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Why The UMC Needs an Era of Innovation

Recently, The Church of England voted to keep women from becoming bishops, which some are arguing is the final blow in their fight to remain relevant (or become relevant, for that matter). Around the same time, my favorite economist, Tim Harford, wrote a post about The Church of England and he suggested that their decline is rooted in the fact that they are a state-sponsored institution. They have the ultimate safety net, so they have no incentive to compete against more successful non-denominational churches or innovate in their approaches to maintain members and reach potential new members.

Of course we all know similar things are true for The United Methodist Church. Guaranteed appointment minimizes incentives for clergy to be successful in growing their congregations. Why do the risky work of trying to reach new people in a society that is increasingly becoming hostile to religion, if you are going to have a job, no matter what?

Also, we are bound by too many regulations. As I mentioned recently, the Discipline is invincible, which makes it hard for The UMC to adapt, to shed what doesn’t work and to be able to change regulations that hinder our work. Ultimately, though, it’s our institutional DNA that is destroying our denomination. Our structure and polity are designed for an outdated system. The Discipline mandates how churches are to be organized and structured, assuming each church exists in similar contexts. While our traditional models may still have legs in certain parts of the country and in the suburbs, we need new models for new and changing contexts. However, we do not encourage a culture of innovation in The UMC. Often, when some creative folks come along, with an idea for new contextual ministries, their ideas either never see the light of day or the new thing they create is quickly swallowed up by the old trappings of the institution. When these ideas do get a green light, and if they fail, we often do not evaluate those failures, we use them as case studies to never try something new again.

So if we can’t easily change our polity, how do we get out of this mess?

What we need is an era of innovation in The UMC.

We need an intentional, grassroots, movement of innovators willing to put new ideas into action, fully realizing that many of those ideas will fail, but some will be successful. Even the failures will allow for immense learning, evaluation, further experimentation and adaption, ultimately leading to success. As successes and failures build, over time, we must apply those learnings from those models to other contexts and allow easy ways for others to learn, model, and adapt. We already have a connectional system in place that has the potential to quickly and efficiently do so.

Our clergy and leaders also must be re-trained. The vast majority of us are trained how to be administrators, managers and shepherds, not multipliers, connectors and innovators. When the church was growing we needed people to administrate, manage, educate, and care for people in congregations and it makes sense to only have those skills when you grow through an attractional model, but when you live in an era that requires deep engagement and relationship building with one’s community, you need additional skills. I propose then, that all of our leaders need to also be trained as church planters, even those not planting new faith communities. This will help us forget the parts of our old DNA that encourage us to sit in our offices and sanctuaries and beg God for people to walk through our doors and will instead instill within us a new DNA that helps us reach new people in new (and even old) places.

Ultimately, I believe that all of our Annual Conferences need something similar to a Chief Innovation Officer. This position could be combined with or essentially replace the position of our New Faith Community Developers. The CIO’s role would be to oversee the start of new faith communities, though through an innovative lens. These new faith communities would come from a variety of models, some using familiar models, but some would also be experimental models. The CIO would help design and evaluate these experimental models, knowing that many would fail, but would also apply learnings across the Conference and share and learn from other Conferences. The CIO might also oversee the re-training and recruiting of creative and innovative clergy, in consultation with the bishop and cabinet. Certain clergy in existing ministries might also conduct experimental ministry initiatives in partnership with the annual conference and CIO, especially around revitalization efforts. This position would report directly to the bishop of their particular Annual Conference. Some of these people, with the proper mindsets and skillets, may already be in place as new faith community developers. They may just need to have their job descriptions tweaked.

This era of innovation, however, would initially need buy-in from one or a few bishops willing to commit to creating a CIO-type position as well as committing a large amount of financial and other resources to experiments. Innovative efforts that require creating new DNA and use of the resources of a dying institution that knows many of those resources will be used for failed experiments, are difficult to pull-off because the existing institution will do its best to protect its resources and will try to destroy the very things that will save it. Innovation needs to come from the bottom, however, buy-in needs to come from the top and it needs to be long-term, especially because it could take years for these efforts to bear fruit. We’ve been declining and re-enforcing our DNA for decades, it will take us years to even scratch the surface of revitalization.

To do this will take a leader or leaders that have the faith, the grit, and the guts to take this risk and to endure through the backlash of the institution.

To do this will require knowing that no amount of research, coaches or experts will be able to predict success. Success will only come from risk taking, failing and adapting.

Sure, there is much work to be done through our General Conference, including eliminating the things that keep us from adapting, evolving and improving. But, we know we can only tackle those issues every four years and, even then, we are so divided and so distrustful of one another, change may be impossible.

We must then work within the system we have. We have a large amount of resources at our disposal, including a lot of real estate we own that we don’t need to hold on to anymore. We also have some exciting leaders and innovators chomping at the bit to get to work. Many of them already have, but they are under-resourced and we need many, many more of them.

