Episode 35: “Doing Innovative Ministry” featuring Kenda Creasy Dean

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 35: "Doing Innovative Ministry" featuring Kenda Creasy Dean

How can leaders think outside of the box? In this episode we discuss innovation, entrepreneurial ministry, and leadership with Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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How can leaders think outside of the box? In this episode we discuss innovation, entrepreneurial ministry, and leadership with Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s also the author of several books – “Almost Christian,” being one of my favorites. Our focus for this podcast is innovation. Kenda, I’m really glad you could join us today.

Kenda Creasy Dean: Thanks.

Doug: And I want to begin, you co-founded an organization called Ministry Incubators. And in part, you help ministry entrepreneurs to thrive. Can you define the meaning of entrepreneur within a church context?

Kenda: Sure, yeah! Thank you for having this conversation. The way – we call it Ministry Incubators — because, basically, we think, it’s a hope that it will be an unnecessary conversation soon because every church will become a Ministry Incubator, which I think is what we’re called to be. But when we talk about entrepreneurship, it’s a term that’s a little bit troubling because people associate it with business. But the origin of the word comes from a French root which means “an undertaking in between.” So what entrepreneurs do, is they create undertakings that happen in the gaps. You know, they’re trying to fill the gaps between what’s already there. So, anybody who’s got an entrepreneurial spirit, which I really think Christian community leaders should be “Exhibit A” of that, is looking for “What are the gaps?” “Where are the seams coming apart?” “What needs to be created to bring this community together?” And that is an entrepreneur’s way of thinking. So, I do think that entrepreneurship is a fundamental skill for all ministry. For some people that comes more naturally. Some people feel like that’s riskier. But the truth is that almost anybody who goes into ministry, de facto has some of that DNA in them because they’re looking for how to address the pain points. And there’s a gap that needs to be filled. And that’s what an entrepreneur does.

Doug: I really appreciate the way that you talk about the gap and the ability to fill the gap. And you mention that you think that people who go into ministry have some of this in their DNA. But, as you know, there seem to be some who have more of it in their DNA than others. So, can you say a little bit about what you think brings that – I don’t know what word you want to use – Why they have more in their DNA? Or how they flourish in a more entrepreneurial way than others do?

Kenda: Yeah, well I have to say that churches are not – have not become, now this is not true to who we are historically. But as we have become more and more calcified as institutions, we have not been very hospitable to innovators or entrepreneurs. And so, people with that mindset, the place where you find most of them is in youth ministry or young adult ministry. Because they’re already working with people who are apart from what’s already established. You know, these are people who are not, necessarily buying in to what’s already been created. And therefore, it calls upon somebody to experiment and explore and to co-create with people ways of becoming a Christian community, ways of encountering God, ways to appreciate God’s encounter of us, in ways that don’t necessarily look like — I hesitate to use this word but for the sake of the conversation — “traditional church.” To be clear, the most traditional church is a very innovative church because that is who we have been from the get-go. I mean, everything about Jesus’ ministry was an innovation, the way we treated the poor was an innovative way of approaching the poor compared to Greco-Roman Culture. I mean God’s innovation of resurrection from death. I mean that would be the signature one, right? And so, it’s fundamental to our DNA as people who follow Christ to take a look at what’s out there and see what the gaps are, right? And to innovate, which means to make new, what isn’t working or what needs to be there that isn’t already there. And, people who work with young people have been doing that instinctively from the get-go. So, frankly, the missional entrepreneur movement, or the redemptive entrepreneur, or the Christian social innovation – nobody really knows what to call all of this – but, if you look at who’s in that conversation, there is almost a direct line between people who have done some kind of ministry with young people and people who are in this conversation. And, for myself, I’ve sort of chased young people into it. I got into it because it’s what young people are talking about. And I work with young people and I teach about youth ministry. And I, you know, work with young adults in churches, and so on. And so, I needed to go where they were, which is this conversation.

Doug: So, what you’ve said raises a lot of questions. Let me begin with, do you think that, as we get older, then we start losing, sort of, a bit of our entrepreneurial spirit? So that, when we’re younger, we’re sort of, willing to, as you say, fill in the gaps, or co-create to make things happen. But as you get older you get more settled and you become more unwilling to do so?

