A Reflection on Local Church Consulting

Recently I was asked to comment on a report to a local church prepared by a consultant representing a national church organization that specializes in helping congregations make “life or death” decisions about their future. This assignment prompted me to think a bit about the evolution of the “field” of church consulting. Here are some of my reflections on the report and on church consulting more generally. I’ve not named the consultant or the project because my remarks have less to do with their work than with the field of local church consulting as it has emerged in recent years.

From the review:

It is helpful to see [this report] in the context of US church consulting efforts in the past half-century. Many current consultants are unaware of the initial attempts in the 1920s to bring the resources of what were at the time new resources from the social sciences to the study of American religious life. The earliest of these attempts are associated with the work of Harlan Paul Douglass, research director of the Institute for Social and Religious Research and, later, the Committee for Cooperative Field Research. These two organizations were responsible for conducting and cataloguing thousands of “field studies” of congregations (mostly Protestant) in urban and rural communities. Douglass made several efforts to summarize findings from these studies, the best-known being The Protestant Church as a Social Institution (with Edmund deS Brunner), published in 1935. Douglass and his colleagues examined the theological/historical, financial, ethnic and environmental/ecological influences on congregational life and attempted to measure congregations’ ability to respond to changes in the external environment. One of the best-known publications resulting from these studies was Samuel Kinchloe’s classic “Behavior Sequence of a Dying Church,” published in 1929. The dream of this movement was to create typologies of congregations that could predict the outcome of various actions and interventions.

As late as the 1950s and 1960s the work of H. Paul Douglass was still important in the national and regional offices of the Protestant denominations, particularly in board and offices of church extension, which were often organized along ecological lines with offices for urban, rural and new church development. Later this shifted as denominations responded to the social turmoil of the 1960s and resources shifted from church extension to other priorities. The then-new field of organizational development found adherents within the denominations and in the growing number of non-denominational religious non-profits such as the Center for Parish Development and the Alban Institute.

While denominations remained interested in issues of church development and renewal, they were joined in these concerns by hundreds of independent consultants who were publishing extensively and offering direct services to congregations interested in exploring new directions in ministry. Many of these new “religious entrepreneurs” sought to combine commitments to research-based approaches to congregational understanding with a passion for helping congregations achieve new levels of vitality and social relevance.

In the Mainline Protestant world the linkage between congregational renewal, community service and social change remained fairly strong during this period. This is true in large part to the early roots of “church renewal” efforts in the work of the World and National Councils of Churches. At the same time, the linkage was challenged by the emergence of the “church growth movement” based at Fuller Seminary, which also emphasized the use of social scientific methodologies in the service of the church’s mission defined in more evangelistic terms. A few key figures, including influential consultant and writer Lyle Schaller, bridged the church renewal/church growth movements.

Over the past quarter-century a growing number of scholars and practitioners have worked to give birth to a new “field” of “Congregational Studies” that builds on earlier work but seeks to place the congregation and not a particular methodology at the center of its inquiry. James Howell captured this approach in his important 1987 book, Congregation: Stories and Structures:

The approach considers the congregation less a structure or machine or        organism than a discourse, an exchange of symbols that express the views, values, and motivations of the parish. While the other approaches explore, respectively, the context, effectiveness, and communal development of the congregation, the symbolic outlook instead focuses on its identity. Identity mirrors the “we” of a church that persists through whatever changes environment or revised program or interpersonal growth may effect in its midst. Throughout such changes any congregation remains itself, irrepressibly recognizable to its members and other observers.

This represented an important turn in the study of congregations, viewing the congregation as more than a collection of internal processes or what remains after it is buffeted by an array of external forces or stimuli.

I rehearse this history because I think it provides necessary context for looking at current church consulting program, which seems blissfully unaware of unresolved tensions found in this work. Many of these programs seem to have embraced the field studies approach of 75 years ago, adding small doses of missional theology and organizational development theory, a day or so of in-person consulting energy to come up with technologically-enhanced products that seem downright “scientific.”

I don’t mean to sound overly negative or judgmental about any particular report. The one under review is by no means the worst I have seen and, in fact, contains a lot that could be helpful to a congregation. What is missing, in my view, is much sense of the congregation as a living, breathing body with a sense of identity. There’s not much “we” there.
This report does set the congregation being studied in a social or ecological context, but the congregation appears to be essentially by itself. The report gives the reader a demographic portrait of its members but tells nothing about how they spend their lives or interact with others at work or play. Contrast this approach for example, with Nancy Eiesland’s wonderful book, A Particular Place.

The report does a good job summarizing membership and financial trends drawn from yearbook statistics and portions of a MissionInsite report prepared for the church’s neighborhood. It also does a fine job portraying the church’s facilities. On some points it includes comparative data on other churches of the same denomination. While it does not follow Schaller’s typical “Affirm and Build” structure, it does include occasional affirmations as well as more negative judgments. Much of the report seems to use standard “boiler plate” language.

The report’s author is explicit about the values the study process brings to the review: 1. Not changing is not an option so the process intends to help the congregation clarify its future choices; 2. The process provides congregational leaders with tools “for defining a future story that is true both to its historic commitments and relevant for 21st century needs”; 3. The process seeks to move from “attractional” to “missional” models for ministry. The report suggests congregations have four basic choices: Do Nothing; Mission Redefinition; Redevelopment; Close.

The report concludes with three “scenarios” that look at the congregation in five years. These appear to come from the consultant and are part of the report that will be discussed by the congregation in several small group sessions in member homes. The church will also participate in a two-day cluster group of churches gathered under the project umbrella and denominational staff is available to congregations as they make decisions about their future.

I would be comfortable recommending this sort of process for a congregation that wants a data-based independent reflection on its work at a particular point in its history. This might be helpful, for example, at a time of transition in pastoral leadership or prior to a capital campaign. Such a report might provide a common information base on which a broader strategic plan might be based.

I am very uncomfortable with a process that assumes only six hours of “face time” with a congregation’s leaders as the basis for fundamental decisions about a church’s future. Even for the most adept outside consultant that is simply insufficient for understanding the “we-ness” of a congregation.

My own experience in helping congregations make decisions about their future is that we need to enhance local churches’ capacity for adapting to constant change in their internal and external environment. Here I lean heavily on the work of Ron Heifetz, as in Leadership Without Easy Answers and other books. We don’t do congregations any real favor by introducing technical solutions to adaptive challenges, which, alas, has been the basic approach by consulting-oriented and denominationally-based students of congregations since the 1920s.

I am by no means opposed to the use of consultants or denominational programs in helping congregations ponder their current realities and imagine alternative futures. Outsiders can play key roles in enhancing organizations’ ability to make important decisions about their future. In most cases the consultant’s real contribution is less in dealing with the current crisis than in building their capacity to deal with the next one. That calls for skills, some of them derived from the social sciences, but also the ability over time to inspire and coach an organization and its leaders. I would go so far as to suggest that building this capacity ought to be the goal of denominational agencies, conferences and seminaries as we look to the future.