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The UMC and Innovation: A Response to the Responses and Next Steps

The UMC doesn’t have a culture of innovation built into its DNA. The environment would be too hostile towards innovation.
The beauty of our connectional system is that it’s broken down into various sized units, such as jurisdictions, conferences, districts and local churches/extension ministries. Each unit allows for the opportunity for it to act as a laboratory to try new experimental initiatives. I think the General Conference is far too big, chaotic and unstable to try to begin to instill a culture of innovation. There’s already a lot of innovation happening at local ministry levels, so I think the Annual Conference would be the next place in our structure to be strategic about innovation. Somewhere in our connection are one or more conferences that are potentially friendly (or friendly enough) environments to launch a series of strategic experiments in. The inclination of the institution will always be to be distrustful, jealous, and/or overly cautious towards new innovations. This is why a courageous bishop and CIO-like position feels necessary. There needs to be a firewall between the hostile tendencies of the institution and the strategic experiments. I strongly believe that at least a few bishops and Annual Conferences exist that could offer friendly enough conditions to pull this off.
Do we really need another conference staff position? Don’t we already have CIOs? Wouldn’t this create more bureaucracy? Shouldn’t bishops act as CIOs?
Again, as I mentioned in the original post, this position would be a modification and/or replacement of the new church developer position that many conferences have in place. The position would be different because their role would not just be to oversee the development of new faith communities, but would be to intentionally launch, evaluate and learn from experimental new faith communities. Some current developers are already more innovative than others, however, I would hypothesize that they’re not fully strategic about it. Many of the innovative ministries I listed in my last post were proposed by the new ministry pastors themselves, they were not the creation of new church developers or bishops. In other words, innovation happens in those conferences because of some innovative pastors who are given permission to be. Yes, bishops should be friendly towards innovation, but do we really think they can take on another full-time role?
This would never work in The UMC. Real innovators should and will need to leave the UMC.
This one was laid out pretty bluntly by my friend Wes Magruder and it’s tough to disagree with. I believe we have a brain, talent and young leadership drain because, as Mike Baughman pointed out, in response to my original post, the institution is not friendly towards entrepreneurial leaders. I realize there are not many incentives for innovative leaders to remain in the denomination, however, our connection, if utilized correctly can be a powerful and efficient change agent in this world. Think of how quickly and effectively UMCOR uses the connection to respond to natural disasters. Think of the kind of revitalization we could undergo if we used the connection effectively to share learnings across the denomination when it came to developing new faith communities and revitalizing current ones. Right now we use it to force down one size fits all initiatives like Vital Congregations, to the masses. The UMC has burned and hurt some good folks and that saddens me. However, I’m not ready to walk away yet (and maybe one day I’ll be forced away). At the moment, I’ve been privileged to be able to innovate in my ministry and I want to make a run at helping to create a church where creatives, entrepreneurs and mavericks are not only welcome, but will lead us to a vibrant future of disciple making and transforming the world with the love of Christ.
You’re behind the curve, there’s already plenty of innovating going on in The UMC.
You’re absolutely correct and I hope I made up for the fact that I wasn’t more specific about this in my original post. But again, I think innovation happens in The UMC, not because we’re being strategic about it, but because many conferences are simply throwing darts, hoping to hit a bullseye. If we got serious about being strategic and developed a learning and adapting process, innovation wouldn’t be something that is simply allowed to exist, it could be a catalyst for much bigger things. The more we do it and the more we learn from it, the better we’ll get at it.
Innovation shouldn’t be limited to just one group of leaders, we should all be innovating!
Amen! However, we still need to be intentional about creating a culture of innovation throughout our denomination. If it’s not intentional or organized then we’re just hoping to get lucky before the clock runs out.
My innovative ministry is awesome and is working, I don’t understand why everyone just doesn’t do what I’m doing.
The ultimate goal of a major innovation initiative is to discover what works in various times and places. There would be a lot of failure up front, however, if done right, eventually we would get better at creating new faith communities that are relevant to their generations and contexts. This also means innovation should be an ongoing process. A recent New York Times article describes a number of new innovative non-denominational faith communities. It’s disappointing that they didn’t mention any similar mainline ministries but the article did remind me that mainlines are always playing catch-up. We’re always looking for the one magical model that will revitalize us, often lagging years behind the innovations of non-denominational churches. By the time we start to play catch-up, non-denominational churches have already moved ahead to the next thing. I should also note that even if we are staying on top of things, we’re about catching trends, not innovating to contextual ministries. When we find something that works we need to understand why and how it works but we must also keep innovating. We must not get stuck, even obsessed, with a trend or a specific model. If we stop moving forward, we’re certain to get stuck spinning our wheels (e.g. contemporary worship).
Too many regulations? But regulations are a good thing because they protect people and create more opportunities.
I agree. But you can have too much of a good thing. The Discipline should help us order our work and structure and should offer protections and opportunities where they are needed. Our current regulations keep us from making our denomination more streamlined and efficient. I think guaranteed appointment should probably go, however, we still need to have some sort of regulations that protect against discrimination. Also, regulations that allow us to adapt and streamline, such as allowing Wesley Foundations to sponsor ordination candidates, are good regulations. Regulations that keep us from adapting and regulations that prevent us from changing the regulations are not helpful. There’s disagreement over which ones are helpful and which ones are hurtful, so I won’t go much further here. There’s a rational discussion to be had about this, but it’s hard to do when our trust level within the denomination is practically non-existent. Ultimately, we need to work on raising the trust level to a point where we can all work together and pass some sensible reforms. Indeed, a solution to our trust issues may be the innovation we need the most.
Okay, Let’s do this. Let’s get crazy. Where do we go from here?
Well I haven’t heard publicly or privately from any bishops that starting an era of strategic innovation is a great idea, so other than generating some nice traffic for my blog, perhaps this is the end of a wacky idea.
Not so fast! Seriously, we know you, you’re not going to just let this go way.
Oh, you know me so well! Of course I’m not letting this go away (though I may regret it). I need blogging material and this is working for me right now. I mean, what else does a married church planter with two young children do in his “free” time?
I plan to offer a series of posts that outline how I became interested in innovation, including summarizing a book on strategic innovation, titled, Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution, that could perhaps be adapted for use in The UMC. This book lays out three key concepts when it comes to established companies/institutions and their ability to successfully innovate: Forgetting, borrowing and learning.
From there I hope to offer case studies of successful innovative ministries, failures and innovative ministries whose fates remain yet to be determined. In each case I hope to look at how these ministries were/are able to forget/not forget the negative trappings of the institutional church, how they borrowed institutional resources for better or for worse and how the institution is able/unable to learn from each initiative.
My hypothesis is that The UMC’s failure to see new ministries as experiments (as opposed to seeing every new ministry as a “must win”) and inability to understand and integrate forgetting, borrowing and learning, is leading to far more failures than are necessary.
If I’m correct and The UMC is somehow able to be strategic and effective in integrating all three concepts, it has a chance at innovating its way to stabilization and perhaps even revitalization.
There’s probably a 99.9% chance you’re completely wrong about all of this.
So what you’re saying is there’s still a chance that I’m right?

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.

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