Tina Fey’s book Bossypants is somewhat like an episode of her TV show, 30 Rock. The show defies genres, sometimes driven by romantic comedy, sometimes by classic sitcom ensemble dynamics, and sometimes by seventh-grade bathroom humor. Her book, in similar form, ranges from a poignant memoir to absurd comedy. It’s foul-mouthed, honest, and a touch insecure, which is probably also true of Fey.
One of the pleasant surprises of Bossypants is Fey’s reflection on leadership. Having spent many years under the mentoring of Lorne Michaels (creator of Saturday Night Live), Fey has gleaned a tremendous amount of wisdom on leadership and creativity. In her chapter “A Childhood Dream, Realized,” she recounts eight things she learned from Michaels, and I was struck by the parallels (of a very different scale, of course) between getting ready for Saturday Night Live and getting ready for Sunday morning.
So here, for you, is my adapted version of Fey’s eight lessons, with a particular slant towards the work we do as pastors, getting ready for Sunday.
Lesson One: “Producing is about discouraging creativity.”
Fey describes how the many creative minds who make up a TV show’s crew (set dressers, costumers, props managers, effects directors, and more) require a leader who can discerningly restrain the gifts of their team. Without good leadership, without good restraint upon these gifts, the show descends into a cacophony of overdone costumes, props, scripts, and acting.
Sunday morning can be similar. The guitar player has a new pedal he wants to use, the audio engineer has an idea for looping echoes, the multimedia tech has found some fancy new backdrops with puppies that dance to the beat of “Your Grace Is Enough,” and there’s a line out your door of people who want to do solos, skits, interpretive dance, and something frightening called “Clown Communion.” (You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)
The gathering is a catalytic moment for the whole church. It’s meant to be an encouraging, covenant-renewing, Christ-exalting experience. It takes a discerning pastor to drift through the endless sea of voices calling for their songs, their ideas, their stylistic decisions to take center stage. Sometimes, the best thing a pastor can do is discourage creativity, calling people to simply focus on the ministries of Word and prayer.
Lesson Two: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”
Fey says, “You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go.” (p. 123) A live show like SNL has a no margins for “fixing it in the editing room” or endless rewrites. Sound familiar?
The pressures we feel heading into Sundays can be extreme. We need to edify the congregation, confront unbelief, comfort the hurting, and get the lighting and sound cues right, all while fitting in preparation between marriage counseling appointments, church discipline cases, and conversations with staff.
The fact that time simply runs out is countered by an equally helpful word of comfort. Fey says, “What I learned about ‘bombing’ as an improviser at Second City [a Chicago-based comedy troupe] was that bombing is painful, but it doesn’t kill you.” (p. 123) The same thing goes for Sunday. Some sermons, some worship services, sail right out of the park. Some are like Ambien, and our congregation is glad when they’re over. We can only hope our church heeds the admonition of the author of Hebrews, “Don’t give up meeting together.” Even so, it’s not worth losing sleep. Sunday will come around again, and agonizing over our misses (or our “hits” for that matter) is just another form of narcissism.
Lesson Three: “When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.”
Michaels has always staffed SNL with “hyperintelligent Harvard boys” and “visceral, fun performers,” an alchemy that consistently results in better comedy. The Harvard contingency “checks the logic of every joke, and the Improvisers teach them how to be human. It’s Spock and Kirk.”
There’s a need for a similar alchemy in any church leadership team. At Sojourn, we’ve seen the most beautiful things happen when “Harvard” (in our case, a traditional, theologically educated leader) comes together with the “Improviser” (an indigenous, homegrown leader). It’s not an either/or (though it’s often treated that way); it’s a great team dynamic.