church consultants actually contribute way less than this little guy
Reading Time: 8 minutes A jackal in Tanzania. (Colin Watts.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Of late, I’ve noticed a new cottage industry booming amidst the decline of Christianity: church consultants. And y’all, I’m just fascinated by this industry. Church consultants perform many functions for church leaders, from crafting and executing surveys to creating evangelism plans to coming up with ways to stop a church from decline and closure. Many even subcontract out their services to bigger Christian organizations. And yet somehow, Christianity declines anyway. Today, let me show you the jackals squabbling over their religion’s dying body, and why they can’t actually help their clients survive their religion’s decline.

church consultants actually contribute way less than this little guy
A jackal in Tanzania with ear. game. on. POINT. Cuter and way more useful to our world than today’s topic. (Colin Watts.)

What Church Consultants Are.

Thousands of churches fail every year, with that number only growing as more and more people check out of Christianity. Church consultants seek to profit from those failures. Almost all church consultants seek to help their clients’ churches grow.

They function as sort of catch-all subcontractors who perform various services for client churches. Almost all of these functions revolve around decline somehow — preventing it, fixing it, and moving past it once their plans fail anyway. They create evangelism and church-marketing plans, figure out new ways to perform weekly church services that might interest new recruits, and counsel church leaders to improve their management styles (to hopefully improve retention).

Church consultants might flog a particular preset strategy for churches to follow, or else they might work one-on-one with client pastors to craft a specific strategy. Sometimes consultants try to inflate the current flocks with rah-rah, while at other times they only work directly with the pastor — who will then try to inflate the flocks with rah-rah.

This profession has existed for quite some time — centuries, according to this paper from Regent University (so take that info for what it’s worth). And in all that time, it sounds like the criticisms of the profession have remained both steady and unresolved.

The Criticisms of Church Consultants.

Church consultants suffer from many of the same drawbacks of church leadership itself.

  • Anybody can become a church consultant — there’s no barrier at all to entry. In fact, there’s no way whatsoever to ensure that a given consultant knows anything of value or can do anything useful.
  • Church consultants offer churches very little that might be considered of tangible value. Even the consultants themselves don’t keep real track of their own successes and failures.
  • They lack integrity, according to that paper (which might indicate that they’re dishonest about what they can do for a church and how effective their work is).
  • Perhaps most damningly, they are either unwilling or unable to change anything mentioned above.

Perhaps because of those industry failings, many tens of thousands of consults work in the United States today. Many dozens of schools and colleges even offer formal courses and training in the matter. However, as I noted above, nobody has to do anything to get started.

Hilariously, groups like “Society for Church Consulting” offer official certification. Their official guide to “Consultant Training” tells us, on p. 21, that a church consultant can gain that certification after already having been active in the industry. Imagine if a doctor could get a license well after beginning practice! That’s about normal for this field, however.

If you’re curious, their certification mostly involves paying them money for membership and training, writing a short essay, and providing them three ministers’ references. Consultants must also solemnly promise to follow the group’s ethics code.

Oops, They Accidentally Forgot Effective Results.

As far as I can tell, no watchdog or outside third-party group exists to monitor this profession — much less is authorized to stop a more-incompetent-than-usual consultant from doing business. Every church consultant society/group/whatever sells services and training. So they all suffer from a conflict of interest problem that can be seen from the stratosphere.

Perhaps because of the huge amount of self-interest in operation in this field, very little research exists about church consultancy at all. So even less research exists to support the idea that these consultants do any good at all for their clients. This news will surprise absolutely nobody who’s left church culture.

I did find one interesting study discussed on Hartford Institute’s site. Their writer asked about the overall effectiveness of church consultants. The answer they came up with will also surprise nobody who’s left church culture:

The quick answer:   Yes – but typically only in the short term. [. . .]

In a study by C. Kirk Hadaway, he suggests that consultations are the “mainline equivalent of a revival” — they can boost membership growth, but growth tapers off as enthusiasm wanes.

That study occurred some years ago (probably in the 00s) and involved only 208 churches from only one sorta-mainline denomination (Disciples of Christ). But Hadaway’s conclusions (expanded in this excerpted book chapter he wrote) sound solid all the same.

The Jackals in the Sheepfold.

Largely, it seems like church consultants themselves create a lot of hype around what they can do for church leaders. Church leaders, meanwhile, believe this hype because gosh, why would a fellow Christian say anything but the utter truth at all times?

Then, when their church consultant doesn’t help them achieve miraculous long-term results, you can absolutely bet the consultant will blame them and their flocks for not following through correctly on the advice given.

You can see the same dynamics in the “oily mom” communities. Some women get obsessed with essential oils as quack snake-oil cures for absolutely everything. They join like-minded groups on social media sites (especially Facebook).

