By Eddie Pipkin
Do you think of yourself as creative? If you are involved in ministry, there is some aspect of your day-to-day work that involves creativity. Maybe you are a worship leader or communications director, so creativity is a principal part of your path to success. Maybe you are an administrator or a tech support person, so you don’t think of your work as creative at all. But the truth is, whatever we do, a creative attitude makes us better. It keeps us fresh. It helps us innovate. We tend to categorize creativity as some mystical process, but functional creativity is a discipline like any other. A useful analogy is athletic prowess. Sure, there are crazily gifted natural athletes, but although those people rare, anybody can develop fitness.
That’s why I was inspired by a recent article in Esquire online in which Michael Hainey and other editors collected some of their own rules for creativity, as well as stories and quotes from famous creative types. Many of these one-of-a-kind thinkers are designers (fashion and interior), and since I have zero sense of personal style or decorating ability, my impulse would have been that their insights would be of little use to me. But as a writer and a ministry consultant, I was surprised by just how compelling their words were. Follow the link and read the whole thing for an inspirational interlude; meanwhile, check out some of my favorites of their rules for creativity below, accompanied by my comments applying each rule to a ministry setting.
We’ll start with a quote from Hainey (editor at Esquire and contributor to GQ, Wired, and lots of other outlets):
Just as all great artists need to know the rules in order to break them, no true individual becomes one on his own. He listens. He learns. Whether you call it advice, insights, mantras, rules, let’s agree—there are words of wisdom that will set you apart from the drones. And isn’t that what we all seek these days, more than ever? Aren’t we all nauseous from the digital dump of crap we’ve chosen to ingest? We thought we were tapping into a wider world of inspiration. Instead, we’ve been scammed and come away feeling crappy about ourselves because we’re stupidly trying to achieve someone else’s filtered, falsified, portrait-mode picture of “perfection.”
Here’s what I know: You’re never going to be a leader—of yourself, first and foremost—if you don’t seek to stand apart. If you don’t seek out your individuality.
I am a big believer in the power of context: that a local ministry should be definitively local in character and personality, uniquely tailored to the people of that distinctive community. I believe this is both a biblical concept, as well as the surest path to differentiating ourselves from the homogeneous self-help culture all around us. We provide a home for uniquely gifted individuals to collaborate in meeting a community’s specific needs. So, how do we promote individuality and creativity?
- Trends are the Enemy of individuality. (Hainey)
I visit a lot of churches, and I see a lot of local congregations getting lots of things right with passion and integrity. But to be honest, especially where worship is concerned, everybody is doing versions of the same template (even as they describe it as a “new thing”). It is rare to see something that feels fresh and uniquely part of a community’s character. Usually by the time a local church gets around to a trend, it’s old news.
- Make the Classics Your Own. (Jean Touitou, fashion designer)
We have 2,000 years of Greatest Hits to work with. This is deep, valuable material which lends itself to fresh interpretations and retellings.
- Show Up and Show Out. (David Oyelowo, actor)
If you’re going to do something, go all in. Be bold. Be loud. Don’t be tentative (which kills ideas). Give it your best shot.
- Go with Your Gut Unless Your Friends Tell You Not To. (Barry Jenkins, director)
This is a two-parter. First, a reminder that we are a “Spirit-led” people, and thus should be attuned to creative urges inspiring us to try bold, new ideas. When on the fence about whether to try something or play it safe, we should tilt toward the untried. As a safety net, we should always surround ourselves with dependable advisors who know us and know our context and therefore can pull us back from the brink when necessary.
- Steal Like an Artist. (Luke Edward Hall, interior designer)
Read good sources. Pay attention. Observe what other people are doing. Study what’s happening in the culture around you. Use the ideas that make sense and are relevant in your local context (and don’t use the ones that won’t resonate in your local context for your local audience, even if they are great ideas or inspired you personally).
- Have the Brains to Ask for Help. (Axel Vervoordt, interior designer)
Stop trying to do everything yourself, and stop thinking that just because God called you to ministry leadership you are the expert on everything at all times. I would point out that even the Son of Man did not work solo. If you have a good idea, somebody in your community can make it even better by applying their experience and expertise.
- Evolve. (Hainey again)
Here I definitely want to steal my favorite quote from the article: “Do you really want to have the same haircut in middle age that you had in middle school?” So many ministries and ministry leaders ignore this imperative to innovation. We get into a routine, establish a process, start a thing that works . . . and fossilize it in place forever.
- There are no mistakes (only experiements). (Michael Hill, fashion designer)
In workshops, we love to ask the question, “What have you failed at lately?” Because if you don’t have some good failure tales, you’re not trying anything new. We should always be throwing things at the wall to see what sticks (and empowering other people to do so). Ministry and its requisite committees and processes can be so tentative it chokes the life out of possibility.
- Look beyond your discipline. (Max Vadukul, photographer)
I love this one. Look beyond what you know and what comes natural and try something uncomfortable and unfamiliar: this can give you a fresh perspective. Invite in other points of view (vocational expertise or philosophical approach) to take a look at something you’ve been doing a certain way forever.
- Create Your Own Language. (Mark Chou, fashion designer)
Your ministry, your worship, your small group, your website, should feel unique to you in the same way we are drawn to a distinctive room, outfit, or quirky small town. We like them because they stand out. Because, we say, they have “personality.”
- Don’t copy. Be inspired by. (Hainey again)
Have a favorite preacher, a favorite worship band, a favorite devotional site, but don’t try to replicate those things in your unique setting. Let them inspire you to do your own thing, find your own voice. If you are copying, you will likely only ever be recognized as an imperfect copy, but if you use that inspiration as a path to your own place, people will be drawn to your unique take on things.
- Change the Game and Write Your Own Rules. (Also Hainey)
Train yourself and your team not to begin with “this won’t work because.” Instead build a culture in which the old rules are not automatically assumed to be permanent and immutable. In fact, as a creative exercise, what if you just occasionally assumed the old rules were wrong and changed (at least temporarily) accordingly.
- Remember your roots, then grow. (Owigi Theodor, fashion designer)
Heritage matters. Of a denomination. Of a local congregation. But it’s not the end-of-line destination. It provides the firm foundation for the next new thing. Celebrate that heritage. Value those foundational truths and the history of the people who came before. But don’t let those things be an impediment to what comes next.
- Embrace the Opposites. (Danny Bowien, chef)
Chef Bowien is inspired by combining unlikely partners in culinary experiments, but this is a valuable insight in all creative endeavors, including ministry. Think of this rule/idea has a lever to get you unstuck when you are in a rut. In worship, in age-based ministry, in outreach, think of the ways you can mesh supposed opposites together for surprising shifts.
- Strike Out from Your Tribe. (Paul Feig, director)
Don’t feel compelled to do what everyone else is doing. Don’t only look for ideas from people who are just like you. Actively seek out different perspectives and the viewpoints of “others.”
In building a regular discipline of creativity, any of these rules can be a catalyst for moving the needle. When facing individual creative challenges, try using them as a starting point to fresh thinking, and after manually referencing such a list on a regular basis, you will begin to build that reflexive creativity muscle (there we are, back to the fitness analogy). What are creative strategies and techniques that you use in your ministry? Share with the rest of us so that we may steal without trepidation! What gets you unstuck?