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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - About Patriarchs and Matriarchs

This week's question comes from one of our ring-members who pastors a smaller congregation...

Many church studies point to small churches having a matriarch and/or patriarch in the congregation. This person can be a great help or may also serve as a gatekeeper.  My current call is a church with membership under 100 and in an agricultural community.  I've been listening and watching to see who serves this "unofficial" role in the congregation.  From all my reading this person tends to a long time member, perhaps a generational member, and it active in the church.  

Here's the deal:  We have a patriarch who is 33 years old.  This person's mother played the organ for years before dying of cancer.  He is the only "youngish"  person active in the congregation.  (His wife...not so much...she is currently on our session but said yes out of guilt or pressure by her husband).  I think other members do not want to make "Elmer" mad since he is the only younger person who is they defer to whatever "Elmer" wants.

An additional rub:  Elmer was on the committee that called me and we just do not click.  Elmer was quite enamored with the previous pastor and I still hear about all the previous pastor did.  I know Elmer struggles with my theology...let's just say we are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  

Has anyone else run into a situation like this?  Any pointers for navigating these waters?  

From Jennifer, blogging at An Orientation of Heart

My experience is that folks who have a hard time making room for a new pastor because they’ve had a significant relationship with the previous pastor are waiting to be noticed/needed/understood by the new pastor. Are you getting to know Elmer and his wife? Are you reaching out to them? Oftentimes theological differences can be weathered if there’s a mutual respect and a relationship of care and concern.
You sound sensitive to and observant within your current call. That’s great! I think it would make a lot of sense to spend some quality time with Elmer and perhaps his wife, too. Listen to them, learn from them in order to understand what they love and care about. Do you need their help with any particular projects or ministries? Enlist them. See what you can learn together—they need to get to know you, as well.

From the Vicar of Hogsmeade
Gatekeepers come in all shapes and sizes -- and ages. Whomever has "veto" power, whomever must be kept happy is probably a gatekeeper. But gatekeepers can also have the power to "rally the troops."

Try to build bridges where you can and leave the "hot" spots alone as much as you can. Look for ways you can show appreciation for him or show support for things he cares about. He probably talks about the previous pastor because he felt important to the previous pastor. He doesn't have to become your buddy. But you don't need him to be your enemy. People with very different theologies can work together for the good of the church. If he knows he has value to you regardless of his theology, you are more likely to be able to work together for the good of the church.

My experience of rural communities is that the overlap from church and community is huge. I was a very active LION in several small communities because all of the gatekeepers for the community and all the churches were there. I gained credibility and built relationships because I showed that I cared about the things that were important to them. In my small, rural churches they couldn't see any difference between LIONS club broom sales to help the blind and church service projects/special offerings. So when I helped with their "favorite" things, they were more likely to go along with my "church/Jesus" things.

What does Elmer do outside of the church? Are there any community projects he's involved in that you can support? 4H, FFA, Scouts Where can the church build bridges with the community where Elmer is already involved? Can he help the church reach out to other young people? Can you work together to "rally the troops" and move beyond the walls of the church building to other young people in the community?

From Terri - blogging at Seeking Authentic Voice

Matriarch's and Patriarchs come in all ages. Their role is part of the DNA of the congregation and someone(s) is going to be that person(s). As one who is relatively new to that system, the Pastor needs to align herself with the Patriarch/matriarch, for nothing will be accomplished without the blessing of that person (s). It is very common for this person to serve on the call committee - to have some vision of how they think the new pastor will be, and their role in directing the new Pastor.

It is most helpful if the Pastor can set aside her own hopes and dreams for the congregation (for awhile) and learn to work with the Patriarch/Matriarch. No doubt this is challenging when the theology of each are polar opposites. But ultimately the theology of the Pastor should not be imposed on the congregation, even though it is also the responsibility of the Pastor to help the congregation grow in understanding. The Pastor's job is to tend to the dying, baptize new members, lead worship on Sunday. That is how this kind of system works. And if the Pastor does not play by the rules the Pastor loses.

Theoretically it takes five years for the Pastor to accrue enough relationship clout to make any significant headway into the system. That is, if the Pastor can stick it out long enough. Many do not.

So, in terms of the theory it may take you five years to get any steam. In the meantime you need to do everything you can to build relationship with the Patriarch. If you can't do that then you need to bide your time until you can search for a new call.

Now, how to build relationship? Seek his counsel. Make suggestions to him first.  Learn how he makes decisions and what it takes for him to support you. Do things like the old Pastor did, as you are able. Honor the voice of the one he admires...until that alliance moves from the old Pastor to you.

With a couple of other parishioners (those whom you like and who seem supportive of you) take he and his wife out for lunch or dinner...or in some way be social. Build relationship.

Over time, if possible, send him to conferences and learning opportunities that align with your theology - let others tell him the same thing you understand. If sending him someplace is not affordable or possible, try engaging him (and others) in book studies. Again, let other voices lead the way so you can remain neutral while working to build the relationship.

And then, find someone you can talk too - someone not in the system in anyway - from another denomination or whatever, but someone who can be either a spiritual director to guide you while you work through this. Or someone who can be a consultant/coach, someone who understands clergy/congregation systems. And, invest in some leadership books from the Alban Institute on small church leadership.

If he is a healthy person, and if the system is healthy, they will come along and in time you can be the kind of Pastor you hope to be. Five years seems an eternity, but in the history of a church it's nothing. And, certainly you want to maintain your integrity so that you can leave with dignity or stay with enough authority to feel as if you are an integral part of the system. Only time will let you know which is possible.

