When Elmer Refuses to Change

Blog 337 Elmer

Sam Rainer

June 17, 2014

According to the Social Security Administration, the oldest male name in the United States is Elmer, with a median age of 66. I want to make a point about how younger pastors relate to older generations in the church, so I’ll use Elmer as my example.

Let me tell you about two Elmers. Both are close to being octogenarians. Both are grumpy. Neither want their church to change. If you were to wipe the dust off the library bookshelves, then Elmer One and Elmer Two would remind you it was there before you arrived and will be there after you leave.

Business guru Peter Drucker is often attributed the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Both Elmers are known to eat pastors for breakfast. They gave up on strategy in 1958, and the cultures they have both shaped at their churches would make the Grim Reaper cringe.

Obviously, I write in hyperbole. Every established church has people of all generations who don’t like change. The nature of leadership is to disrupt the status quo, which means shaking people a bit. We leaders should not be surprised when people get tense about change.

A person of any age can push back on change initiatives. I use Elmer One and Elmer Two simply because of the stereotype often attributed to older generation: They are less likely to change. Additionally, younger pastors are known to flop and flounder through change initiatives with older generations.

So what should a leader do when Elmer refuses to change?

Let’s assume a new, young pastor starts leading Elmer One’s church. This young pastor recognizes the lack of contextualization in worship style. He’s correct. But he makes a critical error. Rather than working to shape the culture, he starts making technical changes. An entrenched established church needs a cultural change, not technical change. You won’t solve any longstanding cultural problems with technical changes: fancier logos, louder guitars, or skinnier jeans. People with a culture problem don’t respond well to technical solutions.

So Elmer One gets mad and starts swinging his scythe at the faux hawk. The young pastor never had a chance.

Elmer Two’s church has a different outcome. They get a new, young pastor. He also has a weird haircut. But rather than making multiple technical changes, this pastor learns the culture inside the church. He gets it. Too often new pastors forget there is a culture in the church, and it is many times quite different than the community’s culture. Elmer Two’s pastor spends as much time learning the organizational culture of the church as he does learning the contextual culture of the community.

So Elmer Two softens a bit. Over a couple of years, Elmer Two lets the young pastor make a few changes. It would be easy for this young pastor to be discouraged because these changes don’t amount to much technically. But this pastor realizes these few, small technical changes are the result of a broader, deeper cultural change in the church.

Technical changes are visible. We like them (push them) because we can see them. It feels like progress when we’re making technical changes. Cultural changes are just beneath the surface, but they’re more powerful than technical changes.

At Elmer Two’s church, people are getting excited about what’s happening. Elmer Two actually invited someone to church for the first time. Passion is returning.

Cultural changes produce a lasting passion. The passion associated with technical changes is fleeting. Elmer Two’s church is still not healthy, but at least the people are talking about Jesus instead of complaining about the move from black and white bulletins to color.

Leading a church can be overwhelming. Don’t increase your burden by imposing technical solutions on cultural problems. Whippersnapper strategy is no match for octogenarian culture. Focus on culture first and the strategy will follow.

If you’re young, then remember there is a lot of wisdom beneath what you might perceive as a crusty exterior of those a little older. If you’re older, then remember there is a lot of gospel potential in the energy of those who are younger. Couple wisdom with energy and you’ve got something powerful. The church needs both.

12 comments on “When Elmer Refuses to Change”

  1. Thom Rainer says:

    Excellent post. As an old codger, I relate well. And I have seen how you understand and work with those of multiple generations. Your wisdom in leadership sorely needs replication in established churches.

    By the way, I am excited about your upcoming book on overcoming obstacles in the established church. You make this dad proud.

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Thanks Dad. And for the record, I think you’re an old codger on the cutting edge.

  3. Terry Sellers says:

    Our church is in the middle of a pastor search. I’ve been following you for a few months because I hope I can learn a few things as a layman to help this be the last search for a long while. As a PK I have seen the church from both perspectives. Thanks for all you do.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Thanks Terry! I’ll pray today for your church.

  4. Ken Farmer says:

    I really enjoyed this article, Sam!
    I liked the discussion of culture vs. technical changes.
    Insightful. Thanks.

  5. Keith says:

    Very insightful, helped crystallize some thoughts I have.

    The last “young” pastor I was under made a number of technical changes unilaterally and unexpectedly. I tried to coach him over a number of years that he appears capricious and thoughtless.

    He couldn’t understand that every change, cultural or technical, has a “why”. If the “why” isn’t understood, contextualized and conveyed over a period of time then nobody is going to follow you. The “why” may be to fix a problem, avoid a problem, improve something, etc.

    After several nearly disastrous and unnecessary changes were made I finally told him that I needed to break our relationship. Even five years later it makes me feel very sad. The church has completely stalled and lost all the momentum built over the previous 20 years.

  6. TJ says:

    I think you’re right on, but as a pastor who’s in the process of trying to bring cultural change, it’s good to appreciate a couple of things. For one, culture change is way, way, way harder than technical change. It takes longer; the path to culture change can be unclear and the indicators of progress can be hard to see. This all makes the sense of discouragement you mentioned very real. And this sense of discouragement and a the apparent (or real) lack of progress can tempt the pastor to push the technical changes anyway. This is especially true if the church is in decline.

    This brings up the second big problem. If the church is in decline, particularly in significant decline, waiting for culture change could be the death of the church. There are some Elmers out there who would rather bury the church they love than see it change.

    This leads me to where I am now in my revitalization ministry. Are there technical changes that can be made without directly confronting the culture of the church? Are there ways to reach out to new people and create a path for them into the church even if Elmer hasn’t softened any yet? Sometimes the best path to cultural change is to bring in a new culture. This is where I am. I’m looking for way to establish a new culture that is (temporarily) separate from the old, while I still work to change the old. Then I hope to introduce the two and convince them they need each other…

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      TJ – You bring up great questions. If a church is very close to death and refuses to change, then there may be little any leader can do. Quite frankly, some churches are determined to die. Creating a new culture may also require new people, assuming they well come, as your propose. But you will eventually reach a tipping point when the new people are close in numbers to those who have been there a while. How you manage the two groups at that time will determine the success of a change initiative.

      1. TJ says:

        Sam, not sure if you’ll see this response but it’s two years since I commented above. Our church has made significant cultural changes (praise the Lord) and it has impacted and moved everybody in the church…. except our Elmer. Our Elmer as the title suggests, *refuses* to change even though the church has changed all around him. He hasn’t softened or opened up to some changes and, this is key, our Elmer is also the choir director. The church is growing, but the choir is dying. The question now is becoming not how long do we wait for culture change to happen but how long do we let our Elmer hinder the culture change that is already happening? How do you move and Elmer that still refuses to change even when the overall church culture has? Especially when that Elmer’s unwillingness to change is directly impacting the worship of the church?

        1. Sam Rainer says:

          TJ – I appreciate the update! It’s tough to give you detailed advice without knowing your church. However, if you can keep working around him, then it might be good to let his leadership die a natural death, instead of forcing him out. Whatever you are doing now seems to be working. If now is the time to make a move, then I would try to find another place for him to serve in the church, a place with less visibility and influence. Praying for you today!

  7. Mark says:

    A Catholic priest once said that you (clergy) will learn a lot from your parishioners before they learn anything from you. That priest recently became Pope Francis.

    Part of the intergenerational strife Is caused by the refusal to change anything and the dislike of bring in the younger generation in any role, clergy, lay leader, etc.

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