Like individuals and other kinds of organizations, congregations sometimes turn to outside experts for advice or help or training. Congregations seek outside help for a variety of purposes and in a variety of situations. They seek outside help in bad times, such as when dealing with an intractable conflict, but also in good times, such as when trying to figure out how to build a building. Sometimes they turn to consultants to obtain an outsider’s perspective on core, ongoing activities, such as worship or music, and sometimes they use them to help figure out how to launch new programs. Congregations draw on outside consultants for mundane issues like budget management and financial planning, and they draw on them for profound issues like how to keep children safe from abusers.

Information about the issues for which congregations seek outside help provides a window onto congregations’ felt needs or, at least, onto the needs they feel least able to deal with themselves. In both 1998 and 2006-07, the National Congregations Study (NCS) asked congregations: “Within the past 12 months, has your congregation made use of any type of services offered by a denomination, another religious organization, or an outside consultant of any sort?” Congregations saying “yes” to this question were asked to tell us what kinds of services they used. The graph above gives the percentage of consultant-using congregations that used consultants for the listed purposes. Response patterns did not differ much between 1998 and 2006-07, so these numbers combine both surveys.

Thirty-two percent of all congregations said that they used an outside consultant within the past year. I think that number is surprisingly high. It means that 1 in 3 congregations looked beyond their own staff and members for help in confronting a problem or accomplishing a goal.

Financial and management issues are the single most commonly mentioned issue on which congregations seek outside advice (23% of consultant-using congregations sought help with those issues). Further down the list, 9% of congregations that used an outside consultant were looking for help in their effort to grow.

I find three aspects of these results to be particularly interesting.

First, 40% of the congregations who turned to outside consultants turned to them for help on human resource issues. This 40% is split about evenly between the 21% who turned to outside help for staff issues and the 19% who turned to outside help to better educate or train members. Consultants help congregations provide a wide variety of education and training for their members, including training for Sunday School teachers, orientations for new elders, and training for volunteers in a program to mentor children of prisoners. One congregation hired a consultant to provide “clarification on faith issues when The Da Vinci Code came out.”

Of course, a significant chunk of the 21% of congregations who turned to outside help on staff issues were doing so because of a problem with a clergyperson or other staff member. Still, when congregations seek outside help, they often seek that help in order to enhance the knowledge and skills of congregational leaders and members.

I want to be clear here about what these numbers mean: 40% of the congregations that used a consultant used one for a human resource issue. That means that 13% of all congregations (40% of the 32% of congregations that used any consultants) used a consultant for this purpose.

A second interesting result here is that only 3% of congregations that used a consultant sought help with a technology issue. This 3% includes some congregations who sought help developing a website, but, given the dramatic increase in recent years in congregational websites, I find it surprising that congregations sought outside technological advice this infrequently.

Third, congregations seek outside help on an astonishing array of specific problems and issues.

The categories on the graph above are the most frequently mentioned types of issues, but only about half of all the issues mentioned by congregations fall into one of those categories. Congregations also sought outside help regarding governance, small group ministries, working with immigrants, leading a women’s retreat, serving the elderly, grief support, setting up a bookstore, unspecified legal issues, and many other things that do not fit easily into one of our broad categories.

Congregations draw on outside help quite a lot, and they draw on that help regarding a wide range of problems and issues. These observations prompt the question: Who provides this help to congregations? In a future post, I will address this question by looking at how much of the outside help congregations use comes from their denominations.