Seldom do we think of churches being innovative. But we can be. If Joe and I haven’t said enough already, read The Agile Church. Great material for thought and implementation.
One of the new approaches to business (who struggle like we do with such a rapidly changing environment), is called “design thinking.” “Design thinking is about joining up with people where they are in the world, attending carefully to their ordinary lives, and improvising solutions to challenges they face.”1 Businesses “embrace countless small failures to avoid big expensive ones.”
So for the church, we find these important practices:
As you plan to “fail early and often,” begin the conversations by celebrating the failures—that’s where we learn; that’s where progress begins. Figuring out why we failed points us in a better direction. Did we fail because we didn’t listen well? forgot to enjoy ourselves? assumed people knew how to do this? something else?
For example, say your congregation has been under such stress, they have forgotten how to laugh and play together. We know this ability marks a healthy congregation. Design thinking to address this might mean:
Remember, failures are for learning. We have to cultivate an environment in which people can identify what they learned. “We just didn’t like it,” is an unacceptable answer. Why? Didn’t work. Why? When you hit reasons that can be addressed and corrected, then you have a learning moment and the opportunity for design thinking and innovation. “No one came.” What is the reason? Invitations not sent? People didn’t invite friends? No one knew about the event? People assumed it was for another group? All these failures are opportunity for innovation.
Don’t forget the “learn” part. Don’t try, fail, and never try again. The end of the cycle is learn, change, try again.
Showing God’s glory and greatness in weakness and failure is our story. We know how powerful it can be to be foolish for the Gospel.
1This discussion is found in chapter 4 of The Agile Church, location 1026 if you have a Kindle reader…apologies to those of you looking at the paper edition.
Beth Utley & Joe Blankinship
I was asked to rewrite my job description after thirteen years. The difference between the hire and what I now do was jaw-dropping. The original job was completely “technical”—choose curriculum, get teachers, take care of the library, attend meetings. Today, everything starts with “research, find, create, re-write” because we live and serve in a different world. Today, there are no easy answers.
When I was a child, we spent weekends at the lake with my grandparents. A couple times a year, the lake “turned over”—warmer water on the surface sank to the bottom and the bottom water rose to the top. That put oxygen into the depths of the lake, revitalized the aquatic systems and kept the lake healthy.
As kids, we just thought it was cool. The lake water changed color. It was a murky, muddy mess. It looked like we lived on a different planet. We didn’t realize many fish died in the process or that the lake was healthier after it cleared. Regardless, it’s a great metaphor for today’s church.
Every part of our culture has gone through, or is going through “inversion.” I constantly hear people lament, “the world’s turned upside down.” Some of us think it is cool. None of us can see through the mud. A few of us will not survive the process.
Addressing all the cultural shifts that muddy our ministry waters is impossible in this space, but here are a three that make “church water" particularly murky:
We are not swimming in the same water, my friends. Several prominent theologians and scholars have suggested that faith practices go through major “inversions” about every 500 years. That’s us.
When I looked at my original job description, I laughed. I could only wish to do that job. I’d be finished and home by noon on Tuesday. But we, in this time and place, are called into a murky inversion. The way through is “research, create, try, learn…begin again.” The foundation is that God is at work well before us, asking us to follow right into the middle of the inversion. That’s where we belong. That’s where our work will be done.
Dir. of Christian Formation, Forest Hills Presbyterian,
“You foolish people!” ~ Luke 24:25a
The resurrected but yet unrecognized Christ was blunt with the two discouraged disciples who were walking away from Jerusalem after Jesus’ failure on the cross. Despite the success of Jesus’ transforming ministry prior to the cross, this failure was the end of it for Cleopas and his friend. “We tried it once; it didn’t work.”
Are church leaders, clergy and laity, so afraid of failure we fail to try? James Dyson made 5,127 prototypes before he got his Dyson vacuum right! How many mistakes have you embraced as part of your method of being the faithful church today? How many times have you said or heard, “We tried it once; it didn’t work.”
Dwight Zscheile writes in his book, The Agile Church, that we need to embrace failure as part of what leads us to innovate and be creative. In the business world, this new approach is known as agile project management. It promotes adaptive thinking, trial and error, improvisation and collaboration.
The conversation in the Session or committee goes something like this; “We need more Sunday School teachers.”
“Yes, but we are not getting the kids to attend like they used to.”
