Innovation Stories

Promising Innovation: When Disruption Becomes Ministry

Wildfires and the pandemic bring new meaning to caring for the least of these
by Terri Elton and Tessa Pinkstaff | November 4, 2020

Post #3 – Promising innovation capitalizes on previous decisions, capacities, and experiments.

When Disruption Becomes Ministry

Promising innovation rarely appears out of thin air. Many promising innovations occur when leaders use disruption to expand their innovative imagination. Experiments that translate imagination into action often draw on established networks and previous initiatives.

Oak Grove United Methodist Church, a congregation of about 150 members in Portland, Oregon, did not let their size or capacity stop them from responding to the immediate need for personal protective equipment (PPE) in their community. Oak Grove UMC’s pastor, Heather Riggs, couples Jesus’ command to teach others “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20) with his call to care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45). Following this guidance has resulted in intentionally cultivating relationships with local mainline churches as well as with unchurched neighbors, nonprofits, local businesses, schools, and local government. As a United Methodist, Pastor Riggs is grounded in John Wesley’s statement that “the world is my parish.” When the pandemic hit, her previously established relationships and partnering initiatives became essential in Oak Grove UMC’s ability to respond to the needs of their community in a timely manner.  

As the pandemic took hold, Pastor Riggs learned her colleague, Pastor Craig Barnes, was looking for masks for farm and service industry workers in his area. Pastor Riggs and her colleagues were concerned about the safety and well-being of these workers, who are primarily Latino/a, and this motivated them to do something. Within a short amount of time, 200 masks were donated and distributed through a collaboration between UMC, Episcopal, and ELCA churches. As Pastor Riggs notes, “Because we were leveraging relational networks rather than institutional networks, the process was informal, simple and smooth.” She and her fellow pastors did not let congregational size or denominational differences get in the way of acting on this real-world need. 

Because of Oak Grove UMC’s commitment to serving the “least of these” and their belief that the world is their parish, they have made community engagement a key focus of their ministry. They use community organizing capacities—leveraging local power to solve collective problems—and this has increased their ability to identify and respond to the needs in their community. At the same time, it has provided rich opportunities for conversation about God with people who don’t normally go to church. This foundation made what they’ve affectionately dubbed “the mask experiment” fall into Oak Grove UMC’s sweet spot

Little did they know that another opportunity would quickly present itself. Fast forward to late summer when wildfires were creating a disruptive moment across Oregon that left many homeless. This was a new chance to experiment, but now the timing was even more critical. Pastor Riggs shared how this experiment unfolded once she and her pastoral colleagues learned about the need: 

“On Thursday morning, 10 a.m., I found out that some folks who are houseless were being turned away from fire evacuation shelters for being ‘transients’ [and] had nowhere to go in the midst of this disaster. I worked with my clergy friends, and our social worker friends, to get the church open as a shelter by 2 p.m.”

Then the Oak Grove UMC congregation learned that the Father’s Heart Street Ministry shelter was also being evacuated, so they invited them into their space as well. The shelter’s regular guests joined the congregants, and so did many of its staff and volunteers. Mikaila, one of the social workers, stayed with Pastor Riggs the first night. The movement continued to grow as word spread to surrounding congregations about what was happening. Those ministries provided additional supplies, sent volunteers, and organized meals. Even governmental and nonprofit organizations joined the effort. Providence, a large local medical system, provided hospital-grade PPE and sanitizing and safety supplies. And, Pastor Riggs adds, “County staff, from health inspectors to EOC managers, checked in with us and offered supplies and support. They worked to fix the problem of shelters not accepting ‘transients.’ After all,” she asks wryly, “isn’t everybody fleeing the fire ‘transient’?” 

In their experiments, Oak Grove UMC demonstrates one of the key tenets of innovation. Innovation stems out of deep listening: listening for explicit and latent needs, observing disconnects, and being curious about what’s behind a need or creating the disconnect. This is a lifestyle—a way of being which lays a foundation that can support inspiration and experimentation when the opportunity arises. Innovation is supported by design thinking, which is a discipline as well as a process and set of practices that can help organizations increase their innovative DNA by connecting previous decisions and capacities with real-time experiments. In his book Change by Design, innovation pioneer Tim Brown says, “The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.”

At the heart of Oak Grove UMC’s experiments is hope that witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The needs in their Portland community are too great to tackle all by themselves. Yet as they partner with other congregations and community organizations, they are living out the call to care for “the least of these” in their parish in Oregon. This work “also raises the community’s awareness of our church,” Pastor Riggs adds, “so that people who didn’t know that churches like ours (Open and Affirming and active in service) exist.” Oak Grove UMC is countering one narrative with another, one disruption and experiment at a time. 

Learn more about Pastor Rigg’s incredible story

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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