the shape of leadership

Stop Playing It Safe

Three Keys to Innovation in Ministry

Leaders understand the importance of innovation in ministry. Failure to innovate will drive our churches to a place of irrelevance or, worse, death. But innovation is also emotional. We can’t thrive without it, but with it come inherent risks.

Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Interestingly, leaders often wrestle with two opposing forces: a desire for originality and an assurance that we won’t fail. In other words, we desire “safe innovation.”

Unfortunately, safe innovation doesn’t exist. Creativity and innovation require a willingness to be wrong. For some leaders, that’s too much to bear. In fact, the most common fear I hear leaders express is a fear of failure. But if you’re unwilling to accept the possibility of failure, innovation will never be your friend.

Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Those original ideas are simply not possible if you insist on always being right. So, how do you get past the need to be right so you can innovate the future? Here are three steps to get you started.

Challenge Your Assumptions
Each of us carries certain assumptions that shape how we do ministry. For example, we tend to preach to people as if they grew up in circumstances similar to ours. We use illustrations, make points and choose terminology that people like us can understand. The problem is, the people in our churches are rarely just like us. If our assumptions are wrong, we diminish our ultimate reach, impact and growth.

In their Harvard Business Review article, “When Growth Stalls,” Matthew Olson, Derek Van Bever and Seth Verry make an important observation about the impact of assumptions on stalled growth in their company case studies: “One culprit in all our case studies was management’s failure to bring the underlying assumptions that drive company strategy into line with changes in the external environment — whether because of a lack of awareness that the gap existed or was widening, or because of faulty prioritization.”

In other words, while numerous factors caused growth to stall in companies, the common denominator was their “underlying assumptions.” Here’s the real kicker. The authors observed, “When we examine individual case studies, we so often find that those assumptions the team has held the longest or the most deeply are the likeliest to be its undoing.”

Unfortunately, safe innovation doesn’t exist.

Failure to challenge your assumptions can drive you unknowingly into irrelevance — at warp speed.

I’m not referring to the unchanging truths of Scripture, of course, but those personal biases, habits and inclinations that can stunt creativity, adaptability, reach and effectiveness in ministry.

Set aside time to challenge your assumptions about how to reach people, how to disciple people, how to design your services, what your community needs, and how to leverage technology (among other things). As you do, you’ll quickly dismantle the roadblocks standing in the way of innovation.

Broaden Your Circle
Another reason innovation takes a back seat in our churches is because we don’t broaden our brainstorming circles. It’s easy, and natural, to get around the same people on our team when we’re planning for the future. The result is that we end up repackaging last year’s model, thinking we’ve come up with something new.

Who can you invite into your circle, perhaps even on an as-needed basis, to help you think differently about the challenges you’re facing? It might be the newest member of your team who still has fresh eyes to see what you can no longer see. It might be a coach or consultant who brings an outside perspective, or perhaps a pastor from down the street who comes from a different tradition than you.

Choose New Growth Inputs
I’ve discovered that leaders often suffer from what I call “mindless mingling.” Mindless mingling occurs when the thinking life of a leader experiences a deficit because of limited knowledge or limited relationships. In other words, what I know, who I know, and who I listen to will shape how I think.

Always mingling with the same people and drawing from the same pool of knowledge will diminish opportunities to expand my thinking. The cure is to choose new growth inputs, or resources from which I intentionally choose to learn.

I recently returned from a three-day coaching network for pastors. This network represented 16 leaders from various denominations. None of us were there to argue theology. Instead, we gathered to learn from one another and glean insights from some of the top pastors in our country. All of us walked away with fresh wisdom on leadership, growth strategies, effective preaching, change management principles, leading millennials, staff culture and so much more.

What’s my point? Some of the greatest learning you can do is waiting for you outside of your current growth inputs. What author should you start reading? What coaching do you need to access? What conference should you attend? When you choose new growth inputs, you expose yourself to fresh principles and ideas that will spark a new wave of innovation in your thinking (and in your church).

When you challenge your assumptions, broaden your circle and choose new growth inputs, you’ll suddenly loosen your grip on the need to be right. Again, I’m not talking about theology, but rather the methods you use to deliver life-changing ministry.

Stop playing it safe. Stepping out and discovering you were wrong is not the worst thing you can do. The bigger danger is the self-deception of believing you can always be right. Embrace these three steps so you can innovate ministry that will help you reach and disciple people with greater levels of impact.


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