Innovation: From Buzzword to Renewal

(This post first appeared in Faith+Lead on October 17, 2019.)

As innovation becomes a buzzword, it’s easy for church leaders to reduce it to a trend. But how might it play a powerful role in renewal?

In week one of my innovation and ministry class, I ask students to define innovation. Their definitions focus primarily on innovation as invention—novel ideas, new practices, and/or breakthrough technologies. While this understanding of innovation isn’t wrong, it’s thin and robs innovation of its ability to reframe complex dilemmas and connect problems to human realities.

The word innovation comes from the Latin word innovare, which means renew. It’s the process of renewing personally and communally, of nurturing life, especially after a crisis or fallow time. Its efforts can be modest or spark a movement.

Ministry is also about cultivating life: nurturing relationships, reconciling brokenness, and shedding light into dark places so all of creation may live abundantly. Ministry tethers renewal to the one who creates and redeems by joining our personal and collective action with God’s activity.

Today, we don’t have to look far to see the need for renewal in the world. Perhaps a deeper look at innovation could help us reimagine the renewing aspect of ministry.

Innovation as discernment and experimentation

Innovation renews as people adopt new practices through experimentation. In other words, we act our way into renewal, not think our way into it.

Innovation is novel, but its novelty must serve some end. Many congregations have used innovation to attract people. While new music or communication methods may catch people’s attention and create energy, congregational renewal must go deeper. Therefore, innovation begins with discerning God’s calling for us at this time, not brainstorming clever ideas.

Discernment is grounded in listening—to people’s lived experiences and to God. Once congregations have discerned what they are called to be and do, brainstorming and experimenting follow. Discerning and adopting new practices are more iterative than linear; in other words, it requires collaboration, feedback, and a lot of trial and error.

Innovation as changing the way we see

Innovation leans into the present with an eye to the future. As we, personally and communally, enhance our capacity for innovation, we learn to see a future not yet realized.

Faith also has a transformational dimension—a dynamic relationship with a living God. Deepening our relationship with God changes how we see the world. Where we once could see only challenges, brokenness, and insufficiencies, God helps us see possibilities, healing, and fullness.

This transformation in the way we see is not a one-time event, but an ongoing, life-long process. New ideas, practices, and inventions awaken us to different possibilities and angles of vision, which change our actions and experiments, which again change the way we see.

Two kinds of innovation

Imagine a continuum with steady, slow changing environments on one end and complex, unpredictable environments on the other end.

Learning happens in all environmental conditions, but the orientation is different. In steady conditions, learning is oriented toward the past; in complex conditions, it is oriented toward the future.

Innovation in steady conditions works with existing values and the established paradigm. This developmental view is known as sustaining innovation, which entails a group of thinkers offering inventions to the masses that will either be adopted or rejected.

Innovation in complex conditions works differently. Within these conditions, new ideas and approaches begin in particular networks. Over time, these new practices take hold and dislodge current patterns, becoming more mainstream and breaking down established paradigms. This view is known as disruptive innovation. (For more on sustaining and disruptive innovation, see Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma).

As the formal expressions of church experience decline, disruptive innovation will become more necessary. Discovering and working with emergent values and networks is key to renewal in complex conditions. It is time to ask different questions and open ourselves to new ways of being God’s church in the world.

Innovation as renewal

God’s command to love God and our neighbor remains, and ancient practices continue to form Christian communities and remind us of our identity as God’s people. Yet how we participate in God’s mission and love our neighbor will change, as will the ways we employ ancient Christian practices.

Because the path to the future is not clear and the need for renewal urgent, church leaders must expand their imagination. Sharing the good news of the gospel requires connecting with the particularities of time and place and wrestling with the complexities of our time. Might the discipline of innovation help us discern our way forward and transform our way of seeing?

Innovation might be a trendy word, but its essence is more than a fad. Given our current conditions, a robust understanding of innovation, combined with a missional understanding of church and reliance on the Holy Spirit, could point the church in the right direction.

About the Author

Terri Martinson Elton is the Associate Professor of Leadership at Luther Seminary. Having served 20 years in congregational and synodical leadership before coming to Luther, Terri is deeply committed to accompanying congregations in discovering new expressions of ministry. Terri has co-authored a book on Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World with Rabbi Hayim Herring, researched and written about Cultivating Teen Faith, and has a new book, Journeying the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century, coming out in Spring 2020.

