Remembering Lyle E. Schaller: The Interventionist, 1923–2015

May 1st, 2015

Lyle Schaller, widely considered by pastors to be the most important and influential observer of church culture and best practices during the twentieth century in the United States, died March 18, 2015, at the age of ninety-one. He is survived by Agnes Peterson Schaller, his wife of sixty-nine years, and six children.

After serving as an aerial gunnery photographer 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.

For several years Schaller taught at a seminary in Naperville, Illinois. During that period he invented the role of the independent church consultant, which many have since imitated, and was the first to base consultations with congregations and judicatories 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 over twenty-two years and continued to interact with seminaries, serving as a guest lecturer at more than thirty theological schools and as a resource person for scores of pastors’ convocations.

Schaller’s publications exceed three million words. His first book was published by Abingdon Press in 1964 and probed the crisis facing urban churches. Between 1964 and 2005 he published fifty-five books (all with Abingdon Press), edited forty-one additional titles, and produced numerous 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 and reached leaders 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 and increase effectiveness. His best known “one-liner” delivered in presentations across the US was a variation of the idea that most churches still don’t know what year 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.” He said this with the same irony whether he was speaking in 1965 or 2005!

Neil M. Alexander, president and publisher of The United Methodist Publishing House and Abingdon Press, recalls that “Lyle Schaller worked with a gentle spirit and strong dedication to make the gospel of Jesus Christ life-changing for many. He believed in the potential of congregations large and small to make a big difference in the world. He did it all with an enormous twinkle of good will in his eye, a deep love of God and neighbor in his heart, and a keen, inquisitive mind. We rejoice that he walked with us with such loyalty and competence and will miss him dearly.”

The breadth of Lyle Schaller’s influence spanned most US Protestant denominations and theological traditions, and his broadly accepted wisdom had an impact 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.

Church leaders unfamiliar with the works of Lyle Schaller, which are still in print and available digitally, may want to start with the survey book about his work, "Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller: Elder Statesman of Church Leadership" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

About the Author

Circuit Rider

Circuit Rider is a magazine for United Methodist clergy. Issues back to 2008 are available on Ministry Matters. For read more…
comments powered by Disqus