Classical Consultants

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Years ago I needed some advice and I called to talk to a Home Missions regional leader. I started the conversation by saying, “I’m not sure what I need, but I do know that I don’t want you to try to sell me the latest program that Home Missions is promoting.” To his credit the person I called was not offended. He was helpful -- though at the end of our conversations he did check to confirm that he had not ‘sold’ me anything. As tactless as it was, I think my approach illustrates an issue with many of the “helps” available to congregations. Most function as consultants and represent organizations that have their own aims, interests that may not be in sync with the needs of the congregation asking for help. That is just one issue raised by a consultant based approach to helping congregations.

In my last post I suggested that classes (and congregations) do not have clear expectations when they create new staff positions. That may be one reason many classical staff positions seem to be falling by the wayside. Another reason might rest in the nature of the positions; they cannot help but function as consultants. By consultant I mean a person who is invited by congregation to assess their needs and offer advice that will help them move forward. I do think there is a need for people who do this, but at a classical level this approach comes with challenges.

One is the issue I’ve already mentioned, consultants come with their own interests. Some may want to argue that this is not really the way a consultant ought to operate, but it happens. A friend once pointed out that the mission statements of many southern Ontario Christian Reformed Churches all sound the same, and that these churches all had the same person leading them through the visioning process. That conflict might not be as evident with a classical ministry, youth or diaconal consultant, but each will come with their own interests.  While the needs of a particular congregation might range from conflict resolution to visioning, no one person will be skilled in each of these areas and a resource person will tend to view the congregation through his or her own area of expertise.

Another issue is basic access. The four people I know who have functioned in different classical staff positions all reported the same frustration; they have a hard time getting in the door. They offered different reasons for this. Some thought it was because they were not ordained and pastors do not trust anyone who is not in the club. Other think it is because youth or diaconal ministry do not have enough visibility with church councils. I think the reason might be a little more basic; most of these positions come with very little authority. A classis can say they have a person available to help a church in some aspect of ministry, but that doesn’t mean the churches will seek that person’s help. To become someone churches will turn to, a staff person will need to spend a great deal of time building relationships with a constantly rotating congregational leadership base. Even when relationships are built the authority remains personal. The classical staff person can offer advice and even help a congregation make a plan, but can do very little to ensure that plan is followed up on. Even this can only be done with congregations healthy enough to know they need help. A classical staff person will have little or no access to congregations so dysfunctional that they resist any outside assessment.

As far as I know, in our polity only one set of people have the authority to poke their noses into a church’s business without being invited.  These are the church visitors.  But, that raises another set of questions. 

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It is a surprise to me that church visitors can poke their noses into a church without being invited by the council.  It would likely be a great offense to do so.   Be that as it may, church visitors in my experience often seem to lack the experience or training or motivation they need to be objective servants to a church in which they have no basic authority or involvement.  In my experience, when situations are relatively smooth, and they come to assist with visioning or something like that, they can be of some help.  But in volatile situations they seem to have their own prejudices and assumptions which do not allow them to be as helpful as they should be.   In my experience, there was a lack of real listening by the visitors, a carelessness about the welfare of the church, and a lack of verification as to whether what they heard was real or merely a perception.  There appeared to be a lack of desire for reconciliation on the part of the church visitors as well.   They had access, but misused it.  They made insulting recommendations because of the lack of verification, and did not use discernment.   In the end, this led to people leaving the church, and to a lack of reconciliation.  It seems that the church visitors made the situation worse.   I say this  to bring awareness to the need for special skills in volatile situations.  Skills in mediation ought not to be taken for granted and assumed, but need to be learned and practiced.  They also need to be able to step outside of their own frame of reference and realize that not all churches are the same, and do not all have the same culture or background or "history", and do not fit into neat little categories.  I'm sure that some church visitors do better than others, but the dangers of this ought not to be underestimated.  

Community Builder

You raise a good point. I have long thought classes need more staff support, but I'm not sure we quite know what form that support should take. pvk