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Thinking about Complexity

I’ve been reading on my sabbatical. Of all the books on my list, I choose to start with this one – Simple Habits for Complex Times. The simple premise of the book is that we are living in a new world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are on the rise and we need to develop a new mindset for leading. The authors, two consultants from New Zealand, offer three habits for developing this new pattern of thinking and acting: talk differently, gather information differently, and build strategies and plans differently. (If you want to see a short video on the book, check out this out.)

But this blog isn’t an ad for this book. This post is about mindsets. A mindset, or frame, is a set of ideas or beliefs that form a lens that enables one to see and understand what is going on in a situation. So I ask: What mindset frames your view of ministry? Not sure? Try this. Pay attention to the questions you ask. Over the course of a week, write down the questions you ask about the ministry situations you encounter. Then step back and reflect on what those questions say about your current view of ministry. Part of a team? Then do this exercise together, sharing your reflections at the end and trying to get a sense of the similarities and differences each of you bring. Once you have done that, create a 2×2 matrix to see if your mindset is more opened or closed. Label the first row narrowing and the second row opening. Label the left column threat and the right column opportunity.

So, what did you discover? Living well in a complex world requires a shift in mindset from one where probability was the norm to one where possibilities are the norm. Leading with a possibilities mindset means being open to opportunities and other ways of understanding. If you want to practice being more open, one skill to develop is asking different questions. Here are some to get you started:

  • When faced with a complex problem practice using “and” (rather than “or” or “but”). Using “and” doesn’t close down options or narrow choices prematurely. “And” lets ideas build on each other, creates a relationship between ideas that might be in tension with each other, and invites collaboration.
  • Are the questions you ask taking time into account? Time offers perspective, brings forth realities, and opens up new possibilities. Asking questions about the past, present, and future is all worthwhile.
  • Do your questions come with a genuine curiosity? Asking questions, or getting feedback, to confirm what we already know is a waste of energy. On the other hand, asking questions with a posture of deep interest and openness to be impacted by the response is really valuable. What to do with the answers/feedback is the second part of the process, but being open begins with reflecting on our own attitudes.



I don’t have words!



I don’t have words. Whenever I try to put words together into a sentence to share about my experience in Tanzania, words fall short. I’ve tried several times, with several responses each geared for a different group of people, but each time the sentences trail off…and then I try to end with a story to illustrate my point. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Like there is the story of the college student who waited for our group as we traveled to our partner congregation. And when our can broke down and needed attention, we had a chance to have an extended “unexpected” conversation. The heart of his message was his gratitude to Prince of Peace for the 6 years of scholarships that helped him move from primary school to secondary school and now into the University. Soon, after a time student teaching, he will be a teacher giving back to another community because of the investment this congregation made in him. As a professor and member of Prince of Peace, it was awesome to see the joy in his face and the thanksgiving in his heart.

There is the string of stories that highlight the Bega Kwa Bega – Shoulder to Shoulder – partnership between the Saint Paul Area Synod and the Iringa Diocese. We signed guest books filled with familiar names from MN, we met Tanzanians who have worked on projects with our friends (i.e. Fred Bergsrud, my childhood neighbor, working with them in agriculture) and we made instant connections, like finding out our interpreter went to seminary with one of my PhD colleagues. With so many ambassadors going back and forth between MN and Iringa, many conversations found common ground very quickly even though I could not speak Swahili or get around town on my own.

Pictures do a better job at communicating, but they too can be flat. The relationships cultivated between members of our group goes beyond the smiles seen in our pictures. The appreciation for church leaders in Iringa is hard to capture in the “group shot” at the DIRA office. The pictures of faces of children, mothers, and farmers are beautiful, but hardly capture the full essence of their lives and community. And the sunset photos do not begin to shed light on the stunning views we had from the top of the mountain, say nothing about the ones of elephants, lion, and giraffes.













Relationships provide the best avenue. So many – new and old – and so diverse. Traveling with a group ages 15 to 76 provides it’s own richness. Add to that the vast array of experiences of the people we encountered that surfaced in conversations around meals, in worship, in celebrations, and in times of trial. The book of Romans reminds us we are one body with many members…and to see that sameness and difference at play over the course of two weeks was amazing.

At the end of the day, I’m grateful to be part of a global church that is rooted in relationships, cares about the world, and takes seriously its call to love God and neighbor. My heart of full. I learned a lot, and have much to reflect on. And my web of ministry partners has expanded.

I’m home from Tanzania, but my experience in Tanzania is still living within me.

