Church consultations have been an institution since the mid-1980s. They are a significant revenue stream for church consultants. However, these paid consulting assignments tend to be more profitable if they are short and provide only a few pages of recommendations; so consultants are under enormous pressure to sell their clients the shortest possible engagement in order to maximize revenues. The most cost-effective project that provides limited (or no) assistance is not one that many churches can afford.

Every ministry has some type of major challenge that needs to be addressed with courageous leadership and creative solutions. Few of these challenges will be resolved on their own: Leaders must “pursue holiness” if their church is to get well or advance to a new level of health. So it’s no wonder that consultants earn their annual fee by helping the church overcome certain obstacles that stand between the current reality and its God-given potential. While it’s great when churches can generate some internal energy that gives them the momentum to push forward, these circumstances are not always present or even possible. Sometimes you just need help from someone who isn’t part of your system. That’s where a consultant comes in.

Consulting services vary considerably, as do the outcomes of the consulting process. In my experience, the failure rate of consulting projects tends to be high because too little effort is given to the most important preliminary step: establishing alignment. It takes time, energy and expertise to form consensus around the elements necessary to make progress, which should include agreement about key points of view regarding any substantive issues that may arise over the course of the consultation. There is a saying that is applicable here: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” When I first heard that phrase I wondered how will could accomplish what seems unattainable. After all, willpower is hard to manifest. If it wasn’t, we would all be wealthy and muscular by now! When applied to a church, will means faith or conviction regarding a desired outcome. This kind of thinking leads to action, rather than procrastination. For example, church leaders might decide to share a mutual commitment to finding new ways to accomplish strategic objectives, or to resolve the friction within a key ministry area or other intrachurch strife.

Churches shouldn’t accept engagement terms from the consultant that might restrict needed flexibility or stifle candid conversation with respect to conflicted parties, nor those which place undo emphasis on establishing milestones according to a rigid schedule.

Just as every business seeks to establish clear goals to guide decision making, the process works just as effectively for churches. Without a roadmap, most churches will have trouble figuring out the best way to address key issues. For example, say there is a board or council which meets regularly during the week and puts more stock into members’ opinions than in their advice and counsel. This can derail the entire church because people in positions of authority can lose sight of the fact that they are accountable for results. Similarly, if a pastor reports that the congregation lacks focus because people are focusing on their individual gifts rather than working together for shared purposes (e.g., ministry), then this misalignment can cripple the church’s ability to act as a single entity.

Two years ago I worked with a pastor and a small team on a major problem they were having in resolving disagreement between different factions. Sadly, the efforts were insufficient to achieve unity or consensus among members. What was missing was an attempt by the leader to lead rather than manage the situation. He tried very hard but that wasn’t enough, largely because he didn’t give direction when the confrontation had reached a dangerous level. Had he led the transition with an expert, the conflict might have been lessened and eventually reconciliation and alignment around the major issues might have occurred earlier.

It’s equally troublesome when consultants don’t take the time to establish alignment, especially when they know that doing so is crucial to getting the client results. It’s like a car that never makes it off the starting line because something is wrong and prevents the transmission from moving the vehicle forward. There are ample opportunities for a consultant to use time, energy and money wisely, while providing sufficient resources to assist the client organization reach a better position through improved decision making, setting aside differences in opinion, overcoming old wounds and more. But a consultant cannot move mountains without a clear mandate from the client. That’s why the first stage of the consulting process–that is, establishing alignment–is essential to sucecss.