When Renee Marble, a marketing consultant in Jackson, Miss., needed guidance to improve her profit margins, she searched the Internet and got direction from a business coach. But when she hit a crossroads en route to trying to become an ordained Episcopal deacon, she scanned the Internet for a coach of a different kind: a spiritual coach.
“I went through psychologists, ministers, priests,” said Ms. Marble, who wrestled with the notion that she had to be perfect for God to love her. “I thought it was taboo to talk about my spiritual relationship to God with anyone but a clergy member.”
In an era when the pursuit of self-improvement often means hiring personal trainers, diet coaches and life coaches, another breed of manager — the spiritual coach — is heeding the call of people who speak of inner guidance systems and reconnecting to their heart. In a 2006 poll of nearly 6,000 coaches by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the International Coach Federation in Lexington, Ky., 18 percent said their specialty was spirituality.
Before a session, Ms. Marble and her coach, Gavin Young, “each engage in prayer and thoughtfulness,” she said. “Gavin is almost like a psychologist, minister, priest, life coach, business coach and best friend. The very act of preparing to talk to Gavin is a reminder of my relationship with God, kind of like sharing communion. Usually I light a candle and ask our spirit guides and angelic friends to join us.”
Her coach, Mr. Young, is quite a spiritual cocktail: “Roman Catholic with strong Quaker leanings — an oxymoron, but I love it,” he said. He received certification from the Coach Training Alliance and conducts sessions from his home office in Talent, Ore., where he keeps icons from Christianity and Judaism, a Maori shield, a vigil candle and a well-used Tarot deck.
Working by telephone, Mr. Young counsels individuals as well as groups, up to 30 people at a time. “The beauty of group coaching,” he said, “is everyone ends up coaching everyone else.”
His “Spirit Community” tele-seminars, $40 for two sessions per month, address issues including money, sex, aging, the hereafter and addiction. “We view a topic of practical relevance through a spiritual lens,” he said.
Mr. Young, who has advertised his business, Whitehawk Spirit Coaching, in The National Catholic Reporter, a weekly newspaper, said a typical client was female, 30 to 50 years old. “Men,” he said, “who often avoid the vulnerability associated with spirituality, are a harder nut to crack.”
His most profound, humbling sessions, he said, were with his partner, who died from AIDS in December. “He asked me to coach him through the dying process, and for five months we dutifully met Tuesday and Thursday mornings for an hour and read Scripture and prayed together,” Mr. Young said. “We discussed life, death, immortality, God, anger, denial. I was pleased that I was able to stay in the role of coach during those times, although my heart was breaking.”
It is not only the huge, probing questions of life that spiritual coaches address. That is why Kate Theriot, who runs Coaching for Change LLC in Houma, La., has counseled her clients in everyday places like Starbucks and her home.
“Sometimes we sit on the back deck, sometimes we sit in the living room,” said Ms. Theriot, who usually charges $60 a session. “Or we get real Southern and sit on the swing on the veranda. As long as you can have a private conversation, it doesn’t matter where you speak.”
Ms. Theriot, who is also human resources director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, added, “I’m helping people find God in all areas and relationships of their life, at the coffee shop, at their desk at work, even in the bars and dance halls.”
So, how does one get to know God? Ms. Theriot may ask clients to get to know themselves first, through a personality inventory test, for instance, or through a meditation that asks how they show love to their neighbors.
Then there is the “tapestry of life” assignment. “We make a chart for each decade of life to see, for example, how your image of God has stayed the same or changed,” she said. “For a 5-year-old, God is typically the big-cloud father figure in the sky. Later, that evolves. But so many times a 50-year-old is sitting in front of me saying it’s still the guy in the clouds. Our image of God has to change and evolve as we change and evolve, so that God can be more real and present.”
“Many spiritual leaders respond by saying something like, ‘I can’t really remember anymore,’ or, ‘I would love to have a whole day to just devote to prayer and reading Scripture,’ ” said Mr. Hastings, a former United Methodist pastor who coaches about 45 pastors, rabbis and priests each month.
“When I began coaching in 1999, nobody knew about coaching, let alone spiritual coaching,” said Mr. Hastings, whose fee over the telephone is $250 for two 30-minute sessions a month. “I was lucky to have one client a month. Now I no longer have to explain what coaching is. Pastors call me and say, ‘Can I hire you?’ ”
Ask Cassandra Christiansen, a spiritual coach in Fairview, Ore., if her field is gaining momentum, and she replies, “A resounding yes.”
“People desire a connection that is soul to soul, not instant message to instant message,” said Ms. Christiansen, who received her credential from the International Coach Federation and coaches clients from around the world by telephone.
She added: “Most people live their life asking questions like ‘What should I do?’ I encourage my clients to begin asking: ‘What does my soul truly desire? What would make my divine spirit sing?’ In the beginning, people are always thrown by the questions. But they always have an answer.”