Leading in a Connected World


I’m tired and jazzed as I wrap-up my week. Eleven of us, all leaders in God’s church close by and far away, wrestled with what it means to lead missionally for five whole days. We came together having read, written, blogged, posted, and wondered about it before we arrived. We entered the conversation having engaged in conversation with other church leaders, people in our congregation, and even people outside our faith communities. And with all of that “pre-work,” say nothing about our years of experience leading in ministry, you’d think we would be leaving with some concrete and well-defined understanding of missional leadership. But we did not.

Instead we left with…

– a renewed appreciation for God’s presence in the world, and in us (personally and as a group)

– an awareness that our similarities and differences are gifts we offer each other

– a curiosity for exploring the familiar and “strange”

– an assurance of the costly nature of leadership and

– a reminder of how connected we are, even as we live in different places.

It was not obvious who played the role of the teacher and who played the role of learner, because teaching and learning was shared and spilled out from our assigned room and scheduled times into parking lots, lunch tables, and evening conversations. It was truly a shared learning experience, gracious and generative, with each person in the room mining the gems they most needed and best suited for their context and leadership role.

In the weeks ahead, other communities will join into this learning, as student engage in their projects, and the learning will flow not only in and through their congregations but also back to the whole. Research will be done and papers will be written, but the real fruit will only be known, truly known, years from now. Thanks to my co-collaborator, Steve Thomason, for doing this organic dance with me. And thank you students for joining in the dance with us.

As I wrap-up my day, I will linger in the music from our closing worship and the stories we shared, grateful for a narrative counter to the one broadcast in society these days. My heart is filled with hope. God is up to something in this world. Thanks be to God.






I’ve been thinking a lot about “engagement” these days. The first reason is personal. Two days before Christmas, my daughter and her boyfriend got engaged. As you might imagine, it created a lot of buzz in our house; there were calls to aunts and uncles, Facetiming cousins, and face-to-face visits with grandparents. Today, several weeks later, conversations around being engaged continue, as does their discovery of what it means for them.

The second reason is professional. Having just co-authored a book with Hayim Herring on leading in this digital age, we discovered that engagement is a very important issue for congregations. As the ways of thinking about congregational membership (giving money and regularly attending worship) become increasingly out of sync with societal values, leaders are wrestling with new ways of thinking about what it means to be connected to and associated with faith communities. Pastor Greg Meyer of Jacob’s Well, MN said it well. He said, “Of all the things we are stewards of with our community, their attention is one of the biggest, and it is almost the hardest. It is almost easier to get people to give than to get their attention.”

Leaders shared with us that the ways they had “always been doing things,” like committee work, passive communication, and assuming loyalty accompanies membership, didn’t have enough holding power to keep people connected to the congregation’s mission. However, when they shifted their focus from membership to engagement as an organizing principle it not only changed key practices, but it had a ripple effect throughout the organization and changed the culture as a whole. What would it mean to have an engaging culture?

Let’s step back and think about the word engage. One understanding of being engaged is a promise or pledge of one person to another. But there are other understandings according to Merriam-Webster – they include to take part in something, give attention to something or to come together. (Merriam-Webster definition – Shifting toward engagement as an organizing principle is to become a community where people come together or take part in something that is meaningful to them; it is a community where passion or purpose hold the community, not membership status. The shift may seem subtle, but this slight change in focus made a big difference in these organizations.

Engagement is multi-faceted and is not easily measured. Yet engagement in the congregations and nonprofits we studied had themes. One was about how they creatively connected with people within their organization; another was the unique ways they were in relationship with people and organizations outside their organization. Amongst these themes were three sets of practices: valuing process over procedure, integrating and relying on collective intelligence, and telling stories. In the end, congregations and nonprofits developed an ethos of openness – where the mission was clear, the work meaningful, and the boundaries messy.

There is no formula for establishing such a culture, but there are communities doing it. And we can learn from their experience. After fussing with this work for ten years, Jacob’s Well is clear about who they are – not fixated on creating members or model Christians, Jacob’s Well is a church focused on helping people create meaning in their lives. They believe a Christian understanding of God, a community willing to wrestle with this understanding, and awareness of contemporary culture is the way to approach this work. Everything they do is filtered through this mission and identity.

We share more about engagement in our book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. For more information, go to Amazon or Rowman and Littlefield. You can also check out Hayim’s latest blog on Innovation.

Mission Possible

One of my “minor” projects this summer was participating in the making of this trailer for Luther Seminary. In so many ways this was out of my comfort zone, yet the people (at Luther and outside) put us all at ease and made it fun.

