By Eddie Pipkin

I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and I highly recommend it.  (It is on Bill Gates’ touted summer reading list, so I feel like I’m in good company.)  Isaacson’s focus on Leonardo, one of the great artists and thinkers of history, is consistent with other biographies that he has written.  He is fascinated with brilliance (having also written about Steve Jobs and Einstein), particularly the kind of insights that leap across intellectual disciplines to make unexpected connections.

The book is enthralling to me, because I have long been entranced with this idea of cross-pollination, and I have long believed it is one of the keys to vital, innovative ministry.

Leonardo, the epitome of the phrase “renaissance man,” left behind extraordinary notebooks full of his illustrated thoughts (and comments written in his famous left-handed “mirror writing”).  He famously did not limit individual pages to one idea at a time.  They are a hodgepodge of interconnected explorations:

The juxtapositions can seem haphazard, and to some extent, they are; we watch his mind and pen leap from an insight about mechanics, to a doodle of hair curls and water eddies, to a drawing of a face, to an ingenious contraption, to an anatomical sketch, all accompanied by mirror-script notes and musings.  But the joy of these juxtapositions is that they allow us to marvel at the beauty of a universal mind as it wanders exuberantly in free-range fashion over the arts and sciences and, by doing so, senses the connections in our cosmos.  We can extract from his pages, as he did from nature’s, the patterns that underlie things that at first appear disconnected.

Leonardo’s process is a reminder to us that creativity and problem-solving can stem from an intentional curiosity, seeking out new and diverse concepts, and seeking to explore what we can observe in ever more finely-tuned detail. This discipline of curiosity is powered by our private intellectual explorations, but it is also energized by our commitment to the public exchanges of insights (as Leonardo demonstrated, quoted again from Isaacson):

He developed his thoughts about these topics not just from his own experience and reading; they were formulated also through conversations with friends and colleagues.  Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it has been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor.  Unlike Michealangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers and thinkers.  In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas.  His closest friendships were intellectual ones.

Leonardo’s technique, which resulted in iconic representations like The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and  Vitruvian Man, are a product of directed curiosity and an active pursuit of collaboration.  [Two notes on the collaboration: 1) Leonardo seeks out other thinkers, in both correspondence and conversation—he is famous for attending long dinners at which collaborative conversations flourish; 2) He spends time in spaces which are gathering points for people with creative ideas.)  These are ideas that can be carry over into any institutional leadership, but they are singularly useful in ministry settings, which lend themselves to expressions of creativity and exist (in a theological sense) to be collaborative.

Jason Tilley writes at the Ministry Accelerator website about the power of cross-pollination in ministry settings.  He is, in fact, summarizing and adapting ideas from John Kelley’s book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, as he formulates these thoughts:

Innovation is crucial to the church as it is to any other organization because it helps the church be the church in any cultural setting. The church needs to be innovative because, while the tenets and disciplines of the scripture are constant, how we impart those tenants and disciplines changes at a rapid pace with each succeeding generation.

A Cross-Pollinator is a person who brings ideas and innovations from other, often unrelated, industries to see how they might work in their context. An example Kelly lists early in the chapter is how the keyboard I am typing this article on evolved from a piano.  We often look for cross-pollination when faced with a problem none of our current methods can solve.

As we have previously discussed in this blog, we are sometimes stymied in our approaches to active creativity because we think of the creative process as somehow accessible only to those who have been mystically inspired, but the truth is that while a genius like Leonardo had special gifts, he cultivated those gifts in ways that can be replicated even by dullards like you and me.  Here’s a listing of some disciplines to promote creativity (summarizing from Tilley, who is summarizing from Kelley):

  • Read an hour a day. It is critical for leaders to read, hopefully beyond their normal and preferred subject matter, exploring different fields and perspectives.  One of the best ways to do this effectively is to ask people you respect – but who may differ in their interests or expertise – what they are currently reading or have found influential.
  • Become T-shaped. This leadership strategy means having a broad rage of knowledge and curiosity (the top of the T) but diligently becoming as deep as possible in one area of expertise (the bottom of the T).  Leadership groups in which members are T-shaped can practice maximum collaboration.
  • Travel (even if only in the neighborhood). Physical travel and firsthand experience is a powerful catalyst for creativity and getting out of a rut.  They key is to sample areas that are different from your own bubble or normal experience.  This means seeking out communities that are different than the ones in which you spend the most time, especially ones that disorient you a bit or push you out of your box – feel free to take a friend along!
  • Learn from others (young AND old). Build intentional communities and physical spaces that promote interaction and be sure to gather the ideas and wisdom of the young AND the old.
  • Look Next Door. You don’t have to go far afield to find potential collaborative partners.  Some of the most interesting territory to explore (and most practical and profitable in the long run) is the closest.  Get to know ministry folks in your own immediate community who fit the criteria in the bullet points listed above.

This idea of cross-pollination is an excellent inoculation against the problem of “silo thinking,” which has long been identified as a challenge for large and unwieldy institutions (like churches).  This is the tendency of (in a church setting) different individual ministries within a church to get so focused on their own priorities that they lose sight of the overall ministry vision and the ways in which programs and sub-ministries can support and encourage one another.

As stated, this is a problem for business, ubiquitous enough that Forbes magazine regularly addresses it in articles like this: “The Silo Mentality: How to Break Down the Barriers”:

Many executives may look at their organization and dismiss department inefficiencies and lack of cross-functional solutions with immature employees, lack of basic training, or simply the inability for some employees to play nicely with one another. Unfortunately, while these behaviors may be a result of the silo mentality; it is not the root cause. These assumptions will actually lead to long term harm to the organization as a whole by creating resentment and cynicism within the teams. Most employees become frustrated with their department and the organization as a whole when they have identified the problems, but can’t do anything about it. It is the responsibility of the leadership team to recognize this and rise above to create effective, long-term solutions that are scalable, executable.

I’ll summarize their suggested anti-silo-thinking strategies here (and they will all be very familiar to you as strategies for successful ministry that are regularly stressed in this blog, throughout the Excellence in Ministry publications, and in every ministry success seminar you have ever attended):

  1. Create a unified vision.
  2. Work towards achieving a common goal.
  3. Motivate and incentivize.
  4. Execute and measure.
  5. Collaborate and create.

These goals have biblical models, and they also apply good old-fashioned common sense.  I love the way that the business writers at Forbes are offering advice for Fortune 500 companies that applies so effortlessly to ministry leaders.  In fact, you will slap yourself in the head in the classic ‘aha’ gesture when reading their closing paragraph:

The exchange of knowledge and the collaboration that will inevitably take place between teams is absolutely priceless. To maximize collaboration, knowledge, creativity and confidence it is suggested that management works to reduce unnecessary long and frequent meetings, builds out accessible and small meeting rooms, implements a cross-departmental training/education system, and encourages constructive feedback from outside departments.

Shorter meetings?  Hallelujah!  Meeting spaces that are comfortable, promote conversation, and don’t drain the life out of you as soon you walk in?  Excellent!  Cross-pollination built into our training, educational, and planning systems?  Stellar!  Feedback from beyond our inner circle?  Revolutionary!

If we promote all the practices and activities that give us the maximum potential for creativity and collaboration, maybe we’ll come up with our own ministry Mona Lisas.  It’s worth a shot!  What do you think?  Share your own stories, frustrations, and triumphs.  Let the collaboration begin.