Leading ideas

We are still in the liminal space. Reopening our buildings and physically gathering the congregation will not solve our disorientation. We are still stuck between something that is finished and a new thing that is not yet ready to start.

Vital assemblies will resist the urge to plan a way out of liminality. They will act first. See what they learn. Adjust. Try again.

You can’t solve the limitation by planning your way through it. You have to learn your way through it. Guide your leaders through cycles of observation, experimentation, adaptation, and repetition. You need a learning plan, fluid action plans and containers to think about your learning. You don’t need a governing body that completely agrees on which path to take. That will come later – maybe.

How organizations adopt new ideas

In Spreading innovation, Everett Rogers explains how and why new ideas and technologies are adopted in organizations. It represents five categories of voters who inhabit a typical organization that adapts to change. The composition and behavior of these five groups help us understand the milestone for action – when we have enough support to progress.

  • Innovators. Approximately 2.5% of the people in the organization. This group wants to seek information and is well connected with sources of innovative ideas. They are risk-averse and often have the financial liquidity that supports their risk-taking behavior.
  • Early users. About 13.5% of people. They are the ones who determine the opinion in the organization. They are younger and more educated than most. They also enjoy new information. They are more prudent and cautious than innovators in terms of the risks they will take.
  • Early majority. About 34% of the organization. This group offers support when they are convinced that the new idea will succeed. They are pragmatists. They usually have above-average social status, but rarely show mental leadership in the assembly.
  • Late majority. Another 34%. They show a high degree of skepticism. They are often considered “guardians of tradition”. They ultimately offer their support – if and when most others have already done so.
  • Laggards. Approximately 16% of people in an organization are people who do not like life. They have smaller circles of friends and experience. They have an aversion to risk or change. They are looking for people who agree with their opinion. Some will reluctantly agree to a new direction over time. Others never come on board.

Leaders are warned not to invest too much energy by bringing a late majority and lagging behind in driving. The turning point for a change initiative is when innovators, first adopters and the first segment of the first majority are involved. This is the moment when the organization is ready to act. The rest of the first and late majority will come with time, and the backward may never support the initiative for change, so your energy is wasted trying to get their support.

Building commitment and progress

So, what are your leading tasks for the next chapter of this liminal season?

  • Identify and work with your innovators and first adopters to create a vital learning plan for next year. For example, learn about the needs and interests of a worship community that chooses to stay online, or explore digital partnerships with other organizations because we do not have adequate resources to offer vital personal and educational experiences online.
  • Ask your board to approve the learning plan. This authorization will help you determine the organization’s time and resources for a particular learning period.
  • Form an innovation team for each learning area you have named and have these teams make flexible action plans to improve learning. These teams should consist of innovators, first adopters and first majority. Action plans need to be fluid enough to evolve as the environment around you evolves.
  • Listen and address the concerns of the backward, because even the late majority listens to their concerns, and most of them need to hear how you address the raised reserves. However, you should not let the worries of the backward stop the momentum. You probably can’t make them happy – so don’t set a goal for yourself.
  • Name new metrics to monitor and evaluate the success of your learning initiatives. Make sure your metrics measure learning, rather than rewarding premature “right answers.”
  • Accept failures. Fill innovation teams with thinking about successes and failures and find ways to involve your larger governing body in learning. As you learn, repeat (adjust the experiment and repeat).

Progress requires imagination and resilience. It does not require putting everyone on the same page with consensual action plans. Vital assemblies will resist the urge to plan a way out of liminality. They will act first. See what they learn. Adjust. Try again. Save the consensus building for later.


This article has been adapted from From Now on the same page, published on the website of the Congregation Consulting Group. This version appeared in Leading Ideas, a newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at UMC’s Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, used with permission.

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