4 Ways Your Church Can Be Innovative

“Change is like electricity. Handled well, it brings great blessings. Handled carelessly, it can burn the house down.”

Planning in pencil simply means keeping your options open as long as possible. It involves using the language of flexibility rather than certainty. It’s being careful to say, “This is what we do for now,” rather than, “This is what we will do forever.” It’s making sure that everyone knows that midcourse corrections aren’t simply allowed; they’re encouraged.

The only thing you and your leadership team can know for sure about the future is that it will be different from what you expect. So the best way to prepare is to keep as many options open as long as possible.

Never forget that successful change agents and innovators deal with what is. They don’t worry much about what should be. They don’t worry much about what they thought would be. They just worry about what is. And when things change, they change. They plan in pencil.

3. Avoid the hype.

When it’s time to make a significant change or to add something new, avoid the hype trap. It leaves no room for retreat.

If your primary goal is to get something off to a great start, hype works well. But if your goal is long-term success (or the chance to try something else should your latest brilliant idea not work out so well), hype will kill your leadership future.

If we hype something that succeeds, all is well. But if we hype something that fails, the loss in leadership chips is always significant. Even worse, if we hype everything, it’s not long until our words become white noise, turning us into the leadership equivalent of a carnival barker.

Most often, the hype trap is the result of overcommunication. In a sincere (but misguided) effort to secure buy-in, we put together sermon series, position papers and a host of other marketing ploys to convince everyone that the changes we are about to make are the best thing since flush toilets.

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It seldom works. Because when it comes to significant change, buy-in is nearly impossible to get. Studies consistently show that more than half the population resists change until they see that it works for them and everyone else is for it. By definition, that can’t happen on the front end of a new endeavor.

What we actually need is permission to try something. And that’s a lot easier to get—and a lot easier to make midcourse corrections or even back away from if things go sour.

4. Avoid leadership ADHD.

Idea-a-minute leadership can be exhilarating, especially when there’s a charismatic leader with a gift for selling at the helm. His or her innate ability to make every idea seem like the next big thing never leaves a trace of doubt.

But after a while, most people figure it out. Instead of charging off to chase the latest butterfly, they feign agreement, but actually do nothing. They’ve learned that “this too shall pass.” So they keep on doing whatever they were doing before, while the newbies who haven’t figured it out yet jump on the latest bandwagon.

Once the default response to a new idea becomes “this too will pass,” a leader’s ability to innovate or implement significant change is pretty much lost. When your staff sets up an office pool to see how long your latest idea or program will last, you’ve become a leader without followers.

Ironically, ADHD leadership is not that far from innovative leadership. It’s just a few degrees off. But they’re important degrees. Both try lots of stuff. But non-ADHD leadership tries it in an experimental mode. Nothing is oversold. Everything is subservient to, and judged by, its impact on the mission.

In contrast, leaders with leadership ADHD never slow down to experiment. Every idea that passes through their heads is pursued full speed ahead. It’s the only speed they know.

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It reminds me of the difference between Jack in the Box and In-N-Out Burger. (Humor me … I live in Southern California, birthplace of the famous In-N-Out chain.) In-N-Out never changes its menu and seldom advertises. Everyone knows that if you want a consistently excellent burger, fries and a drink, you go to In-N-Out. That’s all they do. You can’t get a salad. You can’t get a taco. But you can get a great burger, fries and a drink.

Jack in the Box, on the other hand, always has a new item on the menu and a funny commercial to advertise it. But Jack is usually so busy marketing his latest peanut butter, bacon and grilled-jalapeno sandwich that he never seems to notice that the cheeseburgers and fries are disgusting.

That’s what happens when leadership ADHD takes over. It results in a constant stream of new initiatives and failed projects that eventually numbs everyone to the importance of the core items on the menu.

Change and innovation are a necessary part of creating the future. Without the organizational agility to make necessary changes, your church will soon die and God will have to raise up wildfire down the street (and trust me, he will). At the end of the day, change is a lot like electricity. Handled well, it brings great blessings. Handled carelessly or without understanding, it can burn the house down.

Larry Osborne, an Outreach magazine consulting editor, is one of the senior pastors and teaching pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, California. For more on unlocking innovation, pick up Osborne’s latest book, Sticky Leaders: The Secret to Lasting Change and Innovation (previously released under the title Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret).