There are some important words in the above definition:
1. Issues—It is often the presence of unusual or challenging circumstances that prompt church leaders to seek a consulting relationship in the first place. Not all such “circumstances” involve crises or problems. Sometimes, churches want to grow faster, church leaders desire to lead better and more proactively, church staff long to function more cooperatively and effectively. So, the issues prompting a consulting relationship can range from negative to positive, urgent to proactive, managing crises to building competencies.
Usually, the issues facing a church tend to cluster around the classic SWOT acrostic: strengths (e.g., “We are a very loving and generous church. How can we be more effective in using those gifts to reach our community?”), weaknesses (e.g., “As elders, we seem to be stuck in the role of managing church business rather than shepherding spiritual growth. How can we be better “soul shepherds”?), opportunities (e.g., “Our pulpit minister just resigned. How can we the best person to take his place?”) and threats (e.g., “Our marriages are in trouble. What can we do, as a church, to encourage more intimate and stable relationships?”). The more focused and specific the issue, the more likely it is that the consulting relationship will prove effective.
2. Church leaders—When churches are blessed with elders, they are usually the ones who initiate a consulting relationship and form the primary leadership group with whom a consultant works. However, preaching ministers and staffs, leadership teams (who do the work of elders even if they do not wear the title), and/or deacons can also initiate this relationship. It is important—for a successful and effective consulting relationship—that the leadership of a church (whatever form that leadership takes) have the will and the congregational support to address issues affecting the health, effectiveness, and direction of the church.
3. Expert—Someone with broad experience working with churches, deep knowledge of Scripture and church systems, and wide contacts within the denomination or fellowship. This person must have the ability to listen carefully, focus on core issues, recommend a range of options, and provide detailed plans for action.
4. Outside—One of my favorite quotes comes from Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Inviting a stranger into your church system can be a frightening and threatening thing. But many church problems and challenges require the fresh eyes, out-of-the-box-thinking, objectivity, and independence that only an outsider can bring. Churches that are “stuck” need a different kind of thinking.
5. Partner—Consulting is done with churches and church leaders, not to them. It is a collaborative exercise, drawing from the strengths and gifts of both church leaders and the consultant. Solutions that are primarily “owned” by the consultant will be short-lived and shallow. Only a true partnership—involving shared responsibility, work, commitment, and trust—can result in solutions that are lasting and transformative.
6. Process—Consulting is not an event, it is a relationship, a conversation, an interactive and evolving collaboration. As such, it usually involves five distinct phases—a discussion that deserves an essay of its own: see The Process of Church Consulting.