Church Consultancies Under the Spotlight
by Bruce Burgess
Interact Magazine 2001
Volume 12 Number 2
If someone in your church was to propose having a church consultancy, what would be your immediate reaction? Perhaps you would enthusiastically embrace the idea, excited by the prospect of the positive opportunities for growth and healthy change that this might bring. Perhaps you would be guarded, unsure of what to expect. Or you might be flatly opposed to the idea, feeling comfortable with the way things are and seeing no need for outside intervention at all.
If you were like me, you would probably want to know a little more about ‘the who, the why and the wherefore’ of what was proposed before you formed a view on whether or not a consultancy was appropriate for your church. But you might not care about the answers to those questions either, because irrespective of the answers, you oppose church consultancies as a matter of principle.
The thrust of this series is twofold. In this article, we will examine some biblical foundations to help us assess the overall appropriateness of having consultancies in our churches and the reasons we might consider doing so. In the next edition, we will look more specifically at the different kinds of consultancies, for not all of them involve dealing with church crises; many are focussed rather on constructive reviews of people and programs to help the church be more effective in ministry. Part Two will also canvass the times to consider having a consultancy, and the things to look for in a consultant if you do.
Hopefully by the end, you might be open to the possibility that a consultancy has the potential to be a vehicle for God’s blessing your church in ways that might never otherwise have occurred.
But is it biblical?
The question is rightly put. In any age, the church is in constant interaction with the world around it, and it is right to return to our basic frame of reference, the Bible, to evaluate new aspects of living together as God’s people. I say ‘new’ aspects, because by and large the practice of church consulting in any formal sense is a relatively recent development, gaining prominence over the last twenty or so years in particular. Does the Bible contain any precedents for carrying out church consultancies?
In the Old Testament, there is an outstanding example of a person ‘from outside’ reviewing a situation of significant concern affecting God’s people and providing wise counsel that proved to be a blessing to those involved. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, lived outside the community of Israelites living under Moses’ leadership. On a family visit, Jethro observed Moses wearing both himself and the people out (who had to wait around all day for him to be free!) as he valiantly tried to act as judge over all the various disputes arising between them (Exodus 18:13-16).
Jethro counselled Moses to appoint godly men to judge the less difficult cases, whilst still bringing the most important cases to him, saying, ‘It will be easier for you, and they [the appointed leaders] will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace’ (18:22b-23). Moses and the people were too close to the situation to be able to see a solution which Jethro, with his outsider’s perspective, was able to see immediately. Jethro had carried out the first biblical consultancy, and it was of tremendous benefit to the whole community of God affected by it. It is worth noting that not only had Jethro alleviated the burden of decision-making in disputes among the people; he had also introduced to Moses the principles of both delegation and leadership development which would be of ongoing assistance for the community in other contexts as well.
If we look to the New Testament, it is striking to see how regularly early church leaders were involved in providing wise counsel to different communities of God from the perspective of those not actually living in that community. The two examples we will look at are Paul with the Corinthian church and Timothy with the church at Ephesus.
What was it that prompted Paul to write to the Corinthian church? Certainly he had an ongoing interest in the church, having previously spent eighteen months there (Acts 18:1-18). But there were two specific catalysts for his writing to them. The first was the disturbing oral reports that he had received about the church from ‘Chloe’s people’ (1 Cor.1:11), and the second was a letter sent from the church itself seeking his guidance on various matters (1 Cor.7:1). From these two sources, various issues of concern were raised, having implications both for the faith (theological understanding) of the believers and the way that they lived together.
Some of the issues addressed by Paul at Corinth are common in our churches today: division, worship, and theological and moral issues. It’s often the case that these only come to light as the consultancy process is underway, for the presenting issues for which a consultancy is undertaken may only represent part of the tapestry of matters needing to be addressed.
Paul wrote from the perspective of one living outside the community, but called upon by the church members to help them to more closely resemble the church that Christ had called them to be through both His life and His teachings. We know that in addition to the two letters in the Bible, Paul also wrote on other occasions (1 Cor.5:9 and 2 Cor.2:3-4). He was committed to seeing positive change take place in the life of the church. Amongst the difficult words of guidance directed at inappropriate conduct or thinking, Paul continued to convey his love for the Corinthians and his passionate heart for encouraging them (see for example 1 Cor.1:4-8 and 2 Cor.2:4; 6:11-12). His approach is a benchmark for the modern church consultant.
Now lest the argument be made that Paul differed from the modern church consultant because of the substantial period of time he had spent living in the community, we need to look at what happened in the church at Ephesus as well. This church was also grappling with very specific issues, both theological and relational. The heretical teachings about myths and genealogies and false asceticism were undermining the church, with various believers renouncing or compromising their faith (1 Tim.1:4,19; 4:1; 5:15; 6:21). The church was also grappling with issues of worship (1 Tim. 2), the qualifications for leadership (1 Tim.3) and how to treat less powerful members of the community such as the elderly, the widowed or the slaves (1 Tim.5-6:2). Into this situation, Paul sent an outsider, his trusted and beloved Timothy, someone with spiritual insight and particular gifts of ministry (1 Tim.4:14) to be the vehicle through which change would occur.
A review of other New Testament epistles reveals that each of James, Peter and John also wrote as people from outside a community (having previously lived and worked within it) giving insights into how those communities could continue to live as God’s people. What is clearly evident from all these examples is the great value of objective input and evaluation from somebody without an axe to grind, who is not directly involved or affected by the conflict issues. There is clear biblical precedent that ‘consulting’ to a church by spending time with the people and then, as someone outside the community, providing prayerful recommendations and strategies for how best to approach the issues at hand is a process that began back in Moses’ time and was a regular part of the activities of the leaders of the early church. What is so surprising is that it has taken us this long to rediscover it!
