‘Innovation Accelerator’ helps conference design creative solutions to resource churches

February 11, 2021

By: Christa Meland

Six Minnesota Conference staff members are in the midst of a 10-week human-centered design process to explore creative new ways to resource clergy and churches and meet their most vital needs.
Human-centered design is a process that begins with the people you’re designing for—in this case, Minnesota clergy and churches—and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to meet their needs. The process involves cultivating deep empathy with the people you’re designing for, generating lots of ideas (both practical and off-the-wall), building prototypes to test those ideas, seeking feedback about the ideas, and eventually implementing them. Part of the process has involved learning different ways of thinking and exploring multiple possible solutions to complex problems.
“Over the past two weeks, I’ve brainstormed the product description and value of a ‘Book Guitar,’ improvised with our team by dreaming up a story from an opening picture, and practiced a lot of bending, breaking, and blending of ideas as part of an Incarnational Innovation Process,” said Jody Thone, Minnesota Conference director of leadership development and the leader of the Minnesota team. “I love applying this process to some of our current challenges in the Minnesota Annual Conference. It is going to take big doses of creativity and imagination and different thinking to envision and build the church of the future... yet we are called to do just that!”
The “Innovation Accelerator” is being offered by Fresh Expressions, a Virginia-based organization that encourages churches to explore new methods for ministry in a changing culture. Various faith-based organizations that last year applied for and were not awarded a “Thriving Congregations” grant from the Lilly Foundation, including the Minnesota Conference, were invited to participate in the accelerator program to explore how they might bring a key idea to fruition even without grant funds. The cost of participation was just $200 per team.
The accelerator process—now in its fifth week—began with interviews of nearly two dozen clergy around the state to ask questions like: What does a typical day look like for you? What are the biggest challenges you’re facing? What has most helped you navigate ministry during the pandemic? Which key resource is preventing you from being able to achieve the ministry you’d like to offer?
The team then reflected on the information collected in order to determine the core needs articulated and develop guiding questions for the design process. The guiding questions they are working from are:

  1. How might we cultivate and release imagination?
  2. How might we leverage our connectional system for building technological and digital capacity and competence?
  3. How might we foster more collaboration, resource sharing, and learning across the Minnesota Annual Conference?
The group has spent time in recent weeks generating hundreds of possible ideas to address these key questions and will soon begin prototyping the best idea(s). Eventually, they will test the idea(s) with key stakeholders.
Aside from Thone, other staff participants are Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries; Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, Southern Prairie District superintendent; Cullen Tanner, connectional ministries project coordinator; Walker Brault, administrative assistant and conference secretary; and Christa Meland, director of communications.

All have found the Innovation Accelerator process to be hugely valuable and believe it has applications for many of the complex problems facing churches today.
“I have appreciated much about the accelerator process,” said Vanderwerf. “From the get-go I really liked that they insisted on ethnographic research so that we were weren’t dreaming up where our churches or clergy were stuck, but actually digging in and asking the experts—i.e. them!”
His favorite session so far was one focused on imaginative thinking that gave participants an opportunity to practice it on the spot by having them brainstorm 50 alternative uses for a ballpoint pen.
“You could see that freedom and creativity was unleashed, I think precisely because the stakes weren’t high and silliness was encouraged,” said Vanderwerf, who has already employed some of the accelerator’s techniques with various local church teams. “It was brilliant when the chat box of brainstorms began to slow down until the presenter said, ‘now imagine some uses for the pen in Antarctica,’ and the chat box lit up again. My take-away from that is that we are quick to be okay with the brainstorm work we do and move into the solution phase, but in fact, we should encourage more space for the brainstorming.”
Tanner, too, appreciates the creative approach to problem solving. “The challenges we’re trying to address are too big to take on all at once, but this process is encouraging us to look at the different parts and to really use our imaginations,” he said. “I’m excited that the results of this process will probably be pretty far from anything we would have predicted because of the unique approach.”
Brault, meanwhile, said it has been valuable for the team to center its work around feedback directly from clergy and use their responses to inform its work.
“I am really excited about this process as it is giving us a fantastic opportunity to really dig deep and develop solutions that will effect the underlying causes of some of our shared struggles, rather than just surface cosmetic changes,” he said.
The team will “pitch” its idea and pilot plan to other participants on March 23—the last day of the accelerator. Members look forward to sharing their idea with the conference after refining it based on their feedback.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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