October 2020 Newsletter: God Uses Ordinary People To Do Extraordinary Things
October 15, 2020
Little Sprouts of Life Stir the Rubble
September 15, 2020

Innovation and Collaboration: The Story Continues

Elie Haddad
October 15, 2020
Chapter five

If you have not been following our unfolding story of the new strategic direction for ABTS, you can access the earlier chapters here.

Back in April 2020, when we had to respond to the multiple layers of crises disrupting our operation, we quickly realized that this was the perfect storm that God will use to propel us into asking foundational questions that govern our ministry. We knew that the time had come to rediscover the mission that God is giving us for this new season, identify the essentials that we need to hold on to, and be prepared to make some uncomfortable changes. And we realized that all of this needs to happen within a framework of collective discernment, discerning together as a community how God is refining our calling. In the process, we recognized that innovation and collaboration are two key elements that will have to accompany this new season. In this chapter of the story, I want to unpack what innovation and collaboration are beginning to mean for us.
The first element is innovation, which is not something new at ABTS. We have become known as a laboratory for new ideas. We did not set out to innovate. What happened was that we were frequently faced with threats or opportunities that have no known solution. We couldn’t copy someone else’s solution and we did not have clear criteria for selecting the best path. We had to come up with our own answers. This has engendered a culture of risk-taking that eventually permeated all levels of our operation. We became eager to try new approaches and new methods and not be afraid to revise our modus operandi when deemed necessary. The main areas of innovation at ABTS have been curricular design, assessment of outcomes, interfaith dialogue, and peacebuilding. The new challenges that 2020 keeps dispensing are compelling us to take innovation to the next level. Our ABTS culture and history of innovation have positioned us well to do that. We have the advantage of what Jim McKelvey1 calls the Innovation Stack. It is the successful collection of both interlocking and independent innovation. The accumulation of innovative solutions along the years, repeatedly pursuing new paths without a map, prepares us well to innovate at a larger scale.

As we allow innovation to help shape our path forward, we need to consider the possibilities as well as the pitfalls. To begin with, innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas. It requires creativity in design and skill in execution. But it also requires a good understanding of the problem that we want to address or the opportunity that we want to exploit. There is the temptation that one would seek innovation for the sake of innovation. This can become a threat. Innovation should be in response to or in anticipation of a need or an opportunity. Otherwise, it can become about us rather than about exploring the most faithful way to serve God.

Innovation can also lead to pride. Any perceived success can lead to pride. But at the same time, I believe that it requires a lot of humility to innovate. It takes humility to be willing to try something new and fail. Not all new ideas will succeed. Humility leads us to learn from what others are doing and build on that rather than reinvent what has already been invented.

Innovation is not about us taking matters into our own hands. If we believe that we are in the business of serving God, then God should always be at the center. Innovation in a God-centered organization or institution should always be in response to God calling us to do things differently, to be more relevant and effective in a changing world. This is what Pam Arlund referred to as Holy Innovation in our MEC webinar this past September, “brainstorming with Holy Spirit.” The premise of this Holy Innovation is that God does not guide us by giving us a blueprint. Rather, He guides us by giving us a purpose, a vision. Innovation, consequently, inevitably takes us to places where there is no map or blueprint.

Additionally, innovation is sometimes misunderstood to be focused around the latest technology, that if we jump onto the newest technological fad, then we are being innovative. Technology is not an end by itself. Innovative solutions are often low-tech, inexpensive solutions. Innovation is not finding the most advanced and complex solution. Rather, it is finding the most practical, efficient, and effective solution.
As we embark on our new program design for the new season, we are discovering that we need innovation in the following areas. We need innovation in a distance-based delivery method that offers the same high-quality, holistic, integrated, and contextual program that we are used to. We need innovation in how to offer our program to leaders without requiring them to leave their ministries or jobs. Innovation in how to shape the formative and informal elements of the curriculum. Innovation in how we provide digital resources in Arabic as tools for good research. Innovation in how the role of our faculty can evolve. Innovation in how to leverage technology. Innovation in our funding model and organizational structure. Innovation in how to collaborate and leverage partnerships and relationships.

This brings us to the second element, collaboration. We have learned to value partnerships at ABTS. We know that we cannot fulfil God’s calling for us without the empowerment and enabling of our resourcing partners, and we cannot train effective leaders for the Arab Church without partnering with the Church. We now need to take this to the next level. As the region becomes more volatile, with added restrictions and challenges, churches and ministries can no longer function in silos. If we want to witness Kingdom impact in our region, we cannot but work together. Collaboration is needed more than ever.

We need to collaborate with the churches as we equip their leaders, by learning from them about the challenges of their contexts, and by partnering with them in the formation of these leaders. Our expectation is that, as our students are growing and maturing, their churches would grow and mature with them. We also realize that God is the one forming these leaders. We only play a specific part in this. It would be most effective when all the parts contributing to their formation are aligned and harmonized.

Our collaboration with the churches in the Arab world should also go beyond the formal training of leaders. We want to partner with the churches to meet their growing needs through non-formal and informal training as well. For example, the pandemic is acutely increasing the need in our societies to deal with issues such as healthcare and poverty. We want to partner with our constituent churches in training our congregations in how to develop biblically and theologically informed responses to the emerging needs.

We also want to collaborate with other seminaries in the region. Next month we celebrate ABTS’s sixtieth anniversary. We are blessed to have a rich legacy and many partners that have helped us reach a level of institutional maturity. There are many newer and smaller seminaries in the region that can benefit from our experience and our resources. We need to collaborate with them for the equipping of more leaders if we want to see growing Kingdom impact in the region.

Another needed area of collaboration is service across denominational lines. We are a denominational seminary, and we are proud of our identity, yet we have learned that we are not called to serve only Baptist churches. We are called to serve the Church in the region, with all its denominational families. This is becoming even more important today. We are excited that we signed a formal collaboration agreement with the Nazarene Church recently. We want to learn from this experience and multiply it. What a statement it would be among our majority context that church bodies work together in harmony. The world will know that we are the disciples of Jesus by our love for each other, by our unity and collaboration, and not by our competition with one another.

We are also excited about our conversations with two other seminaries in the region about the possibility of developing a collaborative, regional PhD program. None of us can do this alone. Together we can. Imagine the intellectual and scholarly contributions that this collaboration can produce in our region.

And when we think of collaboration, we also think internally. Even within ABTS, a small institution, we have multiple departments with multiple programs and initiatives. These challenging days also call for an internal assessment of our efficiencies. Finding synergies and having teams work more closely and collaboratively together can foster more productivity and efficiency. We are in the process of this assessment at ABTS, and some internal restructuring is in order. Stay tuned for more on that soon.

Collaboration is key. The business world understands well that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. This is true only when there is teamwork and collaboration, and not working in silos and in isolation. As churches and ministries serving in this challenging region at this challenging time, if we want to witness Kingdom impact, collaboration is key.

Throughout this journey, we continue to trust God. We are facing exceptional uncertainties these days. We pray that we remain in Him, as He remains in us, knowing full well that no branch can bear fruit apart from the Vine.
1 McKelvey, Jim. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2020.