Episode 71: “Recalibrating the Church” featuring Scott Cormode

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 71: “Recalibrating the Church” featuring Scott Cormode

Why is change so difficult for churches? In this episode we speak with Scott Cormode about how church leaders can break free of common myths that cloud our thinking about change and how to embrace processes that sow the seeds of meaningful innovation.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Spotify

Image credits: Marc Manhart and Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay | Smashicons and DinosoftLabs from Flaticon


Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by Discovering God’s Future for Your Church. This turn-key video tool kit helps your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for your church’s next faithful steps. Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is available at churchleadership.com/shop.

Why is change so difficult for churches? In this episode we speak with Scott Cormode about how church leaders can break free of common myths that cloud our thinking about change and how to embrace processes that sow the seeds of meaningful innovation.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Scott Cormode, Hugh De Pree professor of leadership development at Fuller Theological Seminary, and the author of The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever Changing World. Our focus for this podcast is recalibrating the church. Scott, I’m so happy that you’re with us and talking about your new book, which is well done. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Scott Cormode: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here with you. I’ve always had a lot of connection with the Lewis Center, especially back when Lovett Weems was the director. And so, I’m pleased to be able to work with you.

Doug Powe: Thank you. Let us get right into this excellent book that I highly recommend to our audience. And I want to ask, can you briefly share with listeners the premise of your book, The Innovative Church?

Scott Cormode: So, the book starts out with one idea. It’s this. That the church, as we know it, is calibrated for a world that no longer exists. We have designed church so that we want to accomplish things to solve problems for a world that is no longer the way that we think it is. Now, this book was written before the COVID world, but it’s very easy for us to see that the church is designed for a world that no longer exists. And so, we’re going to have to respond with innovation. But there’s a catch.

There’s just this enormous amount of literature on innovation. We know an awful lot about innovation. But one of the basic, basic understandings, the premise of the idea of innovation is that we need to abandon the past. They call it “burning the boats.” The problem with that, of course, is that we will never abandon the past. We will never stop reading 2 Corinthians. We’re never going to stop saying “Jesus is Lord.” We’re never going to stop loving our neighbor as ourselves. So that creates for us, we who are Christians, a really interesting problem. And that is, how do we innovate our way forward without abandoning the past? And the book then is designed around this question, how do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian gospel while at the same time create an innovative or entrepreneurial spirit for how to present that gospel to an ever-changing culture? In other words, an unchanging gospel for an ever-changing culture. And so that’s the question that we take up.

Doug Powe: Scott, thank you for outlining that. And I was intrigued by your question and I think that you’re right on target. I’m curious, do you believe that anyone else besides the church has faced this challenge where you really can’t give up the past completely, but at the same time you have to innovate? Or is this challenge really unique to the church?

Scott Cormode: Well, I think this is actually at the heart of many of the political debates that we have right now. American democracy is built on the idea that we have a constitution that was written in 1787. Yet at the same time, it is alive and well today. And how do we then figure out how to reinvent our future without abandoning our past? And many, many, many of the debates that we encounter on either side of the aisle are about trying to figure out, how do we maintain solidarity with the past while innovating our way forward? And so, we are not the only one, but anyone who has created any organization, any part of society that has created something that is supposed to be the fulfillment of something that lasts, anything that really lasts beyond many, many generations faces this problem.

Doug Powe: Thank you. That was a good insight. And I agree with you, the political arena, which of course is very hot now, is an excellent analogy. I want to continue into the book. You make a comment — for our readers, of course, who haven’t read it yet, they’ll come across this — where you say “wait and copy strategy” will no longer work. Can you share with the readers what you mean by of the “wait and copy strategy?” And why do you believe it will not work?

Scott Cormode: Sure. For generations, hundreds of years, really, you could argue for thousands of years, the strategy of the church has been that when something massive happens in society and things change, most churches don’t really change. They just wait. And then some pioneers figure out how to respond to that change. And then over the course of many years, everybody else adopts that change and it becomes the standard way to move forward. And that works great if you are looking at how to respond to some massive change like the Industrial Revolution, something that happens that radically changes society once a century.

