The pastor of a 150-in-attendance, middle class congregation took to heart a lecture on the importance of disruptive innovation.

He is a bi-vocational pastor and school teacher, who launched and coordinates a community educational program, taught by church members, for struggling single parents on finance, job searches and child rearing. The nearby public school promotes the effort. Now professors were telling him that he needed to lead a disruptive innovation.


I pointed out that the community educational program was a disruptive innovation when it began. Most of the time, leaders don’t lead the disruption of their own work. Because effective ministry requires both sustaining and disruptive innovation, he might consider creating the conditions for a disruption rather than leading it himself.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has identified the following six-point check list of the organizational conditions required for disruptive innovation:

  1. An autonomous business unit that is independent from finance, human resources and operations and does not report to those whose work it is disrupting.
  2. Leaders who come from the relevant “schools of experience.” New ways of thinking are required for disruption, which often requires recruiting from outside the organization.
  3. A separate resource allocation process. The unit cannot fight for resources with traditional lines of work.
  4. Independent sales channels. The unit needs a separate means to reach the audience.
  5. A new profit model. Many disruptions are successful because a new economic model is envisioned and proven successful. Successful disruptions have different markers of success.
  6. Unwavering commitment by the CEO. The most powerful person in the organization must be personally committed to the disruption and learning from it.

Christensen’s list is not about heroic efforts by a leader. Rather, it is about a process of setting up a fence around the innovation to protect it from the forces that smooth the edges off creativity. The senior leader identifies the talent to work in the disruption and provides the tools and resources necessary to experiment and learn.

In translating the business terms to Christian institutions, disruptive innovations require protection from the ongoing life of the congregation or institution. The funding and decision-making need to be separate and simple for at least a few years, while the disruption is created. Those involved in the disruption need to be trusted and trustworthy people who come from a variety of perspectives. The senior leader will have to spend precious time staying in touch with the disruption and keeping everyone else’s attention elsewhere until the right time.

Creating a disruptive innovation is a short-term assignment. Within three to five years, a disruption could be shut down for failing to show promise, spun off into a separate organization or integrated into the primary ministry and potentially create substantive change for the entire institution.

As I explained the need to sponsor, separate and protect disruptive innovation, the pastor breathed a sigh of relief. He was nearly panicked about the time and energy required to start another ministry. He could imagining finding and resourcing others. When a leader decides that he or she is the only one who can lead a disruption, the institution’s capacity for such renewal may be limited.