White Flag

“But that’s just the way they are.”

(Wave the white flag!)

That’s what one pastor was overheard saying to a colleague at a circuit pastor’s meeting. His church was a bit quirky and dysfunctional and they were getting kind of grumpy with one another as things slowly were going down. The pastor was in essence surrendering. He was shrugging his shoulders, resigning himself that his congregation won’t change. He even said, “that’s their DNA.”

Well, what do we do with that?

Some would say there is little you can do. You should start fresh with a new church start and then establish the culture from scratch. But if we believe in the divine call, do we just plod along and do our best by limping and admitting that there are just too many cultural headwinds to really turn things around?

When a sports team needs to change, the management often determines to change the coach! But pastors with calls don’t have that luxury of leaving! By God's grace we are to bloom where we are planted! But good coaches know what they have to do to turn around a program, and so should pastors! The problem is that pastors are often “stuck” in the way they have have done things and continue to do things. (A perfect storm for coaching I might add)

Back in the late 90’s I went to a seminar by a now very famous author and speaker and he said, “if you’ve been there 5-7 years and they are still in their dysfunction then it’s on you.” Ouch! I didn’t like to hear that. How was I leading the culture and how was I surrendering to the culture? What was I going to do with that as the called servant of the word? God certainly expects us as individuals to change! He wants us to repent and believe the Gospel! Why not whole organizations like churches?

Repent? Well, maybe not in the sin sense but certainly in admitting that “the way we have always done it” isn’t working anymore and we need to do it differently. But that is a hard awareness to come to and hard work being different. Some pastors have said, “I feel like I am banging my head against a wall. They will never change.” This is the dilemma of hundreds if not thousands of pastors. Faith in Christ, yes, but lacking the "faith" that they have what it takes to really change the culture, or better, know what to do to change the culture of the congregation.

And when there are less people in worship, less money in the plate, trouble paying the bills, it gets pretty serious, pretty fast. What to do? Where do I start?

The first step is understanding culture in the first place.

Dr. Edgar Schein, professor emeritus from MIT Sloan School of Management, pioneer in Organizational Leadership and Development and author of the classic book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fourth Edition has much to say. He says that culture to a group is what personality is to a person. It is created over time as leaders impart their values and assumptions on a group. This is done through the leader’s behavior, set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior. Then over time, as the group finds success, these become imbedded in the organizations own behaviors, values and assumptions. But if the environment changes then many assumptions may no longer be valid and the organization may struggle, which is where leadership comes in once again.

A practical common example is the church that was born in the 50’s or 60’s and the pastor was a good pastor providing preaching and teaching and leading a group of lay volunteers in Sunday school, fellowship and service activities and the like. The “environment” at that time was a society where many if not most people would be going to church. Pastors were respected and churches were valued. But fast forward 50 or 60 years and the “environment” for the assumptions that drove the behaviors and expectations of the pastor, lay people and the activities of the church are now quite different. The church is no longer regarded as a pillar in the community and more and more people are indifferent or antagonistic to the church and to the pastor. The ages of people in worship are now much older and the younger people are not coming. So is the solution what we might have done in the 50’s or 60’s? That is to say, provide more programming for the youngsters and their parents? Does it require a change in worship style? Does it mean we were wrong all along in doing what we were doing? Most likely the answer is "no" on all counts. But the assumptions about the environment or society and the church’s assumptions about strategies need to be seriously examined and courageously adjusted.


  • What assumptions are you making about the environment or society in which your church is placed, and your church’s relationship to it?
  • What assumptions are you making about strategies for engaging people in that environment (your Jerusalem & Judea)?
  • What assumptions need to change?
  • How will this change your strategies?
  • How will this change what you will do when you wake up in the morning?

Next time – more about culture, leadership and revitalization.

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Culture, Leadership and Revitalization – Surrender?

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