Consulting is not an event, it is a relationship, a conversation, an interactive and evolving collaboration. Understanding this is critical to the success of a consulting relationship. And it helps church leaders to set reasonable expectations about the time, energy, and costs involved.
Most challenges facing a church are not of the “change-the-oil” variety—a small issue with an immediate “fix” requiring little time or expertise. On the contrary, church consulting is much more akin to marriage counseling. It is an intimate process requiring careful understanding, spiritual discernment, and wise counsel. It is a process that depends on trust and mutual respect. As such, it takes time and energy to develop the consulting relationship.
The consulting process usually involves five distinct phases:
- Dialogue—Dialogue is the foundation on which any effective consulting relationship is built. It is important for the consultant to learn the history of the church, the prevailing philosophy of leadership, theological leanings, sacred cows, successful or struggling ministries, mission and vision, etc. Conversations on these subjects provide vital background information for the consulting process. But dialogue involves more than an exchange of information. It allows leaders and consultants to measure each other, hear one another’s thoughts and hopes and values, and encourages the growth of trust. Since the issues addressed in consulting relationships are often sensitive, trust is an essential component of that relationship.
- Discernment—One of the most important aspects of the consulting process is reaching agreement on where to focus attention and effort. Churches—like people—are complicated organisms with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and problems. The consulting relationship cannot address every issue facing a particular congregation at a particular time. In fact, the more specific and defined the issues are, the more likely it is that consulting will work. Narrowing the focus of the consulting relationship to a few specific issues requires much prayer, dialogue, and discernment. Narrowing focus to the right issues requires wisdom, honesty, and an instinct for the spiritually central.
- Prescription—Eventually, all this talk and diagnosis must result in a prescription that will effectively address the issues facing a church: a specific “solution” to how we handle this situation or take advantage of that particular opportunity or resolve a threatening conflict. It is the consultant’s job to outline a range of “treatment” options for church leaders, offer advice on implementing them, and help church leaders address their concerns in effective ways. But, as always, consulting is a partnership. It is not enough for a consultant to suggest solutions. Those solutions must also be “owned” by the leaders of the church, embraced and supported by them, and implemented in a committed and disciplined manner.
- Implementation—There is an old saying: “Plan the work and then work the plan.” That nicely summarizes the culminating task of a consulting relationship. The consultant is responsible for putting a plan on paper, to suggest a specific course of action for addressing the concerns or hopes of church leaders, and to lay out a schedule for implementation. This plan will often effect various aspects of congregational life: the teaching/preaching of the church; organization and structure; leadership practices and habits; ministry priorities and methods; budget; etc. However, it is the responsibility of church leaders to implement and “work” the plan. A church needs to understand that the plan does not depend on the consultant … or to assume that, when the consultant leaves, all will return to normal. When the plan in fully embraced by church leaders who feel responsible to implement it into the fabric of their church’s life, there is greater likelihood that real changes will take place.
- Follow-up—There is a certain intensity to the consulting relationship—to the rhythm of visits, meetings, new ideas, and assignments—that tends to be both productive and exhausting. As the relationship draws to a close (and as the ball is left increasingly in the church leaders’ court), there is a tendency to slow the pace of progress and leave changes to some nebulous future. A wise church will agree to a follow up visit (or three) so that the consultant can continue to encourage the leaders and hold them accountable to their commitments.