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.