By Eddie Pipkin

Some years back, I co-founded a pre-youth group for 4th and 5th graders.  That age group gets a little lost between the normal children’s ministry offerings for little kids and the youth group activities that begin for 6th graders in most churches.  They are wonderful to work with, intensely curious about faith, willing to try most any zany idea, but not yet jaded by their exposure to middle school.  It way a joy to think up crazy stuff for them to try – games or interactive exercises to think through the scripture lesson.  For inspiration, I loved stopping by the dollar store.  Wandering the aisles of random merchandise often led to quirky ideas: “Hey, here’s a bundle of spatulas for a buck!  What kind of game can we build around spatulas?”  Sure, you can buy one of the standard primers on classic kids’ games.  You can buy a collection of Bible story skits for grown-up worship, too.  But to really shake things up, you’re probably going to have to get out of your comfort zone.  And lots of times, that just means looking at the same-old same-old from a different perspective.

I got a kick out of stunt cyclist Fabio Wibmer’s short film, Wibmer’s Law.  In it, the 24-year-old Austrian rides through an urban landscape (and eventually into the countryside) on a BMX bike, transforming average elements of a day into incredible, eye-popping stunts.  (It will take 7 minutes of your day to watch the whole thing – moments of awe, amazement, and sheer surprise – check out at least a minute or two, but if you watch it all, do not miss the outtakes during the credits, which show just how complex and difficult these moves were.)  You’ve probably seen young guys pop wheelies, execute flips, and jump off ramps before, but Wibmer reinvents average moments of city life as simultaneously effortless and miraculous moments of gravitational defiance.  He reimagines ordinary objects as performance props: construction barriers, small store rooftops, escalators, misplaced skateboards, and open car doors all become set pieces.  Normal moments of life, from a traffic cop writing a ticket to a mom pulling a reluctant toddler across a grocery store parking lot become plot points.  Wibmer considers the quotidian details of life and reconstructs them as literal “jumping off” points for a bravura performance.

It is this juxtaposition of familiar and unanticipated that makes the film feel fun and fresh.  How many of us would love a dose of fun and fresh in our ministry lives?

Perhaps the key is to step back, take a closer look, and reimagine our familiar routines and spaces.

  • Is the order in which we do things always exactly the same? How we run meetings, how we organize worship, how we conduct small group sessions?  Non-varying organizational strategies can lead to a lack of originality and engagement.
  • Is the way we communicate done the same way all the time? If our newsletter or blog (hmmmm) or email updates or social media posts are produced on the exact same schedule with the exact same layout week after week, people might start tuning us out.  We might get a little lazy ourselves!
  • If the physical spaces we inhabit in ministry never change, people begin to fade into them. Changing up ministry locations and freshening up spaces can have profound mental and relational effects.

Many of us lean heavily on our sacred routines and rituals: doing things exactly the same ways in exactly the same rhythms, day to day, week to week, and year to year.  We wonder why it all begins to feel rote and uninspired.  (And don’t think I am critiquing only the old folk here – you hipsters are just as locked-in to your routines, sometimes comically so.)

A great discussion of breaking out of our routines is featured in the Lifehacker article, “The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone (and Why You Should.”  It contrasts the comforts of comfort zones with the dangers of getting too comfortable:

Routines can be stable and comforting, but they can also turn stale and confining over time. All those inspirational messages telling you to break out of your comfort zone aren’t just trying to sell you bungee cords. Doing something new and potentially frightening helps stave off burnout and is good for your brain. Still, it’s pretty hard to shake yourself out of a routine, and there’s plenty of science explaining why—and how to do it.  It’s important to push the boundaries of your comfort zone, and when you do, it’s kind of a big deal.

The idea of the “comfort zone,” the article explains, goes back 100 years and describes a mental space free of fear and uncertainty:

Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.

So, it’s good to be in your comfort zone (at work and in life).  It makes for maximum contentment and productivity . . . but only to a point!  If we are to thrive and grow, we’ll need to be stretching ourselves.  Business schools and self-empowerment gurus did not invent this concept.  It’s been around as long as the Bible.  Just ask Abraham or Joseph or Moses or the disciples, or remind yourself of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:26 or Paul’s to his protégé in 2 Timothy 1:7.  Ministry life should always be a healthy balance of “comfort zone” and “discomfort zone,” as we expand our expectations, push the established boundaries, and occasionally (if perhaps not literally following the dramatic example of our Lord and Savior), flip the tables.

