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An Introduction to Equity Design

This is part two of a two-part introduction to design thinking. Part one is available here. 


Design thinking is a method for creative problem-solving that has been around for decades. While design thinking is primarily thought of as a methodology for designing products, it is now used in a diverse array of fields and sectors. It is being used to change the experience of votingtransform the emergency roomreimagine the way we vacation and more!

As design thinking is utilized to solve big-problems and ultimately redesign systems, if it is to produce equitable solutions, then the process of design thinking itself must be examined closely to mitigate the causes of inequity. Design thinking as a field often refuses to acknowledge power imbalance or the exclusive nature of many design processes. Design thinking cannot create equitable outcomes on its own (Equity Design Collaborative, 2016).

That is where equity design comes in.

What is Equity Design?

Equity Design Collaborative, a group of individuals and organizations committed to cultivating the field of equity design, defines equity design as a creative process to dismantle systems of oppression and (re)design towards liberation and healing by centering the power of communities historically impacted by the oppressive systems being (re)designed. 

In other words – “If racism and inequity are products of design, they can be redesigned,” said Dr. Christine Ortiz, founder of Equity Meets Design.

Equity design combines the consciousness of equity work with the power of design thinking methodologies. In the equity by design framework, there are three core beliefs; Historical context matters (learning to see), radical inclusion (be seen) and process as product (foresee). These core beliefs lead equity designers to a set of five principles:

Five Design Principles of Equity Design ( From Equity Design Collaborative)

  1. Design at the margins: Our current innovation conversation is exclusive, accessible only to the powerful and privileged. Designing at the margin means that those in privileged positions do not solve for those experiencing oppression; rather, in true community, both the privileged and marginalized build collective responsibility and innovative solutions for our most intractable problems.
  2. Start with yourself: Our identities (race, gender, upbringing, social status, home language, etc.) create our lens for the world and how we make sense of it. We must raise our awareness of our own identities and how bias impacts our thoughts, choices, conclusions, and assumptions to truly co-create with others.
  3. Cede Power: Equity requires a nonviolent, action-oriented spirit of co-creation and co-invention, necessitating an inversion of legacy power structures. Equitable design demands that practices change and evolve — that we redefine roles, revalue ways of knowing, and reassess the ways we reach decisions.
  4. Make the invisible visible: The relationships between people and problems are often governed by sets of heuristics — techniques that allow problems to be solved with speed, agility, and economy. However, these preexisting schemas can perpetuate exclusionary assumptions and biased practices, manifesting as implicit bias, power dynamics, and hegemonic practices that govern relationships with people in our organizations, schools, and governments. By making them visible, we can assess their impact and create a space for reflection and repair.
  5. Speak to the future: Because an equitable reality has never existed, we cannot look to our past to learn how to create an equitable future. There is an often-overlooked power in language and discourse to influence and control ideas, beliefs, actions, and ultimately culture. When we take control of our language, when we speak to the future, we lay the groundwork to create something new — together.

The process used to design is a product in and of itself. We must engage in equitable practices during that process. By designing with these principles in mind, we can begin to mitigate the inequities that exist in the systems and processes that impact our daily lives.

Equity Design: What’s next? 

Take a few moments to think about the last time you “designed” something. If you are a part of an ELCA Congregation, that might have been something like a community event, a weekly bible study or a food drive for your local food pantry.

  1. In what ways did your design process include the five design principles of equity design?
  2. In what ways could your design process have been modified to include the five design principles of equity design?

If you would like to learn more about equity design, Equity Meets Design offers a free online course: Introduction to equityXdesign. 

References and Other Resources

Equity Design Collaborative. [Nov 2016]. Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned.
Equity Design Collaborative. [Dec 2017]. Equity is a Verb.
Equity Design Collaborative. [Sep 2017]. The Big 10 (+1) Ideas that Fuel Oppression.
Eric Blattburg. [May 2020]. Traditional design won’t save us in the COVID-19 era.
Free online course: Introduction to equityXdesign offered by Equity Meets Design.