But I still don’t see why WE should have one…
Up until this point, the main thing that we have established is that there are biblical precedents for carrying out church consultancies. It is another thing altogether to provide cogent reasons why a church might consider actually having a consultancy itself.
It will help!
First and foremost, church consultants seek to help the church function more as God intended, in particular, to deal with issues within the body that may be having some restrictive or negative influence on the church’s ability to minister effectively to its own community. Consultants have a heart for helping the church grow—and this will often also extend to suggesting ways in which existing positive ministries can be further enhanced.
Outside perspective, specialised skills
As both Moses and the Israelites found when it came to solving disputes, sometimes the perspective an outsider brings is all that is needed to unlock a range of potential ways of dealing with an issue that have become obscured people the people involved are too closely caught up in the situation itself. Sometimes we become so emotionally entrenched in our conflicts that we lose the capacity to see the real issues. This is when godly wisdom from outside can be valuable, enabling those who are alienated to gain a biblical perspective that they otherwise might not see.
In one consultancy I was involved with, the church had divided into two broad power groups. This was affecting almost every aspect of the church’s life, including strategic decisions that needed to be made on its future building and ministry needs. The division related to events that had occurred over ten years earlier, but had never been openly talked about between the parties involved. During the consultancy, an invitation was given for the key people affected by the incident to come together for a time of sharing and reconciliation. Those who came did so with hearts ready for healing. As people shared, information emerged about both facts and motivations that had been wrongly assumed or interpreted. Numbers of people confessed and sought forgiveness from each other, and significant restoration of relationships took place. This has had a ripple effect through the broader church. But the comment that sticks in my mind was one made by a key person involved: ‘We should have done this years ago.’
Why didn’t they? I would suggest two reasons. The first is that they were all so much part of it that it was almost impossible for one of the people involved to suggest anything as radical as a reconciliation meeting. People had become so entrenched in their positions that the ability or will to conceive of, let alone commence, an appropriate healing process had become largely compromised. In addition to this, however, I suspect that all of those affected by this issue would have agreed that even if they had wanted to, no-one involved would have felt capable of facilitating the meeting in a safe, impartial and godly way. This was something that needed the input of an outsider, and one who was experienced and skilled in dealing with this kind of situation.
Consultants can bring fresh perspectives to seemingly intractable situations. They provide a level of objectivity, and come with no specific agenda other than to be of service to God’s people by helping them be healthier as a body of believers, both in terms of their effectiveness in witnessing to the world around them and in terms of how they live in community with each other. They bring specific gifts and skills to a church that may not reside within the people making up that community or, if they do, may not be used because these people may be perceived as being biased in the way that they will use them.
The biblical principle of evaluation
The Bible makes it clear that evaluation is a healthy thing.
God evaluates our conduct. Whilst this is not the basis on which He accepts us into His kingdom (Eph. 2:8-10), He seeks that we obey His commands as a mark of our love for Him, and if we do so, we will find God revealing more and more of Himself to us (John 14:21).
We are also called to evaluate our own conduct, both personally and as a group of believers. We can tend towards self-deception (Prov.16:2), whereas Paul challenged the Corinthians to ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!’ (2 Cor.13:5) Sometimes our expressed beliefs and conduct may be at odds with each other. We may tend towards legalism over grace, love and forgiveness. Paul tells us we should be constantly evaluating each other. If this is happening within the church community, then so much the better. But sometimes it is only an outsider, with a fresher eye to see and a greater freedom to speak, who will be able to make the observations that we within the community cannot.
Church consultancies help us to evaluate ourselves. They help us to understand ourselves both individually and as a corporate body of believers. A consultant’s observations may simply restate things that we already know, but in a different way that makes them more powerful, more easily understood or more able to be acted upon.
Consultants may challenge established ways of thinking or doing things to consider whether or not change is appropriate or desirable, or to see how things that are done well in the church can be done even better. Without consultancies, this evaluation process may never take place, whether through busyness, complacency, exhaustion, division or by sheer force of personality of those opposed to evaluation as a matter of principle. Initiating a consultancy may be the escape valve to unlock that situation.
The potential for encouragement
We Christians, like all other human beings, long for encouragement. This is well recognised by the writer to the Hebrews, who says: ‘And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Heb.10:24-25). These words might normally be thought of as directed at a group of believers belonging to the one church. But are they any less appropriate for the travelling evangelist, the missionary speaker, or, indeed, the church consultant? Every church consultant I know is motivated by a heartfelt desire to build up and encourage the church that they are visiting. Even if consultants ultimately suggest changes or makes recommendations that may be hard for some to accept, they, like other servants of God, seek to encourage and build up the body of believers through the process.
Whilst it is true that sometimes we have an overly glowing view of ourselves, it is equally true within the church that we are most adept at self-criticism, sometimes to debilitating effect. Being so aware of the high calling to which we aspire, we may become despondent when our hopes are not fully realised, and we focus on our failings to the point of losing sight of our strengths and potential. Again, largely due to their objectivity, consultants can be wonderful sources of encouragement, focussing our minds on the positive potential of our church family and its ministry both within and outside the body of believers. In this nation of knockers in which we live, that’s not such a bad thing!
Bruce Burgess is involved in church consultancies with Christian Growth Ministries and the Baptist Union of NSW. He has a legal background and is presently completing an M.A. in Christian Studies at Morling College, NSW.
© Bruce Burgess (1 July 2001)