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Living Holy Week: Church Consultants in an Age of Decline

Lyle Schaller died in March at 91 years of age. For several decades he was the dean of church consultants, visiting thousands of congregations, speaking at hundreds of conferences and workshops, writing scores of books and articles aimed at helping congregational leaders – pastors and lay people – address the challenges being faced by local churches in the second half of the twentieth century. His wisdom was based on lots of data and relentless observation. He spoke the language of the church basement rather than the academy; his books are practical and wise rather than scholarly and theoretical. Schaller was less of an expert and more of a sage, a mentor and guide doling out useful tips that resonated with his audience because he so clearly knew what their life was really like.

When Schaller began his work in the 1960s church consultancy was not the cottage industry it has become today. In the generation prior to the 1960s churches were growing. Protestants were enjoying a growth spurt fueled by cultural alignment and the Baby Boom. Excellence in pastoral leadership still required good scholarship, organizational savvy, theological wisdom and hard work. Adequacy in leadership, a much lower bar, generally meant avoiding screwing things up or getting in the way. Nobody needed consultants.

Schaller’s work, however, unfolded as “same old, same old” stopped working well. The Baby Boom was ending, a culture that promoted Mainline Protestantism started to shift, fragment and grow ever more diverse, the internal flaws of respectable middle class religion were increasingly exposed, and massive social disruptions undermined all institutions. Excellent leaders needed help understanding what was going on in order to maintain the vitality of their congregations. Adequate leaders grew anxious and threatened by decline and the inevitable blame game that accompanied it. Denial was remarkably persistent, but couldn’t last forever.

Enter the consultants. Some who followed in Schaller’s footsteps maintained his exceptionally high standards. Others were lesser lights. You can find their books on the “religion and theology” shelves of used bookstores, “how to” books on evangelism or stewardship or Christian education or small groups, etc. that never quite delivered what their flaking book jackets once promised.

Why the continued decline in the face of the burgeoning industry of church consulting complemented by the vast literature from secular management and leadership gurus? In many cases it isn’t for lack of wisdom, skill, and insight on the part of either the consultants or the local leaders. Not everyone was caught in denial or nostalgia, believing as the old quip about the Mainline puts it, “When the fifties come back we’ll be ready!”

But what the consultants couldn’t change was a radically changing cultural environment coupled with demographic changes that were as challenging as the Baby Boom had been a boost. Pew research data on the religious affiliation of successive generational cohorts reveals precipitous decline in religious engagement that can’t simply be blamed on the churches themselves. No amount of fiddling with technique was going to stem the tide of fraying institutional loyalties and commitments coupled with the private, highly personalized and often idiosyncratic construction of religious and spiritual experience. Soccer came to visit Sunday morning and stayed. The religious marketplace grew more exotic, drawing consumers toward individualized spiritualities less and less dependent on established Tradition and institutions.

Sadly, the consultant culture, for all its value, may have also brought an unintended consequence, namely, the demoralized pastor who was led to believe that continued decline is a result of a failure to understand, embrace, and effectively implement the proffered techniques. But in the face of a cultural tsunami, it may not help to take advanced swimming lessons. Armed with the insights of Harvard leadership expert Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), a next generation of consultants acknowledged that the earlier technical fixes were increasingly inadequate to the task. What is needed is adaptive change, a more organic response to changing conditions and circumstances. This seems right, and has been useful. Yet decline continues.

Enter the entrepreneurs: young religious leaders, often from unfamiliar places, eager to experiment, viewing congregations as start-up enterprises, creating new models of church in clubs, online, in the streets, etc. Emergents disrupting and innovating rather than tinkering, adapting, or fixing. These folk reside online in blogs and on social media, networking ideas, experiments, models. Reading the culture, borrowing from the culture, conversing with the culture, arguing with the culture, going deep into tradition and deep into non-traditional futuring in hopes of launching the next big idea that will move us beyond the uncertainties and impasses of our “post-everything” world.

Dying, of course, is the hinge point of Holy Week, a time to reflect deeply on our personal and institutional mortality. What is important to recall in all of this is that decline and death is not a march into abandonment or oblivion, but is accompanied by the Christ of Calvary. Forsaken is not the last word, nor is mere resuscitation of the dead. In the end, as Schaller surely would agree, salvation comes neither from consultants nor entrepreneurs of this or past generations, but from the Christ of the empty tomb. And until we learn to rest our anxious spirits into that reality, all the technique and innovation will never rescue the church of the “spiritual but not religious” or the “religious but not spiritual” who hover in and around its lure and mystery.

John H. Thomas
April 2, 2015

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