It happened again recently. I was in a large group of mainline church leaders who professed their interest in church transformation. We were all milling around the room waiting for the convener to launch the meeting, and the conversation was pensive. Then the “transformational church leader” stood up, thanked us for coming, and said, “We’re gathered here to talk about church transformation… just us who are on the front lines… no church consultants.” There was a spontaneous spattering of applause, vigorous nods of heads, and a collective sigh of relief. No church consultants… you know, those men and women who have not only dedicated their lives to helping transform the church, but who have invested research, education, observation, and ongoing training in their vocation.

The conversation continued with the convener helping members of the group get to know each other and their respective strengths. “What I want to do is start a grassroots movement where we pool our resources to bring about church transformation. For instance, Pastor XYZ has a great worship service, so if you need help working through worship issues, you should call him.” And so it went until the room was introduced to a pool of “resources” who were decidedly not consultants but who knew a bit about one specialty or another.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Perhaps it could be the foundation for a new economical transformational movement.

But it’s not new. Denominations, middle judicatories, and the frustrated masses have been trying this model of church transformation as long as I’ve been alive… and research says it’s been happening way longer than that. And what have been the results of these grassroots movements?

I’ve wrestled with how to put this gently, but the above story has been repeated in my life too many times to be “nice.” As nice as the people were in that room, and as well intentioned as the convener was, the fact is that pooled ignorance does not transform churches. For instance, Pastor XYZ really does do a nice job in worship. But Pastor XYZ’s church is in decline nonetheless. In fact, there didn’t appear to be a representative breakthrough church in the room.

There is more to church transformation than a great worship service, awesome children’s programming, or even effective conflict resolution. Although each of these is needed for a successful church turnaround, they are not the core of a turnaround. Ask any consultant.

But wait… there’s more. Some time ago I offered a word of coaching on an open listserv on church growth. If I do say so myself, the advice I presented was spot on, but within a few minutes of my post came a response, “Although I appreciate what you may have to say, I’m really looking for advice from someone who’s done it, not just a consultant.” Of course, the writer had no idea whether I’d ever “done” it or not, but since I was a church consultant I was immediately suspect.

Now, let me say that there is some wisdom in the writer’s words. There are indeed consultants and coaches out there who made the move because it seemed easier than working in the church, but who have no transformation experience whatsoever. However, most church consultants have a bit more integrity than that… and significantly more experience.

But when it comes to calling a pastor who’s “done it,” let me remind you that just because someone has transformed a church doesn’t mean they can coach, consult, or indeed replicate what they’ve done. I’m reminded of the great sports players in my life. Bart Starr was my childhood football idol: quarterback for the Green Bay Packers and if memory serves me, he still holds a couple of records. Later on, he was hired as Green Bay’s coach. There is really only one word to describe his work there: disaster.

Then there’s Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but as coach of the Wizards? Dismal. Here’s the reality. Some players go on to become fabulous coaches, but there’s a HUGE difference between a player and a coach.

A mainline pastor who has led his/her church into transformation has done a marvelous thing – and has accomplished something that ends in failure in 80 percent of our churches (and the number appears to be closer to a 90 percent failure rate in the mainline). I want to say up front that any church leader who has led the transformation of a church is my personal hero. Period. But as much of a hero as they are, as talented and gifted as they are, in many, if not most cases, their success was built in a particular context in a particular time with a particular congregation. Put that church leader in another church – in fact, in most churches – and they’ll be battling the 80 percent average. There are few folks out there who have been successful at multiple transformations. Indeed, I only personally know of one – and he’s an unsung hero who hasn’t written five paragraphs on how he’s done it… yet (I’m after him for a Net Results article, but he’s pretty busy with his current project).

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be getting input from a church leader who’s led a successful transformation. By all means, go have lunch with him/her. Listen to their story and seek their advice. But before you jump into a transformation effort based on what they’ve done, let me remind you that neither you nor I are a Schuller, Hybels, Kalstadt, Warren, Slaughter, Osteen, Easum, Chan, or McManus. You and I are who we are and trying to duplicate someone else’s success formula will almost certainly put a congregation in the 80 percent group.

There are two differences between an experienced and trained coach/consultant and someone who’s done it: experience and training. The local church leader who’s accomplished the near-impossible has the experience of a success, but an experienced consultant comes with a broader perspective. (This is also one of the drawbacks of most judicatory staff consultants – they may have experience with multiple congregations, but they have limited experience with the broader scope of church transformation.) For instance, when Bill Easum is called to work with a congregation, he comes with a span of experience that’s broader than virtually any other practicing consultant. He’s worked with scores of denominations and has personally consulted with hundreds of congregations (nearly a thousand) of all shapes, sizes, locations, etc. In my own case, I’ve led transformation work as the lead pastor in three mainline denominations (UMC, PCUSA, CCDOC) and done church planting in three (SBC, CCDOC, and non-denominational). Plus I’ve worked with dozens of churches as a coach, consultant, and in transformational leadership training.

The second difference is training. Let’s be perfectly honest here: seminary training does not prepare a church leader for transformation. PhD training does not prepare a church leader for transformation. And few DMin programs prepare a church leader for transformation.

Now, I’ll agree that book study doesn’t prepare someone for much, and any consultant who finishes his/her DMin in coaching or transformation and hangs out a shingle without an apprenticeship or internship with an experienced church consultation firm is, in general, ill-prepared for the job. On the other hand, I know far too many “consultants” and “coaches” who have taken a course or two and immediately began circulating proposals and fine-looking brochures to judicatory offices and started working their networks to establish themselves in the field. Give them enough time and experience, and they may do all right, but I know of too many congregations that have been left bereft in the name of experience of some of these “consultants.” In this economy we’re seeing a lot of these folks having to return to the parish because they just couldn’t get the experience and the traction in the new career path they’d counted on.

Consultants that match their personal experience with an apprenticeship/internship and training are virtually always better prepared to walk with churches through the church planting and transformational leadership training mine fields. Besides a DMin in Church Planting Movements, as the managing editor of Net Results I’ve been in the student seat for a lot of years. The consultants at 21st Century Strategies are regular attendees at national church planting and transformational training events – often as speakers, but we also attend workshops and seminars to keep up to date with the broadest possible opportunities.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “I want to hear the opinion of someone who’s done it,” bear in mind that the speaker hasn’t really thought through their comment. It’s good to hear from someone who’s done it, but it’s better to hire someone who has done it and has a breadth of knowledge and resources well beyond the reach of the 20 percenters.

Question: What has your personal experience been like with church consultants and coaches? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.