By Eddie Pipkin

June 5, 2017

You might have come across the story of the “subway graduation,” Jerich Marco Alcantara’s feel-good tale of a thwarted graduation ceremony which was salvaged by some creative thinking and good-hearted bystanders.  It got me thinking—why can’t the church be more like that?  Creative.  Responsive to the need of the moment.  Flexible and open and surprising.

Alcantara was on his way to his nursing school graduation when the subway broke down, and he appeared he would miss the ceremony altogether, but in a wonderful “making lemonade out of lemons moment,” family and friends were joined by complete strangers to stage an impromptu ceremony that went viral on the internet.  One person drew an impromptu diploma on their smartphone, while another pulled up a playlist of classic graduation songs.  This might have been a dark day, a disaster that derailed a major life accomplishment.  But instead it morphed into a unique and special moment which Alcantara, his family, and a group of temporarily stranded random commuters will never forget.

Why can’t the church be more like that?  Adaptive in the moment.  Willing to take a creative approach that uniquely fits the need at hand.  Working with the available tools as the Spirit leads to find the true joy in an opportunity (and thus moving beyond the apparent pitfalls and limitations of the moment).

Think about this story metaphorically, and imagine the organized church’s response.  A young man and his family find their celebration knocked off course.  Here would be the church’s standard response:

  • Let’s put a committee together to develop a plan for how to respond. In a series of meetings, we will prayerfully consider the best course for designing an alternative graduation celebration which effectively utilizes available resources and recruits volunteers willing to work in this new ministry.  We’ll issue a detailed report with recommendations for our Administrative Council to debate and vote on.
  • We’re sorry, we can’t respond in this moment to this particular graduation ceremony crisis because it doesn’t fit within the context of our current programs and ministries. We do have a program for derailed wedding ceremonies, and perhaps we could work you into a variation of that, and we can certainly direct you to our once-a-month young adult ministry if you’re interested in making connections with some peers who may have shared similar experiences.
  • We are sympathetic to the issue facing you and your family, but we just don’t have the budget to respond at this time. Our thwarted-event-ceremony-celebration budget for this fiscal year has been exhausted, and our staff member for this category of issue is away on sabbatical. Perhaps you could check back in with us next year!
  • We are sorry to hear of your troubles, and we are happy to pray for you and your family, but we would also direct you to some choice verses from Proverbs about the virtues of better planning. Perhaps if you lived a more organized life (which we’d be more than happy to explain to you how to do). . . .

I tease the ministry partners I love.  And yet.  Think about the ministries of which you are currently a part or have been a part of in the past (especially about any that you have led) and ask yourself just how flexible, creative, and responsive they have been?  We tend to build an elaborate framework of operational conditions and expectations around our ministries.  This is true with complex church wide initiatives, and it can be equally true of small projects—that is, scale does not necessarily equate with flexible and creative management strategies.  The basic issue is the set of questions with which we begin.  It is rare that, as ministry leaders, we begin any discussion like this: “How can we set this ministry up to encourage maximum flexibility and creativity?”  Most often, we begin with establishing what the rules will be, what steps we can take to minimize the possibility of complications or failure, and the parameters for how we can maintain maximum control.

Obviously, it’s a balance.  You and I have been exposed to some ministries that were so flexible that they were indistinguishable from chaos.  This is not good ministry practice either.  But our natural tendencies, in the pursuit of excellence, tend to stifle creative, go-with-the-flow responses.

Consider the biblical story of the feeding of the five thousand.  Clearly, in this case, the miracle that ultimately results was in no way the game plan of the day.  In fact, this crowd interaction was ostensibly the very thing Jesus and the disciples set out to avoid.  Yet, a pliable response to a pop-up event (to use the terminology of our own time) becomes the catalyst for one of our foundational stories as followers of Jesus.

Look at the parallels: something bad becomes something with a faith-based creative response; people who wouldn’t normally be involved in making ministry happen become an integral part of the story; community is strengthened in improbable ways because people find an unexpected way to work together.  We can’t plan for the improbable and unexpected—such occurrences are resistant to organized planning by definition—but we can promote creativity and flexibility in our team meetings, in our thinking, in our vision statements, and in the ways in which we allocate resources.

What have your “subway graduation” serendipitous moments in ministry been?  Conversely, where would you identify opportunities lost to rigidity in your ministry experiences?  Share your own stories.  And check out resources at the emc3 website, like our Connect! materials (which are all about creatively responding to the needs of communities).