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Business journal offers insights for churches

Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know I often read the Harvard Business Review (HBR). This isn’t because I equate church life and organization with business life and organization, which is not helpful to do. There are too many differences in their missions and functions to do that accurately. A church being too numbers focused as the metric of its purpose makes as much sense as a business hosting worship services. They’re not the same thing, but both are human institutions. Much of what I learn from HBR about social interactions and challenges human face I find helpful.


Mike Denton - PNC Conference MInister

A recent article sticking with me is titled, “Leadership May Not Be the Problem with Your Innovation Team.” Innovation is not a new word to the church but we don’t have the same resources the business world does to study what does and doesn’t work. Because so many suggest successful innovation efforts solely depend on leadership, the title caught my eye and the content keeps me thinking. The authors, Daniel Dworkin and Markus Spiegel, find four qualities need to be in place for an organization to have a successful innovation effort: constant energy, creative friction, flexible structure and purposeful discovery.

How do these relate to the church?  Constant energy makes church innovation efforts difficult. Many of us are tired, and we hunger for innovation is to find an idea that will add energy to our congregations. The idea that innovation doesn’t just require energy but constant energy seems daunting. The authors suggest that three things that help manage this energy:

1) Clearly naming limitations, we come up with plans to move to move through them when they emerge.

2) Connecting with our purpose beyond numbers, we realize that “to grow our church” only goes so far. “To make a difference in the lives of those who attend and in our community” is something quite different.

3) Using a different term, they also suggest the need for transparency and intentional visibility to add to that energy.

As church folks, I suggest two other things are important. Many of our communities are already tired. Once a congregation decides to move forward in a big way, it should take a sabbath. One part of sabbath is rest and another part is getting right with God, each other and the world. Moving into a time of innovation without being rested tends to be a recipe for anxiety, doubt and fear. We need to be rested to be ready.

Creative friction is both a sign of health and requires health. Congregations where the color of the hallway carpet or use of a variety of music in worship results in conflict will find innovation difficult. Congregations whose primary conflicts are between personalities or who see resolution of a conflict one side “winning” are going to find sustaining innovation difficult. The ground for congregational innovation is established with a focus on congregational health. The Rev. Tara Barber of the PNC does a workshop for congregations seeking to learn what a healthy congregation might be. It’s easy to assume that what’s normal is healthy but it’s normal to eat too much junk food and to pollute.

Innovation requires a flexible structure. That’s hard. In addition to our churches frequently having clunky, complicated, confusing structures, flexibility is not usually their strength. There tend to be so many permission expectations that it’s hard to move forward in a timely way. Dworkin and Spiegel say it’s more important to have structures that empower the innovation needed to solve a problem instead of structures that are given methods to solve problems. So if a church’s goal is to have a relevant faith development program, the system would empower those working on it to figure out how to be relevant—and change processes as they learn along the way—instead of following a proscribed method that can’t be changed. 

A related condition for innovation is what the authors call purposeful discovery. We should expect to be wrong and fail sometimes. Doesn’t that sound healthy? Then why is it so hard to do and adjust to. If we’re innovating something, by its nature it has likely not been done before—at least in our context. This is what it means to be a “fool for Christ” (1st Cor. 4:11). The apostles were faith innovators, trying many ideas and methods to bring the Gospel to the world. Most of the Gospels and Epistles are about how none of this worked out how anyone expected and the struggles along the way. It’s about how structures were imposed and then set aside. It’s about how ideals and roles shifted. They listened to and communicated with each other, then made decisions and tried new things based on what they discovered and God revealed.

I’ve been questioning whether the church can be a place for innovation. My heart has said “yes,” but it’s hard to put my over-thinking head around it. The article has helpful clues that helped me move to another place.

I sometimes jokingly refer to “The Gospel of HBR.” There is Gospel there in the Spirit leaving room for us to embrace our humanity. It’s a hint about discovering not just how we are wonderfully and beautifully made but what we might beautifully and wonderfully be inspired to create. This is holy work.


Copyright © September 2016 - Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News


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