Congregational needs—particularly around issues of vision, discernment and staffing—often precipitate discussion about the need for a consultant. Consultants (or more accurately, consultation) comes in many forms. Sometimes consultation is conversational—with some of the work being done through exchange of information via email, Skype or video-conferencing. Some congregations attend seminars hosted by consulting firms; frequently, a consultant can offer information and insights that can provoke change and new direction. At other times, congregations hire a consultant directly, in which case the consultant comes to live in the community for a time, perhaps conducting interviews, and then offers at the end a list of recommendations.

Consultative work has been around a long time now, and there are certainly gifts and processes a consultant can bring to the table, particularly with struggling congregations. A newer approach—one that congregations are leaning toward more frequently—is coaching.

Let’s have a look at what each of these approaches offer and how they differ.

First, when considering a consulting firm, congregations should keep in mind they are first and foremost hiring an expert. A consultant is someone who has a wealth of knowledge, practical experience or background (at least in theory). Great consultants will come prepared to share charts and graphs, statistics and studies, and likely will have their pulse on trends and cultural developments that impact the church. As such, a consultant is one who brings this knowledge into the community, and then through his or her discernment and study of the situation and the people offers a new course of action or a recommendation to the church leadership.

Congregations that hire consultants should be aware that consultants are going to ask questions such as, “Who are you (as a congregation)?” “What direction are you going?” “What gifts, challenges and stresses are impacting the congregation?” “What needs to happen, or what steps need to be taken in order to achieve the goals of the congregation?”

These are just a few of the questions consultants might ask, but at the heart, the consultant will be the one doing the discernment, asking the vision questions, and finding solutions to difficult questions such as church growth, outreach, staffing and church structure and systems. The consultant will be the one coming in from the outside who will see things those on the inside cannot see, have overlooked or chosen to ignore. Consultants can be regarded as heroes or goats.

If the consultant makes the recommendations the congregation wants to hear, these usually are adopted. If the consultant makes recommendations that are difficult to accept or too cumbersome to bear, often the consultative work goes for naught and the work is scrapped.

Consultants bring knowledge and honesty into the mix. They also bring an outside viewpoint, which often is lacking in congregations that have become closed or small in their thinking and approach. On the other hand, consultants also carry high expectations—and often a high price tag—and frequently congregations do not cooperate with the outsider who is making the recommendations for change. A consultant, if not utilized properly, can become another step in a process that is going nowhere. It is essential that church leadership—lay and clergy—are together in the process. Without a desire to adopt the consultative recommendations or to cooperate with the consultant, the enterprise is doomed from the start. Likely, this will be a high-priced boondoggle.

Another option congregations are looking to with more frequency is coaching.

What is coaching, and how does it differ from consultation?

Here, it is important to see how these approaches differ. Remember, with consultation the idea is: “We are bringing in an expert from outside the congregation to help us.” With coaching, the idea is: “The expertise already exists within the congregation, but we need someone to direct and inspire us.”

Think of coaching in this manner. A congregation hires a coach to ask the questions the congregation can answer for themselves and then asks other questions that will lead the congregation and leadership to act upon the answers they discern for themselves.

Just as a coach might lead a basketball or a football team, a congregational or leadership coach can’t step on the playing field. A coach is not someone from the outside, but becomes an integral part of the team. Great coaches ask good questions and inspire teams to perform to maximum efficiency.

A great congregational coach can do the same.

Instead of asking questions about vision, purpose and systems, congregational coaches will be great listeners and will ask the right questions at the right times, allowing plenty of time for leadership to make their own suggestions and decisions that are based on sound judgment. For example, great coaches can help dysfunctional congregations and leaders see their own strengths and weaknesses. A coach can inspire churches and leaders to see what they need to do and how to do it. The coach is not the expert; the people and the leaders are the experts. After all, they are the ones who know the community best, the people best, and therefore have the solutions already inside of them. The coach is the one who can bring out these solutions and help church leaders articulate their best vision and decisions.

Coaches will ask questions such as: “What gifts and struggles do you see?” “What decisions do you need to make in order to precipitate change?” “What steps can you take this week?” “What needs to happen right now?” “Will you do it?”

Naturally, coaching is a relationship and a process just as consultation. However, the means differ, as do the ends sometimes.

With coaching, congregations often feel a sense of elation when they discover they have the gifts and graces to change direction or affect their own fate. When the people and the leadership feel they are the ones who have come to the decision or discovered the truth about themselves, then great change can occur. A new approach feels affirming when it does not come in a report, but from within and among the people. With coaching, there often can be a sense of self-discovery and enormous strength. Often, there is a sense of urgency, too.

When considering the consultation verses coaching differences, each having their strengths and weaknesses just as congregations and leaders, but if vision, purpose, direction or staffing and systems changes are needed, congregations would do well first to consider which approach would be most beneficial for their situation.

Congregations can find a consultant, but they also can find a coach. Either might work, but one is certainly more right for your situation.

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