“Leading Faithful Innovation” featuring Dwight Zscheile

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
"Leading Faithful Innovation" featuring Dwight Zscheile

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Podcast Episode 130

What if congregational change didn’t focus on setting goals or planning new programs? Dwight Zscheile believes finding a faithful way forward involves discovering what God is already doing in the lives of your neighbors and then finding ways of joining in God’s action. He shares a simple three-step process for experimenting with new practices that allow you to listen to God and your community.

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

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought you by the book Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation. Authors Douglas Powe and Lovett Weems offer church leaders insights on practical skills for two crucial tasks: First, to sustain and strengthen foundational elements of the churches they serve, and second, to guide the critical innovation required to address a context vastly different from the one that current assumptions and behaviors fit. Learn more and order now at churchleadership.com/books.

What if congregational change didn’t focus on setting goals or planning new programs? Dwight Zscheile believes finding a faithful way forward involves discovering what God is already doing in the lives of your neighbors and then finding ways of joining in God’s action. He shares a simple three-step process for experimenting with new practices that allow you to listen to God and your community.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter and I’m pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I have the joy today of welcoming Dwight Zscheile from Luther Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota where he serves as professor of congregational mission and leadership and also as vice president of innovation. Dwight and two colleagues, Michael Binder and Tessa Pinkstaff, have recently published a new book Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future. And that’s the subject of our conversation today. It’s good to see you, Dwight!

Dwight Zscheile: Great to see you. And it’s good to be on this podcast.

Ann Michel: I want to begin with the key phrase “leading faithful innovation” that’s in the title of your book. I wonder if you could define those two key terms. What does the word innovation mean in your way of thinking? And what does the word faithful mean within the context of the work you’re doing?

Dwight Zscheile: In our case, it’s really important that these words belong together, because the word innovation can be very misleading. We see a lot of uses of that word, even in the church today, that I think are less than helpful. We define innovation by borrowing a definition from the work of some scholars, Peter Denning and Robert Dunham, which is basically that innovation is the adoption of a new practice in a community. And often for Christians, that is actually an ancient practice that has been lost along the way that needs to be rediscovered. And faithful is really important in this sense — in that what we are doing is not simply thinking about invention, of starting something brand new, but the kind of faithful adaptation of the Christian faith and Christian life and church life that the church has always done over the years when it has been incarnationally present in times of changing culture. And we certainly see ourselves facing today massive cultural changes.

I’m trained as a scholar of mission, a missiologist. And one of the ways we think about innovation in the world of mission is just contextualization or incarnation or adaptation of the church in changing circumstances. And so faithful innovation is that. And in our case, it’s really about learning to follow God when the outcomes of the destination aren’t clear ahead of time.

Ann Michel: So, related to that, one idea that really underlies the whole book is that we need to shift our focus from asking church questions to asking God questions. Could explain what you mean by that as well?

Dwight Zscheile: Exactly. The book is in some ways just an extended meditation on a particular passage of scripture. It’s from the book of Acts, chapter 16, verses 6–15. And you may recall this story where Paul and his companions feel called by God to share the gospel. And in this case, they have some ideas about the people with whom they’re called to share the gospel. So, they start out on a journey. And they end up being redirected and prevented by the Holy Spirit from actually connecting with a whole bunch of people in a bunch of regions.

Paul has this vision of a man of Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” So, they make their way to Macedonia. When they get there, they discover that it’s not actually a man that they are being called or led to. It’s actually a woman named Lydia, and they find Lydia outside the gates of the city at a place of prayer by the river. She receives the message in the first church there. She’s actually the first European convert to Christianity. The first church in Philippi is started, which she then leads. And it’s a wonderful story of knowing that you’re being called by God into connection with neighbors but not knowing exactly where or how. The process of faithful innovation is really about learning to follow God. If you read through that text, like the rest of the book of Acts, God is the acting subject of so many verbs, so you read, “And he redirected them ….” or “God prevented them ….”

You know in the U.S. and Western societies we live in a culture that tends to seek the good without God. Through its secularization, it tends to fall back on “What can we do to fix the church.” So, we borrowed that wonderful language from Al Roxburgh of shifting away from asking church questions — things like “How do we get more people to join our church?” or “How can we do church better?” Those aren’t bad questions. But if we ask them without really paying attention to God’s leading, they end up being dead ends. So, asking God questions shifts the conversation. It puts discernment back at the heart of the work because that’s really how we follow God and the agency of God to the destinations to which God is leading us. Again, it’s not so clear ahead of time. So often innovation is understood as leaders developing a plan, a strategic plan, and trying to manage everyone into that, and that’s not at all what we’re talking about in this book.

