Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Innovation in church ministry

Last evening at the church board meeting of First Wesleyan Church in Gastonia – we took time as leaders to discuss a chapter in a book we are going through together. Our discussion centered around innovation. This morning I arose early and read this article as part of my daily routine.  Enjoy!

In today’s rapidly changing spiritual and cultural context, pastors and church leaders are being forced to choose between leading like a missionary or curating a historical preservation society. The days of successfully blending these two perspectives are long gone.

Those who choose a missionary mindset tend to value results. They hold fast to the eternal truths of Scripture. But they’re also quick to jettison methods and paradigms that no longer work. They’re agile and open to change, adapting their ministry to the real world, not the world they wished they lived in. Like the apostle Paul, they become all things to all people so that they might save some (1 Cor. 9:22).

Those who choose a curator mindset tend to value the past. They’re resistant to change because of a belief that the intrinsic beauty of our old methods and paradigms are worth protecting—even if they no longer work.

Those who know me know that I lean heavily toward a missionary mindset. I’m a curator’s worst nightmare. But the fact is, we need some curators, because when everyone has a missionary mindset, we can become so focused on creating the future that we forget to protect the past. Those who create the future without protecting the past inevitably end up building a house without a foundation. It might look great for a while, but it won’t last long.

Obviously, organizational agility and flexibility are incredibly important traits. Without them a ministry has no long-range future. But agility involves more than just the ability to quickly try new things. It also includes the ability to quickly retreat when things don’t work out like we thought they would.

Unfortunately, this aspect of organizational agility and flexibility is often overlooked. Change and innovation are almost always cast in a positive light. No one talks about their dirty little secret: Most attempts at change and innovation fail. Always have. Always will.

We don’t hear much about these failures because there’s no market for motivational speakers or authors who chronicle a long list of failures. Instead, all we hear about are stories of folks who bet the farm, burned the boats or otherwise went out on a limb and succeeded spectacularly. (Which, by the way, tends to leave the rest of us wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” after we go out on a limb and the limb breaks off.)

This is not to say that change and innovation are too risky to try. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just to say that the possibility of failure (and a plan for how to deal with it) should be baked into every attempt at significant change or innovation.

So how can we balance the need for change and innovation with the reality that most attempts won’t work out so well?

The answer is quite simple: Never implement a significant change or innovation until you have an exit strategy in place. That’s not a lack of faith or commitment. It’s common sense. When it comes to leadership in a fallen world, our exit strategies are always going to be just as important as our implementation strategies.

Here are four things to keep in mind as you lead your church or ministry through any significant change or innovation. They will allow you to enjoy the benefits of quick implementation without losing credibility if things don’t work out so well.

1. Use the language of experimentation.

Whenever possible, use the language of experimentation. “Try” things instead of “changing” things. Words are important. Change stirs up resistance. Experiments stir up interest. People who fiercely resist a change will often stand by to watch an experiment.

Experiments provide you with lots of wiggle room. People expect that experiments and trial runs will need midcourse corrections. No one is shocked if they fail. And when they fail, the cost in lost trust and credibility is essentially zero.

Contrast that with what happens when a new initiative or major change is oversold or overhyped. The harder you push and sell, the more position papers you write and distribute, the less wiggle room you’ll have.

Unfortunately, this is a hard concept for many leaders and organizations to grasp. Once we’ve decided to move forward with a major change or initiative, our natural impulse is to immediately move into sales mode. We use the language of persuasion. We try to convince the unconvinced, treating naysayers as obstacles to overcome. We become obsessed with proving we’re right.

As a result, we tend to see any hint of compromise or retreat as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of wisdom. And when that happens, we’ve effectively backed ourselves into a corner. There’s no way out.

The language of experimentation provides exactly what unproven and untested ideas need most: plenty of room for midcourse correction—and sometimes, an escape hatch for bailing out altogether.

Remember, a failed change equals a failed leader. But a failed experiment equals a brilliant scientist.

2. Plan in pencil.

Nothing ever goes as planned.

Even the apostle Paul had to make midcourse corrections. This is a guy who knew God well enough to write a large portion of the Bible. Yet, in Acts 16:6-10 we find the story of one of his mission trips gone haywire. Paul had a plan, but his plan kept running into roadblocks. His itinerary ended up being completely rewritten. Nothing worked as planned.