Thriving Congregations, Thriving Church

Congregations Lead Logo Square

Congregations Lead Initiative

People are lonely. A January 2020 survey from Cigna found that three in five US Americans are lonely, and we know loneliness only got exponentially worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education analyzed data from an October 2020 online survey of 950 Americans and “reported substantial increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.” Loneliness can seem like a taboo topic, but this survey shows that our neighbors are crying out for connection. So, what does that mean for a church that believes in a relational God? The ELCA is called to respond to the needs of our world by nurturing our relationships with our global and local communities as well as building stronger ties with our neighbors. 

At its November 2020 meeting, the ELCA Church Council affirmed the Future Church design, which focuses on a “renewed purpose to activate the entire church so that more people may know the way of Jesus and discover community, justice and love.” In doing so, it identified three priorities for the church moving forward:

  • a welcoming church that engages new, young and diverse people
  • a thriving church rooted in tradition andradically relevant
  • a connected, sustainable church that shares in a common purpose and direction

These are big priorities that can be lived out in a variety of ways. One way to live into this renewed purpose is a program that evolved out of this refocused purpose statement: the Congregations Lead Initiative, made possible by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. As our world and local contexts grow more complex, the ELCA is called to respond to the needs of our community. This program seeks to equip and inspire congregations with innovation and design-thinking tools to spark the next chapter of congregational ministry. At a time when many congregations feel like they’re struggling to survive, this initiative seeks to provide the tools to thrive. In addition, we hope this program will spark greater change across the whole ELCA, where thriving congregations will inspire a thriving church, so that all “may have life, and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10). We are looking for new and creative ways to invite people to know the love of Jesus.

God demonstrates time and again that we are meant to be in community; in one Body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it,” (1 Corinthians 12:26). When loneliness is an epidemic, we are called to listen to our neighbors, be present in community, and to be a safe space where people can experience the love of God. If this call to activate the entire church so that more people may know the way of Jesus and discover community, justice and love excites you, then your congregation might be a great candidate for the Congregations Lead Initiative! To learn more, you can visit; applications are open now! If you have any questions, feel free to email 

Rebecca Payne (she/her)

Program Manager, Congregations Lead Initiative


Open Doors


Open Doors Logo
Open Doors supports ELCA congregations interested
in meeting new people in this time of re-gathering
in physical spaces

Over the past 18 months, faith communities have gathered to worship and share the faith in new and different ways. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, worship has moved online, in-person events have been reimagined, and new questions have arisen. Yet, faith communities around the world have served their communities with profound compassion and creativity. As vaccine availability in the United States increased and outbreaks of Covid-19 lessened in severity, communities across the ELCA have begun considering what might be next. Additionally, as the ELCA sets out to share the story of Jesus and the ELCA with one million new, younger, and more diverse people, the opportunity became clear. But without a set list of “best practices” for emerging from a global pandemic, the ELCA set out to learn – together.

The Open Doors initiative was launched to support ELCA congregations interested in meeting new people during this time of transition and re-gathering in physical spaces. ELCA congregations were invited to share their concrete, actionable ideas for meeting new people during this critical time.

Open Doors Map
To see a map of Open Doors recipients click here.

Over 1,000 ELCA congregations – nearly 12 percent – responded with their ideas. The ideas ranged from responding to the immediate needs of communities to sparking moments of joy through a traveling ice cream cart with a cool, sweet treat and warm welcome. Other congregations are imaging outdoor public space for reflection and tranquility through a garden or prayer labyrinth or celebratory block parties and concerts. Many are planning to continue virtual worship and community in addition to returning to physical gathering, and still others will accompany neighbors in community prayer gatherings through grief support and intentional time to remember the many lives lost during the past year.

In total, 134 grant applicants from across the ELCA were selected through a random selection process and received a $1,500 grant to put towards their idea. Grant applicants and recipients are implementing their ideas and will be invited to share their learnings toward the end of 2021. If you would like to share your idea for meeting new people in this time of re-gathering, you can do so using the Open Doors “bulletin board.”

