Remember Lyle E. Schaller: The interventionist

March 19th, 2015
Lyle E. Schaller

Lyle Schaller, widely considered by pastors to be the most important and influential observer of church culture during the twentieth century in the United States, died March 18, 2015, at the age of 91. He is survived by six children and Agnes Peterson Schaller, his wife for 69 years. Agnes was a Vanderbilt student whom he met in 1946 at a Fourth of July picnic in Nashville, after serving as an aerial gunnery photographer for three and a half years during World War II.

Lyle Schaller studied at the University of Wisconsin and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American history, a master’s degree in the new field of city and urban planning, and a master’s degree in political science. In 1957 he earned a divinity degree “with distinction” from the school now known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, while serving as the student pastor of a rural three-point charge in The Methodist Church.

During the 1950s, Schaller worked and published as a city planner in Madison, Wisconsin, and in the 1960s he was hired as a regional church planner by a group of eight denominations, which later grew to 14 denominations. For several years he taught at a seminary in Naperville, Illinois. While teaching, he invented the role of the independent church consultant, which many consultants have since imitated, and was the first to base consultations with congregations and denominations on the use of demographic and geographical data. He left the seminary to become a full-time parish consultant from the Yokefellow Parish Institute, a nondenominational study and retreat center in Richmond, Indiana. He served with Yokefellow for twenty-two and a half years. He continued interacting with seminaries, serving as a guest lecturer at more than thirty theological seminaries and as a resource person for dozens of pastors’ schools.

Lyle Schaller’s publications exceed three million words. His first book was published by Abingdon Press in 1964. The book probed the crisis facing urban churches. Between 1964 and 2005 he published 55 books (all with Abingdon Press), editing 41 more titles in series such as the Creative Leadership Series, and he produced thousands of essays in periodicals such as Christianity Today, Leadership Journal, The Lutheran Standard, The Episcopalian, Gospel Herald, Christian Century and Presbyterian Survey. His monthly periodical, The Parish Paper, had a circulation of over 200,000 in twenty-eight denominations. At least three of his books exceeded 100,000 copies sold: “Getting Things Done,” “Assimilating New Members,” and “The Change Agent,” which was also widely read in medical and nursing schools. All of Schaller’s books were about helping church leaders adapt to change. Schaller’s best known “one-liner” in his presentations was a variation of the idea that most churches still don’t know what time it is. “Eight out 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.”

In 2002 Schaller published “The Interventionist,” which explains his method (including more than three hundred questions) for diagnosing and resolving problems in churches. Shortly after the publication of “The Interventionist,” Cynthia Woolever, a sociologist of religion and consultant, took a one-week course with Schaller. “I feel I learned everything I ever needed to know about congregations that week. He reminded me of a country doctor—wise and perceptive—who relied on intuition to diagnose illness. His approach involves equal parts caring from the heart and thinking with the head.”

In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times polled pastors and other church leaders nationwide to determine who had the most influence on their ministries and organizations. Lyle Schaller was listed first in the poll, named more often than any other leader, because millions of church leaders read his books and experienced his advice and interventions through more than 6,000 church consultations and hundreds of seminars among congregations and denominations of all types.

The breadth of Lyle Schaller’s influence spanned most US denominations and theological traditions, and his broadly accepted wisdom was impactful across the spectrum of diverse Christian belief systems. For example, when W. A. Criswell, two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention and seminary president, died in 2002, Dallas Theological Seminary contracted with Lyle Schaller as a consultant to guide their planning following the death of Criswell. The following week, Lyle Schaller led a strategic planning consultation with the Metropolitan Community Churches, a denominational network of LGBT congregations. 

Schaller’s work influenced many effective ministries. United Methodist pastor Charles Anderson compared 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.”

Church leaders unfamiliar with the works of Lyle Schaller, which are still in print and available digitally, may start with survey book about his work, found in “Wisdom From Lyle E. Schaller: Elder Statesman of Church Leadership,” compiled by Warren Bird (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

Tributes to Lyle E. Schaller

“Lyle Schaller was the first expert to recognize that the secret of the megachurch’s attraction was not its size but its ability to meet personal needs in a large-scale way. This revelation helped me focus on assimilation rather than the growth, which caused our growth. That was a game changer for me.” —Rick Warren, Lead Pastor, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, CA

“Lyle Schaller changed my ministry. He told me that I think too small, and he was right! Let his writings stretch you in the same way.” —Craig Groeschel, Senior Pastor of

“I credit Schaller’s books for clarifying my call into ministry.” —Tammy Kelley, Founder, Intelligent Design, Inc., previous senior staff at Willow Creek Community Church and Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church

“As a young seminarian, while serving as a youth pastor, I first heard the name Lyle Schaller spoken by leaders who I respected. They spoke of him as a mystical, Moses-like character who had the wisdom of Solomon. He was a catalyzing influence in my life who gave me permission to dream bigger dreams for the beautiful mess that is the local church.” —Jorge Acevedo, Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Cape Coral, Fort Myers Shores

“Lyle Schaller has had an incalculable impact upon American Christianity. He devoted his life to challenging, encouraging, and sometimes cajoling church leaders in the hope of seeing congregations renewed and disciples made.” —Adam Hamilton, Senior Pastor, Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, KS

“We learned very quickly that Schaller understood the dynamics of a large church much better than any other author or consultant we knew. His book [The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church] and his insights have had a vital role in shaping my ministry throughout the last thirty years, especially about staffing. Big churches really are unique.” —Linda McCoy, pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, IN

“He taught a generation of church leaders to think strategically, both in large-scale matters like how to be a change agent and in small nuggets like learning to find more variables at play than a church’s leadership team currently has in mind.” —George Hunter, emeritus professor at Asbury Theological Seminary

“Schaller is the most important and clearheaded observer of American Christianity in this century. Schaller is to American Christianity as Peter Drucker or Alexis deTocqueville is to the broader culture.” —Bob Buford, cable TV pioneer and co-founder of Leadership Network

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