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How Desire Paths Can Revolutionize Your Ministry

What are desire paths and how can you use them to revolutionize your ministry? Here are five steps that can create new PATHS for your church ...

desire paths
I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of a ‘laggard’ when it comes to podcast adoption. What I once considered a waste of time has become my go-to for learning, ideas, and inspiration. Some of it has to do with how my circumstances have become more conducive to podcast listening over the past few years. But mostly, I’ve just been a slow adopter here.
Confession over. On to my real topic.


This week I was listening to a conversation between Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, and Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter. It was interesting to hear how Twitter came into being (after a failed podcast startup, no less). But it was a passing comment from their conversation that caught my attention and inspired this post.
During their conversation, Stone referred to a story about how the architect of UC Berkley at Irvine didn’t pave pathways during the first year after new buildings were built. Instead, the school planted grass and waited for the students to literally “vote with their feet'' on where the paved pathways should be.
This idea relates to a concept in urban planning called “desire paths.” As described in one article I read, desire paths are:
“living histories of travelers wandering off-pavement, forming shortcuts, carving their own trails and recreating their communities. You’ve probably seen them. Some are lightly imprinted across pristine lawns, others are deeply etched into them. They cut through grassy corners, form dirt trails over hills, trample diagonal lines from point A to point B, and, in the winter, are footsteps pressed into snow.
But desire paths are not inert histories. Once established, they influence how pedestrians use and interact with their environment going forward. To the dismay of some planners and to the fascination of others, desire paths are representative of the constantly evolving relationship between people and place.” 
In other arenas, we might consider a desire path as a ‘hack,’ meaning a way to get around something we consider inefficient or ineffective in order to achieve the desired outcome. Regardless of what you call them or whether you like them, desire paths should signal leaders that something is wanting to happen that the current product or system is prohibiting (or at least isn’t promoting).
As churches continue to find ways to adapt to the current realities of our culture and world, desire paths present an incredible opportunity to fulfill the mission of the church in more effective and efficient ways. But this will require leaders to make a critical shift in their thinking. They will have to move away from preserving the organization, its structures, and ministry offerings in reaction to change, and instead move toward searching for the imprinted footpaths of the people they are called to serve. Tracing these early trails will allow teams to glean insights on how they might pave new paths that will influence how current and future generations will interact with the “place” of the gospel.
How can you use desire paths to revolutionize your ministry? Here are five steps that can create new PATHS for your church. (See what I did there?)


Pay attention to where people are departing from the ‘pavement’ of your ministry

In the case of Twitter, all they did was build something simple and wait to see what users would do with it. Then they paved pathways (features) to enable what wanted to happen. Most of the features that are now standard in the Twitter experience, such as hashtags and retweets, didn’t come from their team; they came from paying attention to what users were trying to do beyond what was already there. 
Over time, our ministries often resemble anything but simplicity. The “feature set” (programs, processes, and resources) gets crowded, confusing, and cumbersome. Eventually, congregants venture off the winding trails we’ve created for something that, from their perspective, seems much more straightforward. Rather than get frustrated or double down on your current model, consider the following: Where are people stepping off the pavement of your ministry path? Where are they going instead? What is it they are wanting to do? 
...which leads to point number two.


Ask the right questions with your team

Here’s a hint: asking “How can we keep people from making their own paths?” isn’t the right question. Funny story about UC Berkeley. While I never found an article validating Biz Stone’s reference (although I found similar stories from a couple of other universities), I did find one that talked about the school’s attempts to keep people on paved trails by putting up decorative barriers. It didn’t work. People just walked around them. It's human nature. But why? Most people take a desire path for one of three reasons:
  1. Time or efficiency. Paved walkways do not always represent the shortest path from Point A to Point B. When individuals are given the opportunity to save time and/or energy, our brains often prompt us to take a shortcut.
  2. Experience. Robert Frost, in "The Road Not Taken," wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” While some of us crave predictability and consistency, others prefer new experiences and the opportunity to interact with the world in new ways. It is the wanderlust in us. Stepping off the beaten path gives us new ways to experience familiar things.
  3. Resistance. There are some of us that, like Von Miller in the 2016 Old Spice Super Bowl commercial, would rather just pave our own roads. “Why would I want to do X when I can just do Y?” You know the types.
These insights give us a launching pad for good questions. How can we make our ministry pathways more efficient? What tools can we create that will redeem our members’ time? Are there new expressions we can bring to old things to create an attractive experience? 


Test the insights and hunches that come from your observations

Over the past 25 years of working in, on, and through churches, I’ve learned how easy it is to fall in love with ideas. More often than not leaders will rush to build a full-scale ministry out of a hunch rather than take the time to test a few insights to gather deeper learnings. 
Don’t give in to this impulse. After all, how many marriages last for couples who married immediately after the first date?
When you gather insights from studying the desire paths of your church or community, process those insights with your team. Choose one or two for some controlled tests, then capture and analyze data. Look for new insights to emerge. Were your hunches validated? Are there tweaks or pivots that need to be made? Resist the urge to fall in love with the first idea. Instead, do some testing and see what rises to the top.


Hear feedback from the trailblazers

Listening always makes you a better leader. When it comes to innovative ideas, more of them may come from the fringes than the center of the organization. Much like Twitter’s biggest features, Chick-fil-A’s hand-spun milkshakes, and 3M’s Post-it Notes, some of the best ways to strengthen your ministry exist as latent ideas in the minds of your frontline employees or “consumers.” You just need to activate them. And, as Steven Johnson points out, great ideas are often born in more than one head. So make sure your feedback loops include both individual and group opportunities.


Solve the right problem

Some of the biggest blunders in product development have come from products or features that were designed to answer questions no one was asking or problems no one was trying to solve. The same can happen in ministry. If a team lacks clarity on the “problem” they are trying to solve or the job that needs to be done, even the most beautifully crafted solutions will completely miss the mark. Once you’ve observed, tested, and gathered feedback from trailblazers, ensure that the changes or additions you are making to your ministry address the real needs of your church and/or your community. Then press ahead with gusto, being sure to continually gather data, glean insights, and make improvements along the way.

How Can I Help?

Churches everywhere can carry out their mission more effectively by creating new pathways or removing obstacles from old ones. If you’d like to talk through any of these issues as they relate to your church and any upcoming searches, let's set up a time to talk


Tims CS Sig

PS: For more on how to maintain a great, long-term fit, read this post by Dr. Allan Love: Long Term Ministry Creates Long Term Impact

Tim Nations

Tim Nations

Tim Nations serves as our Lead Church Coach at Chemistry. He most recently served as the Director of Facilitation and Leadership Community Director at Leadership Network. Tim has served in full-time ministry in churches across the north Texas area for over 15 years. He brings with him broad experience in communication, organization, planning, and facilitation.

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