Though the future may be yet unknown, the opportunity to learn and grow together continues. If you’d like to follow along, please subscribe to the ELCA Innovation Lab blog, and you can email us at


An Introduction to Design Thinking


Have you or your worshipping community ever encountered a tough problem and found yourselves unable to come up with a solution? Then design thinking might be able to help! Design thinking is being used every day by global companies, top universities and people around the world to help solve big challenges.

Typically in problem-solving, the problem and solution are defined within concrete confines — for example, in innovation, we look for the ideal overlap of viability, feasibility and desirability. Design thinking enters the innovation process to help expand the options and imagination into the abstract before coming back down to finalize or define the concrete solution.

Design thinking can also help break down large, complex problems into more discrete yet interconnected segments.

“Great!” you say? Then, let’s get to it. What is design thinking?

Design Thinking: An Overview

Design Thinking Overview
Source: Stanford d.School,
Design Thinking Bootleg.” Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Design thinking is a method for creative problem-solving that works on an understanding that the best solutions and problem-solving involve the perspectives of those who will use the design — “the user” (ex. customer, member, constituent). By gaining a deep understanding of the user first, design thinking considers whether the problem is a problem at all, helps to uncover assumptions and explores the implications of a potential solution.

To better understand the problem, the users and potential solutions, there are five “modes” within design thinking. While there are many ways to explore these phases, here is how the Stanford d.School (Stanford Design School) defines the five modes:

  • Empathize: Empathy is the foundation of user-centered design. The problems you’re trying to solve are rarely your own; they’re those of particular users. Build empathy for your users by learning their values.
  • Define: The define mode is when you unpack your empathy findings into needs and insights and scope a meaningful challenge. Based on your understanding of users and their environments, come up with an actionable problem statement: your Point of View. Understanding the meaningful challenge at hand and the user insights you can leverage is fundamental to creating a successful solution.
  • Ideate: Ideate is the mode in which you generate radical design alternatives. Ideation is a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes — a mode of “flaring” instead of “focus.” The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space — both a large quantity and a broad diversity of ideas. From this vast repository of ideas, you can build prototypes to test with users.
  • Prototype: Prototyping gets ideas out of your head and into the world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form — a wall of Post-it notes, a role-playing activity, an object. In the early stages, keep prototypes inexpensive and low-resolution to learn quickly and explore possibilities.
  • Test: Testing is your chance to gather feedback, refine solutions and continue to learn about your users. The test mode is an iterative mode in which you place low-resolution prototypes in the appropriate context of your user’s life. Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.

Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving process, meaning that the five phases are not sequential. For example, after prototyping, you might want to go back to empathize with users to understand whether a potential solution will work.

Design thinking also opens up the opportunity to think from different perspectives and in alternative ways to reach a better solution. To explore further, check out the Stanford d.School’s “Design Thinking Bootleg” or IDEO’s design thinking introduction and related resources.

What’s next?

While design thinking often follows or uses the five “modes” outlined above, even this innovative field continues to evolve. Look out for part two of this design thinking story, which will focus on equity design!

References and Other Resources

IDEO, “Design Thinking.”

Stanford d.School, “Design Thinking Bootleg.” Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?,” Interaction Design Foundation, July 2020.

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A Sanctuary in Time: Holding Space for Reflection

This post features a story from The Rev. Matt Short, Director for Evangelical Mission, Greater Milwaukee Synod.

In July of 2016, as a part of a three-month sabbatical, I had the chance to spend a week at the Taize Community in France. Three times each day, I would kneel on the floor of the Church of Reconciliation with thousands of others from across the globe as we sang and prayed with the brothers of the community. Three times a day, the cavernous sanctuary became, for me, a place of reflection, peace, and deep contemplation. It was the first time I personally experienced the truth behind Jesus’ words in John 7:38; “…out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

A Sanctuary in Time
The Church of Reconciliation,Taizé, France
“Bourgogne Taize Eglise Reconciliation”
by rene boulay is licensed under CC BY 3.0

When I first returned to the United States and emerged from sabbatical to begin active ministry again, I felt a sense of sadness that this beautiful sanctuary was so far from me. It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize that what I longed for wasn’t the physical structure of the Church of Reconciliation; it was the space created in my life by the rhythms of the sabbatical. That space is what allowed for the depth of reflection that felt to me like a river of living water. I soon realized that I could create a “sanctuary in time” by simply slowing down enough to ask deep questions and hold the space for reflection I deeply needed.

