Sometimes we are limited by our own blind spots to function well in the work and ministries we do. Fr. Elias Dorham reminds us of St. Paul's words, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Rom. 12:2) When a coach challenged him with a tough question before ordination, Fr. Elias realized that his own professional career path was not truly aligned to what he espoused as a baptized Christian. Now as a coach, he helps his clients move out of their comfort zones, exploring ways to lead as a servant rather than as a strict commander.
While professional coaching is not therapy, pastoral guidance, nor counselling, Fr. Elias suggests coaching can help those who want to:
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Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm pleased to welcome father Elias Dorham who serves the Holy Transfiguration Parish in McLean, Virginia. His leadership background includes 15 years serving on active duty as a naval officer, as well as various leadership positions in both the federal and private sectors. Father Elias is an International Coach Federation Certified Leadership and Executive Coach and he is a Doctor of Ministry candidate at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. Father Elias and his wife Presbytera Sylvia, have been married for 28 years and have 10 children.
Fr. Elias Dorham 0:52
Glory to God. Lord to Jesus Christ, and thank you for the opportunity to be here today.
Hollie Benton 0:57
And I really am so excited to let our listeners know that you will present how repentance shapes leadership, an attitude of metanoia, at this year's National Leadership Conference, September 17 and 18th at St. Vladimir's Seminary. This year's theme is Generously Investing in Emerging Leaders, and I'm so grateful that this framework of repentance, will help shape this year's important conference as we dig into collaborative intergenerational ministry, mentoring, succession planning and ministry opportunities and early life transitions.
Fr. Elias Dorham 1:32
I'm really super excited to participate in the National Leadership Conference this year, and I personally think that repentance is a very important topic for leaders. It helps frame the key question of who we are and why we do what we do as leaders. And I think it can be very helpful to remember that the Greek word metanoia, which means that ongoing change of heart or mind, refers to who we are at the core of our person. And this is what it means to live as a Christian, who's growing more and more to the likeness of Christ over time, with the help of God's grace. So as with being a Christian, being a leader is also a transformational journey of growth over time. What we do as leaders is a manifestation of who we are and who we are becoming as disciples of Christ.
From my perspective, the reason this attitude of metanoia is so important is that the leader is first of all a servant of those he leads or she leads, right? Following the model of Christ. So repentance is really about vigilance, or attentiveness to the call of God in our lives, and the ongoing struggle, right? To work together with the grace of God, which is active in our lives, because the leaders a servant, right? The leader doesn't stand above the ones who are being led, but walks alongside them on their own journey. An attitude of repentance helps us to ensure that as leaders, we're not looking down at those we lead, but attempting to look at them through the eyes of Christ, because the leader is a fellow struggler. He must be attentive to his own shortcomings, right? So the leader creates an environment for success for the organization and for individuals with that begins with looking at what I am doing or not doing to help create that environment. As a leader, I have to be able to see clearly enough with God's help, to see the needs of others. My own limitations, and to know how to address the difference between the two. And so this is really how I see repentance setting up a framework for leadership.
Hollie Benton 3:31
I'm really excited to have that be the opening at this year's National Leadership Conference. This is great. So if you'll allow me Father Elias, I'd really like to intrigue our listeners a bit with your background. I myself have been really intrigued with you and your life's full experiences. We first met a couple years ago when you were working on a missiology class assignment related to your doctorate of ministry degree. You're an African American who grew up near the projects in San Francisco. You went to the Naval Academy. You've served in the US government, you've worked in I.T. and you're a professional certified coach, and now you're serving as a priest in the Melkite tradition.
I must say, it comes across clearly in your preaching for example, through the online Conversations on Racism series we did last year through the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, which was really just an in-depth Bible study of Galatians that I find that you don't cling strongly to your identity shaped by your family or your credentials or job titles, but in striving to teach and to do what the Lord instructs. So how did you come to this understanding?
