God’s consultants? How useful are my professional skills in my ministry?

For most  of the 18 years I worked in the banking industry I was a “consultant” or a manager of “consultants”. I put scare quotes around that because while we were called consultants and that reflected the work we did we were in “internal consultancy” departments. We were permanent employees of the bank working on a variety of things for different parts of the Group (I did work for a “proper consultancy for six months).

In these roles I developed a set of skills (and attitudes) that I recognise as being those appropriate to this kind of work. A consultant is someone brought in to a situation from outside because he or she is thought to bring something special that those close to it don’t have, variously:

  • specialised technical knowledge (of systems or business techniques);
  • experience and knowledge of methods and processes;
  • breadth of vision across a wider spread of the relevant world than the “locals”;
  • objectivity and detachment from personal interest in the situation.

As a consultant one learns to assess situations and people quickly; to speak with confidence on the basis of little, assuming that one’s real knowledge will catch up in time; to identify those who really know what needs to be known and to win their trust; to categorise a problem and predict the kind of solution that is likely to be available; to communicate clearly, avoiding unnecessary and confusing detail; to influence without having the power to command; to recognise who the decision makers are and what they care about.

These are the core skills I had to develop while doing this sort of work and I think I can say that I was good at it. I became adept in going into unfamiliar situations, identifying where the difficulties lay, who knew enough to sketch possible resolutions, who needed to be convinced and what would convince them. These situations had to be ones I had the background to understand (thus they typically involved problems with computer systems, the business of banking, and often the accounting function of this business, but the detail could be very different from what I was used to. Mostly it was about people: those who knew what needed to be done and those who had the power to decide. The job was largely about understanding who the former group were and what they were saying and communicating it to the latter group in terms that made sense to them.

I really enjoyed this kind of work, on the whole. It involved a lot of learning, a lot of interaction with a constantly changing set of people, the satisfaction of identifiable problems being solved.

Now I am a minister of Word and Sacrament and I find myself using some of the techniques i remember from my years of consultancy work.. I organise and plan meetings. I (mentally and informally) create “stakeholder” and “decision maker” charts, I try to understand motivations and personalities. I strive to build consensus. The “political” side of Church life is ideally suited, in some ways, to the deployment of this set of skills.

On the other hand, though, there are a whole set of things that are integral to being a minister and that have much less to do with the institutional and political life of the Church: leading worship; visiting people; helping people to reflect on their faith and on the Bible. In these fragments of my professional expertise are occasionally relevant but basically they are of a quite different kind.

So I’ve been thinking about the relationships between these activities. What is being a minister really about?

I conducted a funeral this week and that helped bring things into focus for me. I spent a good deal of time with the family trying to understand what it was they wanted the funeral to be. I tried my best to meet their needs. I used the liturgical tools and skills I’ve acquired to build and conduct a service that was appropriate and fitting.

At the same time all the time I have spent in prayer and especially in the study of the Bible was critical. It really mattered, I think, that when I spoke of Christian hope, of resurrection life, of trust in God’s promises I both had a good idea of what I meant and was able to make the statements sincerely and passionately.

To be a minister you have to believe what you say (and say what you believe). I also think, personally, that what you say and believe has to be compatible with Christian orthodoxy and thus to rest squarely on the Biblical witness.

This is a big difference from my consultancy years. Ultimately I needed to have no opinion about whether a particular problem was worth solving or whether a particular solution was the best solution. All I needed to understand, really, was what the key decision makers cared about and what would count as a satisfactory solution from their point of view. That is the consultants task, to please those who pay his or her fee (or command the political power for an internal consultant).

For the minister this person is God, whose will is less easily divined (for reasons to do with our sinfulness). As one tries to understand the needs and desires of those around one, to work for the health of the Church as an institution, to find ways to keep oneself happy and functioning, it is possible to lose sight of this.

For the Church, and those who serve through it, the “client” is not, or should not be, any human being or agency. We serve God and God alone. If we work to meet human need we do so because God wills that we do so and we need to keep checking that this is God’s will.

  1. Great musing – Thanks! I also work as a consultant fundraiser but am making waves about a return to ministry. I think an essential difference is that as an external consultant you can ultimately walk away whereas as a minister you become part of the family with a stake in what happens to yourself and others. It’s much more up close and personal, the antithesis of professionalism, strangely! Although sometimes, even as an external consultant I find myself coming across situations where I would love to jump in and get my hands dirty…

    • Thanks, I guess the big difference for me, given the contexts I was working in, is the extent to which I am existentially involved myself. As in “internal consultant” I built long term relationships and a real stake in outcomes but ultimately didn’t really care about the success of the bank (in making huge amounts of money).

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