In recent years it has become increasingly popular for churches of differing sizes, locations, and denominational traditions to make use of consultant services to find new ministers and staff for Christian institutions. If you browse the denominational job boards of the PCA, the ACNA, and a number of other denominations, it is not uncommon when selecting the link to apply for the job to be re-directed to organizations such as McGowan Global Institute, which describes itself as offering “consultant services.” Churches seeking to fill a position can provide a profile to these services for job candidates to consider, while in turn prospective ministers can create a profile for themselves which prospective employers will then evaluate. Another example found on such job boards is Vanderbloemen Search Group, whose statement about “what makes us different” boasts mantras such as “We’re a Thought Leader” and “Speed Wins,” alongside “Theology Matters.”
A charitable way to evaluate the existence of these services, and their use by churches, might be to concede that indeed it can be difficult for many churches to fill their ministerial and staff positions, especially for churches in remote locales or without connections to a theological seminary. Ideally, some such medium for communication could enable churches and prospective ministers to find one another. Theoretically, this might even veer close to a good use of technology. I suspect that the vast majority of the people who work for these consultant services, and the churches who make use of them, are well-intended. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a church has likely found some processes or procedures that have not been handled as well as they can or should be. Churches can seriously struggle and almost always experience some numerical or financial strains during interim pastorates. Likewise, where a church mishandles or misleads a prospective job candidate through an interview and hiring process, the consequences can be vast and long-term for the candidate and their family. Hence, we can recognize that there is some real need in the church which these services are trying to meet.
However, the existence and use of these services is indicative of two problems with potentially devastating consequences. First, those who make use of these services might not have sufficiently considered what the problem actually is that these consultants are providing “solutions” for. Second, if we were to naively assume consultant services are neutral tools, we may not realize the extent to which using these tools transforms and distorts us into their own image, which can have potentially disastrous consequences where this specifically involves the church.
What is the Problem?
First, we must inquire into the nature of the ecclesial problem these consultants purport to offer solutions for. What conditions created such alienation in the first place, such that churches are not even in communication with those that the church itself is supposedly preparing for ministerial work? A pragmatist might reply to such a question by shrugging that such an inquiry ultimately is to no effect. After all, whatever the history is that led us to our current predicament, churches need to find good employees and prospective ministers are looking for jobs, so we might as well make use of these consultant services rather than navel-gazing about questions of ecclesiology or church polity. But to draw that conclusion would be to fail to recognize just how dire the crisis actually is in which we find ourselves.
A failure to understand what ails us not only will make it likely we do not find a suitable cure; furthermore, making use of the wrong solutions may exacerbate our misunderstood problems. In non-denominational and independent or Baptist denominations, where each local congregation is fully autonomous and under the governance of no extraneous body, a lack of institutional ties might lend itself towards ad hoc networking services, such as consultants. But that Presbyterians and Anglicans are apparently finding the historic institutions of the presbytery and the diocese inadequate for the task of providing the church with competent servants is a cause for concern. This trend suggests the church’s servants are no longer being nurtured in a particular place expecting to serve a particular people in that particular place. Christian institutions of higher learning, desperate for tuition to keep the doors open, are creating more online education degrees than ever, often creating graduates without any organic ties to the informal relationships and networking ties from which ministerial jobs often emerge. The church’s prospective employees are some mixture of free-agent contenders in the labor market but also somewhat orphaned, vying for the attention of churches from everywhere and nowhere in particular. As such, these aspiring servants of the church are necessarily subject to less accountability than they might find in the slow, binding ties of knowing and being known to a particular church or group of churches in a particular place, and they are tempted towards modes of operation that attract attention to oneself.
While these Christian headhunter services such as Carter Baldwin – used not only by churches but also by universities and other Christian institutions – brag about their placement rates, they rarely provide information on how their placements fare across the chances and changes of time. Since Christian institutions ostensibly are supposed to care for people in body and soul, this grotesque imbalance of priorities is almost certain to prove devastating in the long-run. A millennium ago, the ecclesial imagination was such that cathedrals were built whose duration of construction spanned more than a century, such as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Many of us today have become so captive to a different theological imagination, akin to the one that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness for immediate success and domination, that we have almost ensured that what booms today without roots or institutional integrity will bust in only a short while.