Ann Michel: I often think of the book of Acts as a case study in Spirit-led adaptive change. This idea that they didn’t know where they were going is, I think, a helpful metaphor for our day.

You describe what I think is in many ways a simple three-step model of change: listen, act, share. Our time is brief, but I wanted to invite you to just very briefly walk us through this model and explain some of the key elements of these three steps. Let’s begin with step one: listening.

Dwight Zscheile: So, in this process, listening is so important. It begins with listening to God and listening to God together in community through scripture. So, we have a series of simple practices that we discuss in the book that are really designed to build our capacity to pay attention to God. For congregations taking this journey, it means beginning with an initial practice called Dwelling in the Word, which is a simple way of listening to scripture and community rooted in ancient traditions of the church. It also then leads to listening to each other’s spiritual stories within the congregation, which is something that doesn’t actually happen in many churches. We find that as we begin to listen more deeply, even just to simply share a prompt, like “Share a story of a time when you felt spiritually alive, energized, or engaged.” You know those kinds of simple prompts open up our capacity to actually name God’s activity in our lives. And simple things like neighborhood walks. We’re paying spiritual attention.

All of that listening capacity then helps us be able to listen to God and listen to our neighbors, the Lydias in our world. The Lydias are those who are spiritually curious but institutionally disconnected from religious institutions. And listening is really basic. If we do not know how to listen, any experiments we might want to do or any change we might want to make won’t get us very far.

Ann Michel: Step two is act, but I think it’s acting in a different way than churches often think about acting because often, when churches think about taking action, they’re thinking about instituting a new program or plan. But when you talk about acting, you’re talking about “action learning experiments.” So, what does that mean? And could you give a little example of what that involves?

Dwight Zscheile: In the book we talk about behaving our way into new ways of thinking and believing. And you do that through simple action experiments, action learning experiments, that we reflect upon. And these experiments are just new behaviors. We recommend them being very small and inexpensive, either no budget or very low budget, and that they have to do with investing presence and relationship in neighborhood spaces to join with what God’s doing in those spaces — or to meet the Lydias, if you will, of our neighborhoods.

And these could be very simple things. For example, one church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, put out a table with some strips of cloth and invited their neighbors to write prayers on the strips of cloth, and then they put them up on a construction fence. And they found that neighbors were really eager actually to share their prayers. They could actually pray with someone from the church if they wanted, but they could also just quietly write their own prayer and hang it up. And as the church did this over time, they ended up collecting literally hundreds of the prayers of their neighbors. They were able not only to pray over them, but also to learn what their neighbors were yearning for and struggling with and then do more experiments out of that. Again, the experiment was simply, “Let’s set up a table during a town festival, bring some strips of cloth and some markers, and be present and invite our neighbors.”

There are lots of stories in the book, very simple experiments like that one that open up deeper connections with neighbors but don’t cost a lot. It’s not about starting a new ministry or launching a program, nor are they staff driven either. They are not clergy driven. These are lay lead, grassroots experiments that are intentionally designed not to be institutionalized or require a lot of institutional maintenance.

Ann Michel: Step three is share. Can you speak to that?

Dwight Zscheile: Share is the reflection part of the action learning experiment. It’s where we gather after the experiment and ask: How did that go? What did we learn? What went well? What could we do differently next time? Was there life-giving energy? Were there connections with our neighbors? Because that might be an invitation from God for the next step.

On the one hand, Share is just simply the community, whoever’s been involved in the experiment, gathering together and reflecting on what they learned. But it also has another dimension, which is the sharing of those stories within the life of the Christian community or the congregation. Typically, this experimentation work is done by small teams of people. If they only stay with the small teams and not with the larger congregation, the change doesn’t go very far, and the congregation doesn’t learn with those experimenters. So, it’s very important that there is a public story sharing and reflection process where the community begins to learn and interpret how God is actually leading them.

Ann Michel: But at the same time, I thought you made a really valuable point in the book where you say that this work will begin with a small group of people. And that’s okay because that’s how change happens.

Dwight Zscheile: Yes, exactly. So, it’s important to start small and on the side. For instance, don’t focus your experimentation on your primary worship service. Leave that as it is. But experiment on the edges where the stakes for failure are much lower. But, in our view, there’s no such thing as failure. As long as you learn from whatever happens, there’s only feedback. Michael Moynagh says “There is no failure. Only feedback.”

