Read an Excerpt
Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller
The Elder Statesman of Church Leadership
By Warren Bird
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Meet Lyle E. Schaller
with insights from Fred Smith, Charles Anderson, Bob Buford, Jim Davis, Paul Dietterich, Marjorie Royle, Carl George, and Scott Field
In 1985, as Fred Smith and Bob Buford were starting what became Leadership Network, Smith phoned Lyle Schaller, asking him to come spend time with senior pastors of large churches at an event to be cohosted by Christianity Today.
Schaller's reply was quick. "Nope."
"Can we talk about it?" Smith countered.
"We just did," Schaller said.
"Can I write you about it?"
"That wouldn't change my response," Schaller replied.
In the coming weeks Smith phoned five or six more times. Schaller finally said, "Young man, I respect perseverance, and I will do it."
Smith created a one-speaker event, calling it The Lyle Schaller Summit. Smith and the editors at Christianity Today invited pastors of the nation's largest churches. More than thirty came, mostly from denominational churches. A few consultant types were also included.
Lyle Schaller showed up in a T-shirt. As Smith describes it, "He went on for three days, wearing everyone out. We finished with ice cream about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. As these thirty-year-olds limped off to bed, I said to Lyle, 'I bet you're worn out.' He replied, 'Well, I'm working on a book,' and he'd stay up a bit later to do so. He had superhuman endurance, and the next morning he was again a walking encyclopedia."
Schaller's appeal, according to Smith, was a capacity for seeing patterns, blended with amazing information recall and mixed with a wry sense of humor. The church leaders soaked it up, even when he expressed strong opinions that stepped on toes. From then on, if Smith simply said, "Lyle Schaller will be there," that group—plus others—showed up.
As one of the participating ministers said, "We see Schaller as George Gallup without the numbers, having an uncanny pulse on what churches are like." Another called him the church version of Peter Drucker. More recently United Methodist pastor Charles Anderson likened Schaller to today's social media. "For me, reading or listening to Schaller is like a precursor to Twitter: Schaller could always deliver profound ideas and predictions in 140 characters or less."
Bob Buford, the other cofounder of Leadership Network, likewise was captivated by Schaller's perspective and approach, bringing Schaller into many subsequent gatherings and private conversations, eventually looking to Schaller as one of the primary conceptual shapers of Leadership Network. "Schaller is the most important and clear-headed observer of American Christianity in this century," Buford says. "Schaller is to American Christianity as Peter Drucker or Alexis de Tocqueville is to the broader culture."
Churches small, medium-size, and big, mainline and nondenominational—and across the theological spectrum—tell similar stories. Seminary faculty, church consultants, district superintendents, and parachurch groups are also Schaller fans.
His biggest support base is United Methodist, his own denomination, and United Methodist publisher Abingdon Press, which has published most of his public writings. But those he influences go far beyond the borders of United Methodism. He's helped shape everyone from Episcopalians to Southern Baptists to Pentecostals. According to Jim Davis, a longtime friend of Schaller's from seminary days onward (Davis served forty years in various leadership roles within the United Methodist Church, almost twenty of them as a researcher at the General Board of Global Ministries), "Lyle Schaller pretty much invented the role of an independent consultant providing services to church bureaucracies. Not being an official part of any national church bureaucracy gave him unparalleled experience across denominational lines, which was unusual for that time."
In addition to his fifty-five books, Schaller has written prolifically for denominational publications like The Lutheran Standard, The Episcopalian, Gospel Herald, and Presbyterian Survey, and cross-denominational publications like The Christian Century, Net Results, and The Parish Paper. Leadership, a journal for church leaders, has over the years published more than a dozen interviews with him. He also wrote booklet-size documents for entities that included the National Council of Churches (with exciting titles like The Tensions of Reapportionment), The United Methodist Church, and the Regional Church Planning Office in Cleveland, Ohio.
His influence also goes beyond the church world. His book The Change Agent has been popular among nurses. The Evolution of the American Public High School (which Schaller says he wishes he had titled, What Happened at High School to Create So Much Antisocial Behavior?) predictably drew responses from educators. His earliest published writing was for professional journals as diverse as Mayor and Manager, National Tax Journal, The Journal of Housing, and Public Administration Review. He's also written articles for academics, publishing especially in Review of Religion Research.
