Commentary: Why it’s time for the UMC’s Era of Innovation

By Rob Rynders, Special Contributor…

Recently, the Church of England voted to keep women from becoming bishops, which some say dealt the final blow in that church’s fight to remain relevant (or become relevant, for that matter). Around the same time, my favorite economist, Tim Harford, wrote a blog post suggesting the Church of England’s decline is rooted in the fact that they’re a state-sponsored institution. They have the ultimate safety net, so they have no incentive to compete against non-denominational churches or reach out to potential new members.

Rob Rynders

Similar things are true for the United Methodist Church. Guaranteed appointment minimizes incentives for clergy to take risks. Why reach out to people in a society that is increasingly hostile toward religion, if you’ll still have a job, no matter what?

Also, United Methodists are bound by too many regulations—which makes it hard for the UMC to adapt and shed those things that hinder our work. Ultimately, it’s our institutional DNA that is destroying our denomination. Our structure and polity are designed for an outdated system. The Discipline mandates how churches are to be organized and structured, assuming each church exists in similar contexts. While traditional models may still have legs in certain parts of the U.S., such as the suburbs, we need new models for new and changing contexts.

Often, though, when creative folks come along with ideas for new contextual ministries, those ideas never see the light of day or they’re quickly swallowed up by the trappings of the institution. When an idea gets the green light and then fails, rather than evaluate that failure we often use it as an excuse to never try anything new again.

So if we can’t easily change our polity, how do we get out of this mess?

What we need is an era of innovation in the UMC.

We need an intentional, grassroots movement of innovators willing to put new ideas into action, realizing many of those ideas will fail, but some will be successful. Even our failures will allow for immense learning, further experimentation and adaptation, ultimately leading to success. As successes and failures build over time, we must apply what we’ve learned to other contexts, paving the way for others to learn, model and adapt. We already have a connectional system in place that makes this possible.

The ‘CIO’ strategy

Most of us are trained to be administrators, managers and shepherds, not multipliers, connectors and innovators. When the church was growing we needed those who could administrate, manage, educate and care for congregations, and it makes sense to have only those skills in a model that focuses on drawing people into an existing church. But when you live in an era that requires deep engagement and relationship building with one’s community, you need additional skills. I propose, then, that all of our leaders need to also be trained as church planters, even those not planting new faith communities. This will help us forget the parts of our old DNA that encourage us to sit in our offices and sanctuaries and beg God for people to walk through our doors. And it will instill within us a new DNA that helps us reach new people in new (and even old) places.

I believe all of our annual conferences need something akin to a “Chief Innovation Officer.” This position could be combined with or replace the position of “New Faith Community Developer.” The CIO’s role would be to oversee the start of new faith communities through an innovative lens. Some of these communities might use familiar models, while others would be experimental. The CIOs would help design and evaluate those experimental models—knowing they may fail, but learning from the process and sharing what they learn with other conferences. The CIO could also oversee the recruitment and training of innovative clergy, in consultation with the bishop and cabinet. Also, clergy in existing ministries might conduct experimental ministry initiatives in partnership with the conference and CIO, especially around revitalization efforts. The CIO would report directly to the bishop. In some cases the right people may already be in place as new faith community developers. They may just need to have their job descriptions tweaked.

At the start, this era of innovation will need a few bishops who are willing to create CIO positions and commit plenty of financial and other resources to experiments. Efforts that require using the resources of dying institutions will be especially challenging, because it’s the nature of an institution to hoard resources and destroy the very things that would save it. Innovation needs to come from the grassroots, but episcopal leaders must buy into it long-term, knowing it may take years to bear fruit and even scratch the surface of revitalization. We need leaders who have the faith and grit to endure institutional backlash. We must also understand that no amount of research or coaching can guarantee success. It comes only from risk-taking, failing and adapting.

Calling all mavericks

Through our General Conference, we can seek to eliminate things that keep us from evolving and improving. But General Conference only meets every four years and, even then, we are so divided and distrustful of one another that change may be impossible. So we must work within the system we have. We have many resources on hand, including a lot of real estate that we no longer need and could be sold. We also have some exciting leaders who are chomping at the bit to get to work, and we need many more of them.

So here’s a call to all the mavericks out there. Some of you are already in motion, others have a dream you’ve written down or shared with a friend. For others it’s a dream God has placed on your hearts and in your minds, but you think it’s just too crazy to pull off. Now is the time to see if those ideas have legs. Without action they don’t have the slightest chance of succeeding.

Finally, this is a call to annual conference leaders to free up resources, to recruit the right people, to not be afraid to fail and to protect the innovative process. This is not to be done without prayer, intentionality, research or caution, but it must be done with a liberal attitude towards risk and a deep commitment to innovation.

We can’t wait several years for General Conference, the Judicial Council or another “Call to Action.”

In the name of Jesus Christ, we must act now.

The Rev. Rynders is co-pastor of City Square Church, a new United Methodist faith community in Phoenix, Ariz. He blogs at, where this essay first appeared.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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Thank you, Rev. Rynders for your much needed encouragement to take a "liberal attitude towards risk and a deep commitment to innovation."

It is deeply urgent to act now in implementing those changes which enable us to be effective followers of Jesus.

Sincerely Yours,

Roger Tanquist,
Olympia, WA

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