When Does a Church Need a Consultation?

It’s a mistake to believe that only a church in trouble needs a consultation. Many healthy, growing churches engage a consultant when they want to ensure they’re on the right track. There are a number of times and seasons when it makes good sense for a church to bring in a consultant. These are the most common:

  • When a church is declining and the leaders are unable to stop the decline.
  • When a church has been on a growth pattern for some time but has plateaued and the leaders want to take the church to the next level of growth.
  • When a church is growing slowly and the leaders want their church to grow faster and more effectively.
  • When a church decides to go multi-site and wants to avoid the normal pitfalls to the process.
  • Whenever the primary mission field changes, especially in terms of changing demographics or lifestyles of the immediate neighborhood or community.
  • When a church is facing a significant decision such as relocation, hiring staff, or building.
  • During the first year of a pastor’s tenure. This is often a time of great openness to innovation, but also of urgent communication, consensus building, and strategic planning.
  • During the last six months of a pastor’s tenure. A church can ensure continuity is preserved, and opportunities for change are identified, before calling or receiving new pastoral leadership.
  • Prior to any building project or technology upgrade.
  • Whenever the church finds itself in a crisis. Crises generally involve people, property, programs, or finances.
  • Whenever the church is presented with what appears to be a golden opportunity. Most opportunities bring risk and all opportunities, when acted upon, bring change.

However, there are also times when a church should not get a consultation:

  • If the pastor is opposed to it.
  • If a majority – or even a large minority – of the church leadership is opposed to it.
  • If the church is engulfed in open, ongoing, unresolved conflict.

To consult or not to consult? It’s a good question that every church leader should be asking every couple of years.

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What Should a Church Expect from a Consultation?


Truth Time Again: Since there isn’t a recognized “certification” process for church consultants, anyone who’s written a book, gotten a degree, or served a church can become one. And just because someone is (or was) a successful pastor  doesn’t mean they have what it takes to be an effective church consultant. For instance, consider Bart Starr and Michael Jordan as examples of great players, but dismal coaches.

So, what should you expect from a church consultant?

  • Experience: How many churches and church leaders have they consulted/coached? If they’re “new” to consultation work they should be apprenticing with a known consultant or consulting firm.
  • Honesty: What sort of results has the consultant experienced? Remember, the vast majority of consultations end in failure – most often because the church opts to not adopt the recommendations.
  • References: At least three … and make sure you call them and ask tough and probing questions about the consultation and the results of the consultation process.
  • Customized Recommendations: Your church and situation is unique, so the recommendations your consultant offers should be developed specifically for you. One size simply doesn’t fit all.

In the end, the best recommendations in the world won’t change a thing if the consultant can’t cast a compelling vision to the church leaders. Make sure your consultant has the energy and presentation skills to “sell” their recommendations to the congregation. (On the other hand, even the best consultant rarely convinces everyone … some church members simply won’t be convinced.)

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What’s Involved in a Consultation?

Engaging a consultation process is not to be taken lightly. No matter how good or gentle a consultant is, the fact that a relative stranger is coming to evaluate the church and to make recommendations is stress-inducing. Then there’s the reality that if you shell out good money for a professional diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription you will have to either embark on a course that means change (and congregational stress) or else flush the money you’ve invested.

Every consulting firm … and every individual consultant in these firms … approach consultations differently. However, they will probably ask for:

  • Church Documents: These may include your mission statement, core values, bylaws, job descriptions, written history of the church, recent newsletters, bulletins, etc.
  • Historical Data: This may include average attendance for worship services, Sunday school classes, small groups, budgets, expenditures, receipts/income, fund records, etc.
  • Leadership Surveys: Your church leaders may be asked to complete a number of surveys, provide job descriptions, and so on.
  • Congregational Surveys: Your congregation may be asked to complete a number of surveys, provide congregational demographic information, etc.
  • Community Demographics

Once the consultation begins, you can expect the following:

  • Interviews with the Lead Pastor and staff.
  • Interviews with church leaders.
  • Interviews with some congregational members.
  • Touring the church facilities and the community.
  • Presentations. Sometimes these presentations are for selected leaders, sometimes for all the leaders, and sometimes for the whole congregation.

In the end, you should receive a written report with the consultation findings. This report should include the recommendations and should also offer some sort of plan for their implementation.

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What Kind of Results Should a Church Expect?

I wish I could give you a top five bullet point list of what you could and should expect from a successful consultation, but that’s not possible.

To begin with, if a congregation isn’t ready and willing to make some significant changes in the way it does things, it’s unlikely a consultation is going to accomplish much.

In addition, because the purpose of every consultation is different, results really depend on what you’ve asked for. However, you should be able to expect the following:

  • Written recommendations;
  • Recommendations that have been customized for your congregation;
  • Strategies for implementation of the recommendations;
  • The opportunity to ask questions and get clarification on pretty much anything the consultation covered;
  • Future availability for mid-course corrections.

Of course, the expectation should be that if the congregation adopts and effectively implements the recommendations, it would be reasonable to expect significant results. However, many consultants “drop off” their recommendations, answer initial questions, and are never heard from again. Many recommendations will need to be tweaked as circumstances change and if the consultant isn’t available you’re left out on your own … which could be disasterous. However, if the consultant is available and if the mid-course correction is more than a minor tweak or has been caused by unforeseen circumstances, it will be reasonable for the consultant to negotiate an additional fee.

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How Should a Church Choose a Church Consultant?

Care should be given when choosing a church consultant. The wrong consultant can do more harm than good. So you need to make sure you are contracting with a seasoned consultant with an excellent track record.

A good consultant should bring multiple strengths to the consultation:

  • A track record of doing what the consultant teaches and recommends in the consultation;
  • Experience in working with your size church, community context, and mission orientation;
  • Broad recognition and credibility through previous church consultations, publishing and personal endorsements;
  • An effective listener, synthesizer, and communicator.
  • The ability to paint a picture of reality without alienating the leaders

Since there is no recognized credentialing for consultants, you will want to take heed of these steps in finding a consultant for your congregation:

  1. Read their books, blog, Facebook page, etc. This won’t necessarily get you a quality consultant, but it’s a good place to start. Their writings will give you a good idea about their perspective and tone. If they’re too intellectual in their writing, they’ll likely muddy the waters. If they’re too blunt or tactless your congregation may not be able to hear them. On the other hand if the consultant is too “nice” the congregation may not see the need to make any changes.
  2. Ask Around. Personal recommendations are gold … but be sure to ask about the results of the consult. There are a number of consultants who are careful to not “hit the hornet’s nest” in order to leave everyone “feeling good” about the experience. But feeling good doesn’t translate into church’s that are growing or more effective. Better to rock the boat and grow the church.
  3. Think Outside the Box. Einstein reminds us that you can’t solve a problem using the same minds and levels of thinking that caused the problems. Before blindly signing up with a denominationally approved consultant or program, talk to those who have used them specifically to find out about results. (BTW, many denominationally approved consultants are great … just don’t be boxed into thinking they’re your only choice – or even your best choice.)
  4. Check References. Really, call them and get them to talk frankly. In addition, ask the consultant to provide a couple of references of those who have not done well. If they won’t share both their successes and less successful clients walk away.

A good consultation can help a church turn around decline, help it off the plateau, make good staff decisions, determine its next steps, and face a bright future. On the other hand, a bad consultation can send your church into a tailspin. Go into it with your eyes wide open and you’ll increase your chances of success.