Want to thrive in the 21st century? Get comfortable with innovation. In their book The Innovator’s Way, Peter Denning and Robert Dunham laud the capacity for innovation as the critical skill for success. Though the contemporary church is not generally known for its innovation, ministry leaders everywhere became innovators when the pandemic forced congregations to close their buildings. By the summer of 2020, at least 80% of the ministry leaders who responded to the Faith+ Lead survey saw promise in their innovative efforts. Yet Denning and Dunham note that only 4% of innovation results in long-term change. Could congregations capitalize on their early experiments in ways that lead to lasting outcomes? We wanted to find out.
Kristin Gorton, a pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, believes the pandemic and social unrest of 2020 didn’t create the disruption—those factors simply sped up existing societal shifts. Change is not something to fear, and she often reminds her 175-member congregation that change is part of their 100-year story. Throughout that long history, sometimes the changes have been subtle; at other times, they’ve been more abrupt. Right now Memorial is undergoing all kinds of changes: fast and slow, big and small.
Several years ago, they began listening to their community and wondering,“What might the Spirit be up to?” The people of Memorial learned more about their context, a unique blend of urban, suburban, and rural that creates a microcosm of economic injustices and racial challenges. When the pandemic hit, it would have been easy for them to focus solely on their life together. In the midst of their longing to gather back in the building, Pastor Kristin regularly reminded them the church is the people, not the building. She directed the congregation’s attention to relationships, both those within the congregation and those out in the community. This intentional focus kept them aligned with their mission and even birthed several missional opportunities.
One opportunity came out of their current work with the Good Neighbors Personal Essentials Pantry. Memorial manages the logistics and staffs the pantry while Arbor Covenant Church, a neighboring congregation, houses the pantry itself so people with the most need can access it. Although this partnership is ten years old, new conversations about capacity have arisen during COVID. Arbor Covenant is discerning their future, including their 3½ acres of land and community garden. Memorial, meanwhile, has good worship space with new technology and an in-house community music program. As one lay leader mused, what might be possible if these two ministries collaborated? Could Arbor Covenant’s property be repurposed to meet the community’s need for low income housing? What about Memorial’s building? For both of these churches, their trusted partnership and dedication to the community is incubating something. They are sparking their collective imagination by operating in a liminal space with a mindset of experimentation. How might God be preparing these ministries for a more expansive way of being church?
Minding the Innovation Gap
We are creatures of habit, however. Change is hard, and we naturally gravitate toward comfortable and familiar ways of operating. As the pandemic lingers, many church leaders are being pressured to return to their buildings. There is a very real longing to get back to “normal.” What might we miss if we return too quickly? Will we be unable to discern what the Spirit might be doing among us?
When we surrender to the pull to return to normal, we experience what Innovative Intelligence authors David Weiss and Claude Legrand call the innovation gap. Returning to old patterns wastes the learning that experiments offer. Brainstorming and novel ideas are key components, igniting energy and providing short-term success. But innovation is far more than just invention. It requires integrating new practices and implementing innovative processes in order for long-term change to take root.
Denning and Dunham tell us innovation includes practices and disciplines that allow a community to adopt a new practice. This reminds us that ideas must become practices that connect with the real needs of people. It pushes innovation past fads or trends and instead focuses on working with people and helping communities embrace new things. As Denning and Dunham describe it, innovation always includes “getting people to accept and implement change, and to sacrifice old, familiar ways in order to gain new ways.” This work is less glamorous and involves the challenging but crucial tasks of listening, naming grief, and bringing people into the adoption process.
What if the discipline of innovation provides the church a pathway for being more responsive to today’s contextual realities? What if the openings created by the earliest experiments are avenues for listening to people’s concerns and longings? What if communities need to explore lament practices?
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church
When the pandemic hit, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas, tapped into innovative thinking. Wanting to respond to two community needs—food and school supplies—Pastor Linda Anderson-Little and lay leader Jose Rodriguez led their congregation in a meaningful community event. It was a celebration of Cinco de Mayo that combined a donation drive with a car parade in the neighborhood. The church collected 467 pounds of food and $1,500 in supplies, provided an avenue for neighbors to support their community, and made the congregation’s presence known. And it was very fun! This event early in the pandemic set the tone for a new way of being church in the months that followed.
Jose reflects on how he developed his innovative intelligence. He notes that he and his spouse, Steve Weir, were survivors of another pandemic, AIDS. During that pandemic they learned how to develop social clubs, raise funds, educate communities, and help people when they were sick and dying. In the midst of all those efforts, they developed tools, created support structures, and discovered how foundational faith was in times of change. Jose is leveraging those experiences, resources, and learning in this pandemic. He says the most important take-away is that “we need each other.”
Innovation is more than running an experiment or two. It is about seeing the world differently and relying on new tools. It is about knowing where to focus and what to prioritize. It is a way of addressing and responding to complex problems that draws on particular practices and processes, takes into account the particularities of context, and draws others into the work of change. Over time, as organizations engage in innovative practices, a new way of being emerges and an ecology of innovation is born. This is the capacity Weiss and Legrand call innovative intelligence.
Gratitude as This Series Ends
As we wrap up our Promising Innovation series, we on the Innovation Leadership Team at Luther Seminary want to thank everyone who completed the Faith+Lead Ministry Leader survey in May. We also want to thank the ministry leaders we interviewed this fall and the Rev. Timothy Bowman for conducting those interviews. Thank you for sharing your learning with us. Your dedication, imagination, and on-going experimentation gives us hope and encouragement. We will continue to find ways to capture your experiences and share them with the wider church community. God’s blessings to you all!
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.