Wisdom from Lyle Schaller

“Lyle Schaller changed my ministry.”  Those words can be echoed by thousands of pastors and ministry leaders across North America, most of whom never met Lyle Schaller personally but have been influenced over the last 40+ years by his prolific writing, speaking and consulting. He is the single most respected congregational consultant in America and one of the most astute observers of pastors and the changing American religious landscape.


While Lyle Schaller still lives in a Chicago suburb,  his active days as a consultant, writer and speaker have drawn to a close.  But the wisdom and insight of Schaller lives on through his body of work that includes 55 books (over two million copies in print),  another 41 books for which he was the series editor, over 300 issues of The Parish Paper and hundreds of other magazine and journal articles. Six weeks ago, a collection of his writings, based on 25 questions asked by pastors, was released by his long time publisher Abingdon and it is a treasury of wisdom for leaders in ministry.

The first four chapters of the book include a review of Lyle’s life and the major influences that help shape his perspective and approach to his work.  The remaining chapters answer 25 questions including these: How Do I Follow a Long-Term Pastor? What Are the Most Important Staffing Mistakes To Avoid? What’s the best Way to Introduce Change in My Church? Why Is It So Hard to Turn a Church That Has Plateaued in Attendance?  and When Do I Know It’s Time to Resign?

According to Warren Bird, the book’s editor, Schaller’s insights are as “relevant and fresh today as when he first inked them. His focus is generally on the reasons behind ministry decisions, principles of why churches do or don’t want to grow, and how church leaders can better anticipate ‘tomorrow’ in our congregational planning. These issues remain just as relevant from one decade to the next.”

I agree with Warren. Lyle’s work goes so much beyond information about churches and pastoral leadership.  It is genuine wisdom and when Warren contacted me over a year ago about the book and described its format, I have been eagerly awaiting the finished product.  The book was released almost three weeks ago and here are just a few of the key insights from Wisdom From Lyle Schaller.

★     A congregation’s size determines much of its behavior, organizational structure and decisions.  Size is the single most significant factor in identifying differences among congregations.

★     The two most important questions for any church and its leaders are “What year is it?” and “What year will next year be?”

★     You can learn more by listening than by talking, more by asking questions than offering answers.

★     You can’t really effectively provide fully informed decisions on any kind of action or strategy, such as a ministry plan for a congregation, unless you first have a diagnosis. Too many congregations try to establish a ministry plan out of thin air.

★     What you believe influences what you do.

★     The small church is not  a miniature version of the large congregation. The small congregation is to the megachurch what the village is to the large central city. They are different orders of God’s creation.

★     You will be tempted to hire the best staff you can, but the first trait you are looking for in staff is character above skill.

★     Leaders should accept the responsibility for stating the question. Whoever frames the issues, influences how people will respond.

★     The five steps of introducing change are: address the status quo and draw a contrast between a vision of a new tomorrow and contemporary reality; enlist supportive allies who are discontented with the status quo; create a plan for the change; obtain approval and implementation of the change based on who will be affected by the change; recognize which changes are one time only and which are permanent or institutionalized.

★     The most serious shortage in our society is for skilled transformational leaders who possess the capability to initiate planned changed from within an organization.

★     The most persuasive single explanation of why small-membership churches tend to remain on a plateau in size or decline slowly, rather than grow in numbers, is based on a theory of group life. The typical small-membership church often resembles an overgrown small group. The face to face contact of the members with one another, rather than the shared institutional goals, a well-managed organizational structure, or an extensive program is what draws and holds people together.  There is an obvious limit on the number of people who can be included, and feel included, in any such group.

★     The biggest barrier to mission and outreach…in the middle sized congregation…is the tendency for the members to see it as a small church and to engage in counterproductive behavior.

★     Most Protestant congregations find it easier to receive new members than to assimilate them into the fellowship and to help these new members gain a sense of belonging. Therefore, the second most important question to be raised in developing a church growth strategy in large congregations concerns the congregation’s ability to assimilate new members.

★     The quality of the teaching ministry can be measured by a two-part question. Does the teaching ministry of your congregation result in the transformation of the lives of the participants and in helping people grow in the faith?

★     There are only two good reasons who anyone should be asked to contribute money to the church. The first is to help promote the giver’s spiritual growth…the second reason is even simpler. Christian discipleship is Christian stewardship.

★     Is this a kingdom-building congregation or primarily a congregation-building church?

★     Many leaders are more comfortable studying issues such as real estate, staffing, money and schedules than they are reflecting on more intangible and subjective questions such as identity, purpose, role and God’s call.

★     Most of the time the majority will favor a continuum of the present conditions over change…The Biblical narrative is the story of God’s repeated intervention into the world to change the status quo. The Bible is not a brief for maintaining the status quo…or of leaders waiting for the majority to tell them what to do.

★     When someone proposes a new idea, decide how it should be handled. If you ant it rejected, refer it to a standing committee. If you decide it needs refining and improving, send it to a special study committee.  If it has obvious merit and deserves to be implemented, create a special ad hoc committee and direct its members to turn that new proposal into reality.

★     Instead of designing staffing configurations for congregations on the assumption, “We have a scarcity of gifted pastors,” design a variety of new configurations on the assumption “We enjoy an abundance of gifted, deeply committed, and skilled laypersons.”

★     At least one-third, and perhaps as many as one-half, of all Protestant church members do not feel a sense of belonging to the congregation of which they are members. They have been received into membership, but have never felt they have been accepted into the fellowship circle.

★     The congregation must be conceptualized as a passing parade of groups, classes, people, choirs, circles, cells, task forces, and officers, not as a permanent collection of individuals.

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