This summer I spent some time with a group of (mostly) young people involved in a virtual reality start-up. Some of them are serial innovators, having been a part of more than one successful endeavor. As a minister, spiritual entrepreneur, and organizing pastor of a new congregation, I was eager to hear their wisdom about what it takes to make seemingly wild possibilities come to life.
I thought they would offer a gamer-style sermon on the merits of a brilliant idea. I wanted to hear that it involved timing and perseverance and great design. Instead, one of them said, “The first thing a venture capitalist wants to know is who is on your founding team.”
Not what. Not why. Not how. But who.
Good ideas matter, but what is more important is who is leading the project, because the best predictor of the success of a new initiative is the leadership behind it.
I believe this is true in most fields. Good leadership and innovation are intrinsically linked. A strong team connected to mentors, and resources, and the chance to experiment together is what makes something new come to life.
But after more than three years into the work of building a new church from scratch, I am not sure religious communities and institutions really know how to support innovation. I know I don’t speak for everyone, but I am a part of a wide network of people who are planting new communities, and many of us feel that we succeed in spite of our denominations, not because of them.
This past June, I was in Cleveland for the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. The denomination’s new Minister and President, John Dorhauer, said to those gathered, “I want you to prepare to fail. I want you to give yourself permission to take risks and then be there to receive the risk-takers with grace when they fail. I also want you to learn from those failures and pass on what you learn to others.”
Earlier in that month, Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, wrote an essay in UU World provocatively entitled, “The Future Health of Unitarian Universalism Depends on All of Us Learning to Embrace Failure.” In a similar vein, Adam Hearlson, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Andover Newton Theological School, often uses the lexicon of the Silicon Valley in his talks, encouraging people of faith to try new things and “fail faster.”
All of this insight points to what I see as the one key lesson that we must learn in the church: The only way to do innovative ministry is to take risks and be willing to fail.
Being in religious innovation requires more than thoughtful leadership alone. It takes grit and an ability to be knocked down and to get up again and again. It means experimenting and letting go over and over. It means being wrong and being undone for the sake of a Greater Love.
A few years ago, I heard Rob Bell say that in order for something new to be born, someone or a group of people will be “broken and poured out to create new life.” I just didn’t quite get that meant part of me.
There are physical, mental, spiritual and financial aspects to being “broken and poured out.” There is a quality of risk-taking and failing that can feel something like walking through the “valley of the shadow of death.” It is deeply personal, and it can be brutal.
At the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Portland, Oregon this year, The Rev. Ian White Maher spoke about the costs of failure when the congregation he founded didn’t make it. He said, “The [people who] are coaching us not to be afraid to fail [often tell] stories of serial entrepreneurs who have tried things a dozen times before they finally hit their success—and while these stories might be true, one of the things that they leave out is the pain . . . Exhortations to change and dream big and lead the movement in a new direction are often silent about the consequences of trying.”
Amen to that.
Since setting out on my journey to start a new faith community, I have experienced strained relationships with family and colleagues, danced with my own shadows, and felt the fullness of all that the work has taken from me. I also have seen the toll that the work has taken on those who have joined me in laboring toward a shared vision. Together, we have carried on through disappointment, and rejection, and people who flaked when it got hard.
And each part of this church-building project has required a significant financial sacrifice on the part of my family. It is not uncommon for those of us engaged in religious innovation to work for nothing (or at least very little) and without other benefits. Church planters are expected to be bi-vocational, spectacular fundraisers and grant writers, partnered with people who are generously compensated, and/or—for the very fortunate—all of the above. Most of us don’t speak of risk-taking from a distance; we do not enjoy generous cushions of economic security that protect us from the consequences of failure.
We are living in a time of mass rethink on our planet and a period of great disruption in the church, and things are changing quickly. But if the best predictor of the success of a new initiative is the leadership behind it, we have to pause and ask some critical questions:
- Do religious institutions really support innovation?
- Do we connect with, pray for, and resource those who feel called to fail on behalf of us all?
- Can our faith communities really claim to be radically inclusive if being a religious innovator requires a certain level of privilege?
As a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ, my heart was full of joy to be at General Synod this past June, because our new congregation, Silicon Valley Progressive Faith Community, was invited to march in the New Church Parade. It felt like the first time I had stories to tell and learning to share. I was emotional, because years of effort—years in which there were just one, then two, then twelve of us—have finally birthed a beautiful group of progressive Christians, agnostics, spiritual independents, and other people of conscience who want to live with purpose and joy in a community rooted in love. We are new, but we are alive!
When the morning of the New Church Parade came, it was pouring down rain, so I got a ride from a sweet older couple from Maryland. There I was, a leader in the future of the church, being carried through the storm by people who embodied not only a bit of the church of the past, but also the kindness of the church of the present.
When we pulled up in front of the Convention Center, I got out of the car, raced down the stairs and around the corner, and burst into the building’s large exhibit hall. But when I arrived at the parade’s meeting place, there was no sign for our church. Fearing that some sort of mistake may have been made, I frantically sorted through the remaining poster boards. I asked around.
Nope, no sign for our new church.
I was devastated. Sure, it was only a sign . . . but it was more than that, too. It had become a symbol—a signal of how our seedling enterprise would be nurtured by the denomination and perhaps the wider church. And it wasn’t there. It didn’t exist.
As I sobbed in the bathroom stall while the crowd cheered, I recalled how far I have come. I thought of the amazing people who have gathered over the last three years to fulfill the vision of a progressive church engaged in personal and social transformation.
Then, in a sudden moment of clarity, I remembered that we don’t need to be noticed for it to be real.
I also remembered what I learned a while ago: Religious institutions love the idea of innovation, but few seem to know how to truly support it. We invest more in remembering the risk-takers of the past than supporting our risk-takers in the present.
But I have hope! The Church is not dying, it is simply changing forms. So how do we welcome and celebrate these new forms and the people who are co-laboring to bring them to life? Brené Brown writes, “The bravest among us will always be the most broken-hearted . . .” How do we nurture and support the broken-hearted among us—those who are committed to toiling beyond comfort for the sake of our Greater Love? How can all of us together support the innovators, the risk-takers, the crazy visionaries who are willing to fail so that we all may succeed?