Agility can only be built in community: Pursuing innovation in practice

If we do the work, if we keep listening, we get to co-write the next plausible chapter of our good news together, writes Karen Rohrer.

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Listening is a way to be present to something — God, the world, other people, yourself.

One of the most important things I have learned about being a pastor is to cultivate a posture of never being surprised. There is an inherent power imbalance that comes with the title of “reverend” that must be reckoned with, and for good or for ill, when we stand in that role, people notice if they shock us. This is also true, if in a slightly different way, for all of us carrying the title of “Christian.” Don’t believe me? Next time you are on a plane, casually mention your church and see how quickly the person next to you says something absolutely bananas. Of course, some people relish being able to shock the faithful. And sometimes, I find that impulse charming. If we haven’t done the work to avoid shock at this complicated world, perhaps we should be poked at every now and then. We are called to be as wise as serpents, after all.

The concern I carry, though, is for those who are afraid they will shock the Christian — afraid their story is too much, that they are too much, afraid that if any pastor or person of faith or God heard or saw their truth, they would be rejected. You often will sense that people do not want to share real, deep life with a church or a pastor, anticipating rejection.

To welcome that hesitance, one must listen with presence and a broad imagination — to even create the conditions for that listening. One must imagine that all things are possible as a next – sentence, thought, idea – and not be afraid of any potential next steps. Half listening won’t do. Guessing won’t do. Listening will never have a chance to begin. You will not be ready for what is coming, and the speaker will sense your lack of availability. They will look at your sensible shoes, and decorative cross/pious candle/framed diploma collection and think, “Why would I bring this up? This church lady will never understand this.”

The answer is not uncomfortable shoes (ever) or having different taste or interests than you have.

The preparation for listening is listening

Here at the Center for Adaptive and Innovative Ministry (AIM), we use a cycle for faithful innovation in community that means to hold the tension of faithfulness to God, others and the self of the leader to order the work of innovation. The cycle starts with, and is steeped in, listening. We start with listening because it is the first, most vital, and perhaps most difficult part. One does not lead well before one listens, so all our work at the center and most of my reflection on that work is first a defense for listening.

Theologian and philosopher Simone Weil describes how one way to cultivate attention, that is, one way to prepare to listen well to God if and when God shows up, is to do something you are bad at, to focus on the mistakes, and build your tolerance sitting with your own smallness and limitation. It is being open to listening to the things that are hardest to hear. This builds the courage to be radically attentive to whatever might be heard.

Now, Weil was a particularly severe theologian, and should only be read about once a year, when you have time afterwards for a nap. But even so, her point is well taken. Spending some time encountering and listening to all we do not know is a great way to get better at listening. Probably it is a great way to get better at life.

Spending some time encountering and listening to all we do not know is a great way to get better at listening. Probably it is a great way to get better at life.

Listening is a way to be present to something — God, the world, other people, yourself. Theologically there is a lot to it — God being the God who heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, God choosing to become human to attend and listen to us earth-dwellers, etc. Even more practically, though, 90% of winning is showing up. Listening is a way of showing up — for yourself, for others, for your world, for God.

My colleague Scott Hagley often describes this showing up with a movie image. If you have seen the movie “Big Fish,” you know that the story revolves around a son and a father with a tense relationship. The father has long told “big fish” stories — big, seemingly exaggerated tales of his exploits. The son has grown over years to feel frustration and resentment around these stories — how big and absurd and self-aggrandizing they were, how often they were repeated.

At the end of the movie, the father is dying, and the son comes to be with him, even as their relationship still needs to be mended. The father, in his hospital bed, says to the son, “Tell me how it ends.” And the son, having spent years of listening to these big fish stories — years of picturing and living with all his father has said, is ready to co-write the ending of his father’s tall tale, using the same characters and themes in the same world of possibility his father narrated. The son weaves their relationship back together by telling the final chapter of the story — by showing he has been listening and he is open to his father’s story.

To me, this is the payoff of listening to God, others, ourselves. If we do the work, if we keep listening, we get to co-write the next plausible chapter of our good news together, using the vocabulary, arc and characters of the Gospel story that drew us into relationship in the first place. In other words, embedded in the practice of listening is the possible condition of the next phase of good news. Listening is like watching a dance in order to step into it as a full participant.

In a culture that does a lot of shouting, literally and figuratively, listening takes intentionality, both for individuals and especially for communities. A culture of listening must be encouraged and practiced.

There is good news and bad news here

The bad news: to co-create a culture of listening, you must bring your open self, and you must invite and welcome others to bring their open selves. People must be willing to show up for the conversation and the culture that it builds, which is a significant request, especially with the church’s track record for rejecting and not listening to people.

The good news: you need little else beyond a small bit of portable conversational framing. There are a lot of ways to do this. I recommend a set of questions that can be used to reflect on almost anything: an event, a conversation, an experience, a worship service, a season, the list goes on. The list is deceptively simple and comes from Mark Love, who is about as good a congregational dialogue partner as I’ve ever seen:

  1. What happened?
  2. What surprised you?
  3. What did you learn?
  4. What might God be calling you to do?

Repetition is helpful here, but so is starting small. Try this after any shared experience. Starting with an open but concrete question welcomes all kinds of thinkers and perspectives. The question improves as different perspectives are articulated. We start to encounter the truth: there is an abundance of meaning. Just as in the sacraments, just as in the Scriptures and in our common life, there is an abundance of meaning and listening to each other’s meaning supports our agility to collaborate in the story at hand.

Repetition is helpful here, but so is starting small.

