Interview With Lyle Schaller (Apr 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Wineskins Staff
April, 1993

Lyle E. Schaller, editor of Abingdon’s Creative Leadership Series, is one of the foremost authorities on church growth and planning. He has written a dozen books on organization in the church, including Getting Things Done, Activating the Passive Church, 44 Ways to Increase Church Attendance, It’s a Different World!, The Pastor and the People, Revised, The Senior Minister, and The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church, from which this biographical note is taken. Dr. Schaller is a parish consultant with the Yokefellow Institute in Richmond, Indiana. He granted this exclusive interview with Wineskins during a seminar he conducted for church leaders in Nashville.

WINESKINS: Can you give us a quick summary of your background of acquaintance with Churches of Christ?

SCHALLER: Well, I guess I have had three kinds of contact. First, the largest base of acquaintance has been through ministers who come to the various workshops I have conducted across the country, particularly in the Southwest and Southeast. Second, in doing workshops with churches every year, I ask normally – if it’s a full-scale consultation – to talk with area churches nearby. I have visited a number of Church of Christ congregations that were a part of that schedule. And, third, there have been about five or six church consultations that I have done over the years with Church of Christ congregations.

I don’t really have a deep, broad acquaintance. It is much more superficial. Of course, there are things I read. And there have been a couple of things sponsored strictly by Church of Christ ministers, where 100% of the people in the room were Church of Christ. So I guess there are these four ways by which I have come to know you.

WINESKINS: From what you know of us, what do you consider to be our greatest strength or strengths?

SCHALLER: Without any question, you have a very thought-out and very articulated belief system. So anybody who comes from the outside knows quickly where you stand and what you believe. It is not muddy; it is clear. The Church of Christ is not real narrow, narrow. It is a “religious community” and not just a fellowship. I think that would be probably number one.

Number two, you have a strong emphasis on missions. Probably number three is you have had a number of institutions tied in to the whole movement that were reinforcing a sense of identity through educational institutions.

Then the other thing you have is… And I have to be careful how to say this because, on one scale you are one of the biggest denominations in the country if you count all the denominations (1250). But if you look at where people are, you are a relatively small denomination which has enabled you to have a degree of fellowship. People know one another within the Churches of Christ to a much greater degree than would be true in larger communions where there is a greater degree of anonymity.

WINESKINS: Turning to the negative for a moment, what are the presenting weaknesses that you see?

SCHALLER:I think by the strong emphasis on your elders and “control,” you’ve kept your churches from becoming very large. This is true because, for an elder to be an effective policy-maker while serving on a volunteer, part-time basis, you have to be small enough to be easy to comprehend. Therefore, that puts a resistance for a congregation to grow.

I would guess that you have probably 60 to 100 churches that average more than 1,000. I know of 35.

You are a theologically conservative church – which tends to produce big congregations. But what you have is this huge array of smaller and middle-sized churches and relatively few big ones. And I think this is, to a substantial degree, a product of this strong elder control. “Let’s keep it small enough so I can keep track of it in my head.”

WINESKINS: Since preachers among us do not have the kind of power that most pastors would wield in a typical denomination, how do you see our preachers – given our unique structure – helping lead our churches through the change that is going to be necessary to confront the new century?

SCHALLER: That is what is known in academic terms as a “sources-of-authority question.” When you don’t have the institutional source of authority for the preacher, as is the case in your situation, effective leadership has to rely on personal persuasion, personality, whatever you want to call it. It boils down to the personal persuasiveness of the preacher and, to a second extent, confidence.

Confidence does not necessarily produce authority, but you just sort of wiped out some of the traditional bases of authority that are in almost all other Christian communions. Therefore it is pretty much personal persuasion.

WINESKINS: How optimistic do you think our fellowship should be about being able to engage the 21st century effectively?

SCHALLER: I would not be real optimistic. Number one is that you are too organized toward smaller congregations. But people in all parts of society – whether you want to talk about universities or public high schools or medical clinics – prefer bigger institutions than the church is in position to offer.

Secondly, to some extent your identity has been lodged in who you aren’t and what you aren’t – and that is not winsome.

In other words, you draw the circle to say, “These are who we exclude,” and “These are not welcome.” And that is not going to attract people today. I think that kind of legalistic, exclusionary dimension of who we’re not and who we’re against is not going to serve you well in the twenty-first century.

WINESKINS: What areas of life to you think we need to focus most of our energy on to make the transitions that will make us more effective?

SCHALLER: Probably what you do best would be preaching and teaching. And I would say keep those at the top of the list.

I guess probably one of the things you need to do, and this overlaps the last question, would be for every one of your congregations to accept a big chunk of responsibility for helping outsiders to identify what that local congregation really is. When you say “Church of Christ,” most people do not know what you are talking about, really the majority of the people.

Your identity question has to be more and more aggressively accepted by congregations to explain to the larger community who they are, what they are. Again, not what we are not but who and what we really are.

And I would guess that one of the things that might happen – and with a lot of resistance attached to it – would be picking up names that do not include “Church of Christ” in the name of the congregation. And that is part of trying to avoid stereotypes as congregations grow into their identity. I would think that your need would be similar to the Assemblies of God and that an awful lot of the larger churches or newer churches will try to avoid being typecast by attaching that name.

The other part of your identity problem in the minds of many people is – and this isn’t completely true, I realize – that you are a sectarian group that runs from Tennessee to Texas. And that is the beginning and end of the story! I realize that doesn’t fit reality. In terms of stereotype, however, when you get out of the strip from Tennessee to Texas an awful lot of folks haven’t the faintest idea of what you are talking about when you say “Churches of Christ.” And with your historical heritage and the different divisions involved, it becomes more confusing.

Another part of the problem is – and this will vary of course from congregation to congregation in terms of your interpretation of who is eligible to be an elder – but you are excluding an awful lot of folks from being your elders by a very legalistic interpretation of what Paul wrote. Can you have a non-believer in your home? Must you have multiple children? If your youngest child is not old enough to be baptized, are you not eligible to be an elder?

So, in a sense, you say that you are reserving the position of elder for older people. You are cutting off openings for your younger, brighter folks coming along who are in touch with the culture and who are very gifted, able people….

WINESKINS: Given these lay elder leaders, what sort of counsel do they need to hear in order to free up some of the more creative energy, both from preachers and younger members, that will allow change to happen?

SCHALLER: Number one, I think, is to see whether the role of elders is permission-withholding or permission-giving. And in your tradition – this is true with Presbyterians and some others – the traditional interpretation of an elder is somebody withholding permission. And that strikes with creativity.

Your operational definition of an elder is a permission-withholding position. In other words, when I become an elder I can tell people what they cannot do. And a lot of folks say, “Well, it’s simpler to go somewhere else.

I think probably the biggest risk you have is some of your most committed, gifted, younger people aren’t going to stay with that system. I am talking about the 26 year olds and the 31 year olds who, say in 10 years – they say 10 years is a lifetime – see they have enough other options….

WINESKINS: How can those who want to make positive changes within the existing entity make that change more palatable to the larger membership?

SCHALLER: Because of your polity, you probably can pretty much do it by congregation. And that goes back to what was raised earlier. It is a long-term, very persuasive minister who builds the power to initiate and see changes through on the basis of the combination of tenure, confidence, and personality.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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