Cultivating the Sweet Spot in Your Staff Relationships through Coaching: A Model of Student Staff Supervision By Sarah Jobson How do you manage a new resident advisor staff? Is your style to be the “friend” or “supervisor”? Have you ever had to handle

By Sarah Jobson

    How do you manage a new resident advisor staff? Is your style to be the “friend” or “supervisor”? Have you ever had to handle a difficult resident advisor or trudge through unrealistic expectations of student staff members?

    As a resident director I have wrestled with these questions and I have often struggled to sort out the nature of the RD/RA relationship. Steering through this relationship can be tricky, confusing, and sometimes messy. A healthy relationship between an RD and an RA can be powerful, lasting, and beneficial for a healthy community. The opposite is also true; an unhealthy relationship between a RD and a RA can be draining, wounding, and harmful for staff dynamics. 

    Armed with a job description and my past experience in youth ministry, I eagerly entered into the student development field as a resident director.  As I started the semester, I was equipped with the tools and resources to be successful.  We read through the RD manual, talked at length about programming, confrontation, and how to handle crisis.  Looking back, the missing piece for me was the dialogue about supervising the relational jungle of your RA staff.  But I would come to experience that “nothing really good gets built when everything’s easy… (and that desperation, failure) and confusion often give way to new fullness and wisdom” (Niequist, 2010, p. 17). 

    Those first two years were a blur. I was trying to stay afloat, balancing responsibilities, expectations, and relationships. I spent time organizing and re-organizing myself, learning the campus culture, understanding the needs of students, and getting to know my RA staff. Along the way, quite accidentally, I fell into a few common ministry traps. I stumbled into the performance trap: I felt this deep need to give until I was empty, to pour into others at the expense of my own needs, and to say “yes” to everything for fear of letting others down. I also staggered into the approval trap: I desperately wanted to be liked, to be accepted, and to please others in an attempt to gain approval. Combine these ministry traps with the ambiguity between my staff and myself, and I was left with a recipe for hardship. The RD/RA relationship was never modeled to me.  Sure, I had RAs and I even roomed with one, but I never fully understood the nature of that relationship. I knew my RDs as mentors not as supervisors. 

    My own insecurities, ministry traps, and lack of clarity regarding our relational roles contributed to the unhealthiness of those first two teams. I did not effectively re-direct my staff when necessary. Nor did I hold my staff accountable to expectations. Instead, I played it safe and tried to be their friend. My staff also had a part to play in the unhealthy dynamic of our team. Overall, we had created a discouraging and untrusting environment. We ended up there because we did not know how to navigate the tender relationship between RD and RA; we did not know our roles. 

    This sounds a little dramatic, but I assure you that it was not enjoyable. It was a bittersweet season for us all. It was sweet because we were able to experience moments of laughter and support. But it was also bitter because we experienced hurt and frustration; that spring we went our separate ways as wounded leaders. 

    But God is in the business of making all things new.  I needed a fresh vision, a word from the Lord – direction as I journeyed into leading another staff. I spent a considerable amount of time the summer after my second year evaluating my role and reflecting about the kind of relationship I desired to have with my staff. With time and prayer came a simple, refreshing model of staff supervision. This model centers on the analogy of a coach, encouraging the RD to be a coach to the RA team. I implemented this coaching analogy as I started my third year and have continued since at another institution. This model of staff supervision has truly been life giving, both to my RA staffs through the years and to me. Seeing myself as a coach rather than a friend and seeing myself as an influencer rather than a person who needs to be liked has helped me to be effective and secure in this position.


    I share this model with you to give you the fresh perspective that I’ve found to be helpful in cultivating the sweet spot in my staff relationships. The concept is not all that complicated and perhaps you are already using aspects of it. But even in its simplicity, this coaching model has enabled me to be a healthy supervisor and has proven to be a powerful analogy for the RAs under my leadership.

    Characteristics of Good and Bad Coaches

    Most of us have either witnessed or experienced good and bad coaches. Some of us have participated on a sports team and have first hand experience with a coach. Others of us have faithfully watched our friends from the sidelines, cheering them on. I invite you to brainstorm characteristics of good and bad coaches. Here are a few to also consider: 

    Bad Coaches

    Good Coaches





    Poor communicator

    Values each player



    Plays favorites

    Knows and loves the game


    Invests in players




    Models well – lives above reproach

    Disciplines without reason

    Enables players to take appropriate risks




    Good communicator

    A New Perspective

    What if these characteristics of good coaches became characteristics of good resident directors? What if the language we use regarding coaches and teams was synonymous with the language we use to describe the relationship between resident directors and resident advisors?  I would advocate that the RD should be viewed as a coach rather than a friend or a boss. 

    The Friend or Companion Role 

    Because resident directors live where they work, it can be easy to get caught up in a friendship role, to over identify with students, and to allow the boundaries of our relationship to get blurry. The RD that functions in this role can tend to be unpredictable, fickle, reckless and even insecure. The RD as friend can shrink the boundaries of professionalism and they can become less trustworthy. They avoid conflict, strive to please others, and need to feel needed; all of which model negative habits to the RA team and have unhealthy results.

    The Boss or Manager Role 

    The opposite can also happen. For one reason or another, resident directors can slip into a boss minded approach of relating to those they lead. The RD who functions in this role can tend to be rigid, distant, controlling, inaccessible, and dominant. This results in several things:  RAs can feel inferior to their supervisor and sense that their effort is never enough. The RD as boss has a strong need to control, so the RAs feel they have little freedom to contribute their own ideas.  

    The Coach Role 

    The coach holds the tension between these two roles: boss and friend.  Obviously not all boss or friend roles are negative.  But the language that we use to describe the nature of the relationship and the way we view our roles needs to be redefined. Here is how it can look: 

    RD as coach is:

    RAs feel:

    Team implications:

    RAs have:



    Roles are clear

    Sense of ownership



    Morale is high

    Awareness of the bigger picture



    Trust is evident

    Freedom to risk, knowing that failure is okay


    Free to be themselves

    Mission is unambiguous

    Appropriate levels of self-disclosure



    Communication is open

    The ability to handle team conflict constructively

    A good, healthy coach knows and embraces their role as coach on the sidelines. A good coach has reasonable boundaries, appropriate self-disclosure, wants to grow and challenge others, has confidence, and can be “grateful for what is given (to us from those we lead) without clinging to it, and joyful for what (we) can give without bragging about it” (Nouwen, 1996, p. 66). There have been moments when I have forgotten my role as coach. There have also been moments when I have been hurt or wounded by those I lead. And on those days, as silly as it may seem, I have locked myself in my bathroom, sat on the toilet (lid down), and reminded myself: I am just their coach. And oh, but “though merely a tool, I am a tool that loves them” (Gire, 2002, p. 101).

    What Coaches Do 

    As I have now found that sweet spot in my relationships with my RAs, I can identify four key things that I think coaches do well.  Coaches:

    • Spur
    • Share wisdom and experience
    • Model and invite authenticity
    • Equip


    Coaches spur student leaders on to make the most of their leadership experience. Coaches challenge leaders in areas of weakness but also affirm their strengths. Andy Stanley in his book, The Next Generation Leader talks about his coach in this way: “John makes me feel like I could conquer the world. Never in my life have I had anyone address so consistently and persuasively what I could and should be” (Stanley, 2003, p. 123).  I mentored one of my RAs for all four years she was in college. She came into her freshman year broken, insecure, and deeply wounded. But as I had patience and as she continued to trust, Jesus utterly redeemed and transformed her life. The spring of her junior year, she had these words for me as her coach, “Your endurance through these years has absolutely blown my mind. You inspire me to never give up on people…You believed in me, stayed consistent with me, and loved me.” Coaches see potential, they see what someone can become and spur them in the right direction. 

    Share Wisdom and Experience

    Coaches share wisdom and experience with their student leaders.  They also share their mistakes. Good coaches do not keep their leaders at arms length; instead they should journey with them and invite them into their lives. As their coach: 

    You are not responsible for knowing everything there is to know about leadership. But you are responsible for sharing what you do know with the leaders around you. And as you pour into their cup what God and others have poured into yours, they will go farther, faster. They will be better leaders for having known you.” (Stanley, 2003, p. 127) 

    Model and Invite Authenticity

    Coaches also have the responsibility to model and invite authenticity.  Good coaches do not just sit on the bench, hide behind their game plan, and never get personal with their players. We have to model for them what we expect; “modeling recognizes that to make an impact we must put on display the life we’re inviting others to live” (Webster, 2000, p. 59). How do our student leaders learn what a God honoring life looks like if someone is not willing to show them? How do they learn to bounce back from failure if someone does not share their own screw-ups and model what it means to be forgiven by God and move on? How do they know how to deal with relationships, vocation, and hardship if someone is not willing to show them? Good coaches are not afraid to live life in front of and with students.  


    Coaches equip their student leaders for life and leadership. It is the coach’s job to prepare and provide resources for leaders to be successful.  This summer, I got a voice message from one of my old RAs who was recently married. She called to tell me that she believed her RA year had enabled her to be a better wife. While she learned confrontation, listening, and basic counseling skills, it was the relational and communication skills she learned which were proving to be of great value in her marriage.  

    Coaches guide their players on and off the court. Coaches reveal the big picture and inspire their players that they are indeed part of the larger story. Coaches communicate expectations and share life with their players.  And I would argue that good resident directors do the very same. We need to change the language we use in describing our role to those we lead. Our perspective might also need to change. We cannot allow those we lead to view us only as their boss or friend; we must also be viewed as their coach.  For me the coach analogy has proven to be a healthy approach to staff supervision and team dynamics. Whether I have been a new RD on campus or I have had a significant number of returning RAs on staff, the coaching analogy has been an essential part of having a successful and healthy year. 

    Just this last spring of my first year at George Fox University, after years of implementing this coaching model, I had a new RA come to my apartment with an important clarifying question.  She sat on my couch and asked me plainly: “Sarah, are you going to be my boss or my friend?”  I could not help but smile as I answered her question. 

    Sarah Jobson serves as the Area Coordinator for Hobson, Macy, and Sutton Halls at George Fox University, located in Newberg, Oregon.


    Gire, Ken. (2002). The work of his hands: The agony and the ecstasy of being conformed to the image of Christ. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications.

    Niequist, Shauna. (2010). Bittersweet: thoughts on change, grace and learning the hard way.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1996). The inner voice of love: A journey through anguish to freedom.  New York: Doubleday.

    Stanley, Andy. (2003). The next generation leader: Five essentials for those who will shape the future.  Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers.

    Webster, Dan. (2000). Increasing your personal impact: Becoming a person of change in a shifting world. Grand Rapids, MI: Custom Printers.  


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