The church needs innovation instigators

“We’ve always done it this way!”

For decades, church leaders and committee members have sat in fellowship halls and church classrooms and around conference tables discussing future plans for their congregations.

Inevitably, someone utters those familiar six words: “We’ve always done it this way.”

At first, it can feel like an uninspired attachment to the past. But with deeper listening, you will recognize that it can be more about pride in the track record of the congregation. It’s more “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and less “Over my dead body!”

“We’ve always done it this way” can be an important tether to church culture and long-standing tradition — but it can also be the chief barrier to innovation.

What if the pastors in the room saw themselves as innovation instigators?

When I was growing up, one of our favorite sayings was, “Why are you instigating?” It was a question that would come up whenever two or more folks were in the early stages of an argument or disagreement.

Inevitably, someone would come around to some version of, “I heard you said this …; I heard you said that …,” which would lead someone else in the conversation to ask, “Why are you instigating?” The rhetorical question in childhood settings was meant to draw out the reality that the instigator was bringing information to the forefront to fuel the fire and keep the intensity high.

I am by no means advocating for pastors to spark disagreements in committee meetings, but what would it look like to see ourselves as innovation instigators within our congregations? When a committee member gazes through rose-colored glasses at a church event from the past, how might pastors bring to the forefront the full picture rather than limiting the view to the committee’s highlight reel?

What would it look like to raise the internal challenges that accompanied an external win? Yes, the event was sold out, but was the church equipped to handle the crowd? Yes, the choir did a phenomenal job, but did they sing too long? Yes, elected officials showed up, but when their team misrepresented our event on their social media accounts, did we correct them?

Seeing ourselves as innovation instigators means being willing to hold the mirror up to ourselves and our team so that we can honestly examine the moments where things are working effectively and where they are not. The purpose of this work is not to deflate the pride that congregations have about who they are and what they’ve done but to work out the kinks so that every experience offered becomes better than the last. A culture of questions and critique helps churches both celebrate their wins and respond to their losses.

Innovation instigators don’t allow the team to let themselves off the hook when it comes to event evaluations. They stand in the tension to hold space for new normals to emerge when the old ways of doing things are no longer cutting it.

Rarely is the work of innovation done completely from scratch. We must look for innovative moments within ongoing practices. In other words, we may not be able to change the whole thing at once, but we can make significant changes along the way.

My dissertation adviser, L. Gregory Jones, now the president of Belmont University, calls this practice traditioned innovation. As he wrote with Andrew P. Hogue in “Navigating the Future: Traditioned Innovation for Wilder Seas,” traditioned innovation is “a way of thinking and living that holds the past and future together in creative tension.” Jones and Hogue went on to write: “We believe that the innovation that matters is innovation that draws on the best of the past, carrying forward its wisdom through ‘traditioned innovation.’” This framework has animated much of Jones’ work and even launched the Traditioned Innovation Project at Duke Divinity School.

With this context in mind, I’m calling for more of us to see ourselves as innovation instigators. We have the capacity to hold the past in one hand and the potential future in the other. I am more persuaded than ever in this post-2020 world that congregations have the capacity to innovate. We’ve proved it. The COVID-19 crisis forced churches across the nation to find ways to do church differently. Our “why” remained the same, but our “how” had to change. On that journey, we learned that we, the church universal, are capable of discovering new ways of solving problems.

While you cannot force innovation, you can create a culture that fosters innovative solutions to ongoing issues. Innovation instigators are those brave enough to ask the questions that unmask the real underlying challenges congregations face. Innovation instigators are those willing to disrupt the comfort of a church meeting to open the space up for honest reflection. While pastors cannot force members to think differently, pastors can raise the kinds of questions that draw out new answers. In this season, I implore you to instigate some change. Instigate some new ideas. Instigate toward innovation.

The years 2020-2022 taught us just how resilient we can be. Countless congregations learned new technologies under pressure. Innovation was at an all-time high. I believe that we still have within us that capacity to innovate. We did it under duress; now let’s attempt it in more neutral conditions. Let’s be innovation instigators.

What would it look like to raise the internal challenges that accompanied an external win?

We have always shared our neighborhood with squirrels. But over the past few months, the squirrels seem to have forgotten our unspoken agreement to coexist peacefully.

