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Cultivate Your Creative Leaders

“How much time have we wasted trying to make ‘bigger and better’ or ‘slicker and sweeter’ messages instead of just being the messengers?” – Play Time: Finding the Freedom to Imagine and Explore by Betty Spackman, author and installation artist.

Awhile ago I was asked to submit a proposal to a publisher for a set of short films. As I sat down to write the proposal, I became acutely aware of the fact that what I was creating was very quickly going to be turned into a product. All of a sudden I was thinking about demographics, marketing, target audiences. Before I could even get started I was paralyzed, knowing that what I was writing would be subject not only to the scrutiny of my own creative process, but also to whether or not the publisher thought she could sell it. Sitting at my desk, I knew I had a choice. I could write what was inside of me. In other words, be the messenger. Or, I could write for the publisher, giving them something that might not be from my heart, but I knew they could sell. 

I thought to myself, certainly there must be a place that lies somewhere between these two extremes.

How many times a week does this happen in our organizations? A creative person sits down at their desk with an idea. But before they can put pen to paper, they realize their idea will soon be critiqued, not only for its inherent artistic value, but also for its potential appeal to the audience – will the leader like it, will it move people to do good, will it change lives? There is no easy answer to this dilemma. For it is not an easy task to live in the tension. We want either/or’s. And yet the art of tension lies somewhere in the middle. A third way, if you will.

For me, the art of holding the tension between being the messenger and being a producer begins by creating environments of safety. Pastors and priests: if you want great visions, you must take good care of your prophets.

While not the case for everyone, some of you know all too well that your church is not a safe place for your messengers, artists, and prophets. The reasons vary from not having enough to time to create something from the heart, to the direct dismissal of creatives as disorganized weirdos. Regardless of the reason, these unsafe places have created communities deprived of the deep, complex, and beautiful mysteries of the faith that cannot always be spoken of in a sermon.

The artist is the pastor of the 21st century whether we like it or not.

Spackman writes:

“Whether one is an artist or not, I think as Christians we are all implicated in the horrendous deficiency of imagination, the visual illiteracy, the dispassionate celebrations of ‘the joy of our salvation,’ the uncaring lamentations of our sorrow for the oppressed and wounded, our lack of protest for the destruction of our ecosystem and the consumerist kitsch that is the predominant expression of faith in most of the Christian community.”

If the above is news to you, know that the creative professionals in your organization have long been aware. They have felt the deep pain of working and volunteering in places that are lacking in creativity and imagination for sometime now. Those of you who are leaders have an incredible opportunity to revitalize your community by beginning the difficult work of trusting and affirming the visions and dreams of your creative professionals. This process, however, will not be easy, nor will it be quick. But, if you are willing to live in the tension of letting your artists free and not micro-managing the creative process, you will begin to experience some amazing things.

The following is neither an exhaustive list of how to accomplish this, nor a step-by-step plan. Instead, what follows are a few things I think might help your team along.

Leaders, my challenge to you is to gather your creatives and ask them what they dream about. Ask them about the art they create. Ask them to share with you their vision of your community. Ask them to tell you what it is they find mysterious about following Christ. Ask them to dream of a place where they would be free to experiment and make mistakes. And then (here is the tough part), work tirelessly to create that place for them.

If you want to grow the mystery of Christ in your church, you must first foster mystery among your staff.

Creatives, my challenge to you is to be honest to yourself, your leaders, God. Perhaps the most tragic part of your calling as prophets and visionaries is that you will not always be understood. In fact, most of the time you will not. Be careful, however, that being misunderstood isn’t something you carry as a badge of honor. Simply know this: more often than not, the prophet will be called into the court to share her vision; she will be lauded and praised, and then she will quickly be dismissed.

Do not be discouraged and do not lose heart. You are desperately needed.

While your leaders might only now be able to ask you questions, it will be your task to gently guide them into your world. Give them grace when you are dismissed and offer strong words when you have more to say. The art of holding this tension will be largely in your hands.

So, how will you hold it?

If we are truly carrying the gospel with us in our daily experiences, through breakfast, and meetings, and coffee breaks, and creative brainstorming sessions, then it should spill out quite naturally into the art we create. It is inherently marked and stamped by the truth we hold in the center of ourselves. If this is true, then our offerings do not need to be big, better, slick, or sweet. They need only to be honest.

And yet with this honesty comes the great and difficult tension that we have been speaking of. It is the tension that comes from our deep desire to create work that serves the community we are a part of, affects the hearts of people who refuse to be touched, and provides a path toward redemption and restoration. It is the tension that comes from creating something from the center of your being that is neither product, nor production, but an outward pouring of beauty.

Again, there are no simple or easy answers to offer. Instead, I say this:

May you simply be kind to yourself and may you hold the tension well.

(Photo Credit: Story Conference used by pemission)

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Blaine Hogan worked as a professional actor for nearly 12 years before he took a sabbatical that led him to Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA. While in Seattle he received a Masters in Christian Studies focusing on the intersection of art and faith. He currently works for Willow Creek Community Church as a Creative Producer creating contexts and spaces for people to experience God using multimedia, movement, and performance art. He writes about ideas, hope, and the creative process on his blog: www.blainehogan.com and you can follow him on twitter: twitter.com/blainehogan.