The father of post World War II practical church consulting, Lyle Schaller, was my most significant consulting mentor and spoke prophetically into my life. He taught me amazing things about congregations, how to consult with them, and how to bring about change within them. He was way ahead of the wave of strategic leadership coaching in his ability to ask penetrating and powerful questions that led congregations to think about possibilities they had not openly considered.
He lived a full and meaningful life as the foremost church consultant in the North America for more than four decades, and served as an ongoing mentor to many people for even longer. He died in the spring of 2015 just a month short of his 92nd birthday.
In the early years of forming my approach to consulting with congregations, I based many things I did on his writings. As I approached strategic planning with congregations, I was especially impressed by his book, The Local Church Looks to the Future, which was first published in 1968. That is, until I met Lyle in 1978 and began receiving training and mentoring directly from him.
One day I was sitting at lunch with Lyle at the Yokefellow Institute in Richmond, IN. I praised him for the training I was receiving that week. Then I indicated what I was learning was contradictory to his book, The Local Church Looks to the Future. Lyle indicated I was right. He did not believe what he wrote in that book any more.
“But, Lyle,” I said. “I saw this book for sale in a bookstore within the past two weeks.”
“Oh, I believe in eating,” proclaimed Lyle. “I have not asked my publisher to withdraw any books from store shelves. I have just moved on beyond that and do not believe what I said in that book. It does not work.”
He went on to explain that too many congregations read his book, appointed a committee, and gave them the task of coming up with a written mission, purpose, core values, and vision. They brought forward long documents describing these, and were then weary and stopped their planning efforts without ever taking positive, forward action.
His intention was that congregations would be inspired to engage in transformational ministry action that would increase their vitality and vibrancy. This did not happen, so he knew what he thought and felt was the ideal did not work in real life.
He then changed his approach to focus on action-oriented ministry, and then reflection on what vision God might be seeking to impart to and through the congregation. This perspective changed my approach over the years. It did not lessen the importance of vision. It only changed the approach to it and the timing for seeking to acquire it.
I continue to understand the extreme importance of being captivated by God’s vision. I now know it is not the first thing that needs to happen in the vast majority of congregational situations I encounter.
Implications for Your Congregation
My exchange almost 40 years ago with Lyle Schaller has many implications for congregations. Here are a few.
First, it is not as important that you have a well crafted, written statement of vision as it is that you are captivated by God’s vision for your congregation. Empowering actions that create forward ministry progress are more important than an exceptional statement of vision. Words will come when it is time.
Second, while being captivated by God’s vision for your congregation is the most important element of the forward movement of your congregation, it is not the first thing you need to focus on when seeking to make forward ministry progress. It may be the second, third, or fourth. It depends.
Third, if you do not engage in actions that result in forward ministry progress, even the most articulate statement of vision will be worthless. It is not what you say you feel led to do, it is what you do that makes the difference. Talk is still cheap. Actions still speak louder than words.
Fourth, people who are gifted in crafting an inspiring vision statement may not be good at taking the actions they imply. People who are gifted in taking actions that fulfill God’s vision might not be able to write a coherent vision statement. Congregations need both types of spiritual gifts and skills, and need to celebrate both types of people.