It’s not enough to be open to the idea of creativity, change, flexibility and strategically disruptive leadership. As with many things related to ministry leadership, the issues often arise in the process of implementation. There are all sorts of barely conscious ways that individuals, whole teams and communities can become rigid in practice, stifle creativity, tame disruptive leadership and so resist change—even strategically necessary change. We may end up much more traditionalist in practice than we are in theory.

Take, for example, the idea of blank sheet of paper planning. How often have you participated in a planning day where you attempt to start from scratch, with nothing but a blank sheet of paper? How often does the team involved in such an exercise end up, after two hours of brainstorming and butcher’s paper, more or less rebuilding exactly what you had before you started? It is very difficult to imagine, embrace and implement change. I suspect a genuine wholesale paradigm-shifting rethink is far too ambitious. We need a more incremental approach.

Here are some suggestions on ways to encourage innovation in your ministry leadership.


Be Sceptical of What’s Working

Sometimes the common explanations and interpretations of our ministry activity are not quite accurate, or are no longer as true as they used to be. It can be very helpful to develop the habit of asking, “Is it, though?”, “Are we, though?”, ”Does it, actually?”. Questioning those stories, standards, expectations and rules of thumb can be prove very powerful.

A discipline of leadership is to create ministry culture through reinforcing core values and practices. The downside is that it strongly reinforces a status quo, training members to have an impulse to justify what currently exists. In contexts of thoughtful, theologically-driven intentionality, every single element has a reason for why it is the way it already is. This is why the blank sheet of paper exercise often fails. It requires great counter-discipline to work against this defensive impulse, and instead invite thorough analysis and critique of what seems to be going just fine.

Many ministry structures also serve multiple benefits, which is a good thing. However, this can make it difficult to seriously entertain probing questions. Existing patterns can come to be perceived as necessary, not only for their primary purpose, but for all their secondary and tertiary flow-on benefits. The entirety can become, in practice, a closed, necessary, unchangeable system.

For example, a university ministry might ‘know’ that orientation week is really important for making new contacts. A huge amount of time and money is invested in making the most of this really important time. Is it, though? What if it isn’t? What if, in fact, most of the new students who actually stick with the Christian Union make contact well before the start of first semester? What if the other best contacts come at other times, later in the year? Longitudinal analysis might reveal some unexpected patterns, and so inform quite a disruptive new set of strategies.

This kind of questioning can be painful, as it suggests activities we have worked very hard on are not as worthwhile as we believed they were. It might challenge the value of an event or program that was personally important to many members and leaders. For this very reason, it is important to learn the discipline of being occasionally sceptical about what seems to be working.


Be Curious About Exceptions

A simple way to get a fresh perspective is to look with openness and curiosity at exceptions, rather than minimise or dismiss them. Understanding and appreciating exceptions to the rule can help us rediscover core principles and unearth other elements of cause and effect, influences and hindrances.

For example, for many Australian Reformed evangelicals in the early twenty-first century, the norm for recruitment to paid Christian ministry begins with a two-year, full-time ministry apprenticeship, followed by three or four years of formal theological education. But there are a significant number of people whose pathway into mature and fruitful vocational ministry is different to that norm. We might spend little time strategically considering these exceptions for good reasons: because exceptional people are not models for most, because unusual circumstances are by definition occasional, because we don’t want to undermine what is best for the majority. But there could come a time when an assessment of our ministry recruitment pathway is called for, where innovation and disruption are needed. In that case, taking a close look at exceptions to the established norm would prove instructive.


Break Through the Ceiling: Have We Set a Limit on What’s Possible?

‘Enough’ and ‘too much’ are hard to define. We set arbitrary limits and then apportion time, energy and manpower to maximise our efforts up to those limits. Usually we are right, more or less. For example, systematic follow-up of a church visitor more than three times in so many weeks will most likely be perceived by them as ‘too much’. Working harder and doing more often doesn’t produce any better results. There comes a point of diminishing returns for additional effort. Rarely will a five-day conference produce a greater impact on its delegates by being stretched to six or seven days.

And yet there is a different kind of disruptive change that comes from doing a whole lot more. In some cases what is needed is to break through the ceiling of what’s possible, not by doing five per cent more, but by doing fifty or one hundred per cent more. The question is whether, at a certain point, quantity takes on a whole new quality.

Following up a newcomer four of five times will probably come across as a nuisance; adding new time-consuming personal touches to initial follow-up may be nice, but relatively ambivalent in its results. However, planning a process of follow-up with touch points across eighteen months—with different kinds of invitations to reconnect at suitable intervals— may prove to be an excellent way to engage visitors in the mid-term.

The risk is that you become extraordinarily but pointlessly busy. In many instances, then, the best approach may not be asking how you can do two times as much, but whether you could achieve the same results with half as much.


Reduce to a Skeleton Crew: Could We Do More with Less?

It is common for the number of events and programs of a church or ministry to multiply with time, and the sophistication and quality of these programs to also slowly increase. Sadly, the end result can mean that we find ourselves running better quality programs, with more staff, more meetings, more time and expense, and yet end up with basically the same outcomes as we had before. These incremental improvements are not always of great concern: gradual development of systems and occasional capital purchases can have benefits well after their costs have been absorbed. Many improvements bear genuine fruit.

But one way to be open to creativity and innovation is to be willing to seriously ask the question about whether we have become bloated, cluttered, complicated, sluggish. This is the application of the blank sheet of paper principle to a smaller sphere of the organisation, which can make it easier to actually contemplate. Cutting programs, activities or layers in an org chart can prompt conversations around what is actually most important, what really is needed to effectively promote, evangelise, edify, care for others, train people for ministry and so on. Additional resources that get freed up can themselves make space for more innovation.

A related question, especially in times of dramatic change or external disruption, is: if this didn’t exist, would we have decided to invent it now? Pick a long-standing event, ministry structure, much-respected parachurch or church service timeslot and dare ask that uncomfortable question.