Remembering Lyle

By Scott N. Field –

When I attended seminary I took classes in Biblical Languages, Biblical Studies, Church History, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, Preaching, Counseling, Clinical Pastoral Education, Doctrine and Polity, and, as something of an afterthought, a course on Church Administration (affectionately known as “Paper Pushing 101”). My mind was filled with Big Ideas. My expectations were fueled by Big Visions. As a United Methodist all ready to be appointed to his first charge, my hope was for Big Crowds. And, like most newly-graduated seminarians, I had no idea what I was doing.

Thank God for Lyle Schaller!

As one of my seminary classmates put it about a year after we were each into our first assignment, “I’ve put aside my Calvin and all I’m reading now is Schaller.” You might guess he was a Presbyterian. He was also a realist and, importantly, a pragmatist who was concerned to be an effective leader of a local church.

One time I was invited to the “grand opening” of a local Cokesbury store. The new general manager welcomed the invited guests and then introduced a couple of notables: one was a seminary professor who had written a book that was featured on sale. Another author had written a volume of daily devotions for women. And then came the overstated but telling remark, “And besides those two books, just about everything else in the store is written by Lyle Schaller.” Schaller was not in attendance for that grand opening; still, everybody knew who he was and why the store was stocked with his titles.

I myself had read a number of Schaller’s books. I had attended a seminar or two where he was the featured headliner. I knew his counsel was sought by judicatory leaders of most every denomination and he was on a first name basis with the celebrity pastors of the time. What I did not know was the deep, simple, and active faith in Christ that Schaller carried and that also carried him — until he showed up at worship one Sunday morning. What followed was a decade-long relationship. I was appointed to Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville, Illinois. Schaller chose to attend worship there each week.

When I was first appointed to Wheatland Salem Church, I was told to plan on closing it within two years. Yet the little church began to grow. Now what to do? Seminary did not prepare me for leading a growing congregation! Though I went to Asbury Seminary for a Doctor of Ministry degree in church growth and evangelism under the leadership of Dr. George Hunter, the weekly mentoring by Schaller was the “secret sauce” in Wheatland Salem growing dramatically, relocating, expanding again, and, before he and his wife Agnes moved to a retirement community, launching a second location. Schaller often would provide me with what he called “a little something I’ve been thinking about.” Usually it came in the form of a 10 page missive on a pertinent developmental issue facing our congregation. The background he provided, perceptive analysis, and recommendations for helping the congregation claim a new and preferred future were invaluable.

Schaller also demonstrated concern for the needs of members in the congregation, took the lead on providing “seed money” for new and untried initiatives, spoke up to encourage congregational leaders when we got a bit wobbly in our resolve, and frequently checked in with my wife to make sure she and the kids were doing well and that the “pastoral family” was healthy.

There was no such thing as “stopping by” for a brief visit with him and Agnes. A pastoral call to their modest, book-filled home on Brainerd Street normally required two to three hours. It began with some homemade cookies and coffee, led to an extended tutorial in which he normally expanded my horizons, challenged my faith, and guided my steps as a leader. It always ended in a time of prayer together. He was 30 years my senior, but his mind was so agile, his faith so deep, his analysis so clear, and his child-like excitement about the future so engaging that it was easy to become a confirmed “Schaller-ite.”

During an annual interview with my district superintendent, I was asked, with some level of frustration, about my tendencies to stray from standard issue United Methodist protocols as a pastor.

“Is there anything you and Lyle talk about that you won’t try to implement in your church?” I was asked. “Nope,” I said. “We’re a dying denomination. If we knew what we were doing we would have done it already. Lyle may not always be right, but he is right enough of the time that I’ll take the risk of following his recommendations.”

I chided Schaller once that writing books about pastoral leadership was easier than actually leading a local congregation. He replied that it was really much worse than that. Though he placed great value on the possibilities of almost any local church to have a healthier and more vibrant future, his abiding concern was that the larger system of United Methodism would finally overcome whatever vitality might develop in any particular congregation. “At some point swimming upstream becomes too much,” he observed. “You either have to go with the flow or find another stream.” It seems that, sadly, this, too, may be true. Lyle Schaller may be regarded as the pioneer of leadership consultants for churches, but for me he was also a cherished mentor, encourager, older brother in Christ, and friend.

Scott N. Field is pastor of First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake in Crystal Lake, Illinois. 

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