Victoria Atkinson White: Leaders need not choose between improving and creating

Lowe's store sign

Bigstock/Jonathan Weiss

The church needs both those who are loyal to existing religious institutions and those eager to usher in what the church will look like next, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

My small town has a Lowe’s and a Home Depot. In practice, I don’t prefer one or the other, typically choosing the store that is closer when I remember I need something for a home improvement project.

But Lowe’s has gotten me thinking lately about more than just DIY projects. Its two recent advertising slogans, while for the very same store, feel at odds with each other.

Since 2011, Lowe’s advertising has told us that we should “never stop improving.”

From 2006 to 2011, it said, “Let’s build something together.”

I was reminded of this as I read “Faithful,” a report on the future of religious institutions from Harvard Divinity School Ministry Innovation fellows Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston and several colleagues.

In the report, they explore the natural tension between “loyalty to what has been and a desire to be part of what is next.” In doing so, they reflect on the need for religious institutions to embrace “two concurrent and vital jobs that need doing: improving and creating.”

They draw an important distinction here. Improving is learning new ways to do what we already know how to do; creating is learning new ways to do what we don’t yet know how to do or may be prevented from doing by polity and practice.

Some churches lean toward a “never stop improving” mentality. They are established and know how to “do” church. They have been successful in the past, as evidenced by their physical plants and generations of tradition. This stability and legacy can be an asset, both reputational and social, yet at the same time, as “Faithful” notes, the associated bureaucratic structures can stand in the way of creating new ministries in the face of the unknown.

Improving, while it might sound like the lesser of two choices, is an important job. If a church already knows how to do something well (for example, children’s ministry), then it is only good stewardship not to abandon what works but rather to “never stop improving” it (for example, with technology, safety and training).

Church starts and new faith communities operate from more of a “let’s build something together” posture. They see needs that are not being met and create new gatherings to address them. These initiatives are often experimental -- coffeehouses, yoga studios, after-school programs, Christian social entrepreneurial ventures -- which means many of them fail.

Nonetheless, they are learning new ways to do what we don’t yet know how to do, new ways to minister, that established churches may find more challenging.

Without a doubt, improving feels safer. It is doing what we already know how to do, only better. It involves little risk and predictable reward. Creating feels more exciting. It opens up new possibilities for faithful community, but it entails more risk and a greater tolerance for failure.

Many leaders, much like churchgoers, are more attracted to and better at one or the other.

The good news, as the authors of “Faithful” write, is that the work of improving and creating need not be an exclusive choice. Both jobs must be done. There is a place at the table for both those who are loyal to existing religious institutions and those who are eager to usher in what the church will look like next.

In a world of finite resources, “improvers” and “creators” often see themselves as rivals. But as the authors of “Faithful” affirm, in order to flourish in faithful community, each must appreciate the church’s authentic need for the other.

“New expressions of community need support, stability, and access to the wisdom of our traditions,” they write. “Established religious institutions need the joy of nurturing new expressions of our own highest values.”

While I might have a philosophical preference for “improving” or “creating” in terms of advertising, both of the Lowe’s slogans promote fundamentally the same goal and seek to equip their customers with the same tools (pun intended).

Isn’t the same true for both established churches steeped in tradition and stability and new Christian communities taking great risks to address communal needs with agility and innovation?

The goal is the same -- to bear witness to the reign of God on earth -- whether by improving upon that which is old or creating that which is new. Why not take the best of both and do it together?