Merlin Mann

Never Let the Guy with the Broom Decide How Many Elephants Can Be in the Parade

By Derek Penwell

“Who authorized that decision? Nobody knows what’s going on around here anymore.”

How many times have you heard that one?

What’s the quick response when that complaint makes its way into the life of a congregation?

“Well, it has been a while since we talked about the organizational structure. Maybe we should look at the constitution and by-laws again, make sure we’re doing it right.”

It occurs to me that what’s at the heart of grousing about congregational organization is fear over who gets to say “yes.”

“Who authorized that decision?” is usually an expression of fear about where power is located. So, congregations spend much of their time in organizational thinking concentrating on this issue—who gets to say “yes.”

By-laws, organizational charts, endless meetings all exist—at least in part—to rehearse the relationship between an idea and its authorization.

“I’ve been in recovery for 3 years now, and I’d like to start an AA meeting in the adult Sunday School classroom on Tuesday nights. Who do I have to talk to get permission to do that?”

“Well, you’ll need to check with the secretary to see if the room’s available. You’ll probably have to get board approval for that. Is there going to be smoking on the grounds?”

“I’d like to offer a middle-school class. What’s my next step?”

“You need to talk to Angie, she’s the Education chairperson. She’ll bring it to the committee. Then, they can pass a recommendation to the board, which will vote on it.”

“We’ve got a group that wants to use the church fellowship hall for a drag show. Is that all right?”

“You’re going to have to bring that one straight to the board.”

We have amazingly complex systems of authorization in place. Layers of bureaucracy that ensure no one gets away with anything.

Believe me, I understand. You can’t have just anyone doing who-knows-what in the name of the church. Eventually, that will come back to bite you.

But for all the time churches spend figuring out who gets to say “yes,” it’s amazing to note that they’ll let just about anybody say “no.”

“Now, see, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

Is it really? How many truly interesting ideas have been shot down in church because one person pulled the trigger?

“That sounds like a great idea, but I’m afraid that if we let those people use the building, something’s going to get broken.”


“Of course we love young people, but I don’t think that kind of thing is appropriate for Christians.”


“I think you’ll find that nobody will mind … except, Norman. Yeah, he won’t go for it.”

Brooms, Elephants, and Blocking

Merlin Mann has famously said: “Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants can be in the parade.”

What does that mean?

It means, according to Mann, that to the guy with the broom, an elephant isn’t an elephant, it’s a source of inconvenience. If you ask that guy, he’ll say there shouldn’t be any elephants, and you should spend your time and money hiring more broom guys.


Because elephants, no matter how wonderful they might make the parade, threaten to make that guy’s life miserable.

“What is the purpose of a parade?”

To entertain people.

“Do elephants entertain people?”


“Then let’s have more elephants.”


The guy with the broom answers the question about elephants by saying that elephants upset the balance. As if the purpose of a parade was not to entertain people, but to make one guy’s struggle with life a bit more manageable.

Of course, people say “no” for reasons other than just that a proposed action produces more headaches. There are any number reasons people give for blocking:

  • We don’t have the money to do x.
  • We’ve tried x before, and it didn’t work.
  • We’ve never done x before, and we shouldn’t start doing it now.
  • “People” will get upset if we move forward with x.
  • “People” might leave if we follow through with x.
  • My aunt Gladys would roll over in her grave if she knew we were doing x.
  • X is just not something a place like this should be involved in.

Or, there’s the all-purpose blocking tactic:

  • I’m not comfortable with us doing x.

Any idea, no matter how good, reasonable, or promising that runs up against one of these phrases in a meeting is almost surely doomed in most churches. In unhealthy systems, blocking tactics are virtually fool-proof.

And the beauty of it is almost anyone can successfully execute them!

  • People who haven’t been to church since the Nixon administration
  • People who’ve never given an hour or a dime
  • People who’re resentful about the prospect of having to give another hour or another dime
  • Even proxies for people dead, absent, or non-existent (i.e., “People are saying …”)
  • (I’ve even heard of denominations that are set up to allow people to be bused in for the express purpose of keeping change at bay.)