The scholars that have been studying this will tell you that what once happened once a century eventually started happening once a generation and then more often. And now they would argue that we were experiencing some kind of generational change every seven to eight years. I could point to half a dozen different examples. Probably the best book on this is the columnist Thomas Friedman from The New York Times wrote a wonderful book called Thank You for Being Late, where he documents in the second chapter how society has changed so quickly that we no longer have time to wait.

If we take the time to wait to copy other people, by the time that we have copied the people that figured it out, a new change has been upon us. It’s almost like, have you ever seen waves coming in on shore? They come in kind of a rhythm. But the image that I have now is no longer waves on a shore, but it’s like shooting the rapids of a river that has gone wild. The waves are coming in all sorts of different directions. Social change is happening so quickly that we live in what one scholar has come to call “a world of permanent white water.” And so the “wait and copy” strategy will no longer work. And so what churches need to adopt is a skill set that allows them to be agile. So, the ability to be agile or agility is the number one predictor of whether or not you can thrive into the future, because the “wait and copy” strategy can no longer work.

Doug Powe: And as you talk about leadership, and of course a lot of this has to do with leaders who are the ones who have bought into the “wait and copy” strategy is not solely on the leader. You comment that the work of Christian leadership is planting and watering. And I think you’re right on target for several reasons. And of course, this is an image that comes directly out of the Bible. But I’m curious because I’m sure you’ve heard many individuals say, as I have heard them say, that “I spent a life of planting and watering, but nothing’s happened.” How would you respond to those individuals, given that you see this as a key image for Christian leadership?

Scott Cormode: You’re asking a great question. So, let me explain what I mean by planting and watering. And then I’ll explain to you how I would respond to the person that spends a lifetime on that. In 1 Corinthians 3:6 it talks about “Paul planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase.” And what’s important about that is the work that God does, not the work that Paul and Apollos do. Paul and Apollos do important work, but it’s not the crucial thing. The crucial thing is God gave the increase. And I argue that the book that I’m writing is a book about planting and watering.

And my image of planting and watering is shaped by the fact that my grandfather was what the Bible would call a steward. He was the one who managed a 140-acre citrus ranch for an absentee landlord. So a steward. And he spent all of his days trying to create an environment where his trees would grow, but he could not make them grow. He could make sure they got enough water. He could manage the soil. He could manage trying to make sure the temperature did not go too low. That’s one of the things in Southern California they work a lot on with what they call smudge pots or wind machines, trying to make sure the things don’t get frozen. All of that stuff he could do. But he couldn’t make anything grow. Only God can give the increase.

And that is exactly the situation that we find ourselves in. We know if we don’t plant and water, nothing will grow. But we have no guarantees. I had a student once who was the president of a ball bearing factory. He had guarantees. He knew he had a machine, that if he put the right raw materials into the machine at the very end, he would get ball bearings that would look exactly like he wanted them to. And if they didn’t, he would stop the machine. He would fix the machine until he could get a guaranteed outcome.

We in the church do not have a mechanism that can get a guaranteed outcome. We are like my grandfather. We plant. We water. And then we turn our people over to God. So now to your question, what about the people that spend a lifetime and say they don’t have anything to show for it? All God asks for us to be is faithful. God does not ask us to produce something so much.

There were times when my grandfather would do all the right things. But citrus trees are very vulnerable. The fruit that we have starts out as little tiny blossoms, little tiny flowers. And if the winds happen to come, just as the flowers are on the trees, they will blow the blossoms off and then nothing would come. The blossoms couldn’t turn into fruit. And so there would be almost no harvest that year. My grandfather could do everything right and then not have much of a harvest because the winds came at the wrong time. In the same way, all God can ask us to do is to plant, to water, to be faithful, and then God gives the increase. Sometimes that increase is far more than we expected or deserve, and sometimes it’s not.

Any of us who’s ever preached knows that there’s times when I preached a sermon and I thought “this is just not my best and I’m kind of a little embarrassed by it.” And yet somehow, through all of that, God creates wonderful growth. And there have been times I’ve preached a sermon where I just thought I knocked it out of the park and nothing seemed to happen from. I plant. I water. And God gives the increase.

