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The Isaiah Partnership: Pastors Leading Innovation

Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), New Jersey, is advancing innovation and changemaking in, with, and through congregations and in pastoral formation through its Isaiah Partnership project. This piece is part of the In Trust Center’s ongoing series about the Pathways project.

Abigail Rusert, principal investigator, and LeQuita Porter, project director, shared the project’s process and progress with the In Trust Center staff.

Briefly describe the project.

The Isaiah Partnership is a collaborative initiative between Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) and The Changemaker Initiative of Los Altos, California. In 2023, this partnership engaged twelve diverse church congregations from across the United States in experimenting with two models of innovation and changemaking for 10 months. A key component of the project was the involvement of PTS faculty, with a focus on fostering curricular innovation. Faculty were invited to collaboratively reflect on creativity, innovation, and change leadership within their respective fields. They could then apply for grants to design new curriculum offerings and continuing education partnerships. Additionally, the project emphasized engagement between congregations and PTS faculty to enhance pastoral formation and develop a strong theological framework for innovation.

What have you learned so far?

Intentionally bringing seminary scholars and church leaders together to discuss innovation provides diverse perspectives and robust discussions. In 2023, we held a panel discussion and retreat with PTS faculty and cohort practitioners focused on innovation and the relationship between churches and academic institutions. This dialogue enhanced mutual understanding of interests, concerns, and needs.

Supportive partnerships between clergy, laypeople, and institutions like PTS foster the confidence needed to take risks and innovate. Lay partners, trained and regarded as change leaders, significantly influence innovation within congregations. In our cohort, lay partners often led innovation teams and pitched new project ideas, proving their critical importance and benefit throughout the process.

Innovation in churches depends on openness to new paradigms (theology of risk, failure, scarcity) and viewing “failures” as learning opportunities (narratives of abundance). Universal tools and experiences can help pastors and church leaders make innovative changes in various contexts.

Diverse cohort experiences expand vision and opportunities. Encouraging 'Holy Friendships' among participants fosters future collaboration and sustainability. Guided methodologies that emphasize strengths and address true needs can yield significant results and allow Pastors to focus on other ministry aspects. Effective team building is crucial for innovation.

What has surprised you along the way?

All 12 diverse congregations and teams connected rather easily and maintained their enthusiasm throughout the 10-month program (February-November 2023). They continue to communicate with each other and our office.

What have been a few successes?

We successfully revised the PTS innovation curriculum with input from faculty and the inaugural cohort, now being tested on a second cohort with greater acceptance. Engagement with the inaugural cohort encouraged participation in other Princeton Seminary programs, including the Master of Divinity.

Participants seek more training, assistance, faculty engagement, and resources for their innovation journeys. Projects developed from our program are being executed with good results in congregations.

We launched another test cohort (February-July 2024), incorporating learnings from the first cohort to gain more insights into the innovation process.

Six Princeton Seminary faculty members used Isaiah Partnership microgrants to create impactful programs, enhancing course offerings and ministry programs. Examples include enhancements to the PhD program, collaborations with local churches, and international theological studies.

What aspects of the project are you hopeful about?

We are hopeful that the enthusiasm and innovative spirit continues with those who have completed our program, as well as that we might find a way to reach more people with these same teachings, in myriad ways using our current platforms and future platforms.

We hope to develop the Princeton Seminary curriculum – the C.R.E.A.T.E. Innovation Curriculum – into a church leadership and lay development tool that can be shared across multiple congregations and offered as a self-guided resource, as well as an asynchronous and synchronous training journey. We hope churches can recognize this need for partnership and draw on the tools they learned to form relationships between clergy and lay leaders, churches, and judicatories in their communities that can foster an ecology of innovation, which nurtures the freedom to fail, experiment, and try again.

What are you learning that could help other schools?

It is important to bring the cohort for an in-person gathering, at the beginning of any extended program if possible, and it is even more beneficial to have another in-person touchpoint at the end, or nearer to the end of the cohort experience. All other meetings can work virtually.

Ethnographic research played a crucial role in this cohort experience. Our lead researcher and a team of student researchers observed and recorded every aspect of this program. They became well-acquainted with the constituent churches, extracting valuable information through their interactions and in-person interviews.

Faculty engagement was crucial from beginning to end. They participated in writing the grant proposal, refining the curriculum, selecting cohort participants, interacting with cohort churches, and evaluating program activities through the Isaiah Partnership (IP) steering committee. Three faculty members were committed from the start, and others joined for reading groups on innovation, panel discussions, specialized programs using IP micro-grants, and authoring articles for a 2025 Theology Today edition on Innovation.

Include a “coaching” element in the cohort experience. Church teams appreciated the ongoing support, which helped them overcome barriers in their ministries. Participants valued our positive approach, tailored adjustments, and felt supported and truly collaborative with PTS.

Read more about the Isaiah Project here.       

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