So here’s a call to all the mavericks out there. Some of you are already in motion, others have a dream that you’ve written down or shared with a friend, and for others it’s a dream that God has placed on your hearts and in your minds, but you think it’s just too crazy to pull off. Now is the time to see if those dreams, ideas and thoughts have legs. Many of them may not, but If you don’t share them or try them they don’t have the slightest opportunity of succeeding.

Finally, this is a call to the leaders who can make this era of innovation a reality. This is a call to free up resources, to recruit the right people, to not be afraid to fail, allow a new thing to happen and to protect the innovative process. This is not to be done without prayer, intentionality, research or caution, but it must be done it must be done with a liberal attitude towards risk and a deep commitment to innovation.

If you’re out there, we can’t wait until 2016 or 2020, for General Conferences, Judicial Councils or a Call to Action.

We can act now.

In the name of Jesus Christ, we must act now.



About the author: Rob is the co-founder and current co-pastor of City Square Church, a new and innovative United Methodist faith community in downtown Phoenix. In his years of experience in spiritual formation and creating active and engaged communities, Rob has become an expert at connection and networking. He now uses these experiences, along with technology and social media, to bring others together around creative ideas and events that aim to inspire innovation and bold leadership.

{ 23 comments… add one }

  • Rachel Jennings December 19, 2012, 3:22 pm

    Gosh, when I saw the word “innovation” in the headline, I thought you might write more about initiatives to help the poor and the marginalized and to insist upon equality for all people, including LGBT people. I know you sincerely have problems with the  UMC bureaucracy, but obsessing over administrative models seems to reinforce the problem.

  • Brandon Lazarus December 19, 2012, 3:30 pm

    I feel it comes down to one simple question: Do you believe God is constantly creating? If you do then why would we not constantly ourselves be finding ways to recreate. Recreate ourselves, our families, our communities, our churches, and our denominations.

  • Equipyouth December 19, 2012, 5:48 pm

    Rob, isn’t a CIO ultimately (or even essentially) more institution? Why can’t we all be CIOs? Why isn’t the bishop the first CIO among CIOs?
    -Paul Mitchell

    • Rob Rynders December 19, 2012, 10:29 pm

      Hey Paul! Check out my answer to Anne’s comment. I would add that ideally Bishop’s should be the first CIO’s but I’m not sure they have the time to oversee the day to day operations of developing new faith communities, hence the reason your conference has a new church developer. I think this also plays into our level of distrust with one another. We tend to fall back into a “we can do it ourselves” mode because we’ve been burned by those with power. A CIO may not be the answer but someone or a team of folks needs to lead us in creating a culture of innovation and in managing the resources.

  • Anne Burkholder December 19, 2012, 6:54 pm

    Guess who the “institution” is!?!?  It happens to be us – all of us. We are all caught in the paradox between institutional identity and change agent identity.  I believe that very few of us really want to sit on our haunches and not help churches and ministries be relevant to their communities and lead people to Jesus Christ and deepening discipleship.   As one who teaches polity in an “official UM seminary” and who has had a number of years working to change UM systems, I can say that learning to work “the institution” – meaning, each other – as an intentional, wise, and politically astute agent of change is possible. In fact, it is our responsibility!  Claim it; work it; live it.   Isn’t a “chief innovation officer” just another way of institutionalizing the notion of innovation?  It’s required of all of us!

    • Rob Rynders December 19, 2012, 10:21 pm

      Notice I didn’t say “burn the institution down and start over.” The UMC has many important things to offer and our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world is a vital one. I think we are positioned well with our connectional system to have a huge positive impact in the world. The problem is that we have to change our DNA and create new DNA in order to be more effective at that mission. It would be nice if all of our clergy woke up tomorrow and decided to be innovators, however, we know that’s not going to happen. AI don’t want to create unnecessary staff positions and, again, I think conferences already have close to what’s needed in New Church Developers, but their jobs tend to be trying to make outdated models work. The institution can be a huge resource for innovation, if used wisely. 

      • Anne Burkholder December 20, 2012, 9:31 am

         So what we are really saying is that innovation needs to be understood and practiced as a core value and practice of who we are and what we do.  It needs to be spun into the very threads of the warp and woof of our connection.  What a great conversation!  Thanks Rob.  I have never commented on a blog before but a valued student of mine identified your blog on facebook.

        PS.  I do have my days when I think about wanting to burn the institution down and start over, even having been a part of it for a very long time.

        • Michael Higgs December 22, 2012, 9:30 am

          Now that I’ve landed in one place, I have to add a huge YES to the idea of innovation being a core value fo the church. When we’ve been at our best that’s always been the case. We even have biblical precedent for those who need it. Aside from Paul’s whole innovative ministry, there’s Isaiah 43:19 where Isaiah hears God say, “I am about to do a new thing.” Also Revelation 21:5, “See, I am making all things new.”

