Whether you believe it is an unattributed proverb, a saying of Abraham Maslow or Abraham Kaplan, many of us know the statement, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
I have long wondered what a congregation looks like if all you have is a hammer. How do you lead a congregation with only a hammer? If every congregation looks like a nail does that mean every congregation is really the same at its core, and that there are no real differences?
It is like the pastor who only knows how to get a church moving forward by getting them involved in a new building program, or starting a new worship service, or hiring a superstar youth minister, or becoming a missional congregation. If all you know is one way to do ministry, then every congregation needs the same call to action. For example, if your hammer is a new building program then every congregation is a nail who needs a building campaign.
The Full Tool Kit of Outside Third-Party Providers
Can the same analysis apply to consultants, coaches, and other third-party providers to congregations? I think so.
How do you assist a congregation in their journey as an outside third-party provider if all you have is a hammer? If every congregation is a nail, then do you assist all congregations the same way regardless of their size, context, demographics, or location on the their life cycle?
As a person who has spent almost 40 years as an outside third-party provider seeking to help congregations reach their full kingdom potential, I am highly interested in this hammer and nail metaphor. In this situation, what the hammer refers to is the style or approach of a third-party provider with which they assist congregations. The nail is, of course, the congregation.
What if there is more than one style or approach to congregations? Which there is. What if there is more than one kind of congregation? Which there is. There are at least five tools or approaches third-party providers offer to congregations.
These five are chaplain, clinician, consultant, coach, and community. Some third party providers are chaplains who offer a sander that smooth things out, yet perhaps only after they have drilled deep into the congregational core. A tape measure, then a saw is offered by clinicians to help measure and precisely cut annual tactics.
Consultants are the most likely candidate to offer a hammer that nails the exact things a congregation needs. Coaches offer a measuring level or plumb line to help congregations experience the proper balance. Peer learning communities offer a wood plane or lathe to craft the best practices of congregations.
The only problem with these understandings of the five third-party approaches is that the focus is on the third-party providers and not on the congregation. Ultimately that is the wrong focus. If third party-providers focus on who they are and what they want to provide, the client relationship is upside down.
Third-party providers need to start with the congregation. Is the congregation primarily a nail, a board, a piece of sheet rock, wallpaper, or many other possible things? What does the congregation look like? Do you have the right tool to address their greatest need or opportunity?
The ultimate theological question is one of in whose image are you seeking to help the congregation to be made or remade? If it is anything except God’s image, it is the wrong image. If it is the image of the sander or drill of a chaplain, it is the wrong image. If it is the measuring tape or saw of the clinician, it is the wrong image. The hammer of the consultant does not work. A level and plumb line of the coach is wrong for congregations who cannot be coached. Crafting with a wood plane for congregations who only know mediocre practices is the wrong tool for the wrong congregation.
Probably a third-party provider at least needs a Swiss Army Knife to symbolize different tools for different situations. But how do you know? How does the third-party provider know? How does the congregation know from whom to seek assistance?
Often congregations go with a friend, or someone with a positive image, or the newest thing regardless of whether or not it is a fit for their congregation. Perhaps they are a nail. If so a sander, saw, tape measure, level, plumb line, or wood plane will not work.
Next: The Growing Panacea Around Coaching: Good News or Bad News?