Tools that Transform Their Users
Second, churches should reconsider making use of these services because they can and do distort the nature and purpose of the church. What is revealed about the priorities of our churches, that these consultant services market themselves in the lingo of worldliness? One of these services boasts that what “sets them apart,” is precisely what makes them indistinguishable from the world. If “speed wins” in this present evil age, then to hell with fast victories. All of the parables Jesus tells in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew are about one thing, namely, how the kingdom of God comes in a cruciform way. In the estimation of the world, Jesus and his kingdom are not effective or successful; the kingdom is buried treasure, leaven hidden in a lump of dough, a seed growing imperceptibly, a field of wheat and tares intermixed – but when the kingdom comes in the person of Christ himself in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return, then what was small and despised is shown as fruitful and glorious. The Body of Christ is not a disposable start-up company; the Bride of Christ is not a business; the church of the living God – a pillar and buttress of truth – will not be consulted. The church will not be perfect in this age, and it is appropriate to nonetheless expect it to function with some basic levels of competence. But where our obsessions with immediate and tangible results or appearing attractive and popular become our functional and determinative values, our human project will have ceased to exist as the church. As Ivan Fyodorivich’s famous poem “The Grand Inquisitor” demonstrates in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the church may well become a highly efficient killing machine with no place in it even for Jesus Christ himself.
These consultant services might be far more than a neutral tool that churches and prospective ministers might use, but a powerfully transforming force that can distort both churches and ministers by re-casting them in the consultant’s image. This becomes apparent when comparing how we and the apostle Paul variously conceive of the nature and purpose of service to Christ and the church. In 2 Corinthians ch. 2, the apostle Paul describes Christian ministry as spreading the aroma of Christ as a fragrance of life and death among those who are perishing and being saved, leading Paul to cry out in exasperation “who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor 2:16–17). Where a rival group among the Corinthians apparently was undermining Paul’s credibility, Paul indicates that he does not have nor need “letters of recommendation” to commend himself to the Corinthians, because they themselves “are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (3:3. In short, “we are not sufficient in ourselves,” but rather God himself “has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:5). The slow process of human transformation through intimate relationships, whereby the Holy Spirit realizes Christ’s presence in us, is crucial but not yet Paul’s strangest appeal for his commendation to the Corinthians.
The gospel of the crucified and risen Lord necessitates that the nature of identifiably Christian ministry is a sharing in Christ’s cruciform weakness and resurrection life. Paul’s “new covenant” ministry and sufficiency eschews self-congratulatory triumphalism. Elsewhere, Paul writes “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:15). At present, having this ministry only by the mercy of God, Paul declares about his ministry “but we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2). The treasure of this ministry concerning new creation, and through which God in Christ appeals to the world for cosmic reconciliation, is at present hidden in frail, impermanent, earthen vessels (4:7; 5:17–21). At present, this looks like the corpse of Jesus being born in our bodies, “so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (4:10). Later in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s theological vision elicits an apostolic resume that should scandalize our contemporary consultants and churches in search for fast success:
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything…
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 6:3–11; 11:21–31)
Paul tells us that he violently persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it (Gal. 1:13). He was apparently less talented at oratory than his rivals in Corinth, Apollos was apparently cooler than Paul, and Paul’s name went through the muck-raking of the social rumor gossip mill. Paul himself reports to the Corinthians that “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4) as Paul’s sole message concerned “a crucified messiah” (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2). Paul heard a word from the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Are we able to say with Paul in response, “therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9–10)?
While it is entirely appropriate to expect ministers to demonstrate an appropriate degree of qualifications for ministerial work, there is a difference between that and distinguishing oneself. To be clear, when ministerial work is mishandled by unqualified church leaders, there are ruinous consequences in a wide web of inter-connected souls in churches and Christian institutions; that is why a servant’s life and doctrine are becoming of a Christ follower, and that churches refrain from “hastily” laying on of hands in ordination (1 Tim 5:22). In the second chapter of “The Rule of St. Benedict” from the 6th century, in order “to be qualified to govern” the abbot “must always remember that he will be held accountable on Judgment Day for his teaching and the obedience of his charges” and “show them by deeds, more than by words, what is good and holy.” Yet, we are tempted to confuse or conflate distinctively Christian qualifications for ministerial service with an appearance of prestige or success. In so doing, we will subject our churches and their leaders to a tyranny of efficiency and instant gratification that corrodes the nature and purpose of Christian ministry. If our institutional processes exist to supply what the market demands, churches and Christian institutions will scarcely nurture servants who have imbibed Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, or who embody the virtues of courage, patience, and a merciful heart demanded by Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls.