Doug Powe: Thank you. That was very helpful. And I love the analogy. And of course, you also use it in the book. And I think it’s a helpful analogy. But I think it’s still going to be tremendously hard, as you know, for many pastors to live in to what you are suggesting just because there’s so much pressure from denominations. And even if you’re not in the denomination, there’s still a lot of pressure. So, it’s really working on, as you say, remembering what God has called us to versus what our particular denomination has called us to do.

Scott Cormode: One of the things that I think about is my grandfather. My grandfather lived in a time — he farmed in the 40s and 50s — and it was a time of tremendous technological change in the farming community. And he had an obligation, that although he wasn’t an educated man, he spent an enormous amount of time learning about the various technologies, what made possible different changes. And in the same way, we who lead God’s people bear an obligation to continue learning, to continue planting and watering in the ways that make the most sense.

And there are those sometimes you hear me say that “You plant and water and then you hand it over to God” and it almost sounds passive. Now, planting and watering is a tremendously active and proactive kind of work. We bear an enormous responsibility. But we have to do it in the same way that we pray. We pray, and then we hand our people over to God. And only God can take the action that matters most. And that’s the world that we live in.

Doug Powe: I appreciate, and I think the listeners will appreciate it too, particularly being reminded that they have a particular role, but it still is dependent upon God. I want to pick up a little bit off of a point you make related to Heifetz, who you talk about and the claim they make about people resisting loss. It’s not that people are opposed to change, but they resist loss. And I think we all share that Heifetz’s on to something when he talks about this. You play with that as you work out this idea of yours, of mental models, and how within congregations that the challenge is helping people to really create a different mental model. Can you share with our listeners what you mean by mental models and then how once you understand that, that you can actually help people to move towards change?

Scott Cormode: Sure. A mental model is the image that we have in our head of how things should be. So, if I ask you what is your mental model of a car, you’re going to probably talk about something that has a steering wheel or four wheels or a windshield. And if I show you something that has no steering wheel and no windshield and no four wheels, you’d say, “I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s not a car.” It doesn’t fit your mental model. That’s an easy example.

What about your mental model as the preacher? I talk to my students about what their mental model of a preacher is. And for some of them, it is a man. It’s standing on a raised platform with a Hawaiian shirt on and a big black Bible in his left hand, pointing to verse by verse as he talks about the Scripture. And that’s certainly a way that some people have preached. But that’s their image of how preaching should be. And then when they see some other kind of preaching, they go “I don’t know what that thing is, but it looks as strange as a car that doesn’t have four wheels.” We have these kinds of mental models.

Well, I do a lot of work with the Fuller Youth Institute, and one of the things that we talk about is how people have mental models of how youth ministry should be. So, just like my grandfather in the 40s and 50s and 60s learned that things change over time, our image of how youth ministry should be has changed over time. I was working with a congregation not that long ago where their youth ministry went back to their congregation and said, “We’re going to be doing youth ministry a little bit different. We’ve learned some things.”

And the pastor was offended. He said, “Wait a second. Twenty years ago, I was a youth minister. And this is what worked for me. And we don’t need to do anything any different than what worked for me in the 1970s or 1980s” … or whenever it was. And the world has changed. But he was calibrated for a world that no longer existed. And so, his mental model of what could work and what should work, well, it was off because he was measuring it against young people who probably didn’t have smartphones in their pockets and their lives dominated by social media, just to give an example of what it wasn’t like 20, 30 years ago. So, you ask a question about “People don’t resist change. They resist loss.” It’s a statement about why change is hard. Now, there’s some changes that are really easy. If I came to you and I said, “Douglas, I’m here from the Internal Revenue Service. I’m here to apologize. We’ve made a terrible mistake. We owe you $10,000. Here’s a check.”

Doug Powe: I’m still waiting for that day, I want you to know!

Scott Cormode: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you would not resist that change.

Doug Powe: I would not.

