Applying design thinking to church life yields new ideas

December 20, 2021 by Rev. Jody Mask

Disruption. Displacement. Destruction.

The letter “d” often lends itself to words describing chaos and disorder. These days, such words remind us of the challenges of living in a pandemic world exacerbated by divisions along racial, cultural, religious, and economic lines.

But as the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana shared these three d-words to begin a recent workshop for Central Florida Presbytery, she dispelled any angst in the virtual room by offering a countervailing word of hope: design. Specifically, Dana introduced the concept of “design thinking” in the workshop, called “Designing Your Ministry.”

Questions that guided the workshop’s purpose included:

  • What ministry is God calling us to do now?
  • What ministries are we no longer able to do?
  • How can we make the most of this liminal moment?

Of course, a two-hour workshop would not begin to offer comprehensive answers to such questions. But through the practice of design thinking, participants at least gained familiarity with one tool they could use to shape their changing reality in response to God’s call to change.

Illustrating disruption

Rev. Dana engaged the workshop participants in a thought experiment involving driving on a bridge over a river to get to the city. Disruption was having to wait 45 minutes to cross due to an accident. Displacement was having to choose another bridge, as the desired one was closed for safety reasons. Destruction was having to choose an alternate mode of travel entirely, as all the bridges were either closed or destroyed.

The present church, Dana suggested, often finds itself, along with most of the world, disrupted or displaced, and occasionally, even destroyed. Pandemic protocols that ebb and flow with Covid variants reflect that reality. But as the church believes in a resurrected Lord, it knows that something more beautiful can emerge from whatever d-word it endures. And design thinking helps the church co-create that beauty with God.

Dana explained to workshop participants that “design thinking focuses on empathy and experimentation. Applied in the congregational setting, design thinking will help you imagine, create, and implement ministries that matter now.”

She took an interactive approach to teaching the group about the process, charging them with designing customized holidays for two of their fellow participants. The goal was “not to design the best thing possible but to learn the model…God is the one that brings the harvest.”

Through this phrase, Dana tied the presentation back to the sermon from Matthew 9:32-38 she delivered to Central Florida Presbytery’s December meeting the previous day. The sermon was based on the story of Jesus having compassion for the crowds that showed up for his healing and teaching, and imploring his disciples to “ask the Lord of harvest to send out workers into the harvest field.”

A process

Design thinking equips such workers with a multi-step process. The components of the process vary according to the source, but generally adhere to the progression espoused by Stanford’s “d.school” model, which Rev. Dana highlighted in the workshop: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Empathizing is the “heart and emotional center of the practice,” Dana said. And with that, the group began its work. She asked one of the participants to share what life has been like lately, and the person responded that during the worst parts of the pandemic, sharing accurate and appropriate information was a critical and difficult task. What information was reliable? What was useful to pass on, and what could be ignored or discarded?

Dana picked up on one particular gesture during the response that suggested a desire to block out some of the noise of pandemic information overload. Another participant, a former home economics teacher, asked about the first one’s diet, noting the importance of eating well. Another was curious about what the person did to recharge or to find respite.

This questioning phase grounds design thinking in person-centered research. Dana shared interview tips such as “Don’t suggest answers to questions,” “Look for inconsistencies,” and “Be aware of nonverbal cues.”

Rev. Dana shared tools to use for this information-gathering stage in the context of congregational design thinking as well as this individual-centered exercise. Among these were  “experience mapping,” and the “what/how/why” approach. Congregations exploring their identity amidst pastoral transitions could use such practices for honest self-assessment.

In the group exercise, other issues that surfaced with the first participant included time and travel challenges, a need to not be “the fixer,” and establishing boundaries between work and personal life.

Points of view

Next, the group worked on defining the problem for the participant. It was a good time for Dana to remind them that Albert Einstein said if he had a problem to solve in 60 minutes, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. Since the group exercise did not have the same luxury of time, Dana helped them define the problem by sharing a template called a Point of View Statement. She also steered them to avoid “gravity problems” (which are as unavoidable as gravity) and “anchor problems” (which prevent motion and presuppose a solution, even if it is unsatisfactory).

With this guidance in mind, the group could suggest a holiday for their subject that included no itinerary or obligation to arrive at preset times. The ideal holiday for the person in question called for unstructured time in a relaxing setting to focus on self-care.

The group quickly moved to the ideation phase, a brainstorming session prioritizing creativity over practicality. Dana advised that designers and other creatives prefer to put ideas out in the open, even if they end up being incorrect or insufficient; the goal is to take risks with questions that invite correction, clarification, and refining.

As an example, Rev. Dana shared the story of a Japanese company that needed a refresh in a lean economy. It turned to an image of a seemingly random animal (in this case, a King crab) and team members compared the company to it. Surprising commonalities emerged that helped the company rethink many of its business practices.

Careful listening is crucial

The group exercise could not practically include a prototype or testing phase, but Dana reminded the group that prototyping starts with empathy. As one person sincerely designs after carefully listening to another and refining ideas to address the need, developing a working model is possible. The beautiful part of this process is that different people have different interpretations of the problem. What is obvious to one person is obtuse to another! For the designer, then, knowing oneself can be as valuable as getting to know the client.

Another key concept in the prototyping phase is “MVP” (minimal viable product), which is determining the minimum amount of change that is needed at the moment. Often, design thinking is an incremental process as ideas are developed, tested, redeveloped and retested.

In this way, design thinking is rarely a linear process, but iterates and re-iterates until the human need is met. While this can be a challenging aspect when applied to church problems (because folks are reticent to criticize the church, for better or for worse), bravery and perseverance really pay off for the design thinker.

The group concluded its time together with appreciation for the process of design thinking and how it can assist and inform change initiatives in ministry settings. And more than one participant envisioned spa retreats in their near futures! For them, the only d-word that mattered was “decompress.”

Rev. Jody Mask serves as Associate Pastor of Markham Woods Presbyterian Church in Lake Mary, Florida. He earned his Master of Divinity at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in the distance learning program. He has also served as an administrative assistant for Central Florida Presbytery, where he presently chairs the nominating committee and co-hosts “The Central Florida Presbycast” podcast. He loves his wife, Ellen, distance running and nature nerding.