They are chewing through play structures and windowsills, digging up plants, nesting in cars and moving into attics. Our neighborhood listserv is replete with DIY suggestions for waging battle against the invaders — everything from spraying hot sauce or rubbing habaneros on a swingset to scattering a bunch of fake snakes around the yard.

Mark Rober faced a similar problem: squirrels were devouring his birdseed. He had taken up bird watching at the beginning of the pandemic, only to bear witness as squirrels took down not one but three “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.

Rober could have taken the same approach as my neighbors, arming himself with squirrel repellent and giving up on a new hobby he found “so lovely.” But the NASA engineer-turned-popular YouTuber had an entirely different reaction.

He got curious.

And then he channeled his indignation into a good-humored appreciation for the squirrels’ ingenuity and persistence, meeting their creative problem solving with his own.

Over a few weeks in spring 2020, he built an eight-part Ninja Warrior-style course for squirrels. If they wanted to get to the birdseed, they would have to successfully navigate such obstacles as a swinging bridge, a maze, slanted steps and a catapult (“squirrelapult”). And the prize was not just birdseed but a treasure trove of walnuts (the treat Rober found they liked best after observing which nuts or seeds they ate first in a buffet he set up).

More than 95 million people have watched the utterly delightful 20-minute video that follows Rober’s adventures with the squirrel contestants he named Rick, Marty, Frank and Phantastic Gus. (Spoiler alert: All four made quick work of solving the puzzles laid out for them.)

What makes the video especially charming is Rober’s growing appreciation of the creatures he initially describes as “adversaries.” You hear him cheering on the squirrels, marveling as they experiment, fail and hop right back up to try again.

“They’re kind of adorable,” he says at the end. “Incredibly crafty, curious by nature, athletic and persistent.”

I was reminded of Rober when I heard a Christian leader wonder recently, in this challenging moment, how to cultivate creativity among clergy and lay leaders. “How,” he asked his colleagues, “are you successfully helping church leaders expand their imaginations?”

Behind his question, and the nods of solidarity from other leaders who work closely with congregations, was a recognition that many church leaders are tapped out. And the burnout extends beyond clergy. How can you guide a congregation through a pandemic when many of the lay leaders you count on for volunteering, fundraising and leadership are currently minimally engaged?

It’s far too simple to blame COVID-19. Matt Richtel, in an essay adapted from “Inspired: Understanding Creativity. A Journey Through Art, Science and the Soul,” writes that while we may say we want to be creative in navigating a puzzle, we are actually averse to innovation: “Subconsciously, we see creativity as noxious and disruptive.” (This may be especially true in religious settings, as researchers have found that thinking about God can stifle creativity.)

The issue? We don’t naturally like uncertainty.

“The reasons for this implicit bias against creativity can be traced to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel and original creations,” Richtel writes. “Creativity means change, without the certainty of desirable results.”

And haven’t we had it up to here lately with uncertainty? Well, yes.

But if we change our relationship with uncertainty — from exasperated and impatient about those darn squirrels to curious and openhearted — we might just push through the weariness of leading in a pandemic to notice glimpses of possibility and playfulness.

Sarah Stein Greenberg, the executive director of the Stanford, writes that the key is to develop a design mindset — one in which we know that the world is not as it should be yet also know that we have the capacity to meet the challenges as they come.

“In an era like this one, we all need the ability to adapt, to be resilient, and to be creative and generative even when we are uncertain,” she writes in “Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create and Lead in Unconventional Ways.”

“It’s not enough to know how things have worked in the past; we must be open to creating a dynamic future.”

So how do we do that — become builders rather than maintainers or controllers? How do we become more like Rober and, well, less like ourselves? Rober describes in a TEDx video the three steps he follows to generate ideas:

Be curious. Develop a childlike wonder about the world. Ask yourself: Why is this thing this way? What old ideas can we let go to make space for something new? If we sit long enough to observe something difficult, what insights surprise us?

Work hard. Experiment, fail and learn. Over and over again. What could you try without being overly invested in the outcome? Whom might you empower to join you in trying something new?

Get lucky. Some parts of the creative process are outside your control. That is uncertain, yes — but it also means the world is awash in possibility, waiting to be discovered.

“As you are creative and you observe and question your world, as you work hard [and] build early and often, you increase your chances of getting lucky,” he says. “We are all way more creative than we give ourselves credit for.”

