Radical innovation and borrowing

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

If we implement an old idea in our congregation, is that innovation? For example, megachurches have been projecting the words of hymns on a screen behind the pulpit for decades, whereas my congregation has always read the words to hymns from a hymnal. If my congregation starts to project the words of hymns onto a screen behind the pulpit, is that innovation? Really all we’re doing is adopting an old idea for our own use, but to us it will feel like a big innovation.

So let’s distinguish between several different levels of innovation:

(a) The lowest level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread in other congregations that are similar to ours. For example, if your congregation doesn’t have a Web site and then you create a Web site, that’s an innovation for your congregation, but it’s a low level innovation. There is very little risk involved; and you can find a great many models and examples to guide you in the process.

(b) The next level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread, but only in congregations that are substantially different from ours. Continue reading “Radical innovation and borrowing”

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.

Innovation is hard

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

We hear a lot of talk about “innovation” in liberal congregations these days. Liberal religious leaders, both lay and ordained, are rightly worried by the downwards trend in membership and attendance in liberal congregations; and many leaders believe that the way to reverse these downwards trends is through innovation. So I’d like to take a closer look at innovation — what is it, how does it apply to congregations, and will it halt the downwards trend in which we find ourselves?

First, some quick definitions: Innovation in liberal religion is the application of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Liberal religion in the most general sense refers to institutionalized religion willing to allow theological change and evolution; liberal religion stands between orthodox or conservative religion on the right, and radical religion on the left; in the U.S., the term “liberal religion” has been claimed mostly by Unitarian Universalists, and some liberal Christians and Jews.

Now on to the first point — Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: innovation in religion is hard.

Innovation is hard first of all because most of us turn to organized religion for stability. We are trying to make meaning out of our chaotic lives, and liberal religion can help us find that meaning in order to make sense out of chaos, to find a sense of purpose, to come up with some values that can provide stability. Any innovation we carry out has the potential to upset that sense of stability. Innovation is going to be emotionally challenging.

Innovation is hard second of all because it means risking failure. If you’re going to try something that is truly new, you won’t have clear models to follow and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way; one or more of those mistakes may well put an end to your innovation, and even an end to your entire congregation. Not only that, but failure sucks: failing at something can make you feel like crap.

A third reason innovation is hard is that it requires hard work. It’s much easier to keep on doing things the same way you’ve always done them. When you innovate, you’re going to be pouring extra hours into the innovative project. You’re also going to be pouring extra effort and attention into the innovative project.

So innovation is emotionally challenging, innovation means risking failure, and innovation takes lots of work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: innovation is hard.

Next: Innovation will be resisted.

Three steps for getting rid of your rotten minister

Carol pointed me to a wonderful essay in The Lutheran e-newsletter titled “How to get rid of your rotten pastor.” The author gives six steps for getting rid of your rotten pastor.

For those of you who don’t have time to read the original article, I’ll condense it for you. Here are three steps for getting rid of your rotten minister:

(1) Make sure your rotten minister has two days off every week, a day for errands and a day for spiritual reflection and renewal. This will reduce the time your rotten minister is around to annoy you. Get them out of your hair even more by giving your rotten minister sabbatical time, and raising money to send your rotten minister to continuing education events and spiritual retreats. And make sure your rotten minister has a month of vacation and a month of study leave, and that they take it all. Oh, and if an emergency comes up on a day off or during vacation or study leave, make sure they make up the time off.

(2) Take over the tasks your rotten minister does badly. Of course ministers should excel at everything: administration, preaching, youth work, pastoral care, counseling, teaching, spiritual leadership, etc. But your rotten minister is probably rotten at one or more of these tasks. Organize volunteers to take over tasks your minister is rotten at: start a pastoral care team, find more adult religious education teachers, etc. Or if your congregation has enough money, hire staff to take over tasks your minister is rotten at: get a trained Director of Religious Education, hire a qualified business manager, etc. When your rotten minister can concentrate on the few things they actually do well, this will reduce your annoyance considerably.

(3) By now, your rotten minister should have free time to fill up. Encourage your rotten minister to spend more time reading theology, more time on reflection and spiritual practice. If they do more reading, reflection, and spiritual practice, maybe you might actually get a decent sermon out of your rotten minister once in a while, and maybe they might actually turn into a real spiritual leader. And your congregation will be getting great care from the pastoral care team, top-notch administration from the business manager, and so on.

