By Eddie Pipkin

Performance anxiety is real.  And it cripples ministry large and small.  From preachers who stick to rote formulas for sermons to leadership teams that are unwilling to explore new ideas, ministries regularly choose the safe course and bunt because that they might strike out if they swing for the fences.

That’s why I am a big fan of Simone Giertz, young adorkable inventor and presenter of a 2018 TED Talk  that you should watch if you want to take 10 minutes for laughter, inspiration, and sheer, guileless joy.  It’s called “Why You Should Make Useless Things,” and it holds delightfully applicable lessons for those of us who are constantly weighed down by the weighty significance of the work we do.  One of the great sources of burnout is the constant self-imposed pressure to get things perfect all the time.  It infects our decision making as individuals and team leaders, and it does so by making us cautious, conservative, and slow as turtles in developing potential new ideas.  All of my denominational friends will recognize the timeworn joke about how many Methodists it takes to change a light bulb:

Twenty-two: One to hold the ladder, one to climb the ladder, ten to form a committee to evaluate the effectiveness of the old light bulb, and ten to form a committee for a pot-luck to welcome in the new light bulb.

Ah, committees!  Just one more way to be sure we get everything exactly right and don’t make any mistakes.

Curious but self-conscious, Giertz suffered from a potent form of performance anxiety, and although she wanted to teach herself about robotics, she knew that she’d have to come up with an approach to help her loosen up in the face of her fear of failure.  Here’s here story in her words:

Building things with hardware—especially if you’re teaching yourself—is something that’s really difficult to do.  It has a high likelihood of failure, and moreover, it has a high likelihood of making you feel stupid, and that was my biggest fear at the time.  So, I came up with a setup that would guarantee success a hundred percent of the time.  With my setup it would be nearly impossible to fail.  And [this setup] was that instead of trying to succeed, I was going to try to build things that would fail.  And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, building stupid things was actually quite smart, because as I kept on learning about hardware, for the first time in my life, I did not have to deal with my performance anxiety, and as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play.

The resulting freewheeling creativity blossomed into a business of her own, including a YouTube channel and a website, now a gateway to her inspirational talks and workshops.  She builds hair cutting drones and tooth brushing helmets, which sometimes flop in spectacular ways.  And every day she gets to indulge her curiosity and experience the joy of empowering the curiosity of others.

We ministry leaders, on the other hand, are programmed to be careful, conservative (in the sense of taking things slowly), and circumspect (in the sense of focusing on all the things that can go wrong and embarrass us).

We could, on the other hand, build a culture in which whimsy and exploration was part of our identity and occasional failure, just a byproduct of robust inventiveness.  How would we do that?  Here are some ideas:

  • Rethink failure. We should be asking the question, “What have we failed at lately/”  Because if we aren’t failing at something, that’s a pretty good measure of our lack of trying new things.  What if our “rewards” system was less focused on non-boat-rocking and more focused on innovation.
  • Condition congregational expectations to accept occasional failure with a shrug and a smile. We should regularly reinforce the idea that we are a ministry that isn’t afraid to experiment, and we should acknowledge that not every idea is going to be successful.
  • Build rapid response leadership systems. Make your institutional culture entrepreneurial.  Say yes to people and their ideas.  As long as they are within your identified institutional vision, give people room to go for it.  And break the chains of now-it’s-a-thing-so-we-have to-keep-doing-it thinking.  Try an idea.  If it flops, let it go, and move on to the next idea.  (You can totally flip your culture from moribund to responsive.)
  • Celebrate whimsy. Have fun and promote innovation by building a culture of whimsy and “why not.”  Encourage leaders to try out off-center ideas.  They are great way to motivate and engage people.
  • Invent something useless. Don’t forget to do something just for the fun of it once in a while.  Every activity doesn’t have to be fraught with eternal significance.  Institutions need to let their hair down just as much as individuals.  One of the primary things that turns off younger generations when it comes to church is the inherent stuffiness with which “church” is associated.

Meanwhile, Lionel Mohri, the VP of Innovative Practices at software giant Intuit, has been writing about how the best ideas come from misfits.  He likes to nurture innovation by putting unlikely people on teams, listening to unlikely sources for ideas, and intentionally throwing a monkey wrench into the standard decision-making approaches.  To fulfill a recent assignment to think of creative concepts for using technology to provide a better customer service experience, he used an unlikely approach:

Whereas most people would go about dictating to the team to conduct research and meet with the technologists, I had only one request of the project: part of the final deliverable needed to be a sketch. As a leader, I almost never advise other leaders to dictate the deliverable for a project, but this project had a specific objective. I needed one of my employees to come out of her shell of being “Corporate,” and tap into her creative side that she reserves for after work. The misfit side. The result was not only a sketch, but a beautifully illustrated children’s book that was a hit within our organization and strategically defined the next three years of our product roadmap in care. This was a far cry from the typical fifty-slide deck that took hours to read.

None of the stakeholders would likely have thought to do that on their own—certainly they would have been unlikely to anticipate the creativity that would be released and the freedom to think in new directions that resulted.  The standard PowerPoint deck is the much safer approach (just like the creation of an old-school committee by my Methodist friends).  When we are given permission to break some of the rules, however, we can release our inner creativity.

Try out some of these strategies:

  • Embrace the ‘misfits.’ If you’re going to have a committee, try to put someone counter-intuitive on that committee.  Sure, you have a certain set of criteria for someone to put on finance, but what if you went rogue and incorporated a different perspective.
  • Listen to the ‘misfits.’ Don’t dismiss feedback from people who are not part of the inner circle.  Listen carefully, and they may be the very ones to shake things up in a fresh direction.
  • Think like the ‘misfits.’ Make it a point to embrace the misfit’s mindset.  Even within the inner circle, ask provocative questions that make people think from different vantage points.
  • Lead like a ‘misfit.’ Take your example from Lionel Mohri.  The next time you give your team (or yourself) a task, force some creativity by changing one aspect of your normal approach to decision making.

What are your own stories for how something that seemed to be useless at the beginning turned out to be a fresh pathway to a great new thing?  Share your own stories and thoughts in the comments section (especially your tales of misfittery).