  • Willie_lyle December 19, 2012, 8:10 pm

    Anne, it is institutionalizing, however without support from the top down we find ourselves swimming upstream without emotional and spiritual support. Without a fewe of my dear pastor friends to encourage and lift up me at various times over the past 7 years I would have felt as though I was on an island by myself. Even though this is not the case there are times when one feels this way. When church planting it would be even more so. If not for the clear Calling of the Lord I fear many may falter. Strength that we gain from one another is vital.

  • Joseph Albert Chandler December 19, 2012, 8:45 pm

    Amen… but those that God has given a “Call” to the UMC to
    bring Innovation and Renewal/Revival needs to allowed into the UMC and then
    allowed to do what God has “Called” them to do with the Power and Guidance of
    the Holy Spirit.  We have to think
    outside of the “box” to advance the Kingdom of God.  We need to walk as Jesus walked.  We have to allow God to be God and for Him to
    allowed to express Himself through those so called

    The original disciples were “mavericks” in their
    day.   The Church grew daily because of
    the Power of God working in and through them. 
    The question is, “Will the UMC allow this?”  If not, I am sad to say, that the
    “box” the UMC finds itself in, will soon be six feet under.  We, the UMC, have to allow innovation in
    order for all within to reach their full potential In Christ! 

    How about it United Methodist Church?  It is time for a “Great Awakening” or a
    “Wake” to take place in the United Methodist Church.  Which will it be?

  • Joseph Albert Chandler December 19, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Amen… but those that God has given a “Call” to the UMC to
    bring Innovation and Renewal/Revival needs to allowed into the UMC and then
    allowed to do what God has “Called” them to do with the Power and Guidance of
    the Holy Spirit.  We have to think
    outside of the “box” to advance the Kingdom of God.  We need to walk as Jesus walked.  We have to allow God to be God and for Him to
    allowed to express Himself through those so called

    The original disciples were “mavericks” in their
    day.   The Church grew daily because of
    the Power of God working in and through them. 
    The question is, “Will the UMC allow this?”  If not, I am sad to say, that the
    “box” the UMC finds itself in, will soon be six feet under.  We, the UMC, have to allow innovation in
    order for all within to reach their full potential In Christ! 

    How about it United Methodist Church?  It is time for a “Great Awakening” or a
    “Wake” to take place in the United Methodist Church.  Which will it be?

  • Tomáš Witiska December 19, 2012, 9:53 pm

    Great article, as a UMC seminary student in Europe I see a huge problems with 

  • Michael Baughman December 19, 2012, 11:32 pm

    I couldn’t agree more abotu the need for innovation, re-training pastors and encouraging risk-taking. I think the guaranteed appointments CAN provide a venue in which risk-taking is encouraged…it CAN be an environment in which failure in the name of innovation could be encouraged. 
    I think the challenge is that for two decades, Boards of Ordained Ministry largely weeded out entrepreneurial pastors and cabinets appointed them to locations where they couldn’t do much good because entrepreneurial pastors frequently come across as arrogant and abrasive. 

    • Rob Rynders December 19, 2012, 11:50 pm

      Thanks Mike. I think we can make the guaranteed appointment work, as well… I mean we don’t really have a choice. I think you’re spot on about BoOM’s. What do you think about some targeted recruiting of clergy from outside the denomination? Of course, they would need to be friendly to our doctrine and polity, but they wouldn’t bring some of the institutional baggage with them.

  • Michael Higgs December 20, 2012, 8:23 am

    Rob, I’ve been rooting for you and your innovative colleagues for quite a while. City Square is the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in our Conference in many years. Keep it up! One thing I’d add is that innovators must be protected from negative institutional consequences related to failed experiments. Praying for you, City Square, and your colleagues pushing this direction. If I can ever be helpful in other ways, please call on me.

    Michael Higgs

  • Daryn DeZengotita December 20, 2012, 10:10 am

    A response from the leadership team of the Missional Wisdom Foundation . . . http://missionalwisdom.com/academy/blog/a-response-to-the-call-for-innovation/

  • Michael Rich December 20, 2012, 12:04 pm

    Innovation will more likely come from the grassroots and from lay oriented bodies in the church.  We have some start ups and upstart communities in the WNCC thanks to Elaine Heath and the MWA.  But we have also been given some freedom and leeway by the Bishop and Cabinet to do do things differently.  

    I am convinced that serious theological education needs to take place in the nooks and crannies of our conferences and that the seminaries need to expand their roles into lay servant education within more practical contexts.

    The future of the church will not be legislated but radically lived and shared in local communities until we can get back to the idea that we are a movement and not a denomination/institution.

