Creativity happens when…

October 28th, 2015

The movie was released twenty years ago and is considered one of the best animated films ever made. Directed by John Lasseter and produced by Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Toy Story grossed $362 million worldwide. The story of a pullstring toy cowboy named Woody and his owner tugged at the heartstrings of children and adults alike.

Two years later, Disney executives came to Ed Catmull, Chief Technical Officer at Pixar, requesting a sequel, Toy Story 2, that would be released as a direct-to-video release. At the time, most sequels made for the video market were not of the same quality as those made for theatrical release. A few months later Catmull and Lasseter told Disney that scaling back quality for a B-level movie would have a significant negative effect on company culture, so both companies agreed to go for the theaters.

Since the main Pixar creative team was focusing on the production of A Bug’s Life, Catmull and Lasseter picked two skilled animators to direct Toy Story 2. Unfortunately, they lacked the experience and confidence to lead the team, and the storyline wasn’t compelling. With only nine months left to deliver the film, Catmull and Lasseter stopped production, changed directors and did a complete redo of the story. Under Lasseter’s direction, the production team went into overdrive, single-mindedly focusing on meeting the deadline. Toy Story 2 became one of the few movie sequels lauded as better than the original.

In his 2014 book, Creativity Inc.; Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull, currently President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, uses the Toy Story example to share several important truths about how organizations can best inspire, touch and guide the lives of others. How can we build a culture of creative excellence, whether in the film industry or the church?

Creativity happens when people come before ideas

Excellence in creativity begins when we realize that getting the team right is more important than getting the ideas right. When Catmull’s best minds were occupied with directing A Bug’s Life, he picked inexperienced people for Toy Story 2 who were not ready for the responsibility. Realizing that great ideas mean nothing without the best leaders, Catmull tapped Lasseter before it was too late. The right people make for the right team, which makes for the right chemistry, which makes for success.

One of the gifts of Jim Collins’ 2001 bestseller, Good to Great, is his insistence on getting the right people on the bus. He writes, “In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline — first the people, then the direction — no matter how dire the circumstances.” In the same way, if we want to engage in creative ministry, we have to engage the best people we can.

It’s now October, a time when many Nominations and Leadership Development Committees are meeting to “identify, develop, deploy, evaluate, and monitor Christian spiritual leadership for the local congregation.” (¶ 258.1, Book of Discipline) The challenge of this important committee is to prayerfully discern who has the spiritual gifts of leadership for a particular ministry or team.

If we have the right leaders in the right places, our ministries will flourish. On the other hand, if we simply leave Joe as chair of Trustees because he’s done it for the last twenty years, despite the fact that the church facility is in shambles; or if we ask Jenny to chair the Staff-Parish Relations Committee even though she has poor relational skills and avoids conflict at all costs, we are not furthering the mission and ministry of our congregation.

Creativity is best fostered by teams composed of people whose skills, temperament and spiritual gifts complement each other. Great vision with mediocre people produces mediocre results. Conversely, great people will find good ideas and develop them.

Creativity happens when the needs of people come before the needs of the organization

When Ed Catmull and John Lasseter decided to create a new team to complete Toy Story 2 in an unheard-of nine months, team members worked tirelessly and effectively. It wasn’t too long, however, before Catmull realized the team was not only getting worn out, they were neglecting their families. He wrote, “By the time the film was complete, a full third of the staff would have some kind of repetitive stress injury.”

Catmull vowed never again to put the needs of Pixar before the needs of his team. Convinced that the role of Pixar was to model health and balance and ensure that their employees had a life outside the organization, he wrote, “It was management’s job to take the long view, to intervene and protect people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs.”

The October 23-25 USA Today described the results of a new survey which asked 22,000 high school students how they feel during the school day. The top three key feelings were tired, stressed and bored. The lead researcher warned how these negative emotions can influence attention, memory, decision-making, school performance and social lives. “It’s hard to concentrate and it’s hard to do well in school if your brain is having a stressed response,” says Marc Brackett, researcher at the Yale University Department of Psychology and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

The number of clergy who suffer from constant stress, overwork, tiredness and anxiety is alarming. But it’s common for lay staff and church volunteers to burn out as well. With many churches in decline, our greatest human resources for ministry are often over-functioning. What if our churches could model spiritual, emotional and physical health by urging clergy, staff and laity to take care of themselves, actively supporting them to slow down and identifying, training and equipping new leaders. We are more creative, inspiring and effective when we are healthy.

Creativity happens when excellence/fruitfulness is the goal

Individuals and teams are released to do their best work when the culture of an organization revolves around excellence. Pixar Animation has always been committed to the highest standards. Therefore, when team members were asked to produce an average film, Catmull discovered that the morale and productivity of the team declined dramatically.

While excellence is always a worthy goal, fruitfulness may better describe God’s hope for the church. Jesus refers to himself as the vine, with us as the branches. Our call is to bear beautiful and luscious fruit, knowing all the while that apart from the vine, we can do nothing.

How is your church bearing fruit? Have you transformed any lives lately? Do you have anything to show for your ministries or are you settling for mediocre? Are you boldly stepping outside the church to meet people where they live, work and play, or are you hunkering down in your building, waiting for the world to come to you? Do you continually evaluate your ministries and let go of what is no longer working, or do you keep trying the same old thing, vainly expecting different results? Are any of your ministries displaying fruitfulness?

Catmull writes, “Begun as a direct-to-video sequel, Toy Story 2 proved not only that it was important to everyone that we weren’t tolerating second-class films but also that everything we did — everything associated with our name — had to be good. Thinking this way was not just about morale; it was a signal to everyone as Pixar that they were part owners of the company’s greatest asset — its quality.”

In the same way, we are all part owners of the greatest asset of the Christian faith, the privilege of bearing fruit for the sake of building the kingdom of God. When we place the unique gifts of each person before ideas and before the “organization” of the church, the Holy Spirit releases our creativity through excellence to bear fruit for the kingdom.

Incidentally, Toy Story 2 (1999) grossed $485 million worldwide and Toy Story 3 (2010) grossed $1,063,171,911 worldwide. That’s a lot of fruit for a toy cowboy.

Laurie Haller blogs at

comments powered by Disqus