By Eddie Pipkin

Last week, I wrote about creativity sparked by looking at things from a new perspective.  My wife — who is excellent in her IT management role but would not describe herself as a creative person — says, “Yeah, that’s the kind of thing a creative person would say.  You see a dozen-pack of spatulas at the dollar store and think, ‘We can make a great game out of those,’ but I look at a dozen-pack of spatulas and say, ‘Why would anybody need that many spatulas?'”  Fair point.  That’s why practical exercises in sparking creativity are important.  And here’s one that will change your ministry and your life: Commit to learning something new every week.

One of the great keys to creativity, to long-term intellectual health, and to keeping things interesting is to constantly be learning something new.  Our neural pathways thrive on brain challenges like our muscles crave a trip to the gym.  Our ability to keep up with changes in a fast-moving world, to usefully apply our hard-won wisdom to a mercurial ministry landscape is dependent on our willingness to move beyond what we already know to what we are still willing to learn.  And while it’s important to spend a lifetime on disciplines such as Bible Study – the Bible is a resource that never has and never will run dry – what I’m really focused on here is learning new skills (or variations on old skills).  This is the difference between “knowledge acquisition” and “skill development,” and while knowledge continues to be important throughout our careers, it can become a matter of just burrowing into an ever-deeper hole of arcane expertise.  This can make us adorably nerdy on any given subject, but it doesn’t give us the kind of fresh insight that keeps us moving forward as creative leaders.  Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza writes about the difference between learning more facts and learning how to do new stuff.  We frequently hand someone a book and tell them to read it when we think they need to master a useful skill, but that approach has serious limitations:

After six days, people remember about 15% of a conversation, and that can be detrimental in a seminar-style class, says [organizational psychologist and leadership training expert Martin] Lanik. The best way to learn comes down to recognizing the difference between acquiring knowledge and acquiring skills. When determining the best method of training, ask, “What do I want the person to do differently as a result?” Is it a basic understanding (knowledge) or is it a new behavior (skill)?

Lanik uses music as an example: “You can read a lot about music and its history, but that won’t make you a concert pianist,” he says. “That’s a skill that takes practice and behavior change on a daily basis.”

When you’re learning a skill, traditional training won’t work, says Lanik. “To learn a skill you have to adopt new habits and routines,” he says.

That means we need to give our teams opportunities to practice the new things we’d have them learn.  It turns out that “doing” is the sweet spot for “learning.”  It’s not enough to talk about the importance of building teams (or reading articles and books about building teams).  We have to give a homework assignment: Do these steps towards building a team this week, and then we can come back and compare notes and talk in detail about what worked and what didn’t.

Of course, if we’re not living out this “learn a new thing” approach ourselves, it’s hard to lead others in the strategy.  Learning something new to enhance your ministry can have direct, measurable results:

  • Let’s say you are in a community in which, demographically speaking; maybe it would be beneficial to learn Spanish.
  • Let’s say you are in a community in which musicianship is highly valued or needed; maybe you could learn to play an instrument.
  • Let’s say you serve a congregation that is doing great work but needs help establishing a narrative to communicate that great work to a wider community; maybe you could learn some basic photography skills to capture those ministry moments.
  • Let’s say you want to start a midweek dinner fellowship, but you don’t have somebody on hand to be in charge of the cooking just yet; maybe you could learn how to make a big pot of chili for 75 people.

There are lots of practical skills that can be helpful in lots of specific contexts.  Why not learn one?  Even if you delegate it later, you know exactly what’s involved for the brave soul who takes over.  Of course, the greatest challenge most of us face in staying relevant, skills wise – and I am giving a shout-out to all of my middle-aged compatriots here – is in using technology.  There is an enormous advantage in being comfortable with technological tools, both in communicating in ways that feel intuitive to younger generations, as well as in guiding creative communications and worship ministries.

By learning to better navigate the powerful possibilities of the internet and the smartphones in our pockets, we can leverage other ministry strengths.  This can be intimidating, and we don’t have to be experts on everything, but it’s important to have a good working knowledge of the apps and platforms we’ll be empowering our teams to use.  And it’s essential to have a working grasp for the personal technologies we can use to do our work more effectively and keep others engaged with our vision.  Here’s how to manage it:

  • Make a list of the ministry-related technology that you wish to grasp more fully.
  • Prioritize that list (including how long it would take to learn a specific skill).
  • Make a schedule for acquiring specific skills over the next 6 months. Try to learn something new in this vein every week – even if it’s just a small something.
  • Line up a “tech mentor” or two to guide you on your journey. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  People love sharing their expertise, and people who are passionate about specific tech tools love to share that passion.  (Have you ever met any iPhone acolytes?)  (On the other hand, are you one of those people who is walking around with the most recent, advanced iPhone version, yet you only use it for making phone calls, sending texts, checking email, and occasionally looking at the weather?)

Don’t be intimidated.  As with all difficult and confusing things, biting off a little here and a little there can lead, with discipline over time, to making great progress.

To keep things fresh and make things fun, however, don’t limit yourself to work skill improvements.  Learn new things for the sheer joy of learning.  Acquire skills about which you’ve always been curious.  And push your boundaries!  To quote the late, great Eleanor Roosevelt:

Do one thing every day that scares you.  Those small things that make us uncomfortable help us build courage to do the work we do.

Meghan Kearney Anderson offers up “15 Uncomfortable Things That Will Make You More Successful,” including such gems as “learning to take a compliment” and “learning to admit when you don’t know something.”  Classic.

There are plenty of strategies to learning new skills (small and not so small) that can make you more interesting, more engaging, and definitely more engaged in the process of exploration:

By the way, Daily Infographic points out that constantly learning new skills not only makes us more better leaders, it makes us HAPPIER:

Here is what happens:

  • You experience something new.
  • The “novelty center” of your brain is activated.
  • You get a rush of dopamine.
  • Dopamine motivates you to follow through with the new thing.
  • You get another rush of dopamine when you finish the activity.

It is no surprise then that research has found dopamine is closely linked to the learning process. In short, learning new things stimulates happiness chemicals brain.

They list these additional benefits of learning and applying new skills:

  • They make you more interesting and relatable to other people.
  • They boost your self-esteem.
  • They make you more employable.
  • They strengthen the muscles for decision making.
  • Learning something new flexes the muscles for learning – the more you use those learning muscles, the faster and easier you learn new things.

So, what’s the most recent new thing you learned?  Are you constantly seeking to develop new skills and put those new skills into practice?  As a leader, have you built a culture of constant learning and new skill development?  Do you have some good stories of how learning something new (as an individual or as a team) helped breathe fresh life into stale ministry?

And if you don’t think your ministry has stale corners, check out this list from Carey Nieuwhof of tired ministry ideas.

Leave comments in the commenting place!  We love to hear from you!