Are you a pastor or an artist?

August 30th, 2016

Creativity is merely a plush name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better—John Updike

Leonard Sweet, in a talk given shortly after the publication of his essential book on preaching — Giving Blood — noted that over the course of his ministry he has changed his preaching style at least seven times. The reason:  to stay sharp, to polish the edges of creativity. And as Sweet later noted in his talk, “Somewhere between the call and the grind of parish ministry many pastors lose their creative edge.”

This insight is affirmed by many pastors who experience a dullness of thought and practice as they sink deeper into ministry. In short, it is much easier for pastors to relegate themselves to comfortable routines, well-worn practices, and familiar terrain. Sermon preparation can sometimes feel more like a mathematical equation than a movement of heart and soul. Boredom — even in the busyness and business of meeting human need — can settle over the bones like concrete.

Creativity is required if pastors are to stay on top of their game. Creativity is needed to keep thoughts and practices fresh and invigorating. Nothing is more deflating than monotony — the same problems and processes and procedures being practiced time and again.

Creativity, however, is not easily achieved in parish work.

Although every day is different and pastors do experience a greater degree of flexibility in schedule and oversight, there is much in parish work that reveals itself in familiar faces, conversations and difficulties. Many pastors grow to lament the tedious nature of annual stewardship campaigns, or the weekly hospital visitations, or the monthly array of meetings to discuss the familiar refrains of facility, families and finances.  Over the years, I have heard many pastors describe their work or situations as “black holes”, “pits” or “trenches.”

Indeed, parish work can take on these heavy threads and often make pastors feel as though they have few options, or are weighed down with interminable responsibilities that seemingly require more fortitude than art. A parish can seem more like a minefield than a studio.

Having mentored so many young pastors through the years, I can attest that everyone receives the call with a degree of fresh optimism and energy. But soon the harsh realities of the church set in, complete with flawed people, broken promises and anemic budgets. Optimism gives way to realism and, in time, many pastors succumb to cynicism (or worse), doing ministry through the tired motions of apathy or stirring a stew of clichés and unchanging plots.

But what is the cure?

Creativity. The cure is viewing ministry as an art form.

Consider the lessons learned by many artists and writers. Often, a change of scenery or location is needed in order to jumpstart the creative juices. Viewing the same sunsets through the same windows eventually deadens the artist’s perceptions and appreciations. Writers, of course, need space in order to write; but when the words don’t come, new pages rarely emerge without some change.  Creativity is always defined by the new vantage point, the willingness to take risk, the ability to shake loose from old moorings.

As Leonard Sweet suggests, preaching styles do not have to remain unchanged. Ministry on the whole can always be a study in creativity and art.

Years ago, I met a lead pastor from a large congregation who admitted that he was able to stay fresh in ministry only because of his staff’s ability to adapt to change. One of the ways they managed to do this was to exchange job descriptions. Every year, the staff would take a retreat, redistribute ministry and tasks and begin their work with fresh eyes and renewed energy. “Nothing can invigorate the soul,” the pastor said, “faster than a fresh perspective and a new adventure in ministry.”

And herein lies the key: ministry needs creativity in order to thrive. When we grow stale, we begin to wilt.

In order to keep creativity pumping through our work, we can benefit from a few tried-and-true ideas that writers and artists have been supplying for centuries. Here are five that can put new wine in the old wineskins.

Embrace Change

This sounds easy, but we all know that change is difficult. But one doesn’t have to take a new charge or move to a new city or exchange horses in order to embrace a change. How about asking the congregation for a one-month sabbatical in order to travel, study, and re-create vision for ministry?  Many pastors are reluctant to ask for sabbaticals (even brief ones), but these can serve to boost creativity and bring new life to dried bones. Or how about moving your church office? What about doing sermon prep in a different space or at a different time? Small changes can yield big dividends in fresh perspectives.

Ask Different Questions

Ministry is often perceived as work that supplies answers to life’s problems. But if we are honest, we would see that faith is more akin to asking questions than giving answers. Still, we often relegate ourselves to the same series of questions, or we perceive that the answers must be given in a certain way.  What might we learn by asking questions outside of our purview? Questions like: What’s the one thing I cannot accomplish in this church . . . but who can? What would I attempt in ministry if I were not afraid? What can I stop doing so that I can start doing something more beneficial? What is feeding my soul? What is killing me? What is the one thing—today—that I need to do (or don’t need to do)?

Write Differently

Writing, in one form or another, is a big part of ministry. Whether writing sermons, cover letters, inter-office communications or grant proposals, words matter so much. How would your creativity charge if you changed your form? How about writing a poetic sermon? Could you write a play? Could you write a parable? What new vocabulary words could you bring into your daily conversations? How about starting a ministry journal? Can you write down your frustrations? Could your prayers benefit from thinking outside the box?

Create the Future

We all know the stories of Steve Jobs and other pioneers who were visionaries and marketers. But God knows we need more visionaries in pastoral work, too. What are the opportunities you see in your community and congregation? What new relationships could be formed with businesses, people or needs in your community? How might your ministry be redefined by working with others — even those of disparate viewpoints? Where might the Spirit move, or in what new ways, through vision that is bold and persistent? If your momentum has dried up, how can you get the wheels moving again? 

Shadow Others

Some years ago I asked members of my congregation if I might shadow them at work to see what they did and understand more deeply their work environments and daily routines. The creativity gained from these observations was invaluable. How about shadowing a jeweler? The antique dealer? The truck driver? The teacher? The nurse? The corporate CEO? New experiences, new environments: these are the hotwires of creativity. And when you couple these with conversations and observations, the results are astounding.

Don’t forget that ministry can be an art form just as easily as painting or sculpting. God was the first potter, after all. And when we think of ministry as an opportunity to shape and refine — even beautify or express God’s design — creativity truly comes alive.

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