Notably, Paul does not end 2 Corinthians by writing about how on our own we are weak, but Christ makes us strong. Rather, Paul writes, we enter into a new kind of weakness in Christ. We share in Christ’s cruciform service to God and others, and we participate in his resurrection life, for “[Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4). It is unclear to what extent any consultant service could make use of a resume like Paul’s, or really any prospective minister interested in boasting to the churches of the world about weakness. I fear even more so to inquire whether our churches are actually interested in having God’s power made perfect in our human weakness, or whether we want something else.
For all of the discussion of evangelical obsession with political power and domination, such as the conversations generated by Kristin du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne or Christianity Today’s podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” there has nonetheless been a contemporary evangelical counter-testimony – one that, sadly, has far too often gone unheeded. There have been popular books such as A Place for Weakness by Michael Horton, and the 2018 gem from the late J.I. Packer, Weakness is the Way, a series of meditations on 2 Corinthians, which powerfully call us to be captivated once again with Jesus himself and remember that weakness is the way. Beyond the popular level, there are fine academic works that might stimulate evangelical thought and preaching on these matters, such as B.G. White’s recent Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians, which carefully sorts through exegetical and theological dynamics of how the gospel creates strength-in-weakness in 2 Corinthians. In between scholarly and popular books, we might consult Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry by Timothy Gombis, or Michael Gorman’s extensive writings on cruciformity and participation in Christ. We need to hear that counter-testimony afresh today.
If Martin Luther is correct, in the first of his 95 theses, that the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance, then the church needs servants who themselves continually repent and call others to continually repent. Jesus, according to the gospels, spent time with people that the world largely does not have time for: little children, an elderly woman with chronic and impoverishing ailments, rural people, a woman of the city, and political opponents. Consultant services entice and foster the desires of prospective ministers who make use of such services, straining to impress prospective employers with their distinguishing accomplishments, and they also teach churches what to regard as desirable, as both are transformed to value what appears popular and successful but may well have nothing to do with God altogether.
Church consultants can help us retrieve the great debate among Jesus’s disciples, “as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). They might make us incapable of hearing how Jesus replied, asking the disciples – and us as well – “For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). I know of a group of deacons in rural West Texas that lead hymn-singing at a lonely nursing home, who monthly visit the souls society would rather forget in derelict state and federal prisons, who have opened their homes to the lonely, who have helped complete strangers keep their trailer homes warm during winter storms, who regularly provide childcare assistance for a family trying to care for their children with disabilities, and who spend not a few evenings trying to read Christian theology long after their day-job and familial obligations have made them tired. These servants will never be famous, not even ‘Christian famous’ in the bizarre world of online Christian subcultures; yet, truly, they are great. Uncritical championing of worldly notions of greatness will corrode our ability to recognize that.
The church needs servants in whose bones the word of God burns (Jer. 20:9), who are gentle (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2), shepherds of souls (1 Pet 5:2), and able to “contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We need leaders who not merely have mastered some rudimentary skills or a set of information that can be dispensed to others, or who have some attractive panache that can boost our company’s brand and maximize the efficiency and reach of our platform. We need people who have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in them (Gal. 2:20).
To navigate the profound complexities and decline many churches are facing, we need leaders who are intellectually curious and of an irenic and catholic ethos, who have been tested and endured, and undergone the long and slow practices of spiritual formation conducive towards wisdom, whose beginning is “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7). We need leaders in our churches who can stand with boldness against corrosive forces within and without our lives, and who can also sit in silence with a family enduring the unimaginable grief of child bereavement, and then continue walking with them through the darkness for whatever time remains. We need leaders who will not merely meet and exceed target growth rates for attendance and giving in the next 2-5 years; we need men and women who will so live, die, rejoice, grieve, eat, drink, and catechize us as to prepare the church for martyrdom.