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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Tips and Principles for Congregational Consultants

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Have you ever thought of trying congregational consulting? Lots of people think of this—and for most, the fancy passes. But if you have energy, the right experience, and strong speaking and writing skills, consulting could be a good sideline, or even a career, for you. I’d like to share some tips and principles that have helped make consulting work for me.

For over 20 years, I have been one of very few to earn a living as a general consultant to religious congregations and related organizations. The work has been most satisfying, and the money has been … fine. My work spans 33 denominational families across North America and has let me see our variegated culture from a unique vantage point. Now I am three-fourths retired—my retirement has been slow because I find each opportunity so interesting and attractive. I hope others will take up this important work.

Reasons to Wait

First, though, a caution: I do not think consulting is a good first job. Young consultants often bring impressive skills but lack the wisdom to enter organizational systems in a way that fosters real change. (Of course, you could say the same about some of us old consultants!) Clients want you to understand them, and having played their role yourself helps gain their confidence. Even a denominational staff person “consults” from a power position different from that of a true consultant.

If you are young, you can get ready for consulting by becoming the kind of client you hope to help later. Pay attention to your frustrations and joys in the work. Learn from your mistakes. Study systems, conflict, planning, governance, and similar topics, but try to resist concluding that one tool solves every problem. Participate in organizations that you do not lead. Join boards and committees, volunteer to manage projects, and notice what is or is not working.

Reasons to Jump In

When should you jump into consulting? For me, like lots of people, the decisive push was getting fired. After that I started saying, I am a “consultant” —till eventually, in my case, the quotation marks fell off.

A second push was the opportunity to work for the Alban Institute. Alban opened doors for me into denominations other than my own. Alban is no more, alas, but new consultants should be looking for consultants who already have the confidence of the future clients you hope to attract. Look for chances to affiliate and learn. Endorsements and referrals from established colleagues can give your reputation a big boost. If you can arrange to “shadow” an old pro at work, you’ll learn skills and insights hard to learn in other ways.

Alban also pushed me to write books and articles, which have become the main way for potential clients to learn what I have to offer. Today blogs, videos, and podcasts can accomplish the same thing.

What are the keys to consulting success? I’m sure every seasoned pro would give a different list of answers. Here is my first effort—focused less on what you need to know, and more on what you need to do:

1. Clarify the value proposition.

Too many consultants frame their services in terms of what they know—or know how to do. Clients care more about the value they will get from working with you. That’s why, at the end of my first conversation with prospective clients, I ask them to write up a statement that includes (1) their objectives for the consultation, (2) the role they hope I’ll play, and (3) the span of time in months they hope to work with me. These responses help me to see what the client wants—unfiltered through my notions about what they ought to want.

2. Offer a complete proposal.

With the client’s value statement in hand, I draft a proposal in the form of a contract already signed by me. Here are the main sections:

  • At the top is the client’s statement of objectives, edited to reflect what I think is realistic and achievable.
  • Next, I quote my fees for the whole project. (Until this point, I decline to discuss fees except in very general terms.) The first payment is due with the signed contract. After that the fees are monthly, with extras if we agree on in-person visits, online workshops, or other major tasks that were not part of the original plan.
  • Then comes a project plan. I spell out a broad plan for the work, with dates and milestones. I almost always include “unlimited phone and email access for the duration of this contract for two or three leaders, because I’d rather talk now about how to make a meeting go well than talk tomorrow about what went wrong.
  • Fine print, signatures, and who should get my invoices. For US clients, I also include a copy of my W9 tax form, so they don’t have to ask for it.
  • An initial request for information. I ask for a lot of information; I don’t want to be surprised by something no one thought to mention.

That’s it. My contracts usually run 3­–4 pages tops.

3. Quote fees based on value—to the client and to you.

In setting fees, I ask myself two questions: What is this objective worth to the client? and, What fee will make me glad I took this job? If I see no overlap between my answers to these questions, I don’t make a proposal.

I almost always quote a monthly fee, rather than daily or hourly. Most clients like this better, too, rather than wondering each month how much I will charge. Do I sometimes end up doing so much work I wish I’d charged more? Yes, of course. But other times, the client is delighted with results that took less of my time than I projected. Sometimes I allow the client to choose, from month to month, from 2 or 3 levels of “intensity” with different monthly fees.

When I quote fees, I do have daily and hourly rates in mind, but my commitment is to help my clients to achieve their objectives, not to spend any specific amount of time.

3. Start work right away.

Even when a contract doesn’t start immediately, I encourage clients to go ahead and organize a steering group and send information to me right away. If I can, I make myself available for planning meetings to flesh out the timeline and set deadlines for completing stages of the process. Flexibility makes a good impression! It also takes a long time to get things going in a congregation, so I like to start early.

4. Keep in touch and keep things moving.

Monthly, I review my client list. I contact any who have gone dormant and remind them of next steps. The client should do their own work, but I don’t want their slowness to become a failed consultation.

Another way to keep in touch is to write brief reports: interpret data, reflect on patterns you are seeing, or recommend next steps. Sometimes, in advance of a planned meeting, I write a one-page memo “just to clarify my own thinking.”

The key to all this is a reminder, monthly, to check up on dormant clients.

5. Bill non-anxiously.

My contracts have a place for clients to fill in the name and contact information of the person to whom bills should be sent. Getting payment from someone who pays bills every day is often easier than dealing with the clergy leader, who may be one of the most anxious people in the room where money is concerned.

I send all my bills by email on the same day each month, with the option to pay by check or electronically. If a bill is unpaid after a month, I send it again with a reminder of the terms of payment from the contract (along with the current month’s bill, if any). In the email, I do not speculate about the reasons for nonpayment, make excuses for the client, say how much I need the money, or threaten to sue. I have sent close to a thousand bills and have had to write off only two or three.

6. Wind up crisply.

Find a way to mark the consultation’s end. Write a final memo, have a final meeting, send a final bill. I make it clear that I will not charge extra for responding to follow-up emails or phone calls and that I hope the client will check in with me forever about how things go.

There is so much more to say about each of these six points, and about the work of consulting itself. This short summary will convince some of you you never want to be consultants–but I hope it will encourage others to consider doing so. I believe that any congregation I can help fulfill its true purpose will make the world a little better and help transform the lives of people I have never met for the better. What job could be better than that?

Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.

Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.

Books by Dan Hotchkiss

Dan Hotchkiss, Governance and Ministry
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