Kenda: That’s a really great question. And I’m glad you ask it because I think we have a misunderstanding of this. It’s really easy to think that that happens. But I don’t think that the data bear it out. What we know is that, even though, if you ask anybody in the Millennial generation, nobody wants to be called a Millennial, but they all want to be entrepreneurs. So, it’s very much part of the zeitgeist of the Millennial group and it’s even more pronounced in Generation Z, coming behind them. Part of the reason for that is that there’s more training available for Generation Z than there was for the Millennials.

But the data tell us that the people who are actually doing the new things are 40-year olds. That’s the sweet spot for starting something new. And what younger people are doing is they are working with the 40-year-olds so that, by the time – if we give it 10 years – we will have an extraordinarily well equipped cohort of people who have learned these kind of entrepreneurial skills and are ready to apply them for themselves. And that is true across sectors.

So, I don’t know. What I think happens as we get older is, not that we lose our entrepreneurial spirit, but we have accumulated some goods in the world. And for the first time, we’re afraid to lose them. It’s easier to take risks when you don’t have very much to lose. And as we become older, we have families that we care for and we have bank accounts and we have become accustomed to the way the church does business and have established some kind of tolerance for it that simply was not developed when we were younger. And those things are, often, impediments to taking risks to the degree that we might when we’re younger. That being said, it is also a misnomer that people should quit everything else to do their entrepreneurial leap, right? The first thing we tell people when we’re doing stuff with Ministry Incubators is “don’t quit your day job” because, there aren’t very many stories of people who succeed by doing that because most people don’t succeed when they do that. The number of – it’s a fascinating statistic, I don’t have the numbers right off the top of my head, it goes something like this – that 90%-ish of first-time ventures, entrepreneurial ventures fail. Eighty percent — I think it’s closer to 70% of second-time entrepreneurial ventures succeed. But 90% of first-time ventures never try again. So, part of it is dumb persistence. We’re called to be in ministry to the communities that we’ve been placed in and, you know, just because it doesn’t work the first time doesn’t mean we get to quit.

Doug: Well, I’m going to pick up on that point and come back to something that you mentioned with the 40-year olds. What you’re saying is actually interesting because one of the challenges with established churches is you always hear the words “we’ve already tried that before.” And, of course, then they’re unwilling to do anything again that’s similar. And, basically, what we should be doing is saying “no, we do need to continue trying. We need to analyze, maybe make it different, but we can’t just simply give up.”

Kenda: Absolutely! And, I mean, one of the reasons we get stuck is because churches are less intergenerational than they used to be and we don’t often have young people, you know, nipping at our heels, going “come on, try again!” or “try it this way.” Or “hey, I’ve got an idea.” or “Hey, what if…” And all of those things are easier when you don’t have a track record of failure behind you. And, you know, we need each other. We don’t get to be a one- generational church. That’s not what we’re called to be about. Yeah. They go together.

Doug: And going back to when you were talking about the 40-year-olds are the ones who are sort of the sweet spot. Do you think something happened, of course they would have come up through youth ministry, but in terms of training, or something else that made them have a greater entrepreneurial spirit at this point in time?

Kenda: Well, I think it might. First of all, I don’t know what the data are on this, but my hunch is that it’s a very practical economic reality. You have enough that you – you have enough in the bank that you can actually, you know, use some of it to support something that you want to do. Or that will sustain you long enough to try something. One of the reasons why the 20 somethings are not starting more start-ups themselves is, frankly, they’re in so much student debt that they can’t afford it. Or they come from communities that are beleaguered to begin with and it’s just hard to find resources. People in underrepresented communities have the hardest times getting education support, loans, donations. You know, that’s a demographic reality. Forty-year-olds also, don’t have their life stage as such that they’re not committed to, you know, big, long-term investments of their time, and their money. Their kids probably aren’t in college yet, or maybe they’re just starting a family, or their kids are young. They’re still mobile, for example. So, if you have a church that’s going to try something new that’s a risk, you’ve got kind of a runway that you’ve got time to pursue. And, if it doesn’t go the way you want it to exactly, you’ve got time to correct. I think, generally speaking, when we are the most risk averse when we feel like our resources are the most limited. And those resources are: time, money, energy, that kind of stuff. It’s not just what you have in the bank.