Schaller began life on a Wisconsin dairy farm, a fact he mentions often in his books, usually drawing an analogy between farm life and church planning. Born in 1923 as a premature baby in a second-floor bedroom of the family farmhouse, he survived and worked hard while growing up to help his family make it through the Great Depression. He made an all-time high wage of fifteen cents an hour at a neighboring farm before he headed out for college.
In 1941, he attended the University of Wisconsin to prepare to be a history teacher, but World War II soon interrupted his education. During his three and a half years of enlistment, he received special training in photography, a skill he used as an instructor in photography for aerial gunnery. He also was smitten by a graduate student at Vanderbilt University named Agnes Peterson whom he met at a Fourth of July picnic in Nashville. They were married in 1946 and moved to Wisconsin, where Schaller returned to his education. In the years to come, the Schallers had six children and their marriage has exceeded sixty-six years at this writing.
As he approached graduation, Schaller learned an early lesson in the importance of demography. "When I had that dream of teaching history, I failed to recognize that I'd begin teaching in 1949, when there would be a shortage of students to teach." So he decided to use funding from the GI bill to stay in school, furthering his undergraduate degree in history with a master's degree also in history.
One of his history professors made a pivotal suggestion: "There is a growing market demand for planners and a shortage of qualified people, and we at the University of Wisconsin are about to launch a degree in city and regional planning." Schaller decided to pursue a master's degree in that program as well. His first job upon graduation was as a planner for the City of Madison, working in a field called policy planning, the first staff person in the city's newly created planning department. This was largely a new approach for cities, which to this point more commonly hired landscape architects and civil engineers. His first responsibility was to create a database of information that could be used for appropriate diagnosis, a practice he later carried into church consulting. In his new job, Schaller also put his photography skills to work, taking aerial photographs of sites they were studying, many times taking the photographs himself.
He later incorporated these practices into his church work. "If it was a three-day consultation, I tried to arrive with a sketch or photo of the immediate physical-geographical setting of their meeting place," he explains. "In most church buildings constructed before 1960, very little thought was given to how to connect the parking to the building. The closest facility entrance tended to be pretty far from where a first-time guest would naturally park. A good photograph or equivalent would immediately make that apparent." Likewise he required churches he consulted with to provide a wide range of data, from demographics to finances, which he drew upon in his consultations.
While working for the City of Madison, Schaller completed his third master's degree, in political science. It focused on municipal government. All along he and Agnes had been active in what today is known as The United Methodist Church. At this point, one of their pastors became an influential role model. "I decided that maybe my call was to be a parish pastor," Schaller says. So he began part-time study at what is today called Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, just north of Chicago. In 1955 he became the resident student pastor of a three-point Methodist circuit in Wisconsin while he finished his seminary degree.
Schaller seemed uniquely wired for his next job. It was orchestrated in a surprising way—one he calls providential. The City of Cleveland, Ohio, and surrounding Cuyahoga County planned to merge into one big government, pending voter approval. Since the time between the scheduled referendum and the deadline for the new government was only four weeks, many workers were recruited in advance, including an appointment given to Schaller with promised funding by the Ford Foundation. So the Schallers moved to Ohio, but the vote lost. At the same time, eight denominations jointly created a regional planning office (later joined by six other denominations), which included the Cleveland-Akron area. They were looking for someone with a seminary degree who had pastored, who had a graduate degree in planning, and who had worked in city government. Lyle Schaller fit the bill perfectly, and the Ford Foundation shifted one year of its promised municipal funding to underwrite this new position.
What did Schaller learn during those days? "High on my list would be that you can't do solution-driven planning without first having a diagnosis. That would be like seeing a doctor who announces, 'I have an opening for you for surgery on Tuesday' without first analyzing what you need." At that point many denominational headquarters were issuing calls to action but without, Schaller felt, adequate diagnosis. He says, "A lot of people want to recreate yesterday or create a new tomorrow, but without a database."