Scott Cormode: But if at the same time I’m show up, I say, “I’m from the Internal Revenue Service. We’ve made a terrible mistake. You owe $10,000.” You would resist that change. People are not resistant to change. They are resistant to the kinds of change that cause them to experience loss. So, when we encounter mental models, new mental models, what are the ways that we can help people change by inviting them into new mental models, but oftentimes people will resist that because it forces them to acknowledge the ways the world has changed in ways that they don’t necessarily want to face. And so, they often live in denial until we get to the point where we help them see that it’s that their mental model of the world just doesn’t keep up with the world that is changing. The world has changed. And they have an old view of the world. And that becomes very difficult for a lot of congregations.

Doug Powe: Thank you, that’s helpful. And I really appreciated the image of the mental model. I think it will be a help to pastors to think of it in that way. And you provide some ideas for how to help people to play with mental models that cannot guarantee change, but at least hopefully help them to move in the right direction. I want to shift a little bit. You talk a lot about innovation, as you said earlier, but in relationship to this, you talk about the myth of the redwood tree and you talk about in a relationship to misconceptions about innovation. Can you draw that analogy out for our listeners and why it’s important as it relates to the church?

Scott Cormode: Sure. So that same grandparent, when they retired from the ranch, they bought the only house they ever owned. It was a tiny 1,000 square-foot house with a dozen citrus trees off to the side. It was really much more of an orchard with a little house attached to it. But what was strange about it is, they had the world’s tiniest backyard, but in that backyard was a giant redwood tree. Now, how did that redwood tree get to be in the middle of a valley where there’s no redwood trees for hundreds of miles. What happened? Well, there’s a story, obviously.

They bought the house from a guy named Lester. And in the 1920s, when Lester went up to the redwoods and he saw a little sapling there. And so he dug it up, and put it in a little can, and took it home and planted it in his in his yard. And he nurtured it a little bit. And it barely made it. And for many, many years it was this scrawny little thing. But then eventually it hit the water table. And when it hit the water table, it shot up and is now the tallest tree in the valley, in the backyard of this little suburban home.

Well, the image that most people have of innovation is the image of that redwood tree. And I’m going to tell you the image is wrong. But what they think of is, is that innovation happens when one singular person sees something that other people don’t see. And they plant this little seed. And they have to nurture it because it’s so difficult. And it goes through so many hard times. But then eventually it takes off and comes to dominate the landscape. And the myths of that — there are three different myths in this idea — the myth of the single idea, the myth of the person working on their own, and the myth of the idea that innovation is isolated and singular.

Innovation happens in community. All the we think of the stereotype of somebody like Thomas Edison who had all these ideas. Well, Thomas Edison, actually, his biggest idea was he employed a bunch of people who were all working on different kinds of ideas. And he had a plan where they would have one idea a week. And of those ideas, one of them a month would be really good and one of them a year would be transformative. And he employed just a ton of people doing that kind of thing. We think of him as the isolated genius. But his genius was for organizing others to do that kind of innovative work. So that’s the first myth.

But the other is the idea, the myth that innovation comes from one single idea. It turns out that the best innovations come from people who have lots of ideas, matter of fact, Edison’s famous for saying, “If you want to have a good idea, have lots of them.” So, let me give you an example. There was a study done once about a ceramics class. This is a community college. They had 50 students in the class. And they turned to 25 on the left and they said “You’re going to be judged at the end of the semester by the quality of your work on whatever pot or other kind of ceramic you create.” And they turn to the right side of the class and they say, “You will be judged not by the quality but by the amount of clay that you use, the quantity.”

And so, the question is, at the end of the semester, who had the best quality? Because you would think that the people who worked on quality would. But it wasn’t. The people who worked on quality would spend each week that they came to class meticulously, kind of modifying or working on their one thing. The people who did quantity every week would try something new. How does experience play out? Well, experience turns out to be measured in cycles of attempts. So, by the end of the semester, the people that were working on the quantity had created so many different pots, so many different things, that they were much more experienced and much better at ceramics and better and better at making things from clay.

So, something that they made at the last minute was actually of higher quality than the one had been working all semester because they had gone through many cycles of ideas. And what that teaches us is that quantity creates quality. If you want to have one good idea, try a whole bunch of things and then nurture the thing that works.

