by Rev. Stephanie Dodge

Steph is a United Methodist Senior Pastor as well as a former Innovation Lab Cohort Participant. For more information on our Innovation Lab Cohort Program (which is registering new cohorts now) CLICK HERE.

In 2016, Glendale United Methodist Church was dying.  This mostly older congregation was struggling to maintain a large building that was hardly used and could no longer afford a full-time pastor.  Today this same congregation is bursting at the seams on Sunday mornings.  We have a strong missional purpose, we are running out of space in the building, and we are looking to hire additional staff.  What changed?  The answer to that question depends on who you ask.  Someone might say we became more inclusive.  Another would say we started offering communion every week.  One person swears the removal of the call to worship was pivotal to becoming who we are today (no joke!).

None of these answers are wrong, but none of them tell the whole story either.  A more accurate answer is that we became a church that says, “Let’s try it.”  While anyone can see the Glendale that people love today is very different from the Glendale of many years ago, there was no big change we made along the way, but rather we became a church that is constantly trying new things.  Here are few things we’ve learned along the way:

Start with the who.  Kenda Creasy Dean has a great article on why it is so important to start with an understanding of who you are innovating for.  If your goal is to reach teenagers who aren’t already attending church then you don’t want to start by talking to older members at your church.  Glendale decided to focus its energy on those who had been hurt by churches in the past, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community.  For this reason, we began offering communion every week because we wanted everyone to feel welcome at the table no matter what week they happened to attend.

Learn to use the phrase Let’s try it.  Practice saying it whenever someone has an idea, even if it’s a bad idea.  If you’re not making mistakes, you aren’t learning anything.

Find the smallest change you can make and make it.  Then find another…  Nobody complained when we removed the call to worship on Sunday mornings.  I’m not sure anyone even noticed.  Many changes later, worship looks very different and we don’t plan to go back.

Evaluate the results of your changes in real-time.  If something worked well, what’s your next step?  If something flopped, what did you learn from it?

Accept that you will lose people along the way.  There will always be someone who doesn’t want to change anything.  Sometimes we let one voice keep us from going where we feel God leading us.  At some point you have to choose between staying the same or letting that person find a new community.  When we began offering communion every Sunday it upset one of our members.  She no longer worships at Glendale, but we have welcomed nearly 100 members to our rolls since then. 

There’s no magic formula for becoming an innovative church or ministry, but if you remember for whom you are innovating and see no change as too small, there’s always great possibility for who you might become.