When Elmer Refuses to Change
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.