Bonus: The louder and more obnoxious you can be the better chance you’ll have at succeeding!

The Problem

Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes blocking is necessary. Prophets are often blockers—loud obnoxious people who are famous for standing up and saying “No!” We need people with the courage to stand in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way of the oncoming tank convoys.

The question I’m raising is not whether blocking should occur sometimes, but whether or not a congregation or a denomination should be prevented from ever even attempting great and interesting things because of the threat (real or imagined) of the broom pushers, who if asked, will invariably say “no.”

Or what about this: Everybody in charge knows it’s the right thing to do, but nobody wants to clean up the inevitable mess.

Organizations devote so much time and energy to set up systems that are explicit about who gets to say “yes.”

What’s a quorum? How high up the organizational chart does it need to go to get authorization? How many votes are necessary? Who said you could do that?

I think organizations would benefit from spending a quarter of the time dealing explicitly with the question of who gets to say “no.”

What kind of investment is necessary on the part of a person who seeks to torpedo an idea? Does the person have to demonstrate any expertise in the area before being able to stymy the group, or is just “feeling” like it’s the wrong thing to do enough? Can one person carry the water for another person, a group of persons, a whole demographic?

Saying “no” is just as much an exercise of power as saying “yes.” We write all kinds of rules about the latter, without ever explicitly taking up the issue of the former.

The problem isn’t just that good ideas are always in danger of being shot down. In an unhealthy system good ideas often don’t see the light of day because everybody knows up front that bringing them up is a waste of time. I would wager that serial blockers have killed ten times more ideas in people’s heads than they’ve killed on the floor of meetings—just because everybody is convinced that bringing up an idea would be a waste of time, or because it would cause World War III.

The reality of the situation is that you’ll never do great things, exciting things, things that change the world if every idea is stillborn for fear that somebody will object.

Spend some time considering to whom you give the power of veto.

Make sure you know why the guy with broom doesn’t like elephants in the parade.

Or don’t do great things. The choice is ultimately up to you.

Here’s an idea for a cheap bracelet: WWJASN

Who would Jesus allow to say no?

(From the archive.)

Being the Last "Buggy Whip Salesman of the Month"

By Derek Penwell

One time Merlin Mann said “Being the last ‘buggy whip salesman of the month’ is great in the short run, but then what?” The point, of course, is that if you haven’t been paying attention all along to the changes taking place in the world and making adjustments, what looks stable and safe today will eventually be only a historical footnote. I get the impression that many congregations are heavily invested in selling buggy whips. At this point I could give the obvious screed against “traditional churches” that haven’t given up hymnals for more “modern” music delivery systems, or who’ve failed to give in and hire a tattooed minister who drinks only micro-brewed beers and shade grown coffee.

I could do that, but as I’ve said before, I think that misses the point in so many ways .

Instead, I prefer to focus on the issue philosophically.

“Oh great. Here comes another completely unreadable bit of ‘musing.’ Why don’t you say something useful?”

Ok. I hear that, but I think this is useful—perhaps not in the sense of telling you whether to sell your church building and rent space at the local Cinemark, but in the sense of telling you why you should constantly revisit the question of why you should or shouldn’t.

“Clarity, sir.”

Let me try this: I’m speaking on a strategic, rather than a tactical level—meaning, I’m talking not about the decisions a congregation makes, which will vary according to context, but about the way a congregation makes those decisions. To put a finer point on it, I’m not even speaking about the process for making decisions. Instead, I’m speaking about the philosophy congregations use when making decisions, the context in which decisions get made.

Now, you may say that most congregations don’t have “a philosophy” about decision making. I would argue that they do, but that it’s rarely explicit, and therefore rarely subject to interrogation and revision. That is to say, most congregations don’t take time to think on a meta-level about decision making.

What do I mean?

