This story is the first in a series looking at the work of the New England Parish Consultants, a team of clergy and laity with expertise to come alongside churches and help them assess God's call and how best to do ministry in their context in the 21st century.
When the Rev. Stacey Lanier was appointed to First UMC in Melrose, MA, she discovered that she had been sent to a very large church – 44,000 square feet with 4,000 square feet of parsonage – that had a very large financial problem: The church was running an annual deficit of about $100,000 that was draining the endowment.
The church had “about three or four more years [worth of funds] in the bank before they would be broke,” Rev. Lanier said. “People just didn’t have confidence that the church was going to continue to exist even.”
New to the church in 2014, Rev. Lanier said learning about the problem “was completely overwhelming to me. Not only was it a big surprise, but I couldn’t even get my mind around it.”
The Parish Consultants are a team of clergy and laity with expertise to come alongside churches and help them with things like leadership development, church revitalization, and “right-sizing.” Consultants may be called in to help churches have difficult conversations, cope with conflict, or establish a ministry presence in their community.
Rev. Barbara Lemmel, Parish Consultants coordinator, described the consultants’ work this way: “We don’t come in with a particular program for folks to do – we come in and listen, ask lots of questions, and help them figure out what do they need to do in their setting and their situation.”
Dr. Waters said churches, like First UMC, that are dealing with a “knotty issue” that has them stuck, might consider calling a consultant to help them “find a way to
have those difficult conversations.”
In this case, Dr. Waters didn’t work directly with the congregation, but rather coached Rev. Lanier through how to help the church make decisions about its property.
“[Betsy] was more than willing to come and lead that process herself, but I was new, and it was so valuable to me to do it this way, because people then saw me as the leader – even though they knew I was getting ideas from somewhere else – it just added to my credibility,” Rev. Lanier said. “When we had to actually to what we planned to do – I had to lead them to make some hard decisions.”
“She could coach me on how to be present in the situation, but she couldn’t go there for me; I had to do that myself.”
Rev. Lanier described one exercise that really seemed to help.
Members were asked to line up based on their opinions – eager to sell the property on one end and opposed to the sale on the other with those undecided or less sure at points along the middle.
Rev. Lanier then asked people why they were standing in a particular position, and they were able to briefly share their perspectives.
“We weren’t voting on anything, but people could see where other people stood,” Rev. Lanier said, “and understand it in such a way that, as we went along, people could say ‘I never thought of that. Can I move?’”
Church members could change their position in a way that didn’t cause them to lose face, she said. They used the process several times to gauge support for various options before taking a vote.
“People in the congregation identified that as the turning point in being able to move forward, because everybody who wanted to got their say,” Rev. Lanier said. “People could understand each other’s perspectives, and even if they didn’t agree, I think they could respect [the other position].”
“That was just genius,” Rev. Lanier said of the exercise. “I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
Dr. Waters said working with a coach is a great way for pastors to get some new skills or approaches for working with their congregations.
“Churches that aren’t ready, [coaching is] a good model,” Dr. Waters said. “Churches where they really are ready, and they aren’t stuck, it’s also a good model. It’s good at either end of the continuum. In the middle is where I tend to work with congregations where there’s some readiness, but the leadership needs to be equipped or unstuck.”
The congregation decided to sell the education building, which is attached to the sanctuary, and constituted about half the property; sell the old parsonage, buy a new parsonage and remodel it. The process took about four years, and, Rev. Lanier said, “it was really without any significant conflict.”
“It’s a great congregation to work with, but it’s the process that Betsy helped us design where everyone had a part in it,” she said, that made a big difference.
“We are in a time of tremendous cultural change,” Dr. Waters said. “The old rules don’t work.”
Adapting to the new reality is challenging, but everyone in the congregation doesn’t have to be on the same page at the beginning in order to get started, she said.
“If people are ready – there’s enough readiness if 10 percent of the congregation is ready, but you need to move the rest along, that’s a good time to call in a consultant,” Dr. Waters said. “A lot of places, it’s about equipping and finding small, doable next steps.”
“Having an ally who’s removed from the situation and who’s agenda is only to help you and the church succeed at what you doing, that’s just so valuable,” Rev. Lanier said.
And finding that ally is as simple as an email or phone call to the Parish Consultants coordinator.
“The initial consultation is free,” said Rev. Lemmel. “Once they start working with a consultant, there’s a charge, but to talk to me is their Mission Shares at work.
There’s no fee for figuring out whether or not you want something to happen.”
But whatever happens comes from the church, not the consultants.
“People call me up sometimes and say, ‘Come fix my church,’” she said. “I’ve literally had people say that, and I say, ‘We won’t come fix your church. We’ll come in and talk to you and figure out what you need, and help you decide how to do it.’”