This is how you, too, can get rid of your rotten minister. If you follow these steps, your annoyance will be reduced, you’ll soon be hearing better sermons, your congregation will be thriving, and best of all you won’t have to go through the time and expense of searching for a new minister.

Limits of reason

How far does reason serve to cure, or at least to palliate, the miseries of humankind? Not very far, according to Samuel Johnson:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain: the armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them. —Rambler, no. 32

Johnson wrote this partially in response to the Stoics, who professed to be able to ignore misery, and to maintain equipoise when faced with calamity. But he, as someone who valued reason, was also exploring the limits of reason. Reason cannot cure every ill:

The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects. —Rambler, no. 32

Thus, says Johnson, patience and not reason serves to maintain our peace of mind when we are confronted with misery, torment, and suffering.

Classical music video no. 6

There are several young classical composers that critics are calling “indie-classical,’ because they combine the singer-songwriter sensibility of indie rock with classical music complexity and depth. Today you get three videos, all of “indie-classical” music:

Continue reading “Classical music video no. 6”

Classical music video no. 3

Today’s classical music video is of the Bang on a Can All-stars rocking out on Steve Reich’s “2×5” (2008). Steve Reich (b. 1936) started out as a jazz drummer, but soon switched to composing lcassical music. He is best known for his early minimalist compositions. Bang on a Can is a group of composers and musicians who have produced some remarkable performances and compositions in the twenty-five years since they were organized. If you have a chance to attend their 12 hour Bang on a Can Marathon, held each summer in North Adams at Mass MOCA, go — it will change your image of “classical” music forever.

Alas, the videography is boring. On the other hand, it’s fun watching the interaction of the musicians without constant intrusions from the videographer.

By the way, this video proves something I had though impossible: you can have a group of four electric guitar players in which not one is an egomaniac. There are four electric guitars, and two bass guitars, in this video, and every guitarist is an extremely disciplined musician showing very little ego in a very tight band.

Classical music video no. 2

Today’s classical music video is a collboration between Ben Frost (b. 1980) and Daniel Bjarnason (b. 1979). Frost is both a performer, primarily heavily modified electric guitar, and a composer; he has worked with Nico Muhy, Bjork, and Brian Eno, among other musicians. Bjarnason has also worked with classical and rock musicians in his native Iceland.

This is another meditative piece: “Cruel Miracles” is part of a longer work titled “Solaris,” which was inspired by the brilliant 1972 film of the same title directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The visuals are in fairly standard music video format, but I do like the way the videographer emphasizes the computers and sound boards necessary for this performance: this is not nineteenth century classical music.

Classical music video no. 1

“Classical music” — an imprecise term for art/concert music in the Western tradition — has been getting a bad name in liberal religious circles. Its primary defenders promote classical music written in the nineteenth century. Its detractors rightly point out that nineteenth century music is outdated, but then typically go on to advocate commercial pop musics which are distinctly lacking in musical or intellectual depth.

Neither nineteenth century classical music nor contemporary commercial pop musics do much for my spiritual life. But I have been getting a lot of spiritual sustenance from twenty-first century “classical music,” better known to its listeners as “new music.” This week, I’m going to post some videos of new music that do something for me spiritually. First up is this fabulous music video — music composed by Anna Clyne (b. 1980) and artwork by Josh Dorman — which I would love to use as a “reading” or meditation in a worship service:


Oops! Did something wrong, and this didn’t publish Monday as I meant it to do; so here it is on Tuesday.

An online tool I’d actually use

Anne, who sits on our congregation’s board, pointed out a really useful online tool: SignUpGenius.com. Their tagline reads: “Organize volunteers online for free.” It was started by church people; the founder writes:

We were having a party for our church small group one time and told people with last names starting with A-M to bring drinks and those with N-Z to bring snacks. We all showed up and were shocked to find that every snack family brought chips and salsa and every drinks family brought Diet Coke! It was the most disgusting party meal ever!

Anne says she has used this successfully. I’m going to be trying it out, and thought you’d want to know about it, too.