By Eddie Pipkin

It’s an adage so ancient that nobody really knows who first uttered it.  In Latin, it’s “Mater atrium necessitas” (“The mother of invention is necessity”).  Plato wrote, “Our need will be the real creator.”  And a medieval French proverb argued that “Hunger makes people resourceful.”  You know the most popular version: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and this is clearly one of those times in history that people from all walks of life are proving the truth of that adage.  So, here’s another dose of ideas and examples for how to get creative in ministry as we bump along towards 2021, not back to the normal we had hoped for, but discovering new (and often revelatory truths) about how we can do things now.

Even in the Bible, you can make an argument for the adage making an appearance.  In Proverbs 8:12, we read, “I, Wisdom, live together with good judgment. I know where to discover knowledge and discernment.”  The biblical principle here is a confirmation of one of my favorite topics to write about (and a continuation of our recent discussion about getting “unstuck”): Creativity is a process that can be actively engaged, not just something that happens to us if we are “special” or “inspired.”  In the age of the pandemic, sports have provided an excellent example of creative responses (basketball and pro soccer games in a “bubble” – very successful) and less creative approaches to forging ahead doing things as close to the old, normal way as possible (see baseball or football, not so successful).  Even staid and storied baseball, however, embraced some surprising adaptations: extra innings that feature a runner already positioned on second base, double-header games that only last seven innings, and perhaps most controversial of all, in abeyance of a century of tradition, no spitting).

In which of these categories do you find your ministry?  Pouring old wine into new wineskins (by using technology to recreate as much of the old experience as possible) or giving that new pandemic-inspired wine room to breathe?  Here are three ways we have observed people trying a new thing:

  • Using this crisis to get rid of stuff we really wanted to get rid of anyway but couldn’t’ figure out how to do previously. The crisis has been surprisingly useful in cutting through the usual fluff, drama, and bureaucratic sludge.
  • Doing old things in new formats (conscious that people are adaptable but also need the comfort of the familiar). Let’s keep our usual order of worship, preaching style, format, presenters, and music selections but just figure out how to deliver them remotely.
  • Trying new things, using this unprecedented time as a time of experimentation. Let’s actually try some brand new approaches!
  • Using this time as an invitation to step back and do a deep and prayerful analysis of why we have been doing the things we have been doing the ways we have long been doing them. (Okay, I’m mostly kidding about that one – almost no ministries have taken that kind of step towards deep reflection and vision recasting – everybody has been in survival mode.)

Still, if we haven’t been imagining alternate futures, it’s not too late.  An article in Forbes about entrepreneurial inventiveness notes that for centuries people went about their daily paperwork by basically sewing it together to keep it organized:

From the 13th Century until the early 19th Century, people connected papers by threading ribbon through two incisions in the upper left corner. That’s six hundred years of making tiny cuts in pages and threading ribbon through them.  Then in 1899, Johan Vaaler invented the paperclip. It’s so ubiquitous now that we don’t consider what a pain it was to sew together pieces of paper to keep them connected. Today, we take the humble paperclip for granted. But its invention, like the invention of so many other technologies during and since the industrial revolution, simplified our lives, delivered a level of convenience we didn’t know we needed, and faded into the commercial landscape.

That’s the kind of necessity that nobody at the time really realized they needed.  Sure, there might have been a nagging sense that “there’s got to be a better way to do this,” but there wasn’t a driving immediate sense of crisis, the kind of life-or-death pressure that produced the many scientific leaps of, for instance, the fight for global survival in WWII.  That crisis-mode creativity has been responsible for the dramatic technological surge that has come to traditional ministry in the past six months as churches adopted online offerings and virtual group gatherings.  We’ve survived; but how to thrive?