It’s the same with our plans. We need them. But they are best made in pencil. And this is especially true when it comes to our plans for change or innovation. We don’t really know how something will work until it hits the real world. Only then do we know what we have on our hands. Until then, it’s just a concept or a theory.

Planning in pencil simply means keeping your options open as long as possible. It involves using the language of flexibility rather than certainty. It’s being careful to say, “This is what we do for now,” rather than, “This is what we will do forever.” It’s making sure that everyone knows that midcourse corrections aren’t simply allowed; they’re encouraged.

The only thing you and your leadership team can know for sure about the future is that it will be different from what you expect. So the best way to prepare is to keep as many options open as long as possible.

Never forget that successful change agents and innovators deal with what is. They don’t worry much about what should be. They don’t worry much about what they thought would be. They just worry about what is. And when things change, they change. They plan in pencil.

3. Avoid the hype.

When it’s time to make a significant change or to add something new, avoid the hype trap. It leaves no room for retreat.

If your primary goal is to get something off to a great start, hype works well. But if your goal is long-term success (or the chance to try something else should your latest brilliant idea not work out so well), hype will kill your leadership future.

If we hype something that succeeds, all is well. But if we hype something that fails, the loss in leadership chips is always significant. Even worse, if we hype everything, it’s not long until our words become white noise, turning us into the leadership equivalent of a carnival barker.

Most often, the hype trap is the result of over communication. In a sincere (but misguided) effort to secure buy-in, we put together sermon series, position papers and a host of other marketing ploys to convince everyone that the changes we are about to make are the best thing since flush toilets.

It seldom works. Because when it comes to significant change, buy-in is nearly impossible to get. Studies consistently show that more than half the population resists change until they see that it works for them and everyone else is for it. By definition, that can’t happen on the front end of a new endeavor.

What we actually need is permission to try something. And that’s a lot easier to get—and a lot easier to make midcourse corrections or even back away from if things go sour.

4. Avoid leadership ADHD.

Idea-a-minute leadership can be exhilarating, especially when there’s a charismatic leader with a gift for selling at the helm. His or her innate ability to make every idea seem like the next big thing never leaves a trace of doubt.

But after a while, most people figure it out. Instead of charging off to chase the latest butterfly, they feign agreement, but actually do nothing. They’ve learned that “this too shall pass.” So they keep on doing whatever they were doing before, while the newbies who haven’t figured it out yet jump on the latest bandwagon.

Once the default response to a new idea becomes “this too will pass,” a leader’s ability to innovate or implement significant change is pretty much lost. When your staff sets up an office pool to see how long your latest idea or program will last, you’ve become a leader without followers.

Ironically, ADHD leadership is not that far from innovative leadership. It’s just a few degrees off. But they’re important degrees. Both try lots of stuff. But non-ADHD leadership tries it in an experimental mode. Nothing is oversold. Everything is subservient to, and judged by, its impact on the mission.

In contrast, leaders with leadership ADHD never slow down to experiment. Every idea that passes through their heads is pursued full speed ahead. It’s the only speed they know.

It reminds me of the difference between Jack in the Box and In-N-Out Burger. (Humor me … I live in Southern California, birthplace of the famous In-N-Out chain.) In-N-Out never changes its menu and seldom advertises. Everyone knows that if you want a consistently excellent burger, fries and a drink, you go to In-N-Out. That’s all they do. You can’t get a salad. You can’t get a taco. But you can get a great burger, fries and a drink.

Jack in the Box, on the other hand, always has a new item on the menu and a funny commercial to advertise it. But Jack is usually so busy marketing his latest peanut butter, bacon and grilled-jalapeno sandwich that he never seems to notice that the cheeseburgers and fries are disgusting.

That’s what happens when leadership ADHD takes over. It results in a constant stream of new initiatives and failed projects that eventually numbs everyone to the importance of the core items on the menu.

Change and innovation are a necessary part of creating the future. Without the organizational agility to make necessary changes, your church will soon die and God will have to raise up wildfire down the street (and trust me, he will). At the end of the day, change is a lot like electricity. Handled well, it brings great blessings. Handled carelessly or without understanding, it can burn the house down.

Larry Osborne, an Outreach magazine consulting editor, is one of the senior pastors and teaching pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, California. For more on unlocking innovation, pick up Osborne’s latest book, Sticky Leaders: The Secret to Lasting Change and Innovation (previously released under the title Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret).

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