La Lengua de Lazarus | A Naive Seminarian’s Thoughts on Innovation

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By now you have probably read Rob Rynders'  post on Why the UMC Needs an Era of Innovation as well as Wes Magruder's response that he Doubts the UMC Can Handle Innovation. If you have not read them then I suggest you do so before continuing. If you refuse to do so then permit me to give an oversimplification that does no justice to either post. Rob states that the UMC needs innovation. Although innovation should come from the grassroots level, he suggests each conference appoint a "Chief Innovation Officer" (CIO). The CIO would be the point person and coach for all the new innovative ministries. Wes argues that although that would be great, Rob is being overly optimistic because it will never happen. Wes, instead says that innovation needs to be done without help from conference officials and if we can't innovate within the system then we need to leave and innovate elsewhere.

Allow me to first explain that I consider both of these men great friends and mentors. Last year Rob extended me the amazing opportunity of speaking at Relevance LEAD and I have worked closely with Wes in the ministry of New Day. If some of what I say seems personal, it's not. (In fact, I asked both of them to read this post before I published it).

I would also like to be upfront and point out that I am still in seminary and not even commissioned. Wes and Rob combine for more years of ministry than I do of life. If that somehow negates what I have to say then I thank you for reading the introduction and maybe you can bookmark the page in case your opinion changes. If not, kindly proceed.

I agree with much of what Rob and Wes have to say. An obvious take away from both is that the UMC and the church universal are in need of innovation. If we truly believe that we worship a living God who is constantly creating, then the church too should be constantly creating.

I agree with that, but I disagree on some points.

CIO- I disagree with Rob's idea that each conference needs a Chief Innovation Officer. Each conference already has a position that is supposed to do many of the tasks he assigns to the CIO. Some of those people do it very well, others not so much. I'm not convinced that one more conference position will make much of a difference. Instead, I propose that those who are already innovating at the grassroots level seek out and communicate with one another. They can then find their own unofficial CIO's. The Young People's Division of the GBOD is already attempting to do something similar through their Field Guide Network.

If You Can't Beat 'em Leave 'em- Ok, not the most fair paraphrase, but Wes says "In the end, if you can't do the innovative work that God wants you to do within the structure of a denomination, then you must leave" he explains his reasoning by saying that Charles Wesley was restrictive of John and that John should have left the CoE to do his own thing much sooner. I strongly disagree with this idea. Yes, Charles may have been a bit of a Debbie Downer at times but I would not consider him a "restrictive influence". Personally, I need more people like Charles Wesley in my life. I need a brother or a sister who loves me enough to tell me that what I'm doing is crazy. Sometimes I even need people to tell me flat out that something will not work. I need that because sometimes they are right.

  • Sometimes they are entirely right and I need to scrap what I am working on and start over.
  • Sometimes they are partially right and I need to scrap part of what I'm working on
  • Sometimes they are entirely wrong and their questioning me makes me realize that.

We Are Bound By Too Many Regulations- Both would agree with this but the quote comes from Rob's blog. Maybe this is again my seminarian naiveté speaking, but I think people like to use that as an excuse. I did my candidacy through my Wesley Foundation which was only made available because of a change in the 2008 Discipline. Even though it is now clearly stated in our Discipline, it was suggested that I take the easier route and be commissioned through a local church. I told my DS that my Wesley Foundation was my church and was a large part of the reason I answered my call. I wanted to give back in this small way. I was fortunate to have an understanding DS who helped me along the way. It took a bit of creativity by him, my DCom, and myself. I have talked with friends who also wanted to go through their Wesley Foundations. Ultimately their DCom convinced them to go through a local church because it would be easier. Their DCom's and DS's lacked the innovation and creativity. Many of our problems are not entirely the regulations as much as people using them as an excuse. Yes, some of those regulations shouldn't be there but some regulations people like to hide behind, don't actually exist.  As Rob ultimately says, "We must work within the system we have".

Methodists Had To Leave To Do Their Own Thing. End of Story- If it were the end of the story then we wouldn't all be here. As Wes knows, it wasn't so easy as Methodists leaving and doing their own thing. Even after they left there was a lot of turmoil. The Methodist Church split, then split again, those splits split,  some of those splits combined, then others combined, then there was another split, then there was more combining. What once was simply a movement became multiple different denominations that split for various reasons. Some have reunited, others are still separate. Things are not always as simple as they seem. Splitting the denomination, or splitting from the denomination has more implications than we may like, or realize. I realize it would be far easier for me to pull out of the candidacy process and join another movement or start my own, but like Wes, that is not what I am called to. Instead, as the elegant quote attributed to Augustine states it, "The Church is a Whore, but she's my Mother." She is a whore but I will love her and stand by her side because filing for emancipation just gets dirty.

Concluding Remarks- Rob and Wes are both amazing people, pastors, and (to use Rob's word) mavericks in the UMC. They will continue to innovate and do great things as the Spirit allows. The greatest outcome for these conversations is that they do not remain conversations. Innovation necessitates action. Some of those innovations will fail (although there is no real such thing as failure in innovation because lessons will be learned) and some will succeed. When Rob and I talked the other day we were both in agreement that there is no silver bullet innovation. Rob is writing from the context of the Western Jurisdiction,  Wes is writing from the South West Jurisdiction and I myself will be returning to the South East Jurisdiction next year. Every context necessitates a different vision whether we are talking about nations, jurisdictions, annual conferences, local churches, or neighborhoods. After all, how can we expect to innovate at a denominational level if we can not even innovate at a household level?

The future of the UMC, the future of the church needs innovation. We must find ways to reach those who have been left behind. We must innovate not for the sake of innovating, but for the sake of the Gospel. Because he already worded it so beautifully I will end with this assertion from Rob.

"To do this will take a leader or leaders that have the faith, the grit, and the guts to take this risk and to endure through the backlash of the institution.
To do this will require knowing that no amount of research, coaches or experts will be able to predict success. Success will only come from risk taking, failing and adapting."


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