Why did I do it? Well, as you will see, it is not because I believe I have a budding acting career or that I’ve always wanted to have a role in a Tom Cruise movie. I did it for two reasons. First, I think most of us (at least those of us over 21) take ourselves too seriously. So pushing our limits and imagination is good every now and then, and to top it off, we could all use more fun in our life. This project was serious and playful at the same time. Second, I do believe in the project – and that we as Christian public leaders have a mission and it is possible. I will say more about this next Wednesday, as I get to preach on this topic in chapel (tune into Luther Seminary chapel at 11:00 am Central time if you want), but for now it is enough to say: God invites all of us – pastors, church staff, lay people, moms and dads, kids and grandparents – to be ambassador’s of God’s love. We do that in big ways and small ways; from pulpits and at the playground. This mission is not about growing a church, or a seminary, it is about creating a movement of love in our world. #LutherSemGive

Enough for now, I’m off to my real job…teaching!

Rethinking Concerts. Rethinking Church.


I, like some of you perhaps, came home from work and turned on the evening news. At the end of the broadcast was an interesting story. “A classical music house call

There’s a modern twist on a centuries old art form: classical music.

After a busy day at work, Eileen Trilli and her family tidied up their Brooklyn, New York home before guests — friends and strangers — arrived for a private show. It’s called Groupmuse, and they offer a chance for music lovers to experience classical chamber music in an intimate setting. Creator Sam Bodkin says it’s the way composers intended their music to be heard.

‘You show up, you socialize for an hour, you sit down on the floor, and you listen intently for 25 minutes to three movements of a tremendous masterwork,’ said Bodkin. ‘It’s not quite a concert and it’s not quite a party.’

Anyone who wants to host a concert can connect with performers and guests who want to sign up on the Groupmuse website. There’s no cover charge, but the hat is passed for musicians just starting out.” (For more see:

Hearing this story got me thinking. Having house concerts doesn’t replace formal concerts. And house concerts are not the same as playing on the street. House concerts are a semi-planned events in an informal setting where people come together in community to engage music and others. What does this mean for church today? What does it mean for fostering and nurturing faith in a post-Christian age? And what does it mean to combine “really good musicians” with people curious about or who appreciate music?And how important is the hospitality someone extends in their home?

Pondering these things today.

To learn more of this story, watch watch the video here.

Pragmatism, Utility and Beauty

“I was inspired by Mako Fujimura’s blog entry entitled A Fragile Emanation in which he talks about the space a contemplative, or an artist, occupies in a world of pragmatism and utility. Reflection, sabbath, creativity, these things can feel unproductive and ‘extra’.” – Sara Groves

Today’s class was on the Holy Spirit. How does one teach about the Holy Spirit? About the power, impact, and importance of the Holy Spirit?

I had a few ideas, and a great article by my colleague Lois Malcolm. But then I saw this video by Sara Groves, one of my favorite Christian songwriters and singer.

And suddenly my planning went in another direction. What if I gave us – busy leadership, students, parents, friends, family members, employees – space, even an hour of class to be creative? What if we spent time dwelling in a text (Acts 2:38-47) and let our imaginations go…perhaps sketching with colored pencils or painting on canvas or assembling a mobile or writing a parable.

And guess what…we did. Some students were creative outside in the afternoon sun, some of us created in the classroom near the art supplies, some students engaged with others while creating, some enjoyed the silence. And then we shared our impromptu art with one another. No names, no judgment, just expressions of a community open to and centered around the Holy Spirit. And it was good.

Thanks class for being open to crazy ideas, to multiple ways of expressing ideas, and to journeying together in learning about God, the church, and our call to love our neighbor.

an unforgettable valentine’s day


Valentine’s Day has never been my favorite holiday. Maybe it’s because I hate all the consumer hype, maybe it’s because I’m not overly romantic, or maybe it’s just because I hate the pressure of “finding just the right gift” to show those I love how much I care. But like it over not, Valentine’s Day comes every year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against celebrating love or sharing my feelings with those I love. What stresses me out about Valentine’s Day is that my ways of expressing love don’t look anything like the commercials on TV, and I’m left trying to honor the day and dumbfounded as how to do it.

Today is Valentine’s Day and if I want to spend time with my valentine, I will have to spend it in a warehouse…with hundreds of other people. You see today is the last of six days where over a dozen churches and community organizations have joined together to pack meals for hungry children. My husband, being part of the planning team, had to be there at 7 am to open the doors and has to be there through the final shift (5:00 – 7:00 pm) and clean-up tonight. So to spend time with him, I headed to the warehouse this morning and will return again tonight.