Fr. Elias Dorham 4:40
So this is really been a journey over time for me a little bit about my background. So I was raised by my grandparents, because when I was born, my mom was only 16. And so I've always referred to my grandparents is, you know, my mom and dad, but this becomes important. You know, being raised in a home with two parents provided me a certain stability, relative to many of my peers because I went to an elementary school that was in the inner city. Although my grandmother worked part-time at an elementary school where I attended she pretty much had a traditional homemaker role. My grandfather you know was a tradesman. So this meant that she was always around to keep an eye on me, I was never left to my own devices, kept me out of a lot of trouble so I was raised a certain way. So this is important, if you understand the dynamic of the background of those with whom I attended elementary school. Many of them were from the projects, from broken homes, from different backgrounds. And so my early experiences, relative to identity and especially African American identity was actually a little bit adversarial. For example, my grandparents, grew up, and because of the way they were raised, they had a fundamental openness to everyone, regardless of their color, their culture where they were from. But my mom and her generation, right? They had come to age during the time of the 50s and the 60s. So they had what I would almost describe the sort of this militant sense of who they were as African Americans.
So that created kind of a clash, not only in elementary school, but in my home. Many of my friends were not African American, they were Hispanic, they were Southeast Asian. The fact that my grandmother raised me to speak with precise English grammar that didn't go over well for those who felt, either that I was trying to be white or didn't talk black. And all of this to say that I am from an early age, didn't fit into stereotypes or expectations, I just sort of seem to be in a mold of my own. So if you fast forward to my educational years I was often the only or one of a few African Americans in the different settings in which I found myself. And so I had to grow again in a process over time very comfortable in a sense of my own identity.
Where the Faith enters into this was during my time at the Naval Academy, Christ found me, through the Roman Catholic Church. And because I came to faith as an adult, I engaged with it very differently than if I had been raised in it, I believe. And so, early on, my experience of being baptized into an apostolic church was that my baptism fundamentally changed who I was at the lowest levels, and that everything else about who I was and what I was about, had to be structured on top of that. I even remember as I graduated from the Naval Academy, dedicating my career as a naval officer to God through the Most Holy Theotokos and later on, doing the same thing with my family. As a naval officer I always tried to operate as a Christian first, naval officer, second. I allow my Christian values to inform how I led others, what I would say or not say the kind of situations I would allow myself to get into. It hasn't been perfect or anything, but increasingly, as I've grown older, and certainly as I've moved into pastoral ministry as a priest, I think it is so critical for our people to understand that regardless of their language, regardless of their culture, regardless of their ethnicity, their fundamental identity is as baptized believers in Christ and everything else must be seen through that lens, and harmonize with that lens.
Hollie Benton 8:27
You really said it. Through baptism, fundamentally the prayers remind us that we die to our own wills so that we can live in obedience to God's will, so it really is a mini death. So what identities do we cling to after a baptism, right?
So as you know the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative is launching a coaching network so that we can help connect professional coaches with meaningful opportunities to offer their coaching services to other Orthodox Christians, both clergy and parishioners, as a mutually enriching exchange within the body of Christ. Professional coaching is really not a common practice among Orthodox. So as a professional coach, could you describe it for our listeners?
Fr. Elias Dorham 9:07
Yeah absolutely. So the first thing I want to say is that coaching itself is not a specifically Christian, discipline, but for me personally, almost all of my coaching has been within a Christian context. For me coaching is shaped by St Paul's admonition from Romans 12 too, right? "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Coaching is about renewing who you are at a fundamental level by creating awareness. Coaching is a conversation between two people, for this purpose.
When we become aware of new ways of seeing ourselves, of seeing others, of seeing the world around us, new possibilities for action, begin to emerge. So I'll give an example. Maybe you've probably all had the experience of being upset about something, or bothered about something or confused or uncertain, and perhaps sitting down with a friend or confidant and just talking through what's bothering... with them. And oftentimes, just in the act of talking through things, we get out of our own heads. And suddenly, everything becomes clear to us. All they had to do was sit and listen and let us talk, we just needed a chance to unwind. This is a lot like coaching, right?
Coaching is not therapy. It's not mentoring, it's not spiritual guidance, it's not pastoral counseling. It's certainly complimentary with all of these other, helping types of conversations, but it's really designed to help individuals come to an awareness so that they can better resolve some of the challenges they're having and coaching holds that the individual is able to come to this conclusion on their own. They just need to be more aware of what's going on within themselves. And sometimes being stuck in our head makes that awareness difficult. And obviously as Christians we know that the Holy Spirit is also present there especially you know where two or three are gathered and so certainly the Holy Spirit has a fundamental role in coaching. If you are a Christian who is coaching someone, or even if you as a Christian are being coached, even by a non-Christian the Holy Spirit is going to be present there in taking part in that conversation.
