By Warren Bird
Lyle E. Schaller, for many years the nation’s most recognized church consultant, author or co-author of 94 books – and someone who significantly shaped the foundational principles of Leadership Network – died on March 18, 2015. He was 91, and is survived by Agnes, his wife of 68 years, as well as their 6 children and 5 grandchildren.
Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, knew Schaller well, as did Bob Buford, co-founder of Leadership Network. “Lyle Schaller was one of the intellectual pillars of Leadership Network in its early years,” Travis reflects. “His frequent conversations with our team and our clients in multiple events led to much of our early success. Personally I recall many days spent with Lyle and his wife in their home as he would mentor me. One of my greatest possessions is my certificate admitting me into his ‘Association of Conceptual Frameworkers Society.’ I use the things he taught me every day, and will miss his presence among us.”
Carol Childress, my predecessor at Leadership Network, and now a knowledge broker with the Carol Childress Group, recalls hearing dozens of times during Schaller’s work with Leadership Network clients, “Lyle Schaller changed my ministry.” She explains: “Those words can be echoed by thousands of pastors and ministry leaders influenced over five decades by his prolific writing, speaking and consulting. He pioneered the role of the congregational consultant and was the single most astute observer of pastors, congregations, and the changing American religious and social landscape. I am profoundly thankful that our paths crossed.”
Schaller’s publisher, knowing of my long-time interest in Lyle Schaller, had asked me to work with him to create a book that came to be titled Wisdom of Lyle E. Schaller. The first 40 pages are a mini-biography and the rest highlights collected sayings topically arranged (succession, growth, mergers, turnaround, etc.), each introduced by a story of a church leader whose ministry was personally transformed by Schaller’s writing or consulting on that topic.
The book opens with a somewhat humorous story that in many ways shows the personality and impact of this pioneering leader:
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 one of his creative T-shirts. 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 management expert Peter Drucker or leading historian Alexis de Tocqueville is to the broader culture.”
Other tributes and obituaries of Schaller are being released, including those by Schaller’s family, by Christianity Today, New York Times, Baptist News Global, Christian Century, Fred Smith President of The Gathering, and his longtime publisher Abingdon Press/Cokesbury.