“Well, get some better teachers, and that will attract the kids!”
A shift to agile project management might go like this:
“Numbers are down and teacher recruitment is not working. Why? Let’s interview people who have declined to teach and ask families why kids are not attending. Then, we’ll make some changes based on our research.”
In this example, failure of the “old model” of Sunday School teaches us that the participants or circumstances have changed. A technical response, which does not adapt to this change, will fail again and again. The next solution will not likely “fix” all the issues, but with each new experiment something will be learned that can be applied to the next try. “We tried that; it didn’t work,” becomes “We tried that. Here’s what we learned.”
The Book of Order lays out the “shalls” for being church. Our Great Ends of The Church give us guidance. Nowhere are we taught, “Go forth and fail, learn from it and then get back up and try something else.” Where we do hear this message is in Christ’s persistent forgiveness and engagement with his disciples.
“You foolish people.” But I’ve not given up on you so let’s try something new!
And we know the “wild and crazy” Holy Spirit is what comes next.
May God be your lab partner as you experiment with failure and give thanks for your lessons.
Rev. Joe Blankinship
Pastor, Forest Hills Presbyterian, High Point
Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation In An Uncertain Age, Morehouse Pub. 2014.
Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation, New York, Currency Books, 2001.
This post will hopefully cheer you up. But to get there, you’ll have to bear with me and wade through some things first. But I promise that, as is God’s way, there is grace for us all.
So, 2016 is turning out not to be my favorite year. Between the craziness of our Presidential race; state of our world economic, interfaith and geopolitical affairs; and the seemingly unbridled human misery that abounds, it’s tempting to just circle the wagons and focus on home. But at home, my people are dying.
Over the last three months we have seen 4 deaths and are about to have a funeral for a fifth this weekend. In addition to that, we have had a rash (if you can even call it that) of folks suffering from pneumonia, delicate operations, and various kinds of cancer. Then there are the number of families I’m counseling (and referring) that are in utter crises: threats of divorce, suicide, substance abuse and just plain strange family dynamics. And in the midst of this, people are leaving the church.
Whenever I hear people talk about growing the church or turning the tide on our declining membership, I keep coming back to something Sam Jenkins said to me: Shepherds don’t grow sheep, sheep do. For all the hand-wringing many of us in leadership do, the truth is God is the one responsible for growing the church. God is the one who sent Christ. God is the one who created the world. God is the one who poured out the Sprit on a burgeoning church and healed nations. God did that.
But we weren’t exactly spectators. In fact, God’s mission for us is the same as it ever was: we are witnesses (Isaiah 43:10; Acts 5:32).
Something that keeps coming up in all of these funerals, hospital visits, office visits and home visits is this nagging sense that we are following someone who rose from the dead. Like the spectacular vision in Ezekiel 37:1-14 or the astounding discovery of the empty tomb we just celebrated, we didn’t make those things happen, we didn’t even ask for them.
God just did them.
The only thing we’ve been asked to do is to be witnesses. To tell what what we know, to tell what we see. That’s it. We aren’t experts in resurrection matters, we’re hobbyists at best. Even in my prayers for others I am only a partner in what GOD is doing, not the other way around. I think that same thing is true for our churches. Adversity and challenge aren’t conspiracies against the good of our congregations, they are a part of life. They always have been. They are a part of the created order. The visions of peace that God lays out for us aren’t something we accomplish, but they are dreams that we are a part of. Even when surrounded by death, life, in all its splendor, is unmistakeable and inescapable. But it does require courage.
We must bear out the courage that adversity and death aren’t just a part of our lives as human beings. They are a part of our lives as congregations, churches built according to God’s purposes, not ours. This means following the advice given to us in Philippians 4:4-20. We have a tendency to really zero in on verse 13 (“I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” -CEB), but the whole chapter (and, frankly, the whole letter) points to something more than just the moment. If it is our time to live as a congregation, then let us do so with dignity and passion. If it is our time to die as a church then let us live so with dignity and passion (Philippians 1:21).
Whatever we do, let us always be mindful that our walks of faith are always services of witness to the resurrection.
Secret of the Universe:
Rev. David Ealy
Hawfields Presbyterian Church
Note: This post is the first in an Eastertide series being offered by a joint task force composed of members from Salem Presbytery's Church Growth and Transformation Committee and Commission on Ministry.
