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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

The ELCA Innovation Lab: An Origin Story

“The way people hear and receive the gospel is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. The competitors of the gospel are many. The ELCA Innovation Lab is a space to experiment and innovate in real time so more people can know more about Jesus and experience the love of God.”

-Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

In January 2020, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton announced the priority of become an “innovation denomination” and the launch of the ELCA Innovation Lab. But what type of innovation denomination should the ELCA strive to be and what difference will it make anyway?

Innovation is often viewed as a single stroke of individual, inventive genius. But as many excellent resources on adaptive change and innovation in the church have named, a life of faith is often reflected by life in community.

With this in mind, the ELCA’s pursuit of innovation work is grounded in the research on collective genius as outlined by Dr. Linda A. Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and director of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, and her associates Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback. In their book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Hill and associates define innovation simply as something new and useful. Through their research on innovative businesses and organizations such as Google, Pixar and Volkswagen, the team explore innovation culture and capability – the willingness and ability to innovate time and again.


Church Innovation Origin
Source: Harvard Business Review,


To benchmark the ELCA’s existing willingness and ability to culturally transform and continuously innovate, the ELCA Innovation Lab partnered with Paradox Strategies, Dr. Hill’s leadership consulting firm. In February, through the re:Route™ assessmentnearly 100 ELCA leaders weighed in, including leadership and young adult staff of the churchwide organization, two bishops and two directors for evangelical mission from each of the nine ELCA regions, the vice president of the ELCA and the chair of the conference of bishops. Overall, the data reflects an organization just beginning its innovation journey. Here are some highlights: 

  • 70% are willing to collaborate, but only 30% believe the organization is structured to facilitate that or that people excel at it.  
  • 30% believe it is safe to take the risk to speak their own mind.  
  • An inflexible structure, risk aversion and excessive planning make it nearly impossible to experiment or adjust quickly.  
  • Less than 25% believe the right people at the right level are involved in decision making.  
  • A majority sometimes chose to ignore decisions they don’t like.  

In other words, if the ELCA’s innovation journey could be likened to training for a marathon race, we were looking at a “5k” training plan.  

And then, COVID-19 hit.  

Six months since the pandemic beganthere is no doubt that innovation has been happening across the church and society. Frontline industries have pivoted to ensure the safety of workersmany congregations are still worshiping remotelythose who could began the great work from home experiment, students of all ages are starting classes online or in hybrid mode, entire industries are changing their business modelsAnd yet, for the millions of Americans out of work, innovation might seem like a far-off notion for someone else.  

In such uncertain, unprecedented times, innovation and its sister tools of design thinking and adaptive leadership are more important than ever.  

And so is the church.   

The ELCA Innovation Lab hopes to be a path forward for the church – and the church is at its core – the people. In the end, it is up to you, to usAnd not our own sake, but for the sake of this world God so loves.  

After all, as Luther Seminary professor Terri Martinson Elton writes“The word innovation comes from the Latin word innovare, which means renew. It’s the process of renewing personally and communally, of nurturing life, especially after a crisis or fallow time.”  

Soif you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, subscribe and follow this blog for more. If you’re not sure yet and just want to follow along, you’re more than welcome, too! Check back for the next post which will explore some of the connections between Lutheran faith and innovation. You may also want to check out other innovation resources, such as Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead community.  

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