I am convinced that in our harried pace of daily ministry, exacerbated by the disorienting effects of the Covid-19 virus, space for reflection is one of the first things to go. For me, it is also at times like this that I need that “sanctuary in time” the most. Recently, I, along with several colleagues, facilitated a conversation in which we held that space for reflection.

There was nothing particularly profound about the process we used or the questions we offered as a frame for the reflective time. However, I am convinced that the brilliance lies in the simplicity of clearing a space in time and using open questions to open us to the movement of the Spirit.

During that time of reflection, we asked these questions:

As you think about your ministry during this time of pandemic:

  • What do you notice? (Spend 5 minutes thinking or writing just about this.)
  • What questions are emerging for you? (Spend another 5 minutes thinking or writing just about this, and avoid the temptation to answer any of the question. Just make a list of them.)
  • What might God be nudging you to consider? (Spend 5 minutes thinking or writing just about this.)

The simplicity and open nature of the questions, along with the time set aside, acted as our sanctuary that day. This held open the space for us to let go of the drive to be productive for just a bit and listen to the leading of the Spirit. We then used the reflections as a springboard to innovation by following God’s “nudging” and identifying one new thing we could try.

A month after facilitating this time for reflection, we returned, asking the simple questions again:
  • What new action did you try?
  • What did you notice?
  • What questions are emerging for you?
  • Now, what might God be nudging you to consider?

The key, at least for me, has been the commitment to regularly holding space for reflection. I have found the regular practice of this simple process, whether alone or with others, acts as a sanctuary in time, allowing for the living water that’s always just beneath the surface to burst forth.

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ABIDE in Failure

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of participants have taken part in small groups as part of ELCA Young Adults ABIDE ministry. ABIDE invites young adults ages 18-35 to build community and talk about what it means to abide in this moment.

Last week, Mikka McCracken, Director of the ELCA Innovation Lab, spoke about our call to “fail boldly” and what it means to ABIDE in failure. Check out the video below which explores the importance of taking risks in service to our neighbor, and remembering that our worth is not defined by our success or failure but rests in our identity as loved children of God. 

ABIDE in Failure: Discussion Questions

ABIDE in Failure
  1. When you hear the word failure, what do you think of? When it comes with working through failure, where do you find yourself? How does failure feel in your body?
  2. When you’re sitting in the immediate aftermath of failure and its accompanying emotions, what helps you get through? Who are the people who have showed up for you at these times? Where do you see God?
  3. Mikka talks about taking the call to turn outward toward our neighbors – to shine and share the light and love of God’s grace so freely shared with us. In doing so, we are surely in the failure likely zone more often. What was a time you took a risk to serve your neighbor? How might you take a risk to serve a friend, neighbor, or your community this week?
  4. How does failure (or fear of failure) stop you from being creative and innovative? What tools or support can help you step boldly into the “failure likely zone”?

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Experiments in Action: Daily Bread Matching Grants

This post features information about ELCA World Hunger’s Daily Bread Matching Grants which support congregations and their partners as they work toward a just world where all are fed. Applications are currently being accepted for a new round of Daily Bread Matching Grants . To find out more check out this blog post from ELCA World Hunger and

A successful pilot

Approximately ninety-six percent of ELCA congregations participate in some form of feeding ministry, from community meals to food pantries and more. Today, ELCA World Hunger is connecting hundreds of those congregations with tools for building sustainability in the midst of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic through the new Daily Bread Matching Grants. But Daily Bread Matching Grants did not appear as a response to the pandemic overnight. They have been in development for over a year and, based on user feedback, have been able to adapt to best serve congregations with feeding ministries in a changing landscape.

