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.

4 thoughts on “Innovation will be resisted”

  1. Dan,

    I think you miss the congregant’s perspective. I joined my current church because I _liked_ it. Any change would make it into something I would like less. For example, i like my church’s size (about 350). If it doubled or halved I would be unhappy. “Success” for me is having a Coming of Age program where my son gets to have a serious conversation with the minister. I don’t really care if the church budget goes up.

    I know it is different for ministers. They don’t choose their churches freely and have incentives to change them, especially to enlarge them. But we folks in the pews don’t feel that way. The fact that most innovation will fail is actually reassuring.

  2. Tom — First of all, my guess is that most ministers have exactly the same perspective that you do. As it happens, Unitarian Universalist ministers do in fact choose their congregations freely (we are not assigned by some bishop, we get to choose which congregations we apply for), and ministers have about as much incentive to change their current congregation as you do. And the minister is going to be one of the last staff members who are laid off, so why should we care if the church budget goes up any more than you do? Indeed, my guess is that ministers probably scuttle more than their fair share of innovation — innovation is just going to cause more work for a minister, and who wants to engage in extra work which has a good chance of failing.

    Second, years ago I was a congregant in a church that doubled in size by attracting a whole new demographic. I found it to be disruptive and disturbing, and I felt like we lost as much as (or more than) we gained. So I know from first-hand experience what change feels like, and it is not entirely pleasant.

    And I think you’re assuming that I think innovation is always good. I don’t. Speaking personally, I feel ambivalent about innovation and change. Take the example of nonprofit fundraising — I know we should change the way we raise funds in my current congregation, but I am deeply ambivalent about making any changes; I’ll bet I’m more ambivalent than most lay leaders, since if we screw it up, I’m going to be the one who takes a hit in my salary, while most congregants wouldn’t notice a big difference.

    If you read the above post again, I think you’ll find that my ambivalence comes through loud and clear, e.g., when I write, “And there are good reasons for us to resist innovation.” I meant that absolutely literally — there really are good reasons to resist innovation.

  3. Could you say more about innovations in non-profit fund raising that churches might consider adopting?

  4. Christine, there are two kinds of things that I look for.

    On the one hand, some particularly effective nonprofits are boosting their revenue through constant small, incremental refinements of their fundraising technique; so I try to pay attention to nonprofits that seem to be constantly increasing revenue, and figure out what they’re doing right. This is mostly a matter of paying attention to effective nonprofits I happen to see around me.

    On the other hand, we’re seeing some major innovations happening right now as the line between for-profits and nonprofit corporations gets blurred; so I’m watching things like social enterprise efforts, benefit corporations (“B-corporations”), etc. One of the things I’m particularly interested in right now is the ways congregations have already (often unwittingly) moved in social enterprise, and then figuring out how to do it better — so if your congregation is renting out space, you can treat that as a social enterprise which would further your mission while generating revenue, and to do that you probably want to write up a business plan, then do a marketing plan based on that, then actively market your product (i.e., building rentals), and maybe even change your accounting procedures to show how much rental income you’re giving up in order to stay true to your mission. To track this and other major nonprofit innovations, I read Stanford Social Innovation Review regularly, and I look for the occasional article on nonprofits that you’ll find in other business magazines (e.g., Harvard Business Review), and the occasional book on nonprofit innovation.

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