Innovation will be resisted

Second in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If innovation in liberal congregations is hard, you won’t be surprised to learn that innovation will be resisted.

Sometimes the resistance will be in the open, and you will be able to identify specific people who are resisting the innovation. For example, I know of one minister who implemented innovations that brought 80 new people into a small congregation in less than a year; the response of the congregation’s board was to hire a lawyer so they could fire the minister. But I suspect that more often resistance will be passive and generalized: the innovator will find him- or herself ignored or encased in a bubble of apathy and inaction. This is why we might want to frame this statement in the passive voice — “innovation will be resisted” — because often it’s not clear who is doing the resisting.

And there are good reasons for us to resist innovation. I’ve already pointed out that innovation requires long hours and hard work, and that much innovation results in failure. Why spend long hours on something that’s likely to fail? If a given congregation is doing reasonably well at the moment (whether or not analysis shows it is declining over time), it makes a lot more sense to avoid innovation. Even in a case where a congregation is not doing well, why invest a lot of time and energy in innovative solutions, since most innovation is likely to fail?

Innovation is inherently risky, which is another reason to resist it. Take, for example, the way liberal congregations raise money. Most liberal congregations raise money today the same way they have been raising money for the past century. Yet in the last twenty years, fundraising in the rest of the nonprofit sector has changed dramatically, and other nonprofits are competing far more effectively for nonprofit dollars than are most liberal congregations. But if you go to your congregation’s leadership and suggest that they adopt some of the common fundraising practices of the rest of the nonprofit sector, you will face serious resistance — what if you try these new ideas and they fail? where will the money come from? The higher the stakes, the more resistance to risk and innovation you will find.

Finally, most liberal congregation seem to have a strong strain of institutional conservatism in them. I suspect that because we are willing to engage in some theological innovation, we are more likely to cling to our institutional forms. Furthermore, all the liberal congregations I know are dominated by a kind of hyper-individualism that gives a great many persons veto power over any decision. When so many people can veto major and minor decisions for any reason or no reason at all, institutions tend to become quite conservative — most decisions (including most innovations) will be vetoed, and the institution will keep on doing things the same way they’ve always been done.

Next: Radical innovation and borrowing.