Ideas turn to cash at TAC Innovation Lab
by Ronnie Crocker
As pandemic shutdowns began two years ago, churches moved quickly to acquire the technical know-how for streaming services to stranded parishoners via Zoom, YouTube or Facebook Live. Clergy have since embraced TikTok and other platforms as well.
Social media photos of congregants watching services remotely from the comfort of their home jacuzzi suggest audiences likewise have adapted, says the Rev. Michael Jarboe, senior associate pastor at Houston’s Memorial Drive United Methodist Church.
“Innovation is a part of who we are as a faith community,” he says.
The Texas Annual Conference is promoting even more creative thinking in 2022, establishing an innovation committee and investing up to a quarter-million dollars for “out of the box” initiatives, as committee member Jarboe puts it, throughout 635 churches in eastern and southeastern Texas. It will award individual grants of up to $10,000.
“The hope of these innovation grants is to encourage fresh energy, ideas and risk-taking ministry throughout our conference,” the Rev. Morris Matthis said in an announcement. He and Bea Garza lead the conference’s innovation team.
“There’s no better time than now to encourage churches to try an innovative idea,” Matthis said.
To brainstorm projects and hone their funding pitches, creative types from across the conference have been invited to attend one of two Innovation Labs this spring and summer.
The workshops will feature panelists, including several who do not work in churches, to talk about how they brought ideas to fruition. Attendees will break into small groups to share knowledge and get feedback. They will have a few weeks afterward to complete their grant applications.
The workshops won’t be a Shark Tank-style competition, but a supportive space with a focus on “doing good for the greater good,” Jarboe says. He cites the work of chef Chris Shepherd in establishing the Southern Smoke charity for service industry workers and of rapper Trae tha Truth in opening the Howdy Homemade ice cream shop that employs special-needs workers.
Jarboe is excited to see what kinds of ideas are brought forward at the inaugural Innovation Lab. Service projects such as turning an abandoned retail space into a laundry for homeless are welcome, as are tech projects that might draw attention in Silicon Valley. Will someone come up with a ride-sharing app for people who need a lift to church? A platform for making online donations?
Attendees will get a literal taste of innovation from the Houston-based gastrochurch, which began five years ago as a monthly, moveable feast for people not inclined to attend a traditional church service. Caterers serve a family-style meal with a menu that is paired with discussion topics designed to get people to dive deeply into matters of the spirit.
The group has linens and tableware to serve up to 40 people for a dinner experience at locations including parks, apartment complexes and other places absent of pews.
Director Haley Brown calls gastrochurch a “safe place” that recognizes people may leave the traditional church for reasons that have nothing to do with their relationship to Jesus.
“It definitely would be considered an innovative approach to church- and to community-building,” Brown says.
She hopes that hosting a gastrochurch lunch at the Innovation Labs will inspire even more creative thinking.
“There’s no idea too big or small here,” she says.
The first Innovation Lab will be March 26 at the Texas Museum of Broadcast and Communications in Kilgore. Location for the Aug. 27 event in Houston has not been announced. Panelists have not been announced.
Register at txcumc.org/tac-innovation-lab.