Innovation Reflections from the 2010s

Erik EllefsenInnovation1 Comment

Coming off tandem bone-marrow transplants in my fight against multiple myeloma, I entered 2010 defeated and uncertain about my future. Nine years later, as I trekked through Iceland this past summer (video), I spent many hours reflecting on both my personal life and professional work. From my perspective, the 2010s will be remembered as a pivotal time for us in the field of Christian education.

After the Great Recession, many schools were in a similar state of shock, needing critical care and significant interventions. This past decade forced significant rethinking for schools because of the disorientation due to the swiftly changing political, cultural, demographic, and technological landscape. However, we not only survived but also innovated, positioning us to move into the 2020s with eagerness and excitement.

My Brief Perspective of the 2010s

In October, those of us attending the CESA Symposium in Washington, D.C. took the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve been part of throughout the 2010s. My personal highlights include the following:

February 2010: A meeting of ambitious friends led to the founding of CCEI. This was an innovation network led by Mitch Salerno and me that catalyzed the incubation and proliferation of programmatic innovations like J-terms, international student programs, dual-credit courses, student travel, and one-to-one learning platforms. Likewise, our seven Innovation Gatherings and five small-group Innovation Retreats have had a significant impact on how organizations have redesigned professional learning events.

Spring 2010: Shortly after that meeting in Orlando, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to observe the founding conversations for CESA. Since that meeting, I have been at nearly all the CESA Symposiums and have observed its impact on how we go about fulfilling our mission, growing our opportunity, and ambitiously pursuing excellence in all aspects of our work.

October 2011: While walking through the Exhibit Hall at NACAC in New Orleans, I was introduced to David Urban and Paul Neal (now of Charter Oak Research and also senior fellows with CACE). They had just begun a new mission to support Christian school growth through market research. This meeting and their work with nearly 200 Christian schools has taught me that Christian school growth is possible if we understand opportunity as a combination of our mission, school quality, innovation, and community demographics.

This decade also saw a gathering in DC that led to the founding of CACE and another event in California which led to the Cardus Education Survey. Likewise, there was significant network development in Deeper Learning with Dan Beerens and Steve Levy; the Christian Educators Diversity Alliance led by Jenny Brady, Joel Hazard, and David Robinson; and a group of Christian School Athletic Directors organized by Chris Hobbs. And unbeknownst to many of us in the U.S., there was considerable network development and innovation happening around the world.

June 2017: Everything accelerated at the first Innovation Retreat (held at the conclusion of CCEI) where over 40 Christian School innovators from eight countries and four continents joined us for an ambitious three days. From this event came the core group that would gather at the same location in April 2018 to start the MindShift project.

2019: This might be the most significant year of them all. It started at GCSLS with 1200 global leaders gathered in San Antonio to focus on the future of our work, the need for innovation, and our opportunity to grow. At the same event, World Vision’s Ignite program hosted a dinner conversation for 40 Christian school leaders from 6 continents and 10 countries. Shortly after GCSLS, the MindShift book was produced as a continuation of what we learned and discussed in San Antonio. Then this summer, CACE had the opportunity to host the Engage: Policy, Law, and Christian Schools event in Washington, D.C. with 30 school leaders and over 70 researchers, policy analysts, lawyers, and foundation leaders. In many ways, the decade concluded with Katie Wiens’s magnificent and moving speech at October’s CESA Symposium.

The connecting thread through this decade of work is . . . yes, networks lead to innovation.

Five Lessons in Innovation from the 2010s

Pain Leads to Innovation

Anyone who has read my blogs or listened to my podcast knows that I gained this insight from Bill Latham of Meteor Education. Comfort and success often lead to pursuing the status quo, but innovation usually comes from a deep sense of uncertainty, discomfort, mental and even spiritual dissonance, pain, grief, and even loss. The 2010s have created these pain points, so we were left with no other alternative.

Gather Friends

While I was Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, I had a colleague who consistently reminded me to trust the wisdom of our faculty. This prompting was and continues to be a challenge for a know-it-all like me, but it has proven true time and again. In this past decade, I was no longer in positions of authority so had to discover creative ways to cultivate change. There is nothing more significant than gathering a group of passionate educators who are consistently challenging their own assumptions and believing that we can make a difference together.

Know Who You Are

The Cardus Education Survey gave us this incredible gift over the past ten years as it unfolded the distinctive nature of Christian schools. Likewise, the market research of Charter Oak has added to that picture at the local level, providing us a better understanding of our reputation and impact in the current market. This information is transformative because it invites everyone into the conversation about change.

The Power of “With”

I have used the lessons from the Collective Leadership research of Jon Eckert to create events, foster innovation, and transform schools. When we do work with each other, the impact of our efforts is boundless. However, too often we retreat, isolate ourselves, and seek to own our work, significantly limiting the effectiveness, impact, and longevity of change.

Have Fun

Our work is serious, meaningful, and of the utmost significance. However, if we can’t enjoy the work, each other, the world, and the God who has blessed us so generously, then we miss the greatest blessings. In this past decade, I have discovered joyful, creative, and hopeful people who are fun colleagues with whom to work, travel, debate, and innovate. For them, I am especially grateful.

Happy 2020!

As we enter 2020, I invite you to reflect, give thanks, prepare for what lies ahead, and take your eyes off your feet. Look up to see the world you are part of and the great work God is doing in and around you. I hope to dig deeper into the 2010s in my annual Looking Back, Looking Ahead blog in January.

Meanwhile, tell your story!


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

One Comment on “Innovation Reflections from the 2010s”

  1. Erik,
    Thank you for these inspiring and encouraging reflections, a reminder that God is still on the move in Christian schooling. I am especially encouraged by the innovative, forward-thinking, and change hearty leadership that you and the others you mentioned in your reflections are providing for the future of the Christian school movement.

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