Innovators, Improvers, and Maintainers

Someone much smarter than me came up with these labels to describe three types of leaders in an organization. The beauty of the labels is that they are pretty clear descriptors of the type of leaders they describe.

Innovators innovate. They create things. They start things and get things going. They see possibilities and are gifted visionaries. They have hope for the future. They see what exists and know that something better is available. They are not committed to the tried and true – especially if they don’t see the tried and true working. They generate ideas and are willing to risk it all.

Improvers improve what already exists. They are about refining things and offering improvements. They typically follow innovators and for a good reason. Innovators usually create a mess because innovators break a lot of stuff in the process of innovation. Improvers clean up the mess of what the innovators create and bring some order and process into play. Improvers give structure.

Maintainers maintain what exists. They offer stability, order, and predictability. They don’t like messes. They do what they can to ensure that the gains made are protected. They institutionalize. They slow things down and analyze the situation and data. They are cautious. They come after the improvers and set about to take what the improver did and maintain it for the long term.

Organizations need all three of these leadership types. One is not better than the other overall. But there are times when each leadership style is a better fit than the others for obvious reasons.

I argue that the church in 2022 in America is holding onto one leadership style when it actually needs a different one. The vast majority of the church is being led in a maintain leadership style. Church prefers this style. Institutions much prefer maintaining rather than innovation or improving.

The problem with this right now is that maintaining is not the healthy option. It really hasn’t been for decades. That’s part of the reason we have seen a dramatic decrease in membership in churches over the last several decades. The church has been trying to maintain something that it can’t and something that doesn’t exist anymore. And with the pandemic, this reality was exposed even more. Maintaining is a recipe for death in the current environment.

Instead, churches need innovation. It’s not just an option to tinker around with, but rather, a necessary thing to do and embody. Innovation doesn’t guarantee success or even survival. It’s messy. Innovation breaks things and throws things out that no longer work. Innovation is about trying and failing multiple times. It is about living in uncertainty. It’s about trying something new without having the answers, and sometimes without having any answers at all. Innovation lacks certainty.

And it is exactly what the church needs.

The early church was a movement. It innovated all the time because that’s what movements do. It had to. The very early church had to sort out what worked in a new environment. The church today is also in a new environment. The church is not the center of the culture, and continues to drift further away from the center. The stats about people believing in God continue to show that fewer people believe. And when you go to a generational breakdown, the younger someone is, the less likely they are to be a part of a church and/or believe in God. Those are realities – it doesn’t matter what we think about them or if we like those realities or not. They just are. And the tried and true doesn’t address these realities.

The analogy would be continuing to follow the instructions for a rotary phone in the age of iPhone 13. It doesn’t make any sense any more.

Here’s the other part to make note of – there isn’t a silver bullet solution for this. There isn’t one model that we can point to and say – “That’s it – just follow this.” It doesn’t exist. And what works today will not likely work in 5 years from now because there will be even more change in that time.

So what are we to do? I think there are a few things that the church at large should do:

  • Accept that the world has changed. This sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s recognizing that there is a generational shift happening. It’s recognizing a societal shift that is happening. It’s recognizing that the near future is uncertain and murky, but that this uncertainty is not an excuse to just keep trying what we are familiar with. That won’t work. The world has changed and will continue to change. This means that everything is one the table. And that’s scary for a lot of people.
  • Mourn the loss of certainty. I think churches need to mourn loss. The loss of members, the loss of the way things used to be, the loss of in person only activities, the loss of finances, the loss of the hope that the future will follow the cycles of the past, the loss of knowing. We are in uncertain times and when we live fully into this, we mourn. This is a Scriptural thing. Story after story in Scripture is about people who had to throw out plans for their lives in order to follow God. The church is already very good at mourning. We do it every time we have a funeral. Funerals acknowledge the reality of death in our midst. They give us permission to mourn the loss of someone we love. And they force us to deal with the reality that there is a new normal going forward. Maybe it’s time for the church to hold a funeral for the death of certainty in the church.
  • Let go of the model of church. Most churches have a model they follow – a building, a pastor, other staff, specific worship style, committee and organizational structure, etc. Those were great for a time period that saw organizational growth. They offered a way for churches to bring people in. They offered something that was valuable to people – organizational identity. That doesn’t hold any longer. With Gen X and younger generations, there is limited trust in institutions – for a whole host of reasons. Gen X and younger do not attach their identity to the church. What is the ideal model for the church? There isn’t one. Letting go of the model of the church means asking the question – if we were to start a church today, what would it look like and why? What resources would we have and why? If we had property – what would we do with it? What would our mission be? What would be the best way to fulfill that? What kind of structure would we actually need? How would we worship? What would leadership look like? These are just a few questions to get started. If your answers to these questions lead you to make your mission launch look exactly like the church you are a part of today, then I have to ask – are you being honest? One last question – So what’s holding us back from asking these questions honestly and then making the appropriate changes?
  • Innovate. The questions above lead to innovation. Innovation is about taking a risk. It’s about going all in. Here’s what I know – people want to be a part of something that makes an impact on people and the community. People want to be a part of something that they can be passionate about. People want to be a part of something that has a sense of community – something that draws people together for a purpose. People know that life is a struggle and they want to be with people who will struggle with them together. Our innovation should be oriented towards these things because these aren’t just organizational things – they are theological things. These desires that people have are centered in what the Kingdom of God is all about – community, shalom, peace making, serving others, transformation, justice, relationships, and most importantly – encountering God.
  • Context. Context matters. Knowing the community you reside in matters. By the way, defining community is important. Is the community you reside in a geographical place? Is it online? Is hybrid? Is it something else? This leads to the next set of questions – what are the needs of the community and what are the values and resources of the community? How is God already at work in this community and what is God calling the church to be and do in this community? Going along with the idea of letting go of the model of the church, this means shifting from the church being set apart from the community to it being a part of the community and integrated into the community. That’s a major shift. It shifts the attitude from this is our church and we invite the community in, to this church belongs to the community and we are glad to partner with our neighbors.

I can imagine there are other things that churches should do – you may have additional ideas. I would love to hear them. I also recognize that this is a pretty radical outlook. But again, I have to point out – the tried and true of what the church is doing is not working and is not sustainable and has not been working or been sustainable for decades. It’s really only a matter of time until it ends with mostly unpleasant options. The churches that will thrive going forward are the churches that are willing to accept that the world has changed, mourn their losses, let go of the model of church they are using, innovate, and understand their context.

In other words, the churches that will thrive going forward are the ones that will live into what they proclaim – life, death, and resurrection. If the church isn’t willing to live into that, then it isn’t being honest or authentic. Why would anyone want to listen to a church and it’s message that isn’t willing to live by what it claims to believe? You want people to be a part of your church? Then that’s the what it comes down to – proclaim it and live it. Congruency and Innovation.

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