Doug: That makes sense. I’m going to alter a little bit with the question I want to ask. So, we have individuals who, sort of can have an entrepreneurial spirit, but what if you have an individual who is entrepreneurial, but the congregation that they’re in, if they’re in an established congregation, is not. Is there a way to help the congregation adopt a more entrepreneurial spirit?

Kenda: Yeah. And every person who has ever done youth ministry in their whole life knows what this is like, right? Well, part of it, I think, is to resist the temptation to create an “us and them” relationship with congregations. The truth is that congregations contain – one of the things I hope will happen is that there will be more congregations that get involved in this as congregations. That they see themselves as innovators as congregations, not just as individuals in congregations. We’re working with a church right now and they’re trying to – they’re actually redesigning their entire youth ministry to, around what they call the change-maker initiative. They have positioned themselves as a congregation that helps make change in their community. And, so, they – the congregation does actually serve as a ministry incubator. And now they’re going to get kids involved in that as well. So, anyway, I think that there’s just, kind of a – a reluctance on the part of people who are, you know, who have gotten used to their congregations the way they are, and it’s natural that they are reluctant to things that seem to threaten that.

But the reality is, the people who you need to make these kinds of innovations work, are sitting in the pews already. And here’s the beauty of it: Most of them think that the thing they do every day of their lives, as their job, is not what they give to God. They think that what they give to God is their time in a committee meeting. Let me tell you a story about a guy in our congregation. Our congregation, I go to a little, tiny congregation. We might have 50 people on a good Sunday. We are in a county where there are 52,000 college students. That’s our mission field. But how do we get to them? We’re 2 miles outside of town, this tiny congregation that’s broke all the time, but we don’t think we get a pass on trying to serve our community just because we don’t have the resources. So, what they did is they started a food truck. We were the first food truck in Princeton. It was literally a vehicle for us to get closer to students. That’s how it started. Now it’s closer to anybody. But it started as a student ministry. And so, there are a million things that happened that are good as a result of that. Not the least of which, it forced us to be in conversation with people who we never would have met otherwise. Farmers, suppliers, people in charge of zoning, all of these folks. But, what happened was, we didn’t know what we were doing. So, our pastor, who was very much behind it. She was a part-time, local pastor. A licensed local pastor. So, there was this guy who was 80 years old in the congregation who worked at True Value Hardware. And, we kind of knew that he had this tech background somewhere. What we didn’t find out until later was that he helped invent the ink-jet printer. And he was, in his spare time since he retired, he was online offering to help people who were starting their own ventures. He was doing entrepreneurial coaching online, for free, for fun! Well guess what? All of a sudden, we had a venture that we needed help on. And, for the first time in 80 years, Al began to understand that who God had made him to be, as the Silicon Valley tech guy, was a way he could serve God. He was on every church committee we had. But for the first time, when he started advising Jess about the food truck, he got to do what he loved for the sake of the kingdom of God. And that was transformative. That story is told 100 times in congregations. People just don’t know that what they are doing in their day job can be used for the sake of transforming communities. And, that they serve God with those gifts. There’s a reason they have those jobs and a reason they have those gifts. And it’s not just for paying the bills.

Doug: I think that story is really helpful. And it points out how important it is to always be in conversation, so we know the gifts of our parishioners. So, as we continue to do things, we can match that passion with the gifts that our parishioners do have.

Kenda: I think that one of the most helpful things that people can do, if you’ve got an idea that you’re still in the idea stage with, you’re still sorting it out a little bit, but one really great exercise is to do a vocational audit in your congregation. That’s not just a spiritual gifts inventory, that’s like “What do these people do for a living?” and “What do these people do in their spare time?” and “What does that suggest about what they have to offer that they love to do and that we need?” But we, don’t often know what people do for a living.

Doug: I like that. I like the idea of a vocational audit. That’s really good. Let me shift a little bit again and, design thinking has started to become more of a thing in the church world. Can you define what design thinking is and why it is relevant for ministry?

Kenda: Well, the first time I heard about design thinking I thought – that’s just mission work?! That’s what it feels like to me.

Doug: Kenda, you’re not supposed to make it that easy now!