When any illness or ailment comes up, everyone in these “oily mom” groups starts suggesting their favorite cure-alls. It’s just how they operate. It wouldn’t even occur to them to seek outside testing of their ideas, much less to demand it, nor to seek qualified help for their medical needs. And because these snake-oils are so tightly bound up in their belief system and pushed so hard by people they esteem in their faith communities, it’s doubly hard for “oily moms” to critically examine why they’re stuffing oregano oil down their sick kids’ throats.

church consultants are snake oil vendors
Church consultants operate in exactly the same ways, is what I’m saying.

(Obligatory PSA: Never ingest essential oils or put them on your skin, or diffuse them around pets and/or children.)

Similarly, when a church seems to be ailing, it just seems like the thing to do to pick up one’s phone to dial up a church consultant for help.

Those Who Can’t Pastor, Consult.

It seems to me that Christian leaders who can’t be pastors (for whatever reason) turn to church consultation instead. Consultation is, by its nature, an extremely short-term gig with an extremely pointed focus. By the nature of the job, consultants therefore don’t contend much at all with a pastor’s routine daily slogs and cares and duties.

Nor do church consultants need to personally worry about how effective their advice is in the short or long term. They get their money regardless. Whatever happens after they jet off to the next gig isn’t their problem. Their client pastors might be sweating bullets over their church membership rolls, but none of that growth or decline personally impacts the consultant.

So church consultants get a big heady rush of leadership and deference without actually having to tend and grow a regular flock of followers. In other words, there’s no worry about accountability at all in the profession. And nobody seems likely to start holding church consultants accountable, either.

Writing Themselves An Escape Clause.

Thom Rainer might well be the 600-pound gorilla in the field of church consultancy nowadays. He’s been plowing the fields for his entrance to this industry for many years. (Seriously, I’ve never seen a Christian promote himself so relentlessly.) Now that he’s retired from LifeWay Christian Resources, he’s turned his hand to this field full-time. He operates a business called Church Answers, where he hopes to sell his services to client pastors.

If you’re wondering, the answers are: “Hire me and give me money, but don’t hold me accountable for whatever you get from me.” And I think that because of what Thom Rainer himself reveals about the limits of his abilities. In January 2018, for example, he wrote this:

Church consultants can be very valuable and effective for churches if they are used well.

Rainer goes on to offer a couple of different lists of what to expect from a church consultant. And I couldn’t help but notice that Rainer indicates something I’ve seen repeatedly throughout my study of church consultancy as a field: it’s almost impossible to get church congregations to change their behavior for the long term.

Even if their leaders seek help well before the church’s impending closure when there’s still a shot at reversing their decline, even if the church consultant in question offers good ideas and helps craft a decent strategy, and even if the congregation’s on board with those ideas in the first place, the flocks don’t tend to be able to stick with any new ideas for long. Before too long, they always slide back to their previous mindset and behavior.

(Hey, you remember the church consultant who wanted to kick all the Boomers out of his client’s church? That’s largely why he wanted to do that.)

NOT Adapting, NOT Improvising, And NOT Overcoming.

What’s really funny is that it doesn’t look like demand’s really increased all that much for church consultants. Obviously it’s enough to support enough of them that their fellow hucksters seek to enter the field as well, but it’s just striking how little these consultants impact their religion as a whole.

To hear them tell it, they’re out there bustin’ ass and revitalizin’ their little hearts out every single day. And yet here we are with Christianity only declining faster and further every year than anybody could have imagined ten years ago.

One evangelical researcher, Will Mancini, thinks many pastors don’t trust church consultants much and think they’re too expensive for what they actually do. (If so, they’re the smart cookies here.) He also has some interesting data to present regarding web searches that indicates that interest in the field is only declining. I thought I’d graph his queries out to 2020, since he only goes up to 2009. However, the trend still looks about the same.

church consulting - not much shift in demand
Church consulting trends.

For comparison, here’s “church revitalization.”

church revitalization trends
Church revitalization trends. Notice it didn’t even exist as a phrase till Christianity began its decline, around 2006? The power of marketing, folks.

So it seems like either the number of consultants themselves has vastly increased and expanded, or they’re flogging their services in a much more visible manner. Either way, it doesn’t look like demand’s increased much for their services.

It’s funny to me to imagine more and more of them fighting over an ever-shrinking pie. Reminds me a lot of missionaries and other such Christian leaders in general.

And that brings us to our last point today.

The Endgame.

Christianity faces its endgame now in terms of relevance and dominance. So yes, church consultants will only proliferate more in coming years — much like their kissin’ cousins, apologetics books and seminars. The vultures and jackals creep closer and closer to this ginormous dying beast, eager to nick and slice away whatever morsels they can before their victim even fully dies.

Of course, unlike vultures and jackals these particular scavengers don’t actually contribute much to the biosphere. But they do make for good bellwethers telling us where Christianity is in terms of its lifespan.

Church consultants are simply a sign of Christianity’s future. If their religion was at all healthy or capable of reversing its own decline, it would not need them. Christians themselves need to be right there in that reversal, and very obviously — even according to the hucksters themselves — they just aren’t.

So this is good news too, in a big way. 

NEXT UP: Exactly how to revive a dying church — or, well, not. And then, how that worked with a secular group I was involved with once. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...