Sustaining While Disrupting book cover

Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation

Authors Douglas Powe and Lovett Weems offer church leaders insights on practical skills for two crucial tasks: First, to sustain and strengthen foundational elements of the churches they serve, and second, to guide the critical innovation required to address a context vastly different from the one that current assumptions and behaviors fit. Learn more and order now at churchleadership.com/books.

Ann Michel: So, as I understand it, the approach to innovation you describe grew out of work you and your colleagues have undertaken over many years with hundreds of local congregations. Could you briefly describe that field work? And then maybe give an example of how a congregation has successfully engaged in this type of innovation.

Dwight Zscheile: So, it does go back many years. We had a Lilly grant, a thriving innovation grant, where we were able to work with 50 Lutheran congregations over a four-year period working through this process. My colleague and coauthor Michael Binder worked with Presbyterians in Ohio and did his dissertation research on a version of this kind of process. And I have also worked with Episcopalians. We have worked with lots of different groups over the years and trained a lot of leaders, so there are a lot of stories I could share.

One example would be in Wisconsin, a very rural congregation. When they were asked to do the neighborhood walk, they just kind of looked around, and all that’s around their church is cornfields. But what they realized is they didn’t actually know the farmers who were around their church building. So, they did a simple experiment of taking some bag lunches to these farms, approaching the farmers and asking if they could offer them the lunch, and then just praying and giving thanks for the fact that these farmers were feeding the world. And they had no idea whether the farmers would throw them off the property or what would happen.

Turns out, the farmers were really honored by this. And their next experiment was to go to the grain elevator when the farmers were bringing in the crop at harvest time, and they set up a table. And these were some elderly Lutheran ladies who had never prayed a lot with anyone in their lives, but they found themselves there as the farmers were coming in, praying with them and giving thanks for the harvest. And the farmers said, “Well, you need to come out now and pray over our fields in the spring, when we’re sowing.” And it developed this deeper connection over time. Again, simple, simple practices.

Another example is from what is called in the Lutheran connection Women of the ELCA (WELCA), which is sort of the ladies’ auxiliary guild with mostly more mature ladies. They were having a hard time getting younger women to join. They began with a church question. “How do we get younger women to join our WELCA group?” And they kept being frustrated about that. And then they reframed it as a God question. “What might God be up to in the lives of the younger families, particularly the younger women? And then how might we join in?”

Their experiment was to begin to actually listen to the younger women. They asked them, “What are the times that you find, particularly, spiritually meaningful in your families?” And they learned that it was mealtime and also at bedtime when they were putting their children to sleep. Their experiment was to develop some resources for the families to have simple prayer and spiritual conversations at those times. And then they created prayer bears, which were teddy bears that they had sewn pockets onto, and they made these little prayers that the children could pull out at bedtime and that Mom or Dad could read to them. And it became this way to go from the frustration of “People won’t join our group,” to joining into where God was actually active already in the lives of those families.

Ann Michel: That’s a beautiful story. I really appreciated that story as I read your book. You mentioned a minute ago the idea of these experiments happening on the peripheral edges of the church and being largely lay led. I think your book envisions or perhaps names a changing paradigm of leadership in the church. You talk about the idea of everyday disciples being at the forefront of engaging neighbors in this process of listening, acting, and sharing. I’m wondering what the role of a clergy leader is in this three-step innovation process.

Dwight Zscheile: In the book we talk about a paradigm shift that we think the church should be making away from a performative model of ministry, which we’ve inherited in many ways. It goes along with the voluntary association model of congregation which has been predominant in the last couple hundred years in American society and, with that, a professional model of ministry where theological knowledge gets specialized and professionalized in the hands of the experts, clergy, and other formally trained leaders. And the result is an expectation that clergy “perform” the faith for people. They are the ones to pray, to read the Bible, to do the evangelizing to bring the people into the church.

There’s a kind of social contract, I think, in many congregations where what’s expected of what we call “everyday disciples” or lay people or regular members of the congregation is to support the congregation institutionally through committee service and prayers and giving, rather than actually growing as mature disciples who can live out their faith in daily life. And this process is a way to shift that.

The role of clergy here is to walk alongside, to encourage, to give permission to ask theological questions and to equip people for this work. If you’re a clergy person, we talk about it as almost serving as a group spiritual director who’s wondering with the community, “Well, where do you see God active in these experiments, or how may God be leading us?” but who’s not being the one who has to manage the process or do it all for herself or himself. That is because, in our experience, most clergy we know are pretty depleted right now and already have more than enough to do and they don’t need one more thing on their plates. But they are trained theologically and have that great knowledge of the tradition to be able to ask good God questions and to help the community faithfully answer those in light of scripture and tradition and experience.

