circle of care
Innovation Stories

Promising Innovation: Circles of Care

How an urgent need can drive innovation
by Terri Elton and Tessa Pinkstaff | October 27, 2020

What are promising innovations? 5 themes from the frontlines of ministry 

In May 2020, Faith+Lead surveyed ministry leaders to learn how they were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to know whether innovation was happening and, more importantly, what it looked like within all kinds of contexts. From the responses we received, five themes emerged that reveal the defining characteristics of promising innovations. This series will expand on each of those themes and will include stories from ministries around the country.

Theme 1 of 5 – Promising innovation is born out of need, urgency, and meaning.

Circles of Care

“I’ve long wanted to involve more parishioners in ongoing pastoral care and checking on each other. When it became evident that we would be shutting down because of COVID, it was time to put this model in place,” reports Anne Jolly, Rector of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Deerfield, Illinois. With little to lose and much more to gain, Rev. Jolly didn’t gather a committee or wait for a council vote. She trusted her gut. She saw people in her congregation in need and moved into action. Her belief that care was both urgent and important led her to launch an experiment. 

Rev. Jolly did what good innovators do: She saw an urgent and time-sensitive need and experimented her way toward a solution.

Using Google Maps, she plotted out where all her congregants lived and created something she dubbed Care Circles. “Each circle contained 10 to 16 households that were in geographical proximity to each other,” she explains. “I identified two leaders in each circle, invited them to ministry, and then had a Zoom call with all the leaders to explain the concept. Once all the leaders were on board and clear on commitments, they became the primary pastoral care contact for their circle.” At the beginning, Rev. Jolly’s leaders connected weekly to pray, share stories, discover who was in need of additional care, and discern how they needed to adjust the process. As time went on, they moved to monthly check-ins. 

Those times of prayer and idea-sharing were invigorating to the pastor and the leadership team, and this spread to the entire congregation. Rev. Jolly shares how the experiment continues to grow. “The circle leaders,” she says, “are enthusiastic about continuing in this ministry. They all have found much grace in their conversations, and realize how meaningful their ministry is to the congregation. People in the congregation are thrilled with the regular conversations, and they feel very supported and loved. This is, by far, the greatest number of people we have had participating in regular, structured pastoral care…It’s a beautiful thing to see the body of Christ working as such! Each leader had told me stories of how they have felt God working through them in this ministry. It’s grace!”

Many circumstances birth innovation. Rev. Jolly’s experiment emerged out of her congregation’s sweet spot—the ideal intersection that happens when innovation is timely and when it takes place around a felt need in a way that is meaningful. Our May 2020 survey revealed another natural sweet spot for congregations. Eighty percent of respondents reported that their most promising innovation was putting worship online. Worship is central to ministry, and when this core practice was disrupted, leaders recognized the importance and urgency of doing something. They didn’t wait; they acted. Using readily available tools (most at low or no cost), leaders worked with the environment to respond quickly to their peoples’ needs in ways that made sense for their community.

This story illustrates an approach to innovation that Rabbi Hayim Herring and Dr. Terri Elton call fusion in their book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. Fusion occurs when something familiar collides with something new. In the process, energy is released. Fusion can be minimal, changing things as little as possible, or it can be dramatic, redirecting an organization’s mission. The beauty of fusion is that both the familiar and the new are transformed. And experimenting with fusion can lead to more experimentation. 

This is true for Rev. Jolly. In her congregation, the initial Care Circle ministry has expanded and is now combined with the church’s Zoom worship. She wants to continue building on this success: “On the second Sunday of the month, we do Care Circle groups, so I divide everyone into their Care Circle so they get to know more people in geographic proximity to themselves. It is our hope to eventually do Care Circle gatherings.” 

For St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, the pandemic provided an opening and invitation to find their sweet spot and innovate in meaningful ways. What about your congregation or ministry? How will you use this moment? What needs are you seeing in your community? Which are the most urgent? How can you adapt to meet those needs? What will that mean for your people?

Find Out More

Curious about fusion and its role in innovation? Check out the Car Rides with Clergy series from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Shakopee, Minnesota, to see another example of fusion in action.

About the Authors
Terri Martinson Elton is the Associate Professor of Leadership at Luther Seminary. Having served 20 years in congregational and synodical leadership before coming to Luther, Terri is deeply committed to accompanying congregations in discovering new expressions of ministry. Terri has co-authored a book on Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World with Rabbi Hayim Herring, researched and written about Cultivating Teen Faith, and has a new book, Journeying the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century, coming out this spring.

Tessa Pinkstaff is a project manager and grant writer at Luther Seminary who serves on the Innovation Leadership Team. She leads the weekly Dwelling in the Word webcast for Faith+Lead. Tessa is passionate about spiritual disciplines—including silence and solitude—as a means for developing an intimate relationship with God. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from the University of Northwestern–St. Paul and is nearing completion of a Master of Ministry from Bethel Seminary. Tessa looks forward to earning a certificate in spiritual direction from Christos in Lino Lakes.

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