The second question is perhaps the gentlest invitation to confession I’ve ever heard. This is not the language of shock or offense — surprise carries a potential note of delight. Yet, if one is surprised, one must admit to not having always known. One must confess that the surprise was, in some ways, not the shocking nature of what has happened, but rather one’s own initial lack of imagination for the shared experience. Admitting surprise allows us to admit our limitations while making space for the consequences of those limitations to delight rather than disappoint. “I didn’t see that coming! But here it is!” Asking and answering this question reminds us the future is not limited to our imagination. The resulting conversation reminds us that interaction of others makes for richer possibilities.

The third question reminds us we are in process and that curiosity and learning are good things, enriching things, are conditions for possibility, for growth, even for new joy. By asking the question, we confess that everyone can learn, and that knowing everything already is not the benefit we often act like it is. We can practice the grace of learning together. In this way, there is room for all of us to continue growing and becoming, while continuing to share life together.

The final question is the real turn to the scary church stuff. But by now, the conversation is ready. We have listened. We have attended enough to recognize that there is room for surprise, that we and others can learn new things. And now, based on all that, we are being asked to enter into the story already being told. Given what we’ve seen of God, others and ourselves – what we have experienced so far of the gospel story in our little part of the world – what might God be inviting us into? What possibility might be ours to name? Where might God be asking us to move?

The question sneaks up on us

Those attempting an answer will catch themselves, saying something like, “It’s almost like … ” or “Could it be that … ?” or “I’m a little bit afraid that … ” Sometimes surprising next steps bubble up. Because this conversation takes place in community, we have the check of the others in our midst who sometimes say, “Oh, I don’t think it is that,” but more often, in my experience, someone else, usually the most skeptical person in the room, will say, “Oh dear. I think you are right. I think that is exactly it.” And then the whole room is there, in the midst of the clarity of the next right step. That offers clarity, the experience of discerning together and naming well what God might be up to. The question and the listening it brings forth often make space for communities to do theology together.

Listening is a condition for innovation

Innovation can mean all kinds of things — from “disrupting” the market, to “maximizing efficiency,” to discovering new technology, to harnessing new possibility. Though I direct the Center for Adaptive and Innovative Ministry, I am not interested in innovation for reasons of novelty or economics (at least not primarily). As a pastor and a Christian, I’m interested in faithful innovation. To me, faithful innovation is the new story that emerges when we merge our voice with the stories to which we have listened well— both the story of the gospel and the story of our various communities. Faithful innovation is anything that enables us to tell the big theological story together, along with the Holy Spirit and the community, in this time and this place.

Faithful innovation is the new story that emerges when we merge our voice with the stories to which we have listened well— both the story of the gospel and the story of our various communities.

So listening is a necessary condition for faithful innovation, and it can be a shockingly generative condition. As any gardener knows, a seed is needed for a plant to grow — and quite a bit can grow from one seed, but there are typically many factors. Sometimes a seed grows and survives against the odds, but usually more care is needed.

Given this, what care is needed after the practice of listening for faithful innovation to grow and thrive?

If one listens carefully and well enough, there comes a point of difficulty — of pain, even. One hears the pain of others and themselves, and has to be open to and reckon with that pain. The second step in the AIM cycle of innovation comes when we hit that pain threshold, and we are called to confess, repent and re-vision.

If this pain is so, what does that mean is true? What does that mean needs to be named? If truth is causing pain that disrupts individual or communal thriving, how do we do the work of repentance? How do we re-imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t threaten the thriving of God’s beloveds? Many of the most fruitful ways to consider such questions have to do with being able to listen. If we can create, in communities we facilitate or even participate in, a norm of listening for, even desiring to hear, the disconfirming feedback of others, we will step into the work of being reformed and always reforming. We will be able to create possibilities for beloved community. Not only that, but if we can hear and deal with the hard truths, re-visioning and trying new things will become less scary, because we know our own belovedness, even when we are wrong, and we know our own strength, as a community, to face hard things. In that, we can imagine and re-vision our shared Christian life without fear of any ultimate loss. Consensus-based discernment processes can be helpful in surfacing and making space to deal with disconfirming information in a protected setting — and I recommend The Chairperson’s Toolbox: Essentials for the Committee Leader by Katherine Davoli as a resource to use them within a Robert’s Rules framework.

If we can create a norm of listening for the disconfirming feedback of others, we will step into the work of being reformed and always reforming.

The third step in our cycle of innovation is the forming of community. When we are doing the work of listening, when we are practicing honesty and facing hard things, we can come to clarity about who and how we hope to be together. This step includes attending to how we order and spend our time together and how that forms us as a community. Life together gives us the sort of ambient connection and even affection that grows when a shared goal or practice is pursued as a team. This is where a culture is built from the trust generated in the listening process. This is where we become a “we” and where we start to see our individual visions come together. The activities and practices that form this step are discerned by the community.

The final step in the innovation cycle is leading through change, which the leader is only prepared to begin when all the other steps of the cycle are in place. This is the space where the leader works with the community to moderate anxiety, to leverage all the trust, collaborative muscles and communal identity built throughout the cycle in order to stay together and continue taking the next most faithful step. This is where the leader takes responsibility for the culture they have convened and supported, and brings that culture to bear in response to God’s dynamic world. So often this response step is the place new leaders want to start, usually to ease our own anxieties or support our own egos. But, as I hope you have observed from the length of this article, and the way the content is distributed, the only way that any of this innovative work or any of this agility is possible, is if our imaginations are first steeped in and formed by listening.

Perhaps we start there.