Ann Michel: I certainly appreciate your emphasis on lay leadership in this approach. In the book, you talked about how one of the tasks of the leader of this process (I guess it could be a clergy person or a lay person) is to really serve as an interpreter of what the experiences and these different listening exercises mean, creating and sharing a narrative around that meaning, but also being a cheerleader because this can be really hard. Right?

Dwight Zscheile: It can be, so it’s important for leaders to really create a space where it’s possible for folks to take this journey, to try on the practices, not to get it right every time, to be able to make mistakes without being shamed or being in fear. That’s really a spiritual and theological atmosphere or environment that those leaders need to create for this to actually happen. And I’ve seen how powerful it can be when leaders make that shift, when they realize they don’t need to do it all themselves and they can step back and let the whole people of God lead and also let the neighborhood lead.

Just this last weekend, I was leading a final retreat with some clergy working through this process. And one of them told a story about how his church had this space next to their building and they had to figure out what to do with it. And they ended up creating a dog park. There are lots of apartments in the neighborhood and people didn’t have a place for their dogs to play and run around.

This particular clergy person is a great visionary and loves to come up with plans. He had all kinds of ideas for how they were going to redo their buildings around the dog park. What he realized was he needed to actually give space for the people of the congregation and also the people of the neighborhood to shape the future, stopping and kind of pulling back from that. What ended up happening in a very quick period of time was some neighbors actually stepping forward and saying, “Well, here’s how we actually want to use this space.” And then a foundation found out about it, and they raised money to do this kind of thing. It all just happened kind of overnight, and it was really, I think, the Spirit leading from the outside in. It wasn’t up to him to come up with the energy, to come up with the plans, and to come up with all the resources — and, you know, he was just laughing and saying, “Wow! This is a really freeing way to lead!”

Ann Michel: Near the beginning of the book, you and your coauthors write: “The social and cultural shifts that are eroding established church structures are too big for any of us to reverse. Trying to ‘fix’ the church won’t get us very far and will instead distract us from the deeper work at hand.” I understand that statement. It’s hard for me to disagree with it. And yet when I read it, it just punches me in the gut. And I would imagine that probably a lot of other people have that same reaction. Because what it sounds like you’re saying is we’re at the point where we just need to abandon the ship. I know you’re going to tell me that we cannot predict God’s future, but do you think that the institutional church as we have known it is just going to fade away?

Dwight Zscheile: You know, in the book, we use a framework (you know, I really drawing here on Ted Smith’s work, and also Charles Taylor) about a really major cultural shift taking place. From the time following the American Revolution up through the 1960s, we had a way of organizing church in America that was really around voluntary associations that people found a lot of meaning in supporting and serving and building up. But starting in the late ‘60s, we have a shift toward what Charles Taylor calls the age of authenticity. So, we moved from the age of voluntary associations to the age of authenticity, where the meaning is found in discovering and expressing your true self. And that often means disembedding from institutions.

At one point, to work in an institutional congregation serving on committees and all that was sacred work for some people. Generationally, that is less and less the case now with younger generations, so there’s a particular form of institutional Christianity that is eroding quite rapidly in American society that I don’t think can be reversed easily. I think it is in particular that sort of mid-size, program-size congregation that has a dedicated building, a professional pastor, and maybe a couple staff people that relies on a lot of volunteer energy and committees to keep it going. That is just imploding. And it’s not just in the mainline. The mainline is impacted most acutely, but also of course many other denominations as well.

I think what we’re seeing is the rise, certainly, of immigrant communities. And you know the Black church always had a different narrative and different way of embodying its life, and it figured out from the beginning how to not necessarily rely on professional full-time clergy and all of those things. So, I think there is a lot of vitality in some of those communities and in other models.

Then, I think the church is getting larger and smaller. We see megachurches that are thriving because they’re not asking that much of their people. They’re not asking, “Hey, come serve on a lot of committees and come fix the building.” It’s more about speaking into everyday things that keep everyday people up at night — you know, connecting faith to daily life — and then small groups that allow that to experience sort of tight community. We also, I think, are seeing a lot of small churches that are resilient because they don’t have a lot of that structure. I think that, more and more, in the future it will be micro-churches, whether it be things like Fresh Expressions of church or whether it be networks of house churches or other forms of micro-communities that are much more contextualized, if you will, for how and where people live today where, again, the primary ask isn’t “Support the institution.” It’s really more “I want to help you discover authentic life and human flourishing and faith in a way that fits with that age of authenticity.”

