We at 21st Century Strategies have been doing church consultations for over twenty-three years and we’ve had the opportunity to study why some churches thrive after a consultant has done their job and why other churches fail. Conversations with other church consultants reveal a lot of the same data. Here’s the bottom line: for most churches, a consultation may net a little bit of growth, but the long term effects of most church consultations is… nil (for instance, see C. Kirk Hadaway’s landmark report here). Of course, this post rests on the presumption that the recommendations offer a reasonable expectation that, when implemented, will result in a church’s growth in multiple areas (spiritual practices, numerical growth, participation, community reputation, etc.). If not, all bets are off.

In any case, there are a number of reasons why churches fail to respond well to consultations, but the majority of them fail for one of the following reasons – and in true Bill T-B style, there are five of them.

1. The Minority “Wins.”

Here’s a news flash. Most churches are “stuck” and unable to make it to the next level because of less than five people. These few folks will do almost anything to get their own way, including bullying, threatening, tossing their weight around, manipulation, undermining, faction building, and so on. And because churches are, in general, made up of many very “nice” people, they rarely confront these bullies, terrorists, controllers, and bluffers… and so they are left to have their way and to do their damage.

When a consultation results in a number of serious recommendations that push the status quo, and a good consultant always pushes the status quo (why else would you call a consultant if the church didn’t need some changes?), those five or fewer people step up and raise objections, and the rest of the church members cave in. In some cases, the recommendations will even make it to a vote, but the objectors make so much noise that few are willing to go toe to toe and a minority becomes a majority in order to keep the peace.

2. The Pastor Is Fired, Quits, or Is Moved

I’m no longer surprised when I hear that a pastor has been fired (or quits or moves) within a short time following a consultation. In many cases, perhaps even most, the pastor has been instrumental in convincing their congregation of the need to call outside help to point them to a bright future. In addition, the pastor is often responsible for identifying consultation candidates. With all that, is it any wonder that the pastor is often “blamed” for the whole consultation thing?

The fact is, consultations are almost always stress-inducing for the congregation. For one, there may be surveys and inventories for staff, leaders, congregation members, and even visitors are asked to complete. Plus, there is generally a lot of other data to compile. Add to that the rumors, fears, and speculations that quietly circulate through the congregation, such as “I’ll bet we’ll have to tear out the pipe organ and replace it with a rock-n-roll stage” or “I already know they’re going to disband our women’s quilting groups,” and the discomfort level rises. With the rise of congregational stress, the tensions between leadership and congregation increase exponentially. By the time the consultant arrives, some are excited, some are relieved, and some have worked themselves up into a near-frenzy. And it’s too often this last bunch who refuse to participate or come to any of the information sessions – except, perhaps, the one where the recommendations are rolled out. And that’s when the fireworks start.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that a lot of pastors find the end of their rope following the consultation. Those who quit, generally do so because the stress and the conflict is just too much to take. Those who are fired or are moved discover that they didn’t have the support they thought they did.

Without the leadership of the pastor, the consultation report generally ends up in a file cabinet, tucked in between Last Hope and Status Quo.

3. Supportive Church Leadership Abandons Ship

The third most common reason church consultations don’t make a long term difference is that in too many cases, the most ardent supporters of the consultation process decide that it’s just too much for them and they leave the church. Often these supporters have been waiting patiently for the pastor or top leaders to guide the congregation from decline to growth, from yesterday into tomorrow. In one church, I met with a number of their young, hopeful families who shared that they’d been hanging in with the church for over a decade because they were able to keep their hope for a brighter tomorrow alive by supporting each other. But they confided that if the congregation didn’t embark on the recommendations, they were going to leave together. They had simply waited too long.

What we see, in many of these churches, is that there are two groups of supportive church leaders who leave … but they leave at different times. The first batch who leave are those whose intellect outweighs their emotions. These folks quickly size up the situation and realize that, once again, the congregation isn’t going to support the changes necessary to be missional, indigenous, etc. These are the first to go. It’s simply a logical decision. The second group to leave are those who have emotional investments in the congregation. These tend to be the more tolerant and forgiving folks who keep hope alive that the opposition will come around and see what’s needed. These leaders may hang on until the bitter end, though many will begin to drift away if the conflict and tensions continue over an extended time.

In any event, these supportive church leaders leave for one main reason: hopelessness. Sometimes they lose hope when the opposition starts making a lot of noise, and they just can’t take it any more. Sometimes they lose hope because it’s clear that key recommendations simply aren’t going to be implemented. In any event, there’s little more painful for the faithful than trying to worship and support congregational ministry in a hopeless abyss. Ultimately, when the pain of staying outweighs the pain of going, the good get going.

4. There is No Conflict Resolution Process

This one needs little explanation. The fact is, most of the above reasons for failed consultation processes could have been avoided if the congregation had adequately implemented a conflict resolution process. Without a way to deal with those who would derail the process, there is little likelihood that there will be any lasting results. How could there be, since there is no way to work around or with the opposition?

5. The Consultation Process is a Come and Go Experience

As debilitating as all the above issues can be, the reality is that most consultations don’t make a long-term difference because there’s no long-term relationship with the consultant.

Let’s put this into a leadership perspective. If the congregation’s leader (pastor) is a level nine or ten leader, then a consultant can come in, share their observations, make recommendations, and leave. When he or she does, the leader has the skills, talent, and charisma to lead the implementation process without much difficulty. Indeed, it appears that the majority of successful consultations have been implemented by the hands of exceptional leadership. However, if the leader doesn’t have the skills, talent, or charisma to be a top leader, the implementation phase is in serious jeopardy when the consultant leaves the playing field. It’s not that these leaders are somehow sub-par – it’s that their primary skills lie in other areas. These leaders are often excellent pastors, disciplers, preachers, etc. But when it comes to leading major changes through the minefield of discord, they may find themselves struggling.

The Solution: Getting Long-Term Results From Your Consultation

There is a solution that we’ve found is changing the ways we do much of our consultation work at 21st Century Strategies. Congregations committed to church transformation and growth must stop looking for a magic, one-weekend fix, and engage a consultant who brings both expertise and relational longevity as a coach. 21st Century Strategies provides this level of service (find out more here) and is finding a level of success that belies Hadaway’s research. Here’s what we’ve found.

First, a successful consultation begins with building a trusting relationship with the consultant-coach. We’ve found it helpful if the consultant-coach spends significant time before the onsite consultation in congregational leadership training that not only sets the stage for what’s to come, but builds a foundation. For instance, getting the conflict resolution pieces in place before the “real” work begins and helping the key leaders (board, session, etc.) deepen their spiritual practices all contribute to long-term success.

Once a level of trust has been built, the consultation process proceeds with significantly less stress and tension. In fact, I’ve found that when I make my recommendation’s presentation, the leadership and most members of the congregation are totally unsurprised at any of them – they expected them all along, since we’d been talking about hospitality and leadership shifts and so on long before the on-site work.

The implementation process includes continuing congregational training sessions, plus leadership coaching to help keep things on track. Indeed, I connect with those I work with as their consultant-coach one way or another almost every week during the implementation phase. All in all, it’s not uncommon to work with a consultation client over three or more years as they move through training, consultation, and implementation. By working with congregations over this extended period, we’re finding fewer surprises, less conflict, and slower, but steady, progress towards implementation and congregational growth.

Question: Do you have a long-term relationship with your consultant? How has it benefited you to work with a consultant long-term instead of only once in a while? Share your experiences and thoughts in the Comments section below.