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What Simone Biles Is Teaching Me about Innovation

Throwing out the old scorecard has changed gymnastics—and it can change your ministry.

On August 5, the 2016 Summer Olympics will officially begin with the opening ceremonies. And on August 7, I will grab a bowl of popcorn and watch the start of the gymnastics events, paying special attention to Simone Biles, the most decorated American female gymnast, as she competes at her first Olympics. This isn’t a new tradition. I have fond memories of watching the Magnificent Seven compete in the 1996 Atlanta games. As a young gymnast myself, I eyed every precise stunt and every perfect toe-point. I sat on the edge of my seat as Kerri Strug heroically vaulted, injuring herself, and ending her gymnastics career—all in the name of teamwork.

For those of you who may not have watched women’s gymnastics with as much zeal as I, it’s important to know that in 2008 the scorecard for gymnastics changed from the well-known 10-point system to a scoring scale that highlights the difficulty of routines. Despite objections from some long-time coaches, fans, and athletes, the new scorecard made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Why change a system that’s worked perfectly well for years? To promote innovation. You see, the new scorecard rewards gymnasts for attempting daring moves and connecting them together in close succession—even if they make a few mistakes along the way. The old scorecard was heavily based on perfecting elements with little to no reward for incorporating daring or innovative elements. In a nutshell, the point of the new system is to reward taking risks and to take away some of the fear of messing up.

Amazingly, only eight years later, it’s easy to see the benefits of the new system: Simone Biles. NBC reports that she’s “the first woman ever to be the all-around world champion three years in a row. Not to mention that she’s won 14 total world championship medals—the most ever won by an American woman.” She’s not just good, she’s blowing the competition away: her “all-around scores are over 62 points when only a handful of gymnasts are able to break 60.” What’s more, she even created her own move, which is now named after her—and she’s still the only woman in the world who’s been able to do it.

Perhaps even more telling is the praise she’s gained from past Olympic medalist gymnasts, including Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, and Shawn Johnson. Nastia Liukin, who won the 2008 gold medal for all-around, commented, “She’s the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen.”

I realize you may be wondering what any of this has to do with ministry. Let me ask you something: How innovative is your ministry? How often are you asking “What if?” and “Why not?” How often are you risking in an attempt to do ministry in fuller, deeper, and more meaningful ways? I believe there are three takeaways for church leaders if we, too, want to pursue excellence:

1. Reexamine your goals.

I can imagine Simone Biles sitting with her coach: “What if I did two layouts with a half twist at the end? Could I do it?” Whatever your ministry, it can be easy to stick with the same format you’ve been using for years and simply try to perfect what you’re doing. So whether that’s the women’s tea, the prayer retreat, the small-group training event, or giving a sermon, many of us instinctively stick to the way we’ve always done them. Sure, we may change up a little thing here or there, like changing the location of the prayer retreat or the time for the leader training. But in the end, we mostly stick to the way we’ve been doing things. We want to excel at the format we’ve already got—and there’s value in that.

I want to encourage you to think bigger, though. I don’t necessarily mean bigger as in more people, but bigger as in partnering with God in new and amazing ways. If your goal is to keep ministering to the same people in exactly the same way, then by all means, carry on. When I read Ephesians 3:20, though, a lot of “what ifs” fill my mind. What if we allowed ourselves to dream a little bigger, a little broader, a little deeper?

What if our small-group ministry focused on connecting and caring for people who are often on the margins? What if our prayer ministry mixed things up to help people engage God in experiential ways? What if we threw out the old women’s ministry event and let the younger leaders in our ministry stretch their wings a bit? How might you give most effectively to your community? What could you do to holistically care for the families in your church? How could you develop leaders in ways that empower them to take ownership? Who else might need to be involved in your ministry to reach people you’re not currently reaching?

When we start asking these bigger questions—the “how can we bring God more glory” questions—I believe we’ll begin to minister more innovatively and effectively and help people experience God in new and powerful ways.

2. Let yourself off the hook for making a few mistakes.

When we’re afraid of making mistakes, we focus so much on perfection that we don’t have the time or energy to think of doing things in new ways. There’s a difference, however, between pursuing perfection and pursuing excellence in ministry. We can spend a lifetime perfecting every little bit of a single format and miss out on the bigger vision God has for our ministry. Can you imagine, for instance, if worship leaders had focused on simply perfecting organ music rather than incorporating new musical developments? We’d have some amazing organ players, but we’d have missed out on Hillsong.

At the end of the day, we are flawed beings, and we will make mistakes—including in ministry. So rather than get hung up on the ways we’ve made missteps, we can reframe the experiences as steps in the pursuit of excellence. I have no doubt Biles fell more than a few times trying to stick her namesake element. The important thing is to admit our mistakes and weaknesses, work to right any wrongs, and learn from the experience as we move forward.

That can be as simple as realizing our great idea for a women’s event fell flat and didn’t engage people the way we thought it would and choosing a new theme next time. It can be as difficult as realizing that others might have gifts and skills that we don’t—and learning to partner with them for greater impact. I want you to hear this loud and clear: you will make mistakes. Wouldn’t you prefer to make them in an effort to make your ministry the best it can be? Reframe your failure as a learning experience and move forward.

3. Allow time to see change.

Even though the rules were changed in 2008, we didn’t immediately see major changes to gymnasts’ routines. There were of course small changes along the way, but it wasn’t until Simone Biles came on the scene in 2013 that we really saw the potential of the new scorecard. And for those fans that don’t keep up with gymnastics between the Olympics, Rio will be the first time they see the difference the scoring can make. So yes: get to work on thinking outside the box and coming up with creative new ideas for your ministry. But also, allow some time to see changes. After all, creativity and innovation take time—both in coming up with ideas and implementing them.

I think if we allow ourselves to innovate, to fail a little, we’ll be shouting Ephesians 3:20 from the rooftops: God you truly are able to do more than we could have imagined! At the end of the day, the new gymnastics scorecard did more than inspire Simone Biles to be innovative—it actually changed the sport for the better. The spirit of the Olympics—faster, higher, stronger—shines through, and I can only imagine that as the years go on, we’ll see more and more gymnasts working to break through to new heights. Little girls who will watch this year’s Olympics will be inspired just like I was in 1996, but they’ll have one huge benefit: Rather than simply be inspired to perfection, they’ll be inspired to be bold, risky, and daring in their pursuit of excellence.

If we adopt that pursuit in ministry, I believe we’ll see God move in ways we never thought possible, we’ll show the love of God to people in ways they’ve never experienced, and we’ll reach and care for people who have never felt like part of the club.

As we watch the amazing athletes in Rio over the next few weeks pushing the limitations of their bodies and sports, may we be inspired to be audacious leaders, courageously leaning into our God-given gifts, talents, and passions, and boldly trusting God to show up in mighty ways.

Amy Jackson is managing editor of Gifted for Leadership.

August04, 2016 at 10:00 AM

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