Hollie Benton 11:22
So how did you get interested in the coaching profession? Have you ever been coached to yourself?
Fr. Elias Dorham 11:28
Oh yes. So, when I transitioned out of the Navy, I ended up at a federal agency, and in a particular office that placed a heavy emphasis on ongoing leadership development. One of the things I ended up doing was reading a book by Daniel Harkavy "The Coaching Leader", and I realized that my own leadership style was inherently one coaching. About that same time, I had an opportunity to take a few leadership courses, some of which came with coaching, and I found that helpful, that was really my first exposure to coaching. And then one day there was an announcement that the organization had been funded to provide executive coaching to the leadership team. And I said, Well, this sounds interesting, might help me grow as a leader and as a person, So I guess I'll try it. So I signed up for executive coaching. And as I always tell the story, my executive coach, she was extremely skilled, very seasoned, very experienced and she treated me with kid gloves for the first few sessions. But about midway through the engagement, She, as I like to say, hit me between the eyes. I don't even know. I can't remember the question she asked me, but what it was like, you know, someone just throwing cold water on you because she asked a question. And as I went to answer it, I became suddenly aware that I was consistently making professional choices in terms of the types of work roles, I was seeking that were completely 180 out from the personal values I espoused, especially in terms of family, and the role my faith played, and the priority that should be on faith and family versus work. And up until that moment, I had not been aware that I was actually behaving in a way that was completely out of alignment with my values.
Hollie Benton 13:21
Fr. Elias Dorham 13:21
So that led on a journey through which I eventually left the government into the private sector, and eventually found my way to the Melkite into the ordained priesthood. But as my wife and I were talking together about post-government careers, I said to her one evening after we had discussed and discarded the options, almost on a whim and I think it was the Holy Spirit. I said you know, "I kind of thought about maybe going into coaching," and her immediate response was, "I think he'd be an excellent coach." And so that led me to do some coach training and getting my certification. The certification has certainly helped me as a leader. It has certainly helped me and informed my pastoral ministry in terms of being a trained listener, learning to listen deeply to others, to listen, not only to what is being said, but to not to what is not being said, and to listen to what is beneath. But one of the interesting things about coaching is you really learn to look at the person, and by that I mean, when you're communicating with someone so much of what you're taking in is nonverbal, but it often doesn't register, and as a coach, you're taught to tune in to the nonverbals, as well. And so this has just helped a whole range of scenarios.
Hollie Benton 14:37
So, have you found that any of your previous experiences in the Navy or working in the government has that impacted the way that you coach and now as serving as a priest, how does that inform the way that you listen and ask questions and perceive?
Fr. Elias Dorham 14:54
Yeah, so I have to say I have yet to encounter a situation with a client that I can't relate to, just because of the broad variety of my background, I can usually relate to it in some way through all the different areas I have worked in my life. This is certainly not a requirement for coaching someone, but it can be helpful. Because of my background I can also relate well to a variety of clients from a great variety of backgrounds and that is important, because for coaching to be effective, there has to be a trust and interpersonal relationship between the coaching client, and the person coaching because it is a fairly intimate conversation you're opening your heart to someone, and asking them to help you right, grow in some way.
In addition, I would say my own coaching style is founded on creating a safe space for my clients, and an environment in which they can feel most comfortable in exploring right how they see themselves in their world. And they can be open to me, challenging, gently, the background that I bring allows me to kind of form that bond and create that bubble of safety for my clients. Finally, I'd say that my service in the church has given me a much deeper appreciation for the fact that we're all strugglers. And in coaching, this translates to a greater sense of compassion and understanding for my clients. Just as you know or should know, you know when you come to confession in our tradition, the priest is doing a metanoia with you as confession starts, I mean he's also repenting. He's not looking down on you, he's standing beside you, right as a fellow sinner. So if I could, as a coach, I'm not judging my client. I'm not looking down on my client. I am standing beside my client and walking with him on this journey.