Kenda: I know, right? Like mission work is ever easy. But design thinking basically says “We start with empathy. We start with putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person so that we can understand how to design whatever it is that we’re creating. Whether it is a building, or a process, or an educational system, the idea is, first you listen”. Okay, that’s not rocket science. Why did we need designers to tell us that? Isn’t that what everybody in ministry is supposed to be doing? Because if we don’t, we’re going to scratch all sorts of itches that don’t exist. Which, of course, happens all of the time because we don’t listen very well. So what designers, of all people, have called us back to is this fundamental need to, human centered design, we would call it human centered, just being human centered, I think. And, to get inside the world of the person you’re trying to serve, or the person you hope will benefit. And it’s the most incarnational move you could possibly make. You know, Jesus literally got inside our skin. And our job is to figure out ways to do that with folks that we are in ministry with. Because otherwise we’ll be in ministry to them and that’s never, that never ends well.

So there’s a guy named Paul Pollack who’s a real big-wig in the whole social entrepreneur movement. I think he’s in his 80’s now. He’s married to a Mennonite minister. He has, what he calls, the “don’t bother” principle. And so, he tells his students, who were at Stanford and some other places, “listen, if you are going to create something that’s going to help better the lives of folks in a developing part of the world,” He’s done most of his work in international development. “the first thing you have to do is listen to 1,000 people that you’re going to serve. And if you haven’t listened to that many people, don’t bother.” And when he says listen, he means go to their villages, go to their living rooms, sit down with them, and listen to them. And so, it’s on the basis of that that he’s able to figure out. He’s best known for inventing the treadle pump, which is basically, instead of when you get water having to haul it up from a well or from a river, it looks like a Stair Master. You use, you step on it, and it uses your quads, which are a lot stronger, so you get a lot more water a lot faster. And he was able to figure out that that was a need because they spent so much time, women in particular, spent so much time just getting water to where they needed it. And, by the hours that were saved in creating this Stair Master thing out of a bunch of PVC pipe, these women were able to get an education. They could produce more crops so they could have more income that would allow their children to get educated. It has been pinpointed as a massive economic boost to the developing world. And it came from sitting around in people’s living rooms and listening to them. One of the things he realized is that the people who needed to learn how to use this treadle pump, they didn’t, they were going to look at this and think it’s strange. So, they had to educate people on how to do it. But they didn’t read and write, so an instruction manual wasn’t going to help them. He realized that these people have festivals. These villages in India would have these festivals. So, what he did was he hired a bunch of local troubadours, who wrote songs, to sing at these festivals about how you use a treadle pump. You wouldn’t think about that sitting in your office in Princeton, or in Washington, DC. You think about that because you’re in somebody’s living room and they’re telling you about their lives. That is the fundamental gift every pastor brings to every parishioner – to help them tell their stories in a way that brings them life

Doug: And I think, and I appreciate, because it’s a powerful story, and I think that you hit the nail on the head. How do we help pastors, though, who feel pressure, no matter what denomination you may be a part of, to meet several metrics, to do all these different things, to actually take the time to go and sit in living rooms and just listen? Because it seems to me that everything they hear pushes them away from doing the very thing that would probably give more life to what they’re trying to do.