Truth be told, I still find the overbearing squirrels in my yard somewhat irritating. But now I carry Rober’s spirit with me through the challenges of church life — the youth who don’t show up anymore, the languishing ministries, the empty pews — and wonder, not how to fix them, but what they are trying to teach me.

But if we change our relationship with uncertainty…we might just push through the weariness of leading in a pandemic to notice glimpses of possibility and playfulness.

As a sociologist, Michael Plekon has to face the facts: the situation for the church looks grim. But as a priest, he doesn’t despair.

“In the core of the Christian faith, we have the reality of Christ dying and then being raised. So if the church is the body of Christ, is the people of God, then that wonderful passage from death to life will continue,” he said.

In his book “Community as Church, Church as Community,” he lays out the challenges for the church in America. But his focus is on telling stories of resurrection — snapshots in time of congregations forging new paths and creating new ways to be the church.

Michael Plekon

From a donate-what-you-can restaurant to UMC house churches to a historic sacred space converted into a gathering place to a 24-hour coworking project, the congregations he highlights have re-imagined how they can serve God and be in community.

He did his own research and shared stories from a variety of publications to support his core point: that the church is being reinvented in communities — local parishes and congregations.

Plekon is a professor emeritus of sociology at the City University of New York-Baruch College and served as an attached priest for more than 25 years at St. Gregory Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, New York.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the trends he sees in American society and in congregational life — and where he sees reason for hope. The following is an edited transcript.

Community as Church

Faith & Leadership: You share stories in the book, including some from Faith & Leadership, for which we thank you. Why is telling the stories of these congregations important?

Michael Plekon: The stories are essential. They’re not just dressing. They’re not just to make things more lively. They’re the very core of it, and that’s how God works. If we believe that God became part of creation, took on time and space and the body, well, that’s what God continues to do in congregations. They are the body of Christ.

It’s the central argument of the book that while you could describe church as many different things, the ones that are the most solid in the Scriptures are the body of the Christ and the koinonia, the community, the fellowship. And that means that there are all kinds of connections, relationships, women and men praying together, eating together and enjoying each other’s company.

I had one critic who said, “Oh, you’re just talking about happy times,” and I said, “Well, if you’ve ever lived in a community, you will know that it isn’t always happy times.”

The stories are so crucial because they tell you something about the struggle that takes place to keep being church in a particular place. Really, that’s what a congregation or a parish is.

F&L: You’re both a sociologist and a priest. From that dual vantage point, as you look at the state of congregations today, what are the big takeaways?

MP: Well, you can’t deny or try to overlook or evade the reality that congregations are declining and shrinking. There is no church body, there is no denomination that is not experiencing that. If I look at this from both perspectives, as a pastor and a sociologist, the facts are grim.

It doesn’t mean that the church is going to go away. That’s not going to happen.

[But] how long will it be possible for the model of the congregation or the parish that we’ve had for over a thousand years to keep going? Well, it will keep going in some places, but it’s already gone in other places.

What I try to do by putting in front of readers some of these cases of congregations in transition is to show that the church might get smaller but that’s not a bad thing.

Dave Barnhart down in Birmingham has a network of house churches called Saint Junia. There are all kinds of other variations on these themes that I tried to give examples of. They’re out there, and they’re changing as time goes on.

F&L: Talk a little bit about your sources of hope and the overarching theme of resurrection.

MP: I have one in mind, because I have a personal connection to it and it was just in an article that the Christian Century published. It has to do with an Orthodox parish on Troost [Avenue] in Kansas City. It was started by a priest maybe 30 or more years ago who first rented and then bought a kind of run-down commercial building. They put the church, if you will, upstairs and then put the “other church” — that is to say, space for outreach services and eventually a pay-as-you-can cafe — downstairs.

This group of clergy and laity who continue to run what is called Reconciliation Services are a huge sign of hope. If this isn’t a version of the empty tomb on Troost [Avenue] in Kansas City, then I don’t know what it is.

There are reports and there is a budget, but what you have there is a director who happens to be a priest and a board connecting continuously with the state government, with private foundations, with the federal government to keep this form of the works of love or the works of mercy going. That’s another form the church can take.

It’s kind of a best-kept secret — the church being out there in the world, being the body of Christ, feeding people, giving people a place where they can be safe, where they can interact with one another.

F&L: In your book, you say, “Pastors are often failures. … And if they cannot admit this, clergy are liars.” I know that’s a rhetorical flourish, but it does make a point.

