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Innovation & the Church: Practical Ideas to Preserve Tradition & Lead Change by Rev. Grant Woodley


The word “innovation” doesn’t strike the same level of fear in people as the word “change” does. Yet, when people hear this word used at church, they are resistant. They worry: what are we about to lose? What will be different? Innovative leadership doesn’t mean an either/or way of thinking. It’s not about holding the future and the past in opposition. It’s about using wisdom to preserve tradition and courage to lead change.


Here are some practical ideas I’ve used as a pastor of a rural church. These ideas are not the final word, definitive, and certainly not exhaustive. They represent some things I’ve found helpful along the stumbling way of leading a rural congregation.


1. Language

Find language to use that helps guide the trajectory and character of innovation: brief, simple, straightforward. Maybe that language is in the form of a mission and values statement, maybe a handful of brief scripture passages, maybe stories or statements from the congregation’s past, stuff from the congregational constitution, Confessions, Catechism, etc. Use that language over and over. Teach it over and over.

  • Say “Yes And.” When fear leads people to object or criticize with “Well but…” Insist on “Yes And.” We can do such and such AND make these other accommodations. It’s also the same idea as WIN/WIN.

  • “It’s okay, Jesus is risen from the dead.” When people are scared to try something, this is a straight up declaration of the law and gospel. Who of us doesn’t need to hear this over and over?

  • Failure is part of the process. We can’t be afraid to try because of fear of mistakes. Mistakes only lead us to analyze, plan, and try again, the next iteration.

2. Teaching forums

One of the hardest challenges for me has been to know how, when, and how much to teach. I have found the forum of the sermon to be an increasingly ineffective forum for teaching. I still use the sermon to teach, but have found that I need to find lots of forums for teaching-- formally, informally, large group, small group, etc. Language takes time to ingrain and reinforce and even longer before that language turns into behavior, habit and culture. In addition to teaching forums, you might develop liturgies and practices/rituals to use in those forums to help reinforce language: a prayer, a song, a movement.

3. Map Decision-making

In council, committees and teams, use the language you’ve chosen to drive decision making and map those decisions. For example, the “tyranny of the urgent” often derails teams’ ability to make important decisions to appease the vocal minority. I like to use a 4-quadrant matrix of Urgent/Important/Not Urgent/Not Important to set a meeting or team agenda. Urgent/Important items get first and most attention, then Not Urgent/Important. The other two don’t get much attention at all. Map it.

  • Is the decision a change? A chaotic, anxiety driven reaction with hope of a quick-fix solution? Or is the decision a traditioned innovation? Map it.

  • Is the decision KTLO (Keeping The Lights On)? A technical change? An adaptive change? Map it. A vital congregation is doing all three and recognizes which decisions are which.

  • Connect the decision to a goal. If you’ve ever seen a teacher’s formal lesson plan, each classroom activity is connected to all the curricular goals that activity accomplishes. Each decision should demonstrate what organizational goal that decision will accomplish and how. Map it.

4. Build Empathy for your rural community:

Understand the lives of people in agriculture. Do tractor rides. Go along to do chores. Subscribe to a farming newspaper. Ride along with your Extension agronomist. Go to field days. Understand the enormous level of “change” your community already deals with so you can appreciate why change at church might not be something everyone is excited about, why people might be afraid. But foremost, know thyself. Understanding your own deeply held fears will help you proclaim law and gospel in a way that meets your context most powerfully.


Build a repertoire of empathetic statements and use those statements authentically not condescendingly. Perhaps something like.

  • I understand how you could feel that way, and…

  • I’m sorry. I can tell this really upsets you, and…

  • I see that I can’t even imagine how you’re feeling, and…

Leadership is first an exercise of grief and loss counseling. Even desired progress involves loss of some kind, and the best counseling involves treatment goals that move a person along to healing. Empathy is not the end or the goal, but the first step in helping people be ready to hear, “...and Jesus is risen from the dead.”

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