How do Daily Bread Matching Grants work? Congregations raise financial support for their feeding ministry using the ELCA’s online crowdfunding tool. All funds raised by the congregation are theirs to use in support of the feeding ministry. A congregation sets a goal for raising $500 or beyond, and unlock a $500 matching grant from ELCA World Hunger. In just a few weeks, congregations have new connections and new capital to fuel ministry. Back in 2019, ELCA World Hunger piloted Daily Bread Matching Grants as a new way to support congregational feeding ministries.

2019 Daily Bread Matching Grant Pilot Goals & Results:

  1. Goal: Support domestic anti-hunger ministries as they work toward a just world where all are fed in transformative, holistic and integrated ways.
    • Result: 19 of the 20 congregations unlocked their matching grant and together raised a total of $25,480
  2. Goal: Identify, cultivate and engage new local hunger leaders
    • Result: 75% of congregations did not have a designated Hunger Leader before participating.

Responding to covid-19

Fast forward to the beginning of 2020 and the coronavirus began to spread across the United States. Food insecurity followed, and questions began to arise. For meal programs and feeding ministries, how might food distribution need to be adjusted to ensure the safety of volunteers and neighbors? How might the economic downturn increase the need for food?

“We wanted to respond quickly and make sure congregations were getting support as they serve their neighbors. Daily Bread Matching Grants seemed like a great way to do that while also equipping congregations to quickly raise funds in a pivotal moment when many people in the church and beyond were looking for ways to support their local feeding ministries.” said Juliana Glassco, Director, Planning and Engagement, ELCA World Hunger.

As part of the ELCA’s COVID-19 response plan, ELCA World Hunger announced a special launch of Daily Bread Matching Grants with up to 100 grants of $500 each, available to ELCA congregations. One thing was clear: ministries needed quick access to monetary resources to respond to need in their communities. With the unique ministry moment and experience of past iterations in mind, this new version of the grant had a key feature:

  • The $500 grant from ELCA World Hunger was dispersed to congregations immediately once their application was approved. They would receive funds as soon as possible, whether or not they met the $500 fundraising goal. This change was made to specifically address the widespread and immediate need caused by COVID-19.

Interest in the grants was significant and over 250 applications were received in the span of a few days.

In response, the number of grants available was expanded to 200. On April 3rd congregations opened their fundraising pages and began accepting gifts.

Together, congregations raised over $200,000 in support of their feeding ministries. Once the amount raised was matched by ELCA World Hunger the total impact from online giving was over $313,000.

Reflecting on the experience, a congregational leader of Messiah Lutheran Church, Schenectady, NY said “It not only allowed us to add funding for our food pantry, it also helped us raise awareness, which will help us position the pantry to be a long-term solution for our community’s hunger needs.”

Into the Future

Daily Bread Matching
Learn more about iteration and integrating
feedback here. 

“We’ve learned that, with the right tools and timely support, we can help to unlock the incredible generosity that exists in congregations and communities across the country,” said Glassco.

While online giving was familiar to some congregations and brand new for others, across the board the Daily Bread Matching Grants generated excitement in congregations. In addition to offering future grant opportunities to congregations, ELCA World Hunger is now able to connect with those ministries as they consider their next steps, even offering access to coaching for ministry leaders through ELCA Coaching.

ELCA World Hunger will continue to look for ways to unlock generosity and help ELCA congregations serve their neighbors.

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Experiments in Action: Tree of Life

This “Experiments in Action” blog series features individuals and communities who are trying something new. This post features a story from Tree of Life, Minneapolis, MN a Lutheran church start-up that is queer-affirming, millennial-led, and for the spiritual but also slightly religious. This post is written by The Rev. Marissa Sotos, pastor at Tree of Life.

Before Covid-19: Background

Before Covid-19, Tree of Life Lutheran was a millennial-focused mission start in the North Loop neighborhood of downtown Minneapolis that was turning toward intentional long term planning. We had established Evening Prayer and Dinner gatherings on the first Sunday of every month that were the anchor of our faith community’s spiritual and social life, with a rotation of other gatherings throughout the month for service, yoga, theology on tap, etc. One major problem we faced was that to create opportunities for invitation, connection to newcomers, and a habitual pattern for participants we needed to have our primary worship gatherings more frequently and make them easily accessible. ​​​​​​​

Tree of Life Worship
A worship service at Tree of Life

Meeting more frequently posed serious resource problems including a lack of staff time for planning and a lack of funds for worship space rental and food (dinner was always provided). Our worship space also posed several accessibility problems: it was at the back of a building down a hall and had extremely limited parking. Additionally, spreading an average attendance of 15 people over multiple Sunday’s posed a potential risk.