Those paper clip ‘aha’ moments are harder to come by.  We struggle to be consistently creative during the best of times.  Right now, there is a weariness about the work that makes creativity and long-range strategizing a struggle.  We’ve been writing about this consistently, so let’s reiterate a few bullet points about freshening your perspective:

  • First of all, commit to freshening your perspective. Move your mind, move your body.  Change your scenery, change your conversational partners.  There’s a hundred ways to do this, and one of the keys is to figure out what motivates you.  Not every approach works for every person.  The key is to commit to the process of perspective freshening.  If you are continuing to do the same daily routine in the same environment with the same people, it is unlikely that fresh perspectives will burst forth from that process.
  • Invite new people into the conversation. Solicit steady feedback – encourage it to be thoughtful and thorough and from multiple sources and say it like you mean it.  Assign people a project to reflect on your institution’s ministry approach and how they might change it.  Invite in outside observers to look around and see what they think.
  • Move around. Change it up.  You’ve been leading online worship for a few months now.  Here’s a question – have you experienced that online worship in the way that someone in your congregation has experienced it?  I don’t mean that you played it back while at your desk or lying in your own bed late at night, but have you ventured to someone’s real life home and said, hey, I’d like you to show me how you experience online worship.  Watch parts of it with them to get their feedback.  I’m a big proponent as well of freeing ministry from its usual confines – I came across this wonderful article this week about a reporter whose hobby is fly fishing, so he’s been going through the motions on the streets of Manhattan, inspiring delightful interactions – what a wonderful season for us to move prayer out of the traditional worship space and into the “real world.”  Are you taking advantage of that opportunity?
  • So, you’re not that creative to begin with.  Hand off the creative considerations to someone else and let them report their findings, ideas, and suggestions back to you.  Creative people love to be turned loose on brainstorming projects.  Bring them joy – turn them loose.  You don’t have to use all their ideas.  Make that a precondition of the partnership: “I am not going to use most of your ideas – but I would sure love to hear them and be inspired by them, and we’ll pick some of our favorites to develop together.”
  • Go for a drive, go for a walk, go spend time in a place where ministry is (still) happening. Actively seek out ways to see things from a different perspective, through listening conversations, sometimes through literal observations.  What does your church look like from the neighborhood?  Have you ever seen your church from above in a drone camera shot?  Have you seen it from riding by on the bus?

In a recent interview in Time, the singer-songwriter Jewel reflected on her use of creativity as a way to promote mental health (a skill we could all use assist with right about now):

You don’t have to be an artist, poet, painter or sculptor for creativity to aid your mental health. “I think of creativity in a way not solely focused on art,” Aguirre said. Instead, think of it as mind-expansion, or seeing things in a new and joyful way—not necessarily making something tangible. “Maybe going for a walk is the new creation, because now you’re outside, and you’re seeing the world in a new way,” he suggested.

She suggests some strategies for using creativity to boost our attitude and our productivity:

  • Use writing to promote mindfulness. Stop, slow down and use words to process our thoughts and feelings.  It is almost universally helpful, but surprisingly hard to have the disciple to do.
  • Pay attention to the small things. Small actions can have big impacts.  Jewel and Dr. Blaise Aguirre, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, talk about an “antidepressant lifestyle,” which is choosing actions and routines that boost our mood when we need it.  Social interactions and human contact help us a lot, they argue.

Oh, and so does skipping. “You cannot be sad and skip at the same time,” Aguirre, said.  Once, Aguirre skipped with one of his patients across the Harvard campus to make sure he made it to his therapy session.  They looked ridiculous, but “by the time we got there, both of our moods had lifted,” Aguirre said. With another patient, he tried loudly laughing—which releases serotonin—until the patient joined in.  Weird, he knows, but it helped.

  • Call out patterns of negativity and change the script. In both our internal processes and in our group processes, we should be actively aware of a descent into negative thought patterns and expression, stop and note the negativity, and have a plan for pivoting to a more positive approach.

Imagine if we applied some of these techniques to group settings.  When we feel the tension rising, the negativity flowing, or the creativity lagging, we flip the script and ask people to start listing things for which they are grateful in their ministry; or we are stuck so we just take five minutes to stop and let people write a paragraph describing their ideal hopes for the ministry; or, holy cow, what if we had everybody skip together for a minute or two and then sit back down to work out a thorny challenge; or we took an organized laugh break.  Crazy, I know, but it’s the kind of thing that might help us break through the ennui and the logjam and on to a more free flowing creative state.

Have you used – are you using – creativity-boosting techniques to work through your challenges?  Are you committed to seeking fresh perspectives?  Would you like to know more?  Do you have specific challenges that this blog didn’t help solve?  Hit me up in the comments section.  I’m available for further discussion.