In 1968, after eight and a half years in that regional planning office, he was invited to teach American church history at a seminary, specifically to help create a stronger parish emphasis on education. The experience wasn't what he expected. "It took about eleven weeks for me to decide that I don't really belong in a seminary," he says. In his characteristic decisive manner, he wrote up a resignation and gave it to his secretary to type, but she turned him down, saying that it's not proper to resign after eleven weeks. He waited until the end of the year and had his wife, Agnes, type the letter, but this time the president turned him down.
He resigned from the seminary annually without success until an invitation came to be a full-time parish consultant from the Yokefellow Parish Institute, a nondenominational study and retreat center in Richmond, Indiana. He accepted it and served with them for twenty-two and a half years. He continued interacting with seminaries, serving as a guest lecturer at more than thirty theological seminaries and a resource person for dozens of pastors' schools.
During his latter years with Yokefellow, he relocated to Naperville, Illinois, where he had been involved as director of planning and research at the Center for Parish Development at Evangelical Theological Seminary, and continued his church consultations. "He was a pioneer to the world of church consulting," says Paul Dietterich, who reviewed about 150 of Schaller's consultant reports as he succeeded Schaller at the Center for Parish Development. "With his clever and creative mind, he could think of forty ways to do everything. He passed those ideas along to the congregations and pastors with whom he consulted."
He was in constant demand as a speaker as well. Marjorie Royle served on the national staff in the evangelism department of the United Church of Christ, which used Schaller as a featured speaker at several conferences. "One thing I remember that illustrates his style of caring for individuals was when he told me that at such events he intentionally sits for meals with small groups of participants, so that each person attending will have the opportunity to talk with him individually and ask questions about their own situation. He said he thought that personal touch was part of what he was being paid to do when he was brought in as a resource person for the event. I doubt that many big-name speakers do that."
His modest preretirement home in Naperville had books tucked in every imaginable corner and a typewriter that has rarely been idle. And for five academic degrees and all the citations, commendations, and awards he's received, few hang on the walls, not even his honorary doctorate. He is more interested in featuring a world map on his wall.
Acclaim and Fame
Across his Yokefellow years he wrote an average of one book a year; published The Parish Paper every month, which peaked at two hundred thousand in circulation to at least twenty-eight different denominations; consulted with churches of all sizes; and advised denominational groups, denominational leaders, seminaries, and other parachurch groups. He both headlined conferences and worked behind the scenes in private conversations.
His integrity at keeping confidences is so high that to this day he does not release the names of churches he has consulted. However, he acknowledges that the total number probably approaches six thousand. Carl George, himself a widely traveled church consultant and former head of the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, worked with many churches over the years where Schaller had done a previous consultation. At a number of those churches, they pulled Schaller's report out of the file and showed it to George. "Schaller's observations are always discerning and practical," George says. "He perceptively described congregational life with incredible accuracy. I cannot recall a single report he wrote with which I disagreed."
Schaller dates his retirement at age seventy-nine. He views the books he wrote after his sixty-fifth birthday as his best and most productive, earning him a reputation during that era as the country's leading interpreter of congregational systems and their vitality.
As of this writing, he and Agnes live in retirement in Naperville. He fielded interviews for this book with the same intensity, passion, and insight that he's voiced in conferences and in his writings. In one phone call he offered the one-liner that I think he's best known for. It's some variation of the idea that most churches still don't know what time it is. "Eight of ten church leaders think that next year will be 1955," he said in his deadpan style, "and if 1955 comes around again, they'll be ready." But soon enough he landed each interview on a word of hope. He still believes that for those who want it, tomorrow can truly be brighter.
Or as he told his pastor, Scott Field, at Naperville's Wheatland Salem Church, a United Methodist congregation started in 1852, "The two most important questions for any church and its leaders are 'What year is it?' and 'What year will it be next year?'" Of all Field's conversations with Schaller, that's the nugget that stands out most. "I can't think of a better summary of how systems theory gets to the street level with local churches," Field says.
Indeed Schaller's choice of a home church says a lot about his view of the future. "I am here because I want to be part of a congregation that will outlast me," he once told his pastor. Field's interpretation? "In saying that, I think he means that he is excited about the future and excited about any congregation that plans, prepares, and prays to have a vibrant future."
Excerpted from Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller by Warren Bird. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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