While being intentional about our commitments to worship, prayer, music and rich interaction, we began to plan ways to strip down Sunday gatherings to be group facilitated and easily navigable for visitors. We also decided to try stretching our resources to add another gathering on the third Sunday of every month.

Now: The Experiment

​​​​​​​On Saturday, March 14th, the night before what was to be our first third Sunday together, word of community spread of Covid-19 led Tree of Life to abruptly shift plans to go online the following day. We realized immediately we needed to do two things: first, create high quality and highly interactive online worship that could help provide a communal and spiritual safety net during extreme stress, and second, offer it weekly as members and friends lives began to change by the hour. We chose Zoom as a platform because it was highly interactive, easy to use and easy to share. The first service went ahead with what we had planned for worship that day which was Holden Evening Prayer. Everyone who was planning to attend that Sunday successfully made the last-minute switch to Zoom and we found we could easily converse in a group our size. However, Worship did not go well. We learned very quickly that communal singing was impossible due to lag, and that following along on a PDF bulletin without much interaction or explanation led to people quickly giving up on participating.

Tree of Life

Recognizing these problems, we spent the next several weeks building a format for gatherings that worked with, rather than against, Zoom. We flipped our social and check-in time to be before worship rather than after it so that everyone would know who was in the “room.” We adjusted singing to be either call and response that could be done between two different computers, or easy to sing melodies that everyone except the musician would sing along with on mute. We added a lay-led Bible Study component, continued our tradition of volunteering for first readings but with a wider variety of poetry, and asked everyone to show up with cups and candles. This meant we had some common physical objects to work with: cups to talk about how full our spiritual “cup” was that week and candles to light together at the beginning of Evening Prayer and extinguish together at the end. ​​​​​​​

Then we started inviting people and realized that our new location and format was more accessible to visitors. We could send a link to someone anywhere, it was easy for them to find us, low risk to show up, and interaction over Zoom made it easy for people to participate to their comfort level. We also found that worshipping digitally solved the problem of limited resources. We no longer needed to budget for rent or food or budget time for space set up, and even if our numbers were small there were enough of us every week to make a Zoom call feel full where a physical space might have felt empty.

Into the Future: Learnings

Worshipping weekly and worshipping digitally have become part of our DNA as a faith community. As we anticipated, gathering weekly has made us a stronger and more mature community while also providing more opportunities to invite guests and integrate them. We have found that simple but frequent gatherings work better for us than occasional elaborate ones and being digital gives us the resources to support those. The convenience and untethered nature of digital gatherings also mean that we often have worshippers from a much larger geographical area than we would have before and that our core group shows up more frequently than they would in-person. Finally, we have found that being an online community gives us new options (and new challenges) for outreach and getting to know people.​​​​​​​

There are also many things we lost in moving online: communal singing, regular communion practice, eating dinner together, and passing the peace in-person. We miss those things and still look forward to resuming in-person worship when it is safe. At the same time, we don’t want to lose our new out of town community members, the ease of accessibility and the sacred space we’ve found in our online format, or our ability to stretch our resources. When Covid-19 is no longer such a present danger we plan to shift again and become a hybrid community, worshipping both online and in-person. We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet but have clarified our priorities around weekly worship and broad access. Having pivoted so completely once we know we can do it again to bring together the most important components of our community’s online and in-person life.