The Lifehacker article details the advantages of maintaining “optimal anxiety” – that is, enough challenge in our lives to keep us focused and productive, but not so much disruption to push us to decision paralysis or a crisis of stress.  Balance, people!  We’ve all served with ministry leaders who want to shake everything immediately and at once, leaving disaster in their wake, and we’ve all served with ministry leaders who are sedentary to the extreme.  The Goldilocksian ideal of boundary pushing, however – change in just the right amount — can have glorious effects:

  • Increased productivity! Comfort zones are not good for efficiency because even as we develop proficiency with our normally assigned tasks, we tend to fill the resulting gained time with busy work or goofing off.  When we tinker with new ideas and approaches, we face unfamiliar deadlines and tasks which we are forced to address with our best efforts.
  • Increased resilience! It’s good to be flexible in a crisis and good to be adaptive when things don’t go as planned.  Pushing our normal boundaries with intentionality creates a kind of resiliency lab in which we get comfortable improvising and shifting gears on the fly.
  • Increased aptitude for boundary expansion! The more we push our boundaries, the more comfortable we get at trying new things.  This not only better equips us for testing out new ideas; it also prepares us to be more receptive to the new ideas of others.
  • Increased creativity! Creativity is a muscle that must be used in order to grow stronger, and boundary pushing is a good way to stretch our creative abilities.  If we never change anything, there’s no need to be more creative in our problem solving or leadership.

I am a sometimes runner.  I enjoy it, and I know it does me a world of good, but I am inconsistent in my approach.  Here’s a truth I own: to really stay on task with my running goals, I have to sign up for a race.  It is only with a specified goal in mind (and the anxiety of being ready and not embarrassing myself) that growth happens.  Likewise, if we decide to make the pursuit of “optimal anxiety” a goal, there are specific strategies that can get us there that are neither complicated nor overly dramatic.  We can leverage our existing routines and do things just a little differently when we . . .

  • Do regular stuff in different ways. Do the same important things that have been a part of your successful routine, just do them a little differently.  If you always drink your coffee and read the morning paper in the same spot, try a different location.  If you always have staff meeting in the same room, try meeting outside at the picnic table.  This strategy works wonderfully for helping people be thoughtful about worship (which can be rote by definition).  Keep the essential elements: mix them up in interesting ways or tweak them ever so slightly.
  • Do normally fast things more slowly. Take your time and extend an activity thoughtfully.  In worship, if you have that perfunctory post-offering prayer, do it in a different way with different people, lingering over it with a special emphasis.  This can be a mindfulness exercise for any activity, personal or corporate.  [And for the record, this can work in reverse: try doing something you normally do very slowly in a speedy fashion instead.]
  • Do “gut-inspired” decision making. If you feel an urge to give something a shot or change something up, give yourself permission (at least occasionally) to roll with it.  Don’t overthink it.  Just let it play out.  This sometimes results in the serendipity of the unexpected success.  Sometimes not – in which case it is a good reminder that all things do not have to be perfect at all times.  Even in the imperfect, grace notes abound if we pay attention.
  • Do change incrementally. Don’t feel like you have to swing for the fences (or that – despite the accompanying photos for these articles about comfort zones – you have to jump out of a perfectly good airplane).  Small changes, applied on a consistent basis, can lead to boundary pushing and comfort zone expansion that can leads to big results.  Little by little, our boundaries expand, until we suddenly realize that we have opened up an entirely new territory!

Certainly, even as you are expanding your acceptable anxiety parameters, don’t abandon your comfort zone.  Recognize it for the healing, healthy, productive place it is.  In fact, it’s not a bad exercise to take stock of just exactly what constitutes your comfort zone.  Write it out: make a list of the things that bring you joy in your work routine.  What makes you feel useful and productive and fulfilled?  In your leadership team meetings, share these qualities, so that you have a better understanding of one another’s comfort zones.  That way you can accommodate them when possible and acknowledge the ways they are being challenged when those challenges are desirable.  People should be allowed to feel safe and in their lane on a regular basis, and they should also be celebrated when they are clearly venturing outside their traditional zones of comfort.

For more meditation on this idea of shaking things up and taking things in unanticipated directions, here’s a throwback link to my blog from the summer, called “Breaking Breakfast.”  And just for kicks, because I came across this article even as I was writing this blog, here’s a link about bringing some zest to date night for married couples (for all you partnered-up readers).

Share your own stories: In what ways is your ministry feeling claustrophobic?  What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping things fresh?  How do you maintain “optimal anxiety” in your personal and professional life?  What are ways your church has reimagined familiar spaces and routines?

Please share new ideas and new stories with us in the comments section.  And don’t be afraid to challenge me!  There’s a rumor going around that that’s how we grow.