Victoria Atkinson White: What is innovation?

Bigstock / Igor Stevanovic

Innovation doesn’t have to be huge to be worthwhile. It can be a small experiment, a risk that won’t harm your institution but has the potential for measurable gain, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

We know we need to be healthier. The way our clothes fit tells us. Modern food marketing reminds us. Our doctors offer us laundry lists of strategies to try. And we’re always hearing about the latest gimmick, pill, book or plan.

At the same time, we know we cannot simply accept the glossy pictures of health and wellness splashed across magazines and websites; we know the difference between real and Photoshop. We each have to figure out what “healthy” means for our own age, lifestyle, medical history and goals. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to health and wellness.

The same is true for innovation and the church. We know we need to innovate, and we don’t have to look far to find a top-10 list or a three-easy-steps webinar promising to change how we lead.

“Innovation” is a buzzword that sounds current and future-oriented, cutting-edge and idealistic, worthy of repetition and scale. We need innovation in the church; too many pews are emptying, and the church is losing (or some would say has lost) its voice in the community.

“We have to innovate!” becomes the battle cry to keep the heavy doors of our large and underutilized buildings open. Those within the walls know that change is needed, yet most hope the change will affect those outside (and not inside) the church.

But just as it is challenging to begin exercising regularly or eating less sugar, the idea of leading innovation sounds overwhelming -- expensive and laborious. The stories we hear and tell ourselves about rejuvenated institutions meeting the needs of those on the margins, filling their pews with new life and energy, are not always helpful. Ordinary leaders, churches and institutions worry that we don’t have the money, talent and scale to succeed.

And yet few innovations begin as big projects or grand ideas. The success stories are often years in the making. The scaled innovations that get recognized are preceded by painful and marvelous failures, seeds that were planted with the best of intentions.

A few weeks ago, a pastor was reflecting on a conference his church had offered. The topic was captivating, current and critical. The location was fantastic. The cost was minimal. The timing was perfect. But the church had experimented with targeting a specific age range of participants -- an innovation that backfired and significantly affected attendance. This small failure will now inform how the church innovates for future events.

Another church had its first Trunk or Treat during Halloween weekend this year. As it always does for community events, the church sent a flier to a local elementary school. But this flier was different in one important respect: it was English on one side and Spanish on the other. The turnout was three times what the church expected. To feed everyone, church members cleaned out the freezers and pantries and sent runners to buy more candy. This simple successful innovation -- communicating in English and Spanish -- will inform the congregation’s future events.

In both of these stories, a church tried something new, tweaked what had been done, looked at its ministries from new angles. That is innovation. It is taking a risk -- a survivable risk -- that, should it fail, would not result in a significant loss to the institution and, should it succeed, could result in real, measurable gain. The churches in the two stories had opposite outcomes, yet both came away with valuable lessons.

These are the kinds of stories I have the privilege of witnessing through the Innovation Grants offered to Leadership Education’s Foundations of Christian Leadership participants. Each Foundations participant has the opportunity to apply for an Innovation Grant of up to $5,000 to put into practice what he or she has learned.

Most of the innovations they try will not likely scale or achieve recognition outside the immediate community. What is important is that these emerging leaders are taking risks, trying something new and learning from mistakes. They are changing the conversation they have in their communities, asking new questions, building leadership capacities and shifting mindsets. They are not starting something new just for the sake of change; they are building on the best parts of who they are and what they do.

That is the heart of traditioned innovation -- the very kind of innovation the church most needs.

The church has a solid foundation on which to build. We do not need to abandon the past. We need, rather, to carry the best of our tradition forward and faithfully innovate into new ways of bearing witness to the reign of God.

What is the small innovation your institution can afford to make today? At worst, you may learn a valuable lesson. At best, you may far exceed your expectations.