Most young people—that elusive demographic that churches constantly seem to be seeking, consisting of Gen-Xers (1965–1980) and Millennials (1980–1999), who appear to have taken a pass on the church—think about decision making in a completely different way from their elders.[1]

“Hmmm …”

People from the Silent Generation (people born 1925–1945) and the Baby Boomer Generation (people born 1946–1964) grew up in a changing world. But much of that change came on a macro level over a sufficiently extended period of time. Technology changed. The work performed by the labor market changed. Political ideologies changed. However, those things all changed at a rate slow and steady enough for people to adjust.

The watchword for these generations (especially as it relates to vocation) is stability.

Though the world was beginning to change more rapidly by the time Baby Boomers showed up, they had a close enough relationship to stability through the world their parents had built, that they had a view of the world that assumed stability as a backdrop.

For the most part, Baby Boomers were free to leave a nest that was culturally and economically anchored. Low divorce and unemployment rates made for a world in which it was safe to explore.

“Yeah, but what about the 1960s? Wasn’t that all about change?”

Of course. But the 1960s were the apotheosis of cultural adolescence. Experiment. Drop out. Fight the system. Question authority.

But what is characteristic of adolescence? Adolescence is a developmental stage in which boundaries are challenged—sometimes fiercely—so that identity can be established. In commenting on the cultural shift underway in the 1960s, we often focus all of our attention on the “challenging” done by Baby Boomers, without devoting sufficient attention to the “boundaries” that made those challenges intelligible qua “challenge.”

Stability is the ether in which challenge and exploration can take place.

I can drop out and backpack across Europe or take a year off to pursue my muse as a sitar player while working in an Alaskan fish cannery, because I know that if it all falls apart, I can go home and get a job in the family business. Or if my family doesn’t have a business, then at just about any of the other tedious endeavors I’ve tried so ceaselessly to escape. Even if I’m just a factotum or a ridiculously over-qualified vacuum cleaner salesperson, I know I have somewhere to land, because the world I’ve inherited is predictable, firm, safe.

The generations that follow behind the Baby Boomers, (Gen-X and the Millennials) don’t have that same luxury. Generationally, they don’t have the same expectations of a stable world. Two indicators that kept the world safe for their parents have shifted dramatically for young people—divorce rates and unemployment rates (especially among minorities) have risen dramatically.

The world, to Gen-Xers and Millennials, doesn’t represent stability. It’s much more uncertain.

Think about technology.

Try this one on for size.

Time elapsed to 1,000,000 users:

AOL—9 years

Facebook—9 months

Draw Something—9 days

When you add into the equation the exponential speed with which technology is reshaping the world, you get generations of younger people who have no other expectation than that what is now, most likely will not be tomorrow—whether that’s socio-religio-political institutions or iPods.

What Does This Have to Do with Congregations?

The difference in generational understanding about something as simple as what kind of world we live in means that appreciating the way people come to decision-making in congregations is crucial. That is to say, dear reader, understanding decision-making philosophy, the meta-level questions around the way decisions get made, can prove remarkably useful.

If you find that young people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring them into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be institutional timidity or stodginess, this may be why.

If you find that older people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring young people into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be casualness toward the institution or brashness, this may be why.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is largely a stable place, any change is a potential threat to that stability.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is constantly changing, then change isn’t threatening; it’s an inevitability.

So, if you want young people to begin to come behind and take up leadership roles in your congregation, you’re going to have to make peace with fact that they care much less (shockingly, scandalously less) than you do about saving the institution. They don’t have any real expectations that the institution (at least as it’s presently constituted) will be around anyway.

All of which is to say, congregations (and denominations) need to quit worrying about saving the buggy whip industry, and start thinking about the need buggy whips satisfy, and how that need can be met in an increasingly fluid world where change isn’t the enemy; it’s the air we breathe. Being the last “buggy whip salesperson of the month” is great in the short run, but that bronze plaque is going to become an anchor much sooner than you realize.

Part two next week: Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants should be in the parade.

  1. I realize that speaking in general ways about something as large as generational differences is fraught with peril. I think as a heuristic, however, it can prove enormously helpful.  ↩