The age of authenticity is problematic on all kinds of theological grounds. I mean we could say a lot about that. I have all kinds of reservations. But also, the age of association was often very hierarchical, restrictive, patriarchal, and exclusive. Right? And before that, the state church, which has its own problems, too. So, the church always evolves. But I think the more we try to retrieve or extend the life of that voluntary association model of church in the age of authenticity the more the returns are going to be diminishing because on a basic level it can’t be retrieved in most cases, as it’s often been inherited.

Ann Michel: I think the vision presented towards the end of the book of leaner, simpler, more organic churches is really, really appealing and hopeful in lots of ways. At the same time, I kind of wonder if, in a deinstitutionalized church, every Christian community and every Christian leader becomes sort of a freelancer without the resources that all of us who have had the benefit of being formed in institutional churches have: resources to support faith development, credential leaders, theological education, and cultivating a larger sense of mission.

Dwight Zscheile: Well, I would say on that end that I think we will still have theological education. We will still have local churches, and the leaders of those local churches will need to be educated. It may not be professionalized theological education. I think the resources are going to be out there. I think with technology today they’re going to be much more networked. People will find them, share them online, and things like that. And I think accountability will need to be figured out. I am not an anti-institutionalist. I think there are a lot of ways in which institutions are necessary for any movement to survive over generations. But the model of the institution is going to look different and, honestly, I think there’s a lot that we don’t know yet. I think it’s going to have to be experimented with and figured out.

We do talk in the book a bit about a metaphor that we learned from the UK which is about a “mixed ecology” of inherited forms of church and Fresh Expressions or innovative forms of church coexisting. So, I think we are in a bridge period where we really need that mixed ecology, where we can learn from both the experimental forms of church supported by the traditional forms and vice versa. That could really work together well to cultivate the learning that needs to take place.

Ann Michel: That’s helpful. It’s not a black and white choice. To bring this to a close, if a congregation or an individual church leader wanted to get started on this journey of faithful innovation in the way you’ve outlined, what are the first one or two steps you’d recommend?

Dwight Zscheile: Well, I would suggest certainly read the book, because I think that would take you into the journey. And then we have Faith+Lead at Luther Seminary. We’ve developed a companion workbook that goes alongside this book that actually has the concrete practices that we talked about in the book. And it’s called the Faithful Innovation Leader Companion, and that can be ordered on Amazon, or you can also find it on faithlead.org. So those are resources to begin that journey. We also have through Faith+Lead a variety of ways congregations can get equipped to take this journey and do that together with other congregations. And judicatories and regional church systems can also be trained to do this work in their own systems. So that is all available at faithlead.org.

And I think the key thing is to start small and on the side and to really focus on practices rather than programs. What we’re seeing that is really transformational for many congregations is to introduce simple grassroots practices that anyone can lead. They don’t require a clergy person. They’re replicable. They become a part of the culture of a congregation in ways that begin to shift the focus toward a deeper spiritual connection with God, each other, our neighbors. And not everyone expects that.

In many congregations, there often are people who honestly are there for other reasons — social or cultural reasons. Maybe it’s the community service emphasis. So, when we invite them to do things like share spiritual stories from their daily life or read scripture together in community like Dwelling in the Word, it can be hard for them. But that’s why it’s important to start with those who are more open. Those who are less open will eventually come along.

What we found is that there’s a lot of energy that gets unleashed when congregations take this journey, in part because we’re really helping people make connections between their faith and their daily life. And if there’s one thing churches need to do right now, it is that. It is to help people connect Christian faith, make Christian spiritual meaning out of what keeps them up at night, what Scott Cormode talks about as “everyday longings and losses.” And the churches that succeed in doing that are the ones that will thrive. If churches aren’t oriented around that, I don’t see them actually being able to thrive in today’s world.

Ann Michel: Thank you for that, Dwight. This is really a wonderfully accessible book. I think it’s going to be a great help to so many churches that are trying to find a way forward. So, thanks to you and your colleagues for this book as well as the wisdom that you’ve shared with me today. Thank you so much for being with us.

Dwight Zscheile: So great to be here. Thanks so much.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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Leading Faithful Innovation book cover

Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future (Fortress Press, 2023) by Dwight Zscheile, Michael Binder, and Tessa Pinkstaff. Available at Fortress Press, Cokesbury, and Amazon.

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Cover photo by MART PRODUCTION


About Author

Dwight J. Zscheile is the Vice President of Innovation and Professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.