A Seminary Invites Silicon Valley to Play: The Launch of a New Center for Innovation in Ministry at SFTS

A Seminary Invites Silicon Valley to Play: The Launch of a New Center for Innovation in Ministry at SFTS October 23, 2014

2014_CIM_Launch_GamersI’ve just recently returned from an exceptionally joyful jaunt to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I learned first-hand the transformative power of play for solving real-world problems such as hunger, violence, racism, and climate change.

Late last week, on a beautiful fall day in the sleepy hills of Marin County, the San Franciso Theological Seminary (SFTS) launched its new Center for the Innovation in Ministry with an extraordinary event that brought together Silicon valley gamers and innovators with pastors, church leaders, business leaders and theologians to engage real-life big problems. Who would’ve thunk that such an unlikely meeting of radically different minds would result in such an inspiring, creative, playful and powerful few days? And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

And that’s exactly what Seminary leaders were hoping for in the launch and creation of this new Center. “Central to the purpose of the Center is to bring together unlikely partners for conversation, collaboration and creativity for the good of the church and the world,” said the Rev. Sherri Hauser, Center Director. “The Center is not just another think tank. It is a ‘think, do and be’ tank.” The Center was envisioned in May 2013 as part of a new strategic plan for the Seminary that emphasizes innovation, flexibility, greater access to programs, and a strong, vital connection with the Church.

Jane leading the room in a game of Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling

The “unlikely partners” of this first event included visionary game-designer and futurist Dr. Jane McGonigal (google her popular Ted Talk on how gaming can change the world for a taste of her brilliance) to talk about the power of gaming for good, and specifically how we might harness the “super-powers” of gamers to solve real-world problems. (The super-powers being: urgent optimism, tight social fabric, blissful productivity, and epic meaning.) She sat (casual and cross-legged) on panels with seasoned social justice workers, peacemakers, pastors and theologians to dialogue about how playing together could produce epic change, healing and transformation.

Also present at this launch event was the “unlikely” partner of Dave Viotti, CEO and Founder of Smallify, a Silicon Valley start-up that helps corporations and non-profits take big problems and make them more manageable. (And with no shortage of fun, I might add … Viotti, a trained IP lawyer, is also an improvisational actor.) His three-hour “innovation lab” with 10 teams (8-10 on a team) of pastors and faith leaders was dynamic, and fun, and productive. From my vantage point as I wandered from table to table, there was a palpable sense of joy and freedom in the room. Freedom to experiment, to dream, to listen deeply, and most importantly, to fail. Viotti set up this culture of failure at the outset, when he asked everyone to find a partner and take a bow while saying “I will fail.” One trait of gamers, per McGonigal, is that they expect and are OK with failing 80% of the time in pursuit of the epic win. Allowing ourselves to fail is critical to our success. (And oh, how we hate — and aren’t really allowed — to fail in the Church.)

IMG_4619Viotti introduced five tools of rapid innovation to the group, including: Fear Less, Open Up, Say Yes, Make Stuff, and Bet Small. He sprinkled fun and effective improv exercises throughout to help us practice saying yes (instead of no, which tends to shut down conversation and ideas), making stuff up (we improved on the common kitchen spatula quite creatively), and imagining your team had been taken over by a famous person, such as Jesus or Hillary Clinton. At the end of the morning, every team came away with one real action to go out and do on behalf of a recognized problem they were facing in their church or work. Whatever the success of the individual outcomes (and since what we created were what Viotti called “small bets,” or an idea that would be a forgivable loss if it didn’t pan out), the immediate success to me was in seeing a roomful of pastors enjoying each other, working together, laughing, dreaming, smiling, innovating and co-creating on behalf of the Church. That gift alone was worth the price of admission!

I took pages of notes at the event (all circuits firing for this gal) on gaming research, on the insightful conversations between unlikely collaborators, on innovative ministry ideas — all the while feeling the creative sparks firing in my own brain about how to engage my own two boy gamers (Minecraft, anyone?), tackling challenges here at Patheos and in my ministries at my church. A particular conversation around how playing games builds something called “mirror neurons” in the players, which leads to compassion for not only that other person, but for the entire population that person represents, absolutely blew my mind. (Right, so a teenage boy playing a strategy game with his grandma effectively changes both of their perceptions of each others’ population, for the better.)

I haven’t felt so inspired, energized, hopeful — and joyful — about what I was learning in a long time. Bravo, SFTS. #epicwin. The future looks just a tad brighter – and dare I say, fun – after a weekend with you!

(Future Center for Innovation in Ministry events will feature John Bell of Scotland’s Iona Community, former PC(USA) Moderator and social media guru Bruce Reyes-Chow, popular church historian Phyllis Tickle, and worship innovator Marcia McFee.)

Brandan Robertson, Mark Sandlin and me gaming it up at SFTS

Read my fellow Patheos bloggers, Mark Sandlin and Brandan Robertson‘s, insightful posts on the event as well.

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