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17th Sunday After Pentecost: The Marshmallow Challenge

The ELCA Innovation Lab is partnering with the fall intensive of “Leadership On the Way.” Leadership On the Way (LOTW) seeks to offer creative space and supportive relationships for early-career leaders as they learn, innovate and adapt to their unique settings. This past session, the LOTW cohort focused on design-thinking and equity-centered design, and LOTW coach Pastor Bradley Schmeling, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (St. Paul, Minnesota) found himself exploring the connections. In his own words, “The whole design conversation became a way for me to explore the gospel text in a new way.” Check out Pastor Schmeling’s sermon below and on the Gloria Dei website. 

Matthew 21:23-32

Maybe you’ve heard about the marshmallow design challenge. It’s a teamwork and design exercise. Groups are given 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the tallest structure you can in the time allotted. The only rule is that the marshmallow must go on the top and must be in one piece.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that all usually goes well until the last minute. With the clock ticking, the group adds the marshmallow. Very often, the whole structure collapses. It can’t handle the weight. You may also not be surprised to learn that recent graduates of an MBA program, and probably seminaries, have some of the worst track records. The best?


Why do kindergartners perform better than adults? The adults jockey for power, spend a lot of time talking about process, try to get around the rules, or just cheat. The kindergartners succeed because usually none of them is trying to be the CEO. They share equally in the task. But mostly, it’s because they start with the marshmallow. They build under it, and when something doesn’t work, they dismantle and start over. The marshmallow is always on top in their project.[1]

Marshmallow Challenge
“Marshmallow Challenge 6” by MTa Learning
is licensed under
CC BY 2.0

I sometimes wonder if Jesus would have had a more supportive team had he invited twelve kindergartners to join on the way to Jerusalem. A group willing to be closer to the ground than scraping the sky; a group that values each member of the team and knows that God’s wisdom is always collaborative.

In today’s gospel text, we hear the final conflict between two design processes. By the end of the week, Jesus will be lynched and buried. He just entered Jerusalem, to great acclaim and the waving of palm branches. He overturned the tables in the temple, a pretty clear symbol of what he’s about. And now this is the first argument with the authorities, likely with the police who were sent to disburse the protesters.

On one side: Jesus’ project to build a structure that beats with God’s heart. On the other side: the institution, political and religious, that resists change, silences dissent, and rewards the wealthy and powerful. [Let me be clear about one thing: The temple doesn’t represent Judaism, as if Christianity is somehow the real spiritual project that gets rid of some rigid Jewish system.]

Here the temple represents the world that we’ve all been schooled to believe is the real one, or, at least, the only practical one. If you want to hear what the temple-reality looks like today, get on Twitter or turn on the TV or open the newspaper. You’ll find it on just about every page. I like to call it “an accumulation system”; an endless, frantic, and finally murderous race to have more and more. It’s literally a dead-end.

The entire gospel text for today turns around the question of what kind of authority will re-make the future. In Matthew’s gospel, this a moment of crisis, a turning point. In fact, even the way he tells this story, compels the reader to choose a side. Do you want to end up like the leaders, the ones who have everything but really nothing, or the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the judged and despised, but are open to discovering the deepest truth? Will you be the child that nods their head at the request but never does anything about it? Or the one, who may not get it at first, even arguing with the authority, but tackles the work, anyway?

I can’t help but think that Jesus overturning those tables and now confronting the authorities is an iconic image for the time we’re living in right now.

Part of building the world that God intends means we have to work at dismantling another one. Maybe that’s what it means to be the faithful child, the one trying to follow the guide: to be constantly deconstructing those things that kill the least among us, and building something that brings good and deep life for those same people.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda says that if God is the creator, we have become the “un-creators” in our destructive and unstainable use of the earth. When I first heard the term in a talk about Jesus, I misunderstood.  I thought they said that Jesus was an un-creator, overturning the systems that we have built, by initiating his own design process to heal, and feed, and welcome; building a community that has a wide-generosity of heart and energy.[2]

Maybe that misunderstanding was a little inspiration. (Don’t tell the preachers that often it’s a good idea only to half-listen what they’re saying!) In the work of creation, God designed a spirit of un-creation, to keep death from having the last word. Maybe Lutherans hear it as reformation. Maybe on the streets today, we hear it as protest or breaking down privilege. Maybe it’s a growing awareness of the need to make reparations for centuries of injustice. Maybe it’s just the old church term is repentance and making amends. Or the Christ pattern of dying and rising.

