The pastor I was talking to expressed a feeling common to so many of us these days: “We had an idea … Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly everything had an expiration date.”
In her case, however, that expiration date was literal.
This pastor’s youth had launched a community bread baking ministry at the intersection of communal care and food equity in their home city of Sacramento. This was part of the Log College Project grant I was coordinating during my time at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry. The grant focused on youth ministry innovation alongside young people in the congregational context.
The bread baking idea was inspiring — a shining example of an innovation. And it had started out beautifully, she told me. The youth made the plans, secured the kitchen and volunteers, and purchased organic bread flour in bulk.
A week later, the city of Sacramento locked down.
“I was stuck with pounds of organic flour set to expire in a few days,” the pastor said. Because the group had already spent the bulk of their grant money, they were unlikely to be able to relaunch at the same scale if the flour went to waste.
“So when you ask me what the biggest ‘uh-oh’ of the innovation process has been, it is making huge plans without being able to foresee a global pandemic,” she said.
“What did you all end up doing? Did you find a solution?” I asked. I could tell from her tone that she was disappointed the baking project had not panned out as expected.
“Well, we had no choice but to call up the families and community partners in our sphere and ask them to take some organic flour off of our hands,” she said. “Seeing as the grocery stores at the time felt like the Wild West, many were glad to grab a few pounds of flour for baking. Some baked bread; others made muffins or other baked goods —”
Suddenly, the pastor paused.
“Actually,” she said, “someone made us communion bread to break for our first virtual communion service. Oh! And folks started posting the recipes they made on social media. Someone even suggested a pandemic recipe book!
“I guess, in a very unexpected way, we organically did the ministry online that we had hoped to do in person before everything shut down.”
I share this story because it beautifully illustrates the answer to a question I often get asked in my innovation coaching: “How do I know whether my church is ready to innovate?”
I typically respond with a follow-up question: “How does your community react to sudden change?”
A church that’s ready to innovate accepts that ministry seasons come and go — and so do effective programs. They are not afraid to shift their own ideas of meaningful ministry when the season, political climate or socioeconomic situation of the community calls them to show up in a different way.
These churches don’t panic. They pivot. To adapt an adage here: When life gives you flour with an expiration date, share it with the community to make bread!
I teach a starter suite course on congregational readiness for innovation as part of my work with Ministry Incubators. Based on the Institute For Youth Ministry’s research, as well as the experiences our team at Ministry Incubators has collected as part of our work with congregations, I’ve identified four key characteristics that innovation-ready churches have in common:
Churches that are ready to innovate are willing to change the system, not just programs. When there is a transformative idea budding, the whole church is all-in on making it happen, rather than just delegating it to a small committee.
Churches that are ready to innovate commit to being people-focused. They draw ideas and inspiration from the articulated needs and desires of the community, even at the cost of their well-thought-out strategic plans. They don’t pretend to serve “all the people all the time” but commit to the needs and dreams of the community on the ground. Think of the slogan of clothing brand FUBU — For Us, By Us.
Churches that are ready to innovate encourage creativity, flexibility and quick pivots. The Sacramento church is a great example of this principle. Churches gain confidence to make quick pivots the more they engage in a deep practice of creativity that is rooted in a sense of communal security, even in the face of possible failure.
Churches that are ready to innovate have leaders who model the previous three qualities. Another question I often ask is, “How does your senior leadership and/or congregation react to bad news?” Our willingness to be honest and gracious about failure as leaders allows for a community that is willing to try new things, even if a pandemic forces them back to the drawing board.
As one might imagine, this conversation leads to another common question: “How do I get my church ready to innovate?”
My answer: “Fill your church with artists.
“And repeat after me: I am an artist.”
You don’t need an art degree or a studio in your church building to attract artists; they are already there. They might not yet realize they are artists. They, and you, may just need an opportunity to access that creativity.
I have heard it said that innovation is the work of public artistry, and I’ve found this to be true in my work leading creatio divina workshops. I guide people who don’t think they are creative through reflective exercises and art making.
I find that the more participants access their inner, creative selves, the less they feel like strangers to creativity. Creativity begets creativity. I’ve had folks who had never painted tell me that they’ve solved longtime ministry problems simply in the process of putting brush to paper.
In “The Artist’s Way,” writer Julia Cameron tells us that often, the difference between an artist and a shadow artist (someone who was made to be creative but isn’t creating) isn’t talent. It’s audacity.
In the beginning, God created. We were created to be creative and to create, even if it seems that we are creating ex nihilo, or out of nothing. In fact, the act of creativity itself will generate ideas from which your ministry can innovate.
Is your congregation ready to innovate? Whether the budget doesn’t meet the mark this year or the volunteers don’t show up or the big ministry ideas and plans get hit by a huge pandemic-size “STOP,” we rely on the nebulous space of improvisation and creativity that is the core call of an artist. An innovative church really is a church filled with artists — gracious, all-in, people-focused artists whose creative spirit is nurtured by love found in holy community.
After all, innovation is the work of public artistry grounded in the love of those around us.