Too many church leaders have allowed the creative juices to be blocked.

I believe all of us subconsciously want to be creative.… The trouble is that for most of us imagination has been suppressed to the point where we have stopped using it. We need to stop and daydream once in a while. We need to let our imaginations roam and give them a chance to breathe. It’s never really too late for anyone to start thinking more creatively (J. B. Dubois).

Churches are often stereotyped as being lethargic, change-resistant organizations. A frequent attitude is that if you want to see a dead, traditionalistic bureaucracy, simply look at the nearest church. Unfortunately, we all know that to some extent the stereotype is true. Many churches are dead in the water, without power, and drifting from crisis to boredom. Part of the reason, I believe, is a lack of creativity in leadership. Not, mind you, a lack of talent, or spirituality, or money (although too often these are to blame), but a lack of creativity.

Creativity involves imagination, originality, ingenuity, innovativeness. But although it includes these characteristics and others, it transcends them all. Creativity is not, in my opinion, a spiritual gift, although the Holy Spirit is the ultimate expression of the creative power of God. It is certainly not mere faddishness—the ability to sell the church board the latest Miracle Program from a publisher or parachurch organization. (The miracle