This revised post by Jill Crainshaw was previously published on her own blog and at patheos.com
“Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
~ Ezekiel 17:23
I rescued an empty nest the other day. In the rain. I don’t know why I rescued the nest. No bird lives in it. It was last year’s nest.
I was in my car, pulling out of the driveway to head somewhere, when I saw the nest in the middle of the road in front of my house. Instead of driving by or driving over it, I stopped the car, stepped out into the springtime deluge, and hurried over to it, looking up and down the street for other cars (and for the eyes of curious neighbors) as I went.
The nest was beautiful, perfect in its construction, with a singular strand of sapphire yarn woven into its middle. I picked it up. It was fragile and soggy. And since I was now dripping from the rain and late for where I was headed, I laid the nest at the base of a tree in the sidewalk buffer and dashed back to my car.
Sometimes I think I spend far too much time rescuing last year’s nests. Perhaps we all do. How do we decide, after all, how much energy to give to preserving last year’s architectural delights, and how much to use building for this year and the future?
There is something to be said, I think, for the intricate magnificence of some of last year’s nests. Those nests held and hold precious, life-shaping memories. They nurtured possibilities and provided launching pads for nestlings’ first flights.
The nest reminded me of Christian congregations today. Many churches are struggling to know how to relate last year’s metaphorical nests to the kinds of Gospel dwelling places we want and need to fashion for today’s hopes, dreams, and challenges. What elements of last year’s nests do we want to keep? After all, the gifts of earlier generations are vital to our identities as Christian communities. But we know that we still have work to do to share Gospel news with the world around us, and not everything about last year’s nests lend themselves to that unfolding and evolving work. Indeed, we risk overlooking important opportunities for spiritual growth when we hold on with too much caution and fear to nests that are emptying if not already abandoned.
An Eastertide series of blog posts, beginning this week, will consider opportunities and challenges congregations face today as they consider the futures of their ministries. An aim of the posts is to invite conversation within Salem Presbytery about how to embody Gospel ministries in today’s less predictable and more ambiguous environments.
Some leadership resources call the worlds we inhabit now worlds alive with “adaptive” problems. What are adaptive problems? Different than “technical” problems, which can often be solved by applying known skills and knowledge, adaptive problems are far too slippery to respond with grace to familiar plans, programs, and knowledge. Adaptive problems instead require leaders’ and communities’ most innovative sources of imagining, thinking, and embodying.
Adaptive thinking is at heart Gospel thinking because it requires deep soul-searching, Spirit-sparked creativity, and Christ-centered relationship-building. Adaptive thinking is also “story” thinking. When leaders embody adaptive thinking, they seek out all of the stories of faith communities—success stories and messy stories—in an effort to ensure that new practices are woven together in authentic ways with the unique DNA of particular and peculiar people and places. This story-grounded approach is based on a belief that a significant part of God’s Story today is our diverse communal stories woven together by God’s ever-present, ever-dynamic Spirit.
What does adaptive thinking require of leaders? One of the biggest challenges to adaptive change is fear—fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of moving away from familiar identities. Adaptive leaders stand with communities in these fears as together they name and embrace the frightening prospects of past and future and seek God’s guidance.
I photographed my rescued nest. The next day I decided to take a few more photos of it. But the nest was no longer where I had left it. Perhaps another critter took it. Then I spotted the nest about halfway up the sidewalk toward my house. Perhaps the wind had blown it there.
The next day the nest was even closer to the house. I noticed that it was smaller, too.
That’s when I realized that this year’s birds were using bits and pieces of last year’s nest to build for this spring season.
Verses from an ancient text, Ezekiel 17, came to mind as I reflected on last year’s nest: “Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
I like the idea of a tree full of every kind of nest.
Doesn’t God invite all of us to nest in God’s tree? Isn’t this invitation the way God sustains the earth and communities of faith? Perhaps this is one of the powerful truths of Eastertide: as God did in the beginning and in the resurrection, God continues to do a new thing in us.
And might it not also be true that a bit of sapphire yarn, and a few choice twigs from last year’s nest, are just what are needed to remind present and future nestlings of the gifts and challenges of the past, and to make the nests we are now building places we can call home?
Virginia O. Bassford. Lord, I Love the Church and We Need Help (Adaptive Leadership Series). Abingdon Press, 2012.
Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Rudy Rasmus. Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge Abingdon Press, 2012.
Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones. Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009.