The kindergartners knew this, breaking apart a little bit of their work in order to keep it moving taller, always keeping the marshmallow—that sweet and beautiful goal—at the very center of their task.

This time feels like a big design project that we’ve been all been given in order to learn something about collaboration and design and truth. It’s the pandemic challenge; the white supremacy challenge; the getting-through-until-tomorrow challenge. Name your own marshmallow!

The gospel news is that the Christ who stood in the temple is the one standing among us, sending us out into this field. We’ve been given some tools, a few directions, a lot of grace to make it up with our friends, and one sweet vision of love and mercy and justice that will crown it all.

It’s also gospel news to remember that the conflict in the temple didn’t end on Friday, but on a Sunday.

In the name of the Creator, the Un-Creator, and the Wisdom to Build, Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

[2] Thank you to Mikka McCracken, Director of Innovation, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for pointing me to Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s work.

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Innovation Insights: Collective Genius Innovation + Lutheran Theological Thinking

This post builds on concepts introduced in its sibling post, “The ELCA Innovation Lab: An Origin Story.”

You might know it as a remix, mashup, medley or cover, but some of my favorite songs come from the process of adding or rearranging the original tune to include something new or different. Sometimes a fresh take on an old classic brings new inspiration.

As the ELCA Innovation Lab has begun to imagine ways to help the church reclaim relevancy, we have tapped into our deep reformation roots. After all, Lutheranism is a tradition founded on the new and useful ideas of Martin Luther that changed not only the church, but much of western society.

This post features three innovation insights presented as a “remix” of Lutheran theological concepts and Dr. Linda Hill’s work on collective genius innovation.

Insight 1 – Vocation and the priesthood of all believers

Innovation (something new and useful) is not about solo genius but focuses on building the culture and context for collective genius. For Hill and associates, each individual person has a unique slice of genius – their ideas, experience and way of seeing the world. To build an innovation culture, each person’s individual slice of genius must be unleashed and harnessed as part of the “collective.”

For Lutherans, this individual slice of genius might be likened to understanding vocation — the call  to faithful expression of the one’s God-given gifts poured out for the well-being of the neighbor. And so, the collective for Lutherans might be akin to the body of Christ and priesthood of all believers. In the collective Body, all members have varying gifts and equitable share and responsibility.

Insight 2 – Leadership: The role of co-creators

Leadership today does not seem to be getting any easier. COVID-19 has certainly proven this point.

Gone are the days when a solo leader could look out the front door and see clearly for miles, easily lining up the community in rank and file to march toward a destination. Today’s world is increasingly complex. Solutions to the biggest challenges facing communities are often opaque and unknown. Innovation — the iterative process of rooting down in purpose and moving ahead step by step — becomes the ministry imperative. The type of leader needed, according to Hill’s work, is the co-creator – someone who sets the context for the hard work of innovation and works alongside others to get it done.

Similarly, Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner (The Human Factor) suggests that humans are to be co-creators in the creation God has purposefully brought into being and that humans have freedom to participate in fulfilling God’s purposes in the world. God is Creator, and as humans created in that image.

How might we faithfully lead by walking alongside and cultivating the context for others to do the hard work of developing new and useful things so more people might know the way of Jesus and God’s love?

Insight 3 – The Gift of Paradox

Hill and associates have uncovered six essential “paradoxes” for innovation.


“remix” of Lutheran theological
Source: Harvard Business Review,


For Martin Luther, the paradoxical nature of being both saint and sinner, free and bound, is where the freedom of the Christian lies. As challenges and issues in both church and society become more complex and ambiguous, the presence and expectation of paradox is a theological gift.

In the end, remixes come and they go. But the tunes often continue to ring true. What rings true for you in this remix? What new questions or ideas come to mind?

Mikka McCracken, Executive for Innovation & Director, ELCA Innovation Lab

The ELCA Innovation Lab Blog is new! We’d love to hear what you think. If you’ve got a few minutes, complete this short survey. If you have any additional questions or comments let us know at