Small churches can be really wonderful places. Like a family, one where you know and love all the people - even with their foibles and idiosyncrasies. They can also be clergy killers. I pray yours will be wonderful. I will pray for you.

From Muthah+

Dear Small church pastor,
I had a similar situation in which the previous patriarch had basically chosen his successor, the local bank manager, which caused all kinds of difficulties at a time when farm foreclosure was rampant.

I must admit it was the bank manager's wife who was the real trouble maker but I won't go there....

You are not going to shake your patriarch.  If you are over 50 ASA, I would say that you can ease into becoming the "PASTOR" of a pastoral sized church.  If not, I would suggest that you continue to be the chaplain to the people as best you can.

A rule of thumb:  If you do your job by pastoring your seniors and visiting the home bound and preaching, your naysayers will give up and find that you are not the previous pastor.  Your 'patriarch' will not be able to discount you if you are ministering to the seniors who need the care.  Try not to go against your leader but offer an alternative to those who might appreciate a different way of looking at their faith.  If he draws a line in the sand, just don't engage.  That non-anxious presence will provide you with ways of dealing with members who do want to hear your message.  Whatever you do, DO NOT SHOW your anger at the patriarch!  Yell at people outside of the church (not in the community), kick a can, do something other than get frustrated with your patriarch.

Slowly you will be inviting new members into the congregation.  It will be interesting to see if one of your senior members steps up to the plate to welcome them.  Then you will know if you voice is being heard.  

And from Martha, blogging at Reflectionary

I can understand why people don't want to offend Elmer. If he is the only member of the younger generation showing an interest in keeping the church going, he is important to them. He may not see eye to eye with you, and he may not see eye to eye with other church members, but if there is an actual conflict, church members will ask themselves, "Who is going to be here longer, Pastor or Elmer?"

So first, I would pray. That sounds obvious. But one of the most effective methods of coping with the people who get in my face has been praying for them and about them. I pray to understand that person better, I pray to like that person (if possible), I pray to love that person on behalf of Jesus and I pray to be sensitive to the ways in which that person contributes in a positive way to the church's life. If that person has a spouse or children or parents, I pray for them, too.

And second, I would do my job extremely well, with a focus on the things that (1) people can see -- worship leadership and sermons, in particular and (2) things to which Elmer pays attention. If he is interested in the budget, I would make sure to understand that well and let other people see that I am accomplished in that area. If he is interested in having older folks visited, I would make sure my visiting strategy is as well-known as possible without being overly revealing of people's personal information. Just being able to read and explain the budget has scored me points with various Elmers of varying ages, people who might not agree with me on other things but who see that I take an interest in the area of church life that concerns them most. If they're that important in the life of the church, their interest often is in a thing that matters for the health of the community.

This is not the same thing as deferring to Elmer or Bob...or Jeanette, for that matter. Don't defer to keep the peace. Excel at the things that matter in your context, not to please Elmer, but to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Want to join the conversation?  Please, don't let us stop you!  Post your comments below.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Some good advice ... feels good to add to it.

    In 1980 when I graduated from seminary and pastored three small churches full of matriarchs and patriarchs, James D Glasse wrote about "paying the rent" in a classic book called Putting It Together In The Parish.

    Paying the rent is about determining what your congregation requires for you to continue to live in the parsonage. Unless you live in the "high rent district" it will typically take you 20-30 hours a week to pay the rent. If you don't pay the rent, you can't stay. Once you pay the rent, what you do with the rest of your time is up to you.

    This concept helped me to reframe the slippery slide into conflict with the patriarch/matriarch - because what they wanted was usually part of "paying the rent" and wasn't unreasonable.

  2. Really good stuff here - when I was right out of seminary, I would not have wanted to hear it, but having served 7 years in a rural church I can affirm that it is appropriate.

    Love them, worship and serve with them, pray with them.
    Blessings upon you!

  3. I add my affirmations to those you have already received -great job paying attention.

    Also, you are right on to name the age thing. In a previous conversation, the people in their 80's were totally ok with inclusive language, for instance ("I know who God is, it doesn't matter what name you use..."). The people in their 30s and 40s were much more resistant because it was really important to them to preserve/return to a church they remembered from childhood.

    I have found that the one of the best ways to diffuse the Elmers in my congregation is by naming the elephant in the room in a couple of ways. One is in terms of the former pastor. It does not help you or the congregation to make an enemy of the former pastors imo. If possible, connect with him/her in person or over the phone. I found it really helped me at the beginning of this call, when people brought up something about the Former Beloved to saying something bout "Oh yes he told me about that over lunch just the other week..." This wasn't intentional, btw, it really did happen that way, but it did help to shift some of the power. I think if the congregation knows that you know the Former Beloved, then there's less tendency to idealize or romanticize.

    In terms of theological/polity differences, I find it helps to name that too. If you ask more about what Elmer believes and why, you might find you have more in common than you think and you can name that and work from there. And that also gives you some common ground from which to say.... "Sounds like we'll just have to agree to disagree on that one..."

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Oops, "congregation" not "conversation" ---curse you autocorrect!

  4. at one point early on in my appointment I made a bargain with my matriarchs/patriarchs that if they would stop referring to "Reverend Doctor Wonderworker" (not the former Rector, but a Vising Expert Consultant)(make whatever face suggests itself here), I for my part would stop nostalging aloud for "First Church Philippi" (my former church home)... And they laughed, and I laughed, and it passed off.


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