Hollie Benton 16:45
So talk a little bit about how coaching actually does develop leadership. You said in your own executive leadership coaching it actually inspired a career change for you. But how does coaching help with the leadership development and maybe without breaking confidentiality, can you share a story about process or outcomes of someone who's been coached well and has grown in their leadership development?
Fr. Elias Dorham 17:10
Sure, absolutely. So the way that coaching develops leadership is really by creating awareness, more specifically, of our own limitations and our own blind spots. These limitations and blind spots, often caused us to get stuck, which means we keep doing the same old thing day in and day out. We realize it's not working. We don't know what else to do, so we keep doing it, a little bit like being the hamster on the hamster wheel, but this keeps us from reaching our full potential, as leaders, and particularly if we're Christian leaders, we're called to grow in the likeness of Christ. If there's some limitation or shortcoming, we're not addressing, then in some ways, we're actually blocking the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
So to give an example, I recently coached someone, And it took us, I think three or four sessions to get into a good groove in our one hour conversations. And he realized that he had been sticking to his comfort zone, and that he needed to go outside his comfort zone. This was all within the context of a broader realization for him that leadership is about serving those who you lead. What made this really a big deal, is that like me this individual has a military background, but his military experience was very different from mine so really in his mind, leadership was about "I tell you what to do, and you do it." It was sort of a one-way down. And so by him coming to this realization that he needed to step outside of his comfort zone, he was able to begin to articulate on his own, new ways that he could actually serve the team that he leads.
Hollie Benton 18:55
Wow, so you got to throw the cup of cold water.
Fr. Elias Dorham 18:59
You know, it has happened more times than you realize. I mean I will confess that I have coached others, who as part of our work have discovered that what they're doing or the leadership place they're working isn't really the fit they want. I would always argue that an outcome where someone perhaps changes careers or changes jobs is not a bad outcome. It's an outcome that shows "Okay, new awareness was created, this person saw new possibilities and their journey continues."
Hollie Benton 19:26
And you get to witness those fabulous "Aha!" moments.
It is a gift from God.
So tell us who might really benefit from professional coaching? What types of situations might of priests be in? Or a bit of coaching might help provide some clarity or energy or new commitment to take those next steps?
Fr. Elias Dorham 19:45
You know, fundamentally, anyone can benefit from professional coaching. I mean, as I say that again coaching is not therapy, it's not mentoring, it's not spiritual guidance or pastoral counseling. It's certainly complimentary with all of these, so one of the things that I am very careful about is when I first engaged with someone is to listen to why they want coaching, and try to identify any issues which really sound to my ear like they're more suited to these other disciplines.
That said I can think of a few situations where a bit of coaching could be a service to a priest, if he's feeling stuck or in a rut in his pastoral ministry or having challenges developing or communicating a vision for the community that he's serving. Perhaps seeking to become more effective as a communicator, looking for resources to navigate interpersonal conflict either with parishioners, or the parish council or even, you know, and this is one that's really big in my background as a coach: Coaching Christian men. Oftentimes are married clergy, may struggle with achieving that dynamic of the call of the husband and father, and the call for the ordained priests. They're certainly complimentary they're certainly not in conflict, but sometimes the way that we live brings them into conflict. These are just, I think, a small sampling of areas where coaching can be helpful. If it's something you've never tried, I would say, look up, one of the coaches that you have engaged in the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, and ask for a complimentary coaching session. It is really a very helpful experience. And as far as leadership development goes, we never stopped growing, as leaders, just as we never stopped growing as Christians. As leaders, we do have an obligation to grow ourselves so that we can better serve those who call us leaders.
Hollie Benton 21:37
On our programs tab, you can find Orthodox Coaching Network, and you can sign up for a free consultation, a free coaching engagement. We'll have half a dozen or so, professionals certified coaches who are availing themselves to help coach priests and laity alike in helping them with their unique situations and leadership development, just as you detailed earlier father. So thank you so much for your time today for this great discussion and I hope all goes well in your coaching practice and as you lead your community there at Holy Transfiguration.
Fr. Elias Dorham 22:12
Glory to God. Thank you.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai