Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

Church leaders are notoriously slow to bring in outside help. 

The attitude of  “We’ll do it ourselves or be damned trying”  can come from miserable experience and not just from pride or prudence.     Church pews are lined with leaders who wouldn’t hire church development consultants to save their lives, likely because they’ve already been there and not done that.

I firmly resented consultants before I became one, and I’ll admit why:  again and again the consultants we hired had no sensitivity to the facts in front of them:  it was our church and we knew our household better than they did.  The little parade that came through our meeting room doors brought armfuls of skinny paper back books with shiny covers advising us to change according to plans and ideas invented by cutting edge theorists who were out to (make money and) convert us to their idea of what a church ought to be.  What we needed instead was to sort out who we were and why God had called us all together.  That essential clarity remained a mystery to the leaders and beyond the increasingly troubled congregation.

So:  consultants who arrive knowing what churches ought to do are not worth the money they charge to tell that to the leaders.

I firmly resented church consultants for a second reason:  all of them talked down to the non-clergy in the room.   They politely treated us as obstinately stupid, misbehaving children who were out to make the clergy’s lives miserable.  The church consultants we hired were all clergy, and thus projected a doubly special privilege in telling us the right ways of being and doing church.  They lost most of their credibility as soon as they opened their mouths to preach at us.   In the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders were still basically Christians nurtured from childhood.  They knew in their bones that church does not exist for the benefit of clergy; the secrets of the church are not given solely to Christians when they go to seminary; a clergy leader and a congregation share the issues, problems and context of faithful community.   

So:  consultants who condescend to church leaders from positional privilege, suck all the oxygen from the room and are not worth the money they charge for the experience.

A third reason for resenting and distrusting church consultants has to do with what Virginia Woolf has called ‘home truth.’  The home truth in congregations needing help, is that they need help and to receive that help, the leaders and the members of the congregation will have to change.  They know in their bones before the consultant arrives, exactly how they will have to change, and dammit, they don’t want to.  So they won’t, and they’ll pay money to insist publicly on blaming someone else, often the clergy.   

So:  congregational leaders who pretend to want health will do what it takes to stay away from good congregational development consultants.

I know.  I was that kind of church leader in several congregations that had that kind of attitude.  Everything came to a bad end in the churches where all of us made choices that justified our use of power or our agendas.  Such a bad end has a very long half-life, which may eventually be redeemed.  Church consulting has come a long ways since the 1970s, in particular that area of consulting based in principles of organizational development.  Consultants can bring health even to intransigent unhealthy congregations.

When I look back at the long string of miserable consultation experiences I had as a leader in succeeding congregations, I see some things we could have done at the outset to make a positive difference in our experience with the consultants:

  • Define and articulate precisely what we wanted to the consultant to help us do
  • Engage the consultant for more than one workshop or more than one session, so we could get over any of our defensiveness
  • Determine to learn to learn, and not to get answers, so we would know how to do it ourselves, afterwards
  • Evaluate our experience fully and frankly, measured against our own expectations, and share that evaluation with the consultant
  • Set expectations of ourselves to use what we had learned how to do, to foil the waste of our money

Good leaders are wise not to rush toward quick fixes, and wiser still if they know what they need help for, and how to get good outside help when they need it.

1 Comment

Filed under Accountability & Leader Development, Community Formation, Planning & Managing Change

One response to “Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

  1. Wow! A very frank straightforward discussion about church consulting. I appreciated your perspective.

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