There are some things the church experts speaking into pastoral leadership won't tell you.
To be clear, I believe in listening to people considered experts in their field. I serve as a consultant and coach to pastors and churches. I hope my work is helpful. Some even refer to me as an "expert" in leadership—to which I would tell them I'm still very much in the apprentice stage in many ways. I do have lots of leadership experience—good and bad.
For example, not claiming to be an expert in crisis leadership, but I once helped lead a city through a tornado recovery serving in elected office. You might want to read my posts on things to do and not to do in times of crisis leadership. Prior experience helped me lead in the pandemic.
Early in the days of the pandemic, I posted about voices that church leaders should be listening to—and voices I was listening to also. I mentioned a number of church experts in that post, so I do believe they have value.
But when the experts blog, podcast or show up at your door, there are some things they simply won't tell you. And knowing what they aren't going to tell you may help you better implement their suggestions.
Here are seven things church experts won't tell you:
1. It's hard—and there are no easy fixes. I recently tweeted: "In my experience, decisions are easier to make when you aren't the one who is actually having to make them." It was while we were making some of the hardest decisions we had to make in a pandemic. People were so divided in our church and community.
There were lots of "expert" opinions about how to capitalize on the moment and win the digital world for Christ. And I'm an advocate for all of that. I believe in it and think we should. But it wasn't that easy for most of our churches (certainly not the one I was trying to lead at the time that was over 180 years old).
I heard from so many pastors feeling the same way as me that I decided to pin the tweet to the top of my Twitter account for a while.
2. Formulas won't always work. What makes sense and seems to work for others may not work for you. It is a matter of context. The small, rural church may not be able to pivot toward a fully digital expression, for example. Even though I have said with a computer and strong internet connection I think you could change the world, that simply might not work for the people who attend Full Freedom Baptist in Knuckledown, USA. (And I just made up that church and city. I hope it isn't a real place. If so, I apologize for picking on you.)
One reason I never come into a church with an already built playbook is that I want to learn the landscape of the church first. There are "formulas" or models that work well and should be considered. I may even recommend some of them once I learn the context of the church. But the best of them won't work every time and everywhere.
3. You're not all that wrong. Sometimes when you read a blog post (maybe even one of mine) you start feeling you're doing everything wrong. Likely you are not. Sometimes a little tweak can make a huge difference. Often the answers are in the room, and it is the job of leadership to draw it out of your people.
4. They learn from you. This is huge. You have to know their expertise is coming from somewhere. I think we mistakenly believe these experts are simply geniuses who have all the right ideas. Most likely they became experts by observing 100 ministry leaders like you. They are watching what some are doing to figure out what others might or could do.
When I consult with churches, I always come back with great ideas. They pay me to pick up tricks from them. (Isn't that cool?) Collaborative learning is so important in the church and in the kingdom. And it is happening.
5. Innovation is NOT in the extremes. Again, it might be that you need a complete overhaul of your church. If nothing has changed in 20 years, it is probably time. I love to talk about church revitalization and often major changes are needed. But sometimes what has worked in the past can work again. What you need is a little more energy behind it and perhaps some new ways to celebrate it.
In church revitalization, one of my favorite encouragements has been to "rediscover; don't reinvent". Everything may not be broken.
6. They don't have a magic potion. No person does. That would be the voice of the Holy Spirit in your ear. If you hear that, run with it—fast and hard. Yet, if you have led in the church for long, you know God often allows us to wrestle through situations. I believe it is how He builds our character, keeps us on our knees and allows us to develop principles through pain that can help others (see 2 Cor. 1).
7. They are an opinion. Having served many years in the business world, let me tell you the same is true of auditors or attorneys. For that matter, it is true for church members too. Don't assume because "Expert So and So" predicts something that this is the way it will always be. It could be. Certainly, it is worth considering and filtering for context. But it isn't the "Gospel truth." It is their educated opinion—which might or might not be correct.
One reason I like to have an active role in a local church is so I stay relevant to the work actually being done. This is another leadership saying of mine: "You can't see what I see until you sit where I sit." I believe that is so true of pastoring a local church these days. Context is everything, so experts won't tell you what they simply don't know.
I intend this post as an encouragement to my fellow pastors. It is not meant to downplay the great work the outside thinkers, consultants and voices are providing—many of whom are my friends. We need them, and we need to listen to them. But we need to use them as a source of information—not the only source of information.
Ron Edmondson, as a consultant and coach for almost 20 years, has helped thousands of leaders and organizations get better. He served as CEO of Leadership Network and as a pastor. He helped revitalize two churches and planted two churches. He also has a long history in business, government and nonprofit work.
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