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 Our structure and polity are designed for an outdated system.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.