Doug Powe: Thank you. We don’t have a lot of time left, but I have a couple more questions. I want listeners to get a sense of, as you have set up, what innovation is not. You also then share with listeners some practices that can help them to think about innovation in a different way. And we don’t have time, of course, to go through all of the practices that you suggest. But I’m going to put you on the spot. If you could pick one or two of your favorite practices to share with listeners and how that can help us to think differently about innovation and change, that would be fantastic. So, I’ll let you choose.

Scott Cormode: So, one of them is experiment driven learning. And like we were just talking about, if you want to have a good idea, have a bunch of them. But the key is trying experiments on the margins. We all have to recognize that every time you make an experiment, you’re a rookie, you’re trying something new. And we all know about rookies, that rookies make rookie mistakes. The problem with a lot of churches is they decided to try something new and then sign up to make their rookie mistakes in public. You know, so many churches that I know when they want to try something new, what they do is they have theme music and a logo and they do all this kind of stuff and they say “Come watch us mess up.” Because the first few times you try something, you’re not going to be very good at it.

The best churches, what they do is they try something on the side. And they keep working at it until they get to the point where they’re good at it and then they bring it into prime time. So, the worship service is a terrible place to try something new. Try stuff new that’s on the side all over the place. But the least forgiving place that you could try something is in the worship service. It’s like saying “Come watch us make our rookie mistakes.” Well, what’ll happen is you’ll make your rookie mistakes. People will say, “Well, that didn’t work out well and we’ll never try it again.”

One of my students, he’s somebody who comes from the engineering world, he talks about how we didn’t get to the moon until Apollo 12. If Apollo 1, Apollo 3, Apollo 5 did whatever they were supposed to do, and somebody says, “I didn’t get to the moon, I guess we should stop the Apollo program.” That doesn’t make any sense. Everything we tried, we tried a number of things, until eventually we had the moon shot. You’ve got to build on the side with experiments, learn from those experiments, and then eventually bring it into prime time.

Doug Powe: Thank you. And I will close with this question. And again, this comes back to the fact that pastors often struggle with the issue of metrics. And you point out metrics are important. But the key is we need to make sure that we are using the right metrics. How do we help leaders move away from things like attendance to measuring things like where we’re headed in the future, things that are important in terms of what it means for actual innovation and helping us stay grounded in our tradition?

Scott Cormode: So, let’s go back to the image of planting and watering. My grandfather didn’t just measure how much fruit he produced. He spent most of his days measuring the water and measuring all the things that would be creating an environment for growth. So, what are the things that are the environment for innovation, the environment for growth that we can measure? One of the things that the book talks about is leadership begins with listening, that the purpose of listening is to listen so that I, the listener, will be transformed, transformed by empathy. If I can be transformed by empathy, it will change the way that I relate to people. And we spent a lot of time in the book talking about how to listen, or who to listen to, what to listen for, and how to listen well.

Well, what gets measured gets done. So, if you want to do innovation, one of the things that I teach congregations to do is, measure the amount of listening you do. And so, we work with congregations where we say “OK, you’ve got a small little pastoral staff of three or four people every week. When you come together, ask three questions. Who did you listen to this week? What did you learn? And who will you listen to next week?

And if you do that again and again, you are measuring the kinds of things that will eventually create innovation, just like measuring the amount of water that goes into trees. But just water and trees are not enough. But if you don’t water them well, they’re not going to grow in the same way. If you don’t spend time listening to your people that well. If you listen to them, that’s a great thing. But it can’t guarantee growth. But if you want a guarantee, you won’t grow, don’t listen. So, listening is a way of measuring the ability to plant and water towards innovation.

Doug Powe: Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. This has been fantastic. And I will say again to the readers, this is one of those books that will alter the way you think about and engage in ministry. The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever Changing World. Make sure that you pick it up and read it.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Scott Cormode about recalibrating the church to innovate for a changing world, plus his new book “The Innovative Church.”

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

The Innovative ChurchThe Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever Changing World (Baker Academic, 2020) is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Related Resources


About Author

Scott Cormode is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the Fuller Youth Institute. He founded the Academy of Religious Leadership and the Journal of Religious Leadership. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was previously on the faculty of Claremont School of Theology.

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.