By Rev. Christopher R. Gambill, PhD
One of the original drivers for the founding of the Center for Congregational Health in the early 1990s was the emerging need for congregational consultants. Congregational consulting quickly became a core part of the ministry of the Center and has remained so for the entire 20 plus years we have existed. During that time, we have worked with hundreds of individuals and groups all across the US and beyond. And, we have trained quite a few consultants!
It might seem a bit counterintuitive for an organization that provides congregational consulting to train new consultants. In the business world, this would be akin to training your competitors. The Center has always tried to operate from a mindset of abundance. Since there are easily more than 300,000 Christian congregations and another 12,000 non-Christian ones in the USA, we believe there is plenty of work to be done. More, not fewer, congregational consultants are needed–but not just anyone can do it well.
Who makes a good congregational consultant? It would be easy to create a long list of attributes that would describe an effective consultant, but in our experience there are a few that seem to matter more than others. The first might seem obvious, but it still needs to be said–a congregational consultant should love congregations. Congregational consulting should not be construed as a career pathway for someone who is jaded or cynical about congregations, or who is feeling burned-out, rusted-out, or emotionally or spiritually injured by congregational life. Congregational consulting demands individuals who still love and believe in the power and possibility of congregational life and want to see congregations thrive.
Effective congregational consultants also need to have good boundaries. Congregational work is often emotionally charged and if you do care about congregations (and you should!) then there is always the temptation for the consultant to “own” the congregation’s challenges as their own. A consultant’s capacity to be helpful often hinges on their objectivity and their ability to speak the truth in love. Getting caught up in the process or struggles of the congregation can make a consultant part of the problem instead of the solution.
Congregational consultants also need emotional intelligence (EI). There isn’t time or space here to describe all that means, but at it’s core, EI is the capacity to perceive emotions, utilize them to facilitate thinking, understand emotions, and to manage emotions well. Each of us has some emotional intelligence and we can develop our capacity to to utilize it with the right training and support.
Finally, congregational consultants need significant experience in congregational life. One of the biggest challenges in congregational consulting is establishing trust between the consultant and the client. Our experience has taught us that congregations and leaders are more willing and able to trust consultants who have spent time “in the trenches” of a local church. Consultants need to understand the day-to-day challenges of both leading and being a member of a congregation.
Peter Block’s definition of a consultant still seems to best capture and describe what a consultant is: “. . .a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs.” The key word here is “influence.” Congregational consultants, through their temporary, outsider role as a trusted helper, can positively and constructively influence a congregation to become healthier and stronger. One of the challenges of becoming a consultant is this role shift from “manager,” “implementer,” or leader,” to “influencer.”
Effective consultants are able to leverage their outsider role to bring a fresh perspective to a situation that an insider often cannot see. Because they are not the “manager” or a congregational leader, they have the emotional space to speak the truth that an insider would often be hard pressed to verbalize. The best consultant is not an expert who can tell you “how to” fix something, but a trusted partner in ministry who knows how to create spaces in which God’s Spirit can be discerned and the collective wisdom of the congregation can emerge.
The way in which Center consultants work is one of the things that sets us apart from many other consultants and kinds of consulting. As I mentioned above, we believe the most effective congregational consultants aren’t “experts” who tell others how to lead or manage their congregational challenges. In our experience, the best consulting comes from creating great processes that empower leaders and congregations to make good choices and decisions.
Implied in this approach to consulting is a basic trust in the capacity of congregations to solve problems and overcome challenges. The real “experts” are not the consultants, but congregations themselves and their leaders. This means congregational consultants need to know how to create transparent, participative processes that empower the congregation to make good choices. We have often referred to the Center’s approach as “radically congregational.” What’s truly radical is believing that a good process can empower a congregation to discern God’s leading and make a good decision.
There is one final question that needs addressing. Why have congregational consulting? The “why,” for us is actually pretty simple. We want to change the world! We want to be part of transforming this world to reflect God’s sacred intentions. We think healthy, thriving congregations are a key to making this happen. Congregational consulting helps congregations become the agents of transformation and change the world desperately needs. Interested?
If you think you might be interested in becoming a congregational consultant, the Center’s next consultant training event is coming up October 19-23 in Thomasville, NC. There are still some spots available for this session. You can learn more about the training by clicking here or visiting our website at www.healthychurch.org and clicking on “Learning Opportunities” then “Consultant Training.”