Kenda: Such a great question. That’s real, yeah. Well, first of all, we have to broaden our idea of who we’re supposed to listen to. So, if you have a priest who’s playing basketball with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood. And those kids are probably – those kids are unlikely to be who that priest sees on Sunday morning. It doesn’t mean that he’s not going to visit somebody who’s coming to church on Sunday morning, but there are other people who we are called to listen to. And, the other thing that I think works against us doing that, well there are two things. One of them is that we’re busy. And we’re scared that we gotta do it all. So, I’ll just point you back to the fact that your congregation is filled with people with lots of gifts that are completely underutilized. So, when we talk about entrepreneurial ministry, it’s not that every pastor needs an MBA. It’s that every pastor needs the relational skills to understand those people in the congregation who have been working in businesses their whole life. And to help them name those gifts and gifts the church needs. The other thing that I think is a barrier, and this is true with my students who are mostly 20 somethings. This blows my mind. But, it is really hard for my students to have a face-to-face conversation with people they don’t know. So what I take for granted as contact work, again, youth ministers are pretty good at this because that’s the way you build relationships with kids. And this is a real story. We were figuring out. So, our food truck, that I mentioned at my church, has expanded to include a little, a pop-up cafe. And when that was being developed, the first idea was “Well, we want to talk to young adults in our community that aren’t college students. We want them to have a place to come.” and so on. And I was like “Do you know any?” I’m working with a bunch of young adults who are doing this and they’re like “Well… no, not yet.” I’m like “have you talked to anybody?” “Well no…” “Well do you know where people gather?” Well, they didn’t know that either. And so, I said “the assignment is, in the next month, talk to the Fire Chief.” Because there’s a fire station right around the corner from us. “Talk to the local librarian. Talk to somebody at the post office, who just interacts with people in town and find out who’s actually in this town.” They’re a bunch of seminarians and not one of them did it. And I’m like “What happened? Why not?” And really, their comfort zone for relationships is technology. Face-to-face conversations, turns out, that’s kind of a learned skill. So, I had to rewind my assumptions a little bit. My assumption was that every pastor knows how to do contact work. But that may be a generational skill that we are losing with our leaders. And we need to literally reclaim that as part of our curriculum, not just formal curriculum, but as we are training people to be in leadership, we have to train them to talk to humans.

Doug: Yeah, that’s powerful and probably very helpful and something that all seminaries need to think about because we do all make the assumption that you come to this line of work because you want to talk to people. But you’re right. It’s probably a bad assumption. Question: I want you to put on your thinking-in-the-future hat. Will there be a new model of church in the future? And if so, what do you think it’s going to look like?

Kenda: That’s such a good question. You know people, that’s a question we all ask ourselves every single day. Well, I’m going to say, I don’t think so. I think it will be an old model, I think it will be a different model. But I’m not sure it’s going to be a new model. I think it’s going to be a lot closer to what was out there in the First, Second, Third Century, maybe. I’m not sure we’ll ever be without the traditional, certainly not in my lifetime, maybe not for the next century. There’s always going to be some megachurches out there. But I actually think that the way we originally establish Christian communities wasn’t that we parachuted in with a church plant. What happened was there were a bunch of Christians in a neighborhood who said “You know what needs to be here? We need a hospital! Let’s build a hospital.” Then once you got the hospital going, you had a bunch of Christians that were involved in that who were like “You know what we need? We need a place those people can worship. Because they need to have some fuel while they go out and do this work.” And then, after a while, they were like “You know what these worshiping people need? They probably need someone to lead them.” So we backed our way into congregational formation. But it started with mission. And, so. I’m really fascinated by the way the British Anglicans who are part of the British Fresh Expressions movement do things. And, instead of sending somebody in to be a pastor in a church, what they do is, they assume that you’re going to, when you are sent into a new community, the first thing you’re going to do is listen for a year maybe, before you even know, and what you’re listening for is both what people need, and for where God is already on the case. Where is God already moving in that community? And then you discern. If we’re going to participate in what God is already up to here, what would help that happen? Sometimes it’s a traditional congregation. Sometimes it’s a daycare center. Sometimes it’s something else. But it comes out of this need for listening and having the theological eyes to discern, through that listening, where God is already on the move. I think churches will respond more to that if we give them half a chance to do that. It’s going to require a completely new economic model to do it that way. But I think we’re going to be forced into doing it that way anyway. I think the conversation about entrepreneurship and innovation is the conversation we must be having. But it’s not because – truthfully — I don’t care a hoot about innovation. What we’re talking about is love. And when you love someone, you are endlessly innovative because you can’t stand to see them suffer. It’s a natural consequence of it. So, that causes me to think that we’re not looking for some whack-a-doo variation on a church institution that we just haven’t thought of yet. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to love people.

Doug: I agree 100%. I want to thank you. This has been wonderful. It’s always a joy to get to talk to you.

Kenda: Back at you. This was so fun!

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, learn how a congregation can make an impact — no matter its size — as we speak with Joe Daniels, the pastor of Emory Fellowship in Washington DC,  and co-author of the new book, Connecting For A Change: How to Engage People, Churches, and Partners to Inspire Hope in Your Community.

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About Author

Kenda Creasy Dean is the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, working closely with Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry and the Farminary. She is an ordained United Methodist pastor in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conferences and the author of numerous books on youth, church and culture.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.