MP: You almost cannot undertake the proclaiming of what God has to say to the rest of the world without in a certain sense becoming a failure.

It’s kind of a best-kept secret — the church being out there in the world, being the body of Christ, feeding people, giving people a place where they can be safe, where they can interact with one another.

We, because of our culture, always reward people for filling the pews or having thousands and thousands of members. But that’s really an anomaly when it comes to the average woman or man who serves in the ministry. Most of the time, they’re struggling to survive themselves.

Cathie Caimano, who is featured in my book, calls herself a free range priest and says that this is the way it was in the beginning and it’s coming back to this now.

Andy Doyle, who is an Episcopal bishop down in Texas, has written a wonderful little book called “Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church.” He says much the same thing: that going forward, we have to really reconsider what is the formation going to be for pastors and deacons and also how are we going to employ them or deploy them.

I think that going forward, clergy are always going to be in some ways failures, to the extent that they’re seriously ministers of the word of God and ministers to the world, ministers to the whole people of God.

So yeah, I meant to be provocative when I said that. I think that anybody who has been ordained more than a year or two would probably agree with me that if you’re going to do what’s right, you will probably provoke some kind of criticism or opposition.

F&L: Describe the experiment that you yourself tried that didn’t work out. You tried greeting parents as they dropped children off at the church. What did you learn from that?

MP: The first parish I served was a fairly large ELCA parish not too far from where I live here, maybe 400 people or more when I was there in the ’80s.

We had built a new church, but one of the things that my rector saw was that increasingly, people were dropping their kids off for Sunday school and for confirmation class, not attending themselves — even when, for example, in confirmation it was a requirement that you come to services, participating in the service, receiving communion, singing, some experience of church.

Well, what was most alarming about this is that we thought that what we were seeing was the beginning of families just deciding to opt out of church.

We tried to go out and greet between the services, not to make them feel guilty but simply to welcome them, see how things were going, because this was our only contact with them.

In some cases, people got angry with us. Why were we harassing them?

All we were doing was saying, “Hi, I hope everything is fine at home, hope the kids are having a good experience in Sunday church school.”

Now, not everybody who engaged in this kind of drop-off behavior just dropped church; some people continued to be faithful members. But in many cases, as soon as the youngest in the family was confirmed, it was goodbye church except for Christmas and Easter and, of course, weddings and funerals and baptisms and so forth.

I think one of the largest demographic factors behind this is mobility. Most of us now don’t stay where we grew up; children go away to college and university. They stay away to work, to marry, to have families, and therefore the idea of multigenerational families in a congregation, which used to be the backbone of the congregation, has simply disappeared.

Those are the kinds of things that you can’t blame on somebody’s preaching. You can’t blame things that the church, meaning the clergy and the institutional church, has done to turn people off. These are things that happen in people’s lives, and nobody can stop it.

F&L: I think you also make the point that some pastors are in impossible situations.

MP: Very much so. The very nice, neat life the congregations were able to provide for their clergy is disappearing even more quickly than the church buildings.

And for all the best reasons, sometimes people will not go along with what’s necessary to experience resurrection.

There was one congregation in Austin, Texas, where they were about ready to turn the keys in — Asbury United Methodist Church — and a new group of younger people came in, [forming] Servant Church.

They welcomed these folks who were left, who were kind of like the grandparents. Most of them stayed and took on that kind of honored role as the legacy, the history, and if you will, the grandmas and grandpas of the congregation.

The music was different from what they were used to. They turned the church on its axis and used the horizontal rather than the nave, but they still kept being church. That story has played out so many times.

So there’s hope here. It’s a very sobering picture, because for some people, this is news that somehow they’ve been able to overlook or evade — but it’s not hopeless. It’s not a matter of despair whatsoever.

As congregations across the United States make plans for the reopening of church buildings and a return to in-person worship, whenever that may happen, our attention has quite rightly been focused on how we will keep people safe when they come through our doors.

I am serving on a diocesan task force on church reopening and am finding that the challenges involved can be overwhelmingly complex. How will we ensure that people will abide by social distancing requirements, especially as they arrive and depart our sanctuaries? Which surfaces will need to be sanitized, and how often? Will mask wearing be required in our buildings, and if so, who will enforce that?

What platform will we use so people can make reservations for less-than-full-capacity seating in worship? How will we welcome visitors or newcomers who don’t have reservations? How will we maintain connection with a virtual community of higher-risk parishioners while lower-risk parishioners gather in person?

The draft of the guidelines addressing these questions already stretches beyond 20 single-spaced pages, and the task force has not yet finished its work.

The ways that congregations are adapting their lives together to the complexities of this time fascinate me. As I have written previously, the agility we have seen in congregational practices has been inspiring — and it will need to be maintained into this next season.

In conversations with church leaders, I hear them worrying about another set of complex challenges of this time as well. A season at home has given our members, volunteers, donors and staffs an opportunity to reevaluate commitments. In assessing and reassessing their priorities, they’re finding that some of the causes to which they were giving time, effort, energy and money just months ago now seem decidedly less important. We might say that for some people, week upon week of physical distancing has led to an emotional distancing from the organizations — including congregations — they once held dear.

We see this kind of distancing reflected in recent Barna Group polling. (Whether you rely regularly on Barna research or never read their reports, their numbers here are worth noting and comparing with your congregation’s numbers in the same categories.) In their survey of churchgoers, 48% indicated that in the last four weeks they had not attended online worship services.

While 40% said they had worshipped with their own churches online, roughly a quarter of those had also worshipped elsewhere, overlapping with the 23% overall who said they had streamed online worship offered by a church other than their own. At the same time, after an initial spike in attendance following the move to online-only worship, more than half of churches surveyed reported that online attendance had plateaued (29%) or declined (32%).

One pastor told me recently, “I feel incredible pressure to make online worship different each week to keep people coming back, but I am running out of creative energy. The novelty of online has definitely worn off for my people.”

All of this suggests that in addition to the practical preparation for a return to shared space, we will need to plan reengagement strategies for our members, staffs and donors, to reconnect them with our missions, ministries, visions and values — an additional complication for congregational leaders wearied by the upheavals of church life in the last few months, along with weeks upon weeks of ministry by Zoom.

How might we develop these strategies without further taxing already-taxed people? I can imagine three ready invitations in our present context.

First, many churches have found themselves serving new constituencies during the months of the pandemic. For some congregations, these have been neighbors in need that we never knew before. For others, these have been hospital workers or first responders. For still more, these have been online worshippers who have joined from communities that are miles — if not an ocean — away.

Telling the story of whom you have served and how you have served during “coronatide” can remind your people of your community, your purpose and your mission. Furthermore, inviting your people to name those they have served during this time is a way of helping them name their own passions, their own ministries.

Second, for every congregation board that had identified their annual priorities and strategies in the first weeks of the year and for every church that had just put the final touches on a strategic plan, you now have the opportunity to revisit that work as an investment in reengagement. Though it may not feel like it, this is a gift to share conversations about “where from here.”

These conversations are a way of inviting our boards, members, staffs and donors to dream together about a new shared future — one that may be difficult to imagine but is important to imagine all the same. When we invite people to picture the future, we are engaging them in an exercise of hope. And as they picture the future of the congregation, they are putting themselves, however subconsciously, into that future.

Third, as has been observed, we are confronting two true pandemics in these days. There are many forums where people are having new or renewed conversations about the shape of racial justice in this country, and there are distinct contributions that faith-based communities can make to these discussions.

For Christians, of course, racial justice is not primarily a political, economic or sociological concern; it is a theological and spiritual concern. Equipping our members to name the practical importance of their faith in their reach and work for an anti-racist world matters — and we can do this now by inviting people to participate in racial equity trainings, book studies or frank Zoom conversations. Rooting our activism in our faith can renew our commitments to both.

Inviting people to reengage in congregational life through racial justice work has implications for the ways that we invite people to reengage around community and our strategic visions, too. The racial justice conversation may spur us to reexamine whom we have served during the COVID-19 pandemic and how we have served them. How have we practiced “power with” rather than “power over”?

Likewise, it may spur us to review our strategic planning goals for the year and years ahead. Do those goals name justice and anti-racist work as a concrete congregational commitment? If not, there is new work for us to do together. If so, what are our next steps in that shared work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our congregational life, and will continue to do so. As we develop plans for reopening our buildings, we must also develop strategies for reengaging our congregations in our ministries. Neither process will be easy, but neither can be ignored. We cannot assume that just opening our doors will bring people back.