    • Kevin Jenkins December 31, 2012, 9:16 am

      I think you have nailed it Michael — it will have to be the grassroots, the lay folks and a few of our clergy who will have to step up and reach out to the people in ways that share the message we have and to change lives.

      The institutional elements of the UMC can best help by providing more training to our lay people who have passion. That training needs to be mostly about helping them with their personal communications skills, rather than traditional church building; more about starting home groups, store front spiritual clients, and working to ease the hurt and dispair of the poor than putting bodies into a building for one morning a week.

      Bishops and local clergy need to trust God and the lay folks, they need to encourage those now in the pews to find their individual way to share the word and love of God. Frankly, the institutional church was never the best tool to do that, and it was a mistake for the last century to shift power and RESPONSIBILITY away for the lay folks

  • Phil December 20, 2012, 5:54 pm

    Hi Rob,
    Innovation should be encouraged, but in the end, a good result must be sustainable. You mentioned that it may take years to bear fruit.  When the vision is tied to a pastor, who moves on, a subsequent pastor may not share the same vision, which makes it all the more difficult to make long term change within a church.  In this way, all churches fall into “sameness”, reverting to the institutional comfort zone.  District-wide partnerships for programs where critical mass requires larger numbers and long-term sustainability may be one way to go.   You speak in generalities, but seem to have specifics in mind.  I’d like to hear more.  God Bless–Phil

  • Rev Bud January 3, 2013, 4:21 pm

    I just encountered your reference to your article and blog post on Facebook. It reminds me of when I started a new ‘Methodist’ (t’was before we added the United to our name) congregation in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. It was the era of books like “New Life in the Church” and, just out of seminary,  I set out by asking the forming congregation to innovate. Instead of just following the conventional structure let’s ask what does it mean to be church and develop what we think, looking at the New Testament and early Wesleyan history, we need to do and be in order to follow Jesus.
    Soon I was called in to the office of my District Superintendant who said, “Bud, I hear you don’t believe in the WSCS”  (what the UMW of the time was called). The grass-roots had grassed on me! These lay people of Marin County were the executive type and needed conventional structures more than I did. I guess it was not the right time or the right people to try innovation.
    I hope that today’s UM church will rise to the challenge you raise because I think the time is ripe and the Wesleyan movement has a message and theology relevant to the ‘nones’ of our day.

  • Gary Lee Parker January 10, 2013, 7:19 pm

    I discovered that both the United Methodist Church and the Church of the Nazarene are limited in their innovation. One area that they are very weak in in the full and active inclusion of people with impairments, whether intellectual, psychological, emotional, blind, deaf, physical, etc. Yes, Reverend Adam Hamilton began the Matthew Ministries to help Matthew Joiner’s parents to worship without worrying about their son, but there needs to be a next step for inclusion. Yes, they have a Bible Study during worship after they worship in the corporate worship in music and a Bakery called Sonflower Bakery and a yearly camp and a Matthew Ministries Bell Ringers, but where does inclusion happen. I believe that all people with impairments have God-given gifts to contribute to the Kingdom of God. There are books out there whether they have been written by Jean Vanier of L’Arche International, Henri J. M. Nouwen with his 10 experience with L’Arche, and the most recent book from 2012 published by ALBAN. This is not the only answer to revitalize congregations as the ALBAN Press 2012 book by a Jewish author who went to several different congregations who included people with impairments in their congregations causing increase attendance, membership, and activities by laity in the life of the church. I believe it is time for a ministry that I call “The Lamb’s Hope Methodist-Nazarene Ministry” in the church. I have kept the Nazarene name not only because I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, but because a progressive Methodist minster, Reverend Doctor Joseph Pomeroy Widney name the Nazarene Church with Reverend Phineas Franklin Bresee from the text where it ask can any good thing come out of Nazareth where Reverend Widney went on to define Nazarene meaning Rejects. People who are typically rejected by Society are embraced by God at His heart and should be at His church’ heart.
    Shalom and Agape,
    Gary Lee Parker

  • John J. Shaffer January 16, 2013, 10:35 am

    Rob Rynders:

    I just read your article in the United Methodist Reporter and followed the information to reach your blog.
    In your article, you state that “Guaranteed appointments minimizes incentives for clergy to take risks.”  In my 51 years of active ministry (I retired in 2008), this does not match my experience.   In my first full-time parish, the community leaders (including some in my congregation) decided to finance a summer festival with illegal gambling activities.   Because of the guaranteed appointment, I did not hesitate tackling the issue head on.  I found this   my a

    • John J. Shaffer January 16, 2013, 10:39 am

      My computer skills are limited and I found myself unable to continue writing for some reason.  Because of “guaranteed appointments”, I was able to deal with several important issues during my ministry, such as the morality of the war in Vietnam, the painful struggle with safe and legal abortions, and the problem of alcohol abuse in a situation where my activities caused a city countil to spend an entire evening discussing whether or not I should be asked to leave down.

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