus is beyond the individual but as part of the family emotional unit. One could go home again because one never left, so to speak.

As Bowen's use of the term coach goes further than conventional views the coaching posture takes on a different set of assumptions. For example:  1.) a natural systems coach functions out of a process view of reality, 2.) remains more neutral while staying interested in the process, 3.) asks questions from a research posture, 4.) focuses on a way of thinking (theory) rather than the use of techniques. Questions seek objectivity, i.e., questions such as what, who, when, where, and how? The aim is staying less caught in the emotional process of the person being coached. Interpretations are quite limited since they usually involve a greater degree of subjectivity. One tends to lose a systems orientation when focusing on details and interpretation. The concept of the emotional triangle as the molecule of all relationships guides the family re-search of coach and person being coached.

Importantly, the coach demonstrates a way of thinking from his or her own work over time. Bowen observed that a coach as well as a leader are unlikely to take others further into maturity than one has gone themselves. One continuing question in being a coach resource is, "What kind of help is help?" With conventional approaches the response generally is to diagnose the problem and treat it within the varoius modalities in which one is trained, or, use positive techniques in listening and interpreting. For a natural systems coach, one comes alongside in a research posture using theory-driven questions or responses that have been worked on over time. Basically, the discipline of coaching involves the nature of one's "presence." How one thinks and is grounded in their functioning leads to the way one is present with another person.


The ramification of coaching and natural systems thinking leads to a potential resourse with sustained benefits. Individuals, families, congregations, and larger institutions are strengthed from the presence of less-anxious, self-working, grounded-theory based relationships. The process of effective coaching has aspects of leadership, friendship, and helpfulness in combination. The blueprint of Bowen and the wisdom of Rabbi Ed Friedman, a student of Bowen, combine to lift up healthy ways people relate to each other. Equipping people in the faith comes as a tall order while an understanding of processes that can inhibit or enhance relationships becomes a gift that continues to give. The nature of a coach's presence and understanding of natural processes equipts leadership with a broader repertoire of responses to conditions of stress and challenge. In this process the principle followed emphasizes how to think rather than what to think. This becomes a life enhancing resource for ministry

Beyond using technique and typologies, coaching pastoral and congregational leaders requires a mindfulness of what is happening both internally and externally with one's self. Such mindfulness increases the capacity to learn from one's experience. Within a natural systems frame of reference a coach would, for example, most likely:

1.  Listen to and for a person's self expression, their level of motivation, their capacity to self regulate.

2. Promote a wider repertoire of responding to the conditions under which one functions versus trying to always change the conditions.

3. Focus on staying objective when asking questions and watching the level of seriousness in the relationship system.

4. Watch the extent to which one takes responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny.

5. Assess family of origin issues that might be examined and pursued.

This newer lens on human functioning offers a natural foundation for congregational ministry and leadership. It has important ramifications for leadership and basic human interaction The effort is being made to seek healthy processes in ministry, especially during challenging times. For this purpose Bowen Theory offers a framework grounded in research that provides an integrated view of human behavior in the day by day life of ministering.

In summary, making one's way through the variety of coaching forms, modes, and styles, one is struck by how human behavior in varying degrees remains a puzzle. It is in this context that a science of human behavior offers a new angle on how a person's presence facilitates problem-solving, resilience, challenge, and growth in the functioning of another person or group. Coaching from a natural systems perspective offers depth and rootedness with an understanding of the emotional process. Having a well anchored theory or frame of reference for human interaction can guide one to a more accurate assessment of reality of the human puzzle. It is suggested here that most individual models of human functioning leave out the notion of emotional process. Bowen Theory and Rabbi Friedman's use of the theory to  understand coaching and leadership in relation to the family emotional process opens a grounded path for engaging human interaction dilemmas.


In general many programs that emphasize technique will likely have positive results, "up to a point." Conventional efforts in many programs seem to have a basic questioning, more neutral, problem-solving, person to person contracting mode. Having qualitative research behind various approaches also brings credibility. But the absence of a more fact based or researched underpinning may challenge how well coaching programs play out. That is, some theoretical organization of the known facts of human functioning may be a missing element in many conventional training approaches. While not at the level or aim of counseling or therapy per se,  current  modes of coaching, along with their designed benefits, may be leaving out the variable of emotional process.  The emotional process again refers to instinctual foundations and automatic responses underpinning human behavior. 



At a recent national gathering of trained facilitators who present workshops on Healthy Congregations, an acclaimed and popular pastor (a kind of Jedi Knight among clergy?) gave a presentation on the church and family systems. When questions were invited an attendee asked, "How does Bowen Theory and Rabbi Friedman's emphasis on leadership fit into a theological perpespective?"  The presenting pastor responded, "Bowen and Friedman make theology more concrete in our life together." 

To provide help that is realistic help, the natural systems coach has the challenge to work with the forces in creation.  A science of human behavior and its use by congregational leaders helps us further discover the forces of creation that are with us--actually in, with, and under us all the time.

January, 2012



1.  Claus Westerman, Roots of WisdomThe Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples. Westminster John Know Press, Louissville, Kentucky, 1995

2.  Martin Marty, Friendship,  Argus Communications. Illinois. 1980.

3. "Clergy in Crisis," The Lutheran Witness, Concordia Publishing House,
Vol 120, No.6, St. Louis, Missouri, June, 2001



General Sources:

1.  Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, New York. 1982.

2.  Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve:  Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Church Publishing, Inc. New York. 1999, 2007. The Edwin Friedman

3.  Edwin Friedman, Transcriptions of tapes, 1990-1996.

4.  Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope, The

Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia, 2010.