This afternoon I’m hanging around the house doing the week’s laundry and it makes today feel more like an ordinary Saturday than a holiday. For that I’m grateful. When I return to the warehouse later, I’ll be happy to be one among the many. Why? because for once this holiday focuses on an understanding of love that fits my own, and embodies my relationship with my valentine. Serving, more than bouquets of flowers and fancy dinners, is my picture of love. Serving not only those I know and love, but also people in our world who are in need is important to me, and our family. And this Valentine’s Day I get to share that commitment with others – and that is pretty awesome.

But there is another exciting element to this Valentine’s Day – the surprise of having our college daughter come home to surprise us and to participate in packing meals! Yes, for her too, love means caring for others and packing meals has been a part of her story since she was in first grade. So it’s a good weekend. Happily, I made her brownies when she arrived last night. Happily I will do her laundry today. Happily I dropped her off at the warehouse this morning to join her dad and the others. And happily I will get her ready to head back to school tomorrow. Our children watch how we love and sometimes they take the good and make it part of their own understanding of loving too.


It’s soon time for me to return to the warehouse for the final shift of the week. Tonight as I stand in a cold warehouse with hundreds of people who want to make a difference in the lives of children, I will capture an imagine in my head. I’ll look to the screens and wait for the number – somewhere between the 2.2 million meals packed when I last left and the 3.0 million meals goal. And I will rest in the fact that this is a Valentine’s Day I won’t soon forget.

and the floors need to be mopped


It’s been a week since I pulled into my garage. As I walked into the house and set down my bags, I headed to the kitchen continuing the conversation my husband and I started in the car. “How’s work?” “Talked to the kids?” “What time will you be home from your meeting?” As I sat in the stairway I got a panoramic view of the house – the living room, dining room, kitchen. The floors need to be mopped, I thought.

Today I returned from Detroit were 1,050 church leaders connected, learned, and supported each other in our shared call to children, youth, and young adult ministry. Many were friends and colleagues I anticipate seeing year after year. I treasure our relationships and am amazed at how quickly hotel hallways can become holy spaces. Others were past students, now well established in ministry roles around the country. It is a pleasure to be partners in ministry with them. And other faces were unfamiliar only days ago and today their stories echo in my heart. Their stories express the joys and sadness of leading ministry in 2015.

Art, drama, song, worship, teaching, and conversation embedded the theme of story into the rhythm of each day and night. Rachel Kurtz’s “Make a Difference” made the group “Rise Up” as her voice and the melodies filled our souls. The gospel of Mark came alive as Phil proclaimed it in front of “the big book” Nate and Katelyn illustrated. Liz preached, Todd welcomed, Nikki prepared, Dawn orchestrated, and Chris, Tom, and Tim produced. The rugged, boxy cross and phonograph baptismal font claimed the ballroom, and us. And each day as characters stepped in our “theatre in the round” a room was transformed, and the lost were found. The story lives and moves inside us.

As my husband left, the house quieted and I went to get the mop and the broom. Almost Cinderella-like, I went about my cores as my mind wondered about my friends and the future. “Did our students make it home safely?” “What will come of my new friendships?” “What will next year be like?” “What time is it in our church?” “What do I do with this?” Seeing the new blanket of snow falling outside, I’m hopeful flights continue getting people home. Then the washing machine buzzer sounds; time for another load.

Many hands and minds make a gathering like this possible, and makes evident the claim, “many hands make light work.” But this gathering is not just about an event. It is not even just about growing as leaders. It’s about the church. It’s about people telling God’s story even as they tell a bit of their own.

Tomorrow I, like many others, will return to my “ordinary” work. Classes to teach, confirmation to prepare, sermons to write, retreats to plan, expense reports to complete, emails to return. The list will be long, the demands great, and the energy low. Then, after a full day of work, I, like many, will enter a church building and sit among Kentons, Alexes, Jakes, Jonahs, Justins, and Davins – with all the energy and curiosity 7th grade boys can bring. We’ll ask each other about our week. I’ll hear about soccer and basketball and math tests and siblings. They’ll hear about Detroit, getting 16 inches of snow, and what it’s like watching the Super Bowl with several hundred other people. And in the midst of telling our stories we will tell God’s story.

Perhaps big things will come of this week in Detroit. Some may have sensed a call to ministry, decided to take a new job, committed to go to seminary, or met the person they will marry. I hope the Spirit moved in such profound ways. But perhaps this week in Detroit has as much to do with the ordinary things – our to-do lists, conversations with our friends and family members, healing our hearts, reminding us we are not alone, and, well, mopping the floors. Tomorrow as I head off to work, I will hold this past week in my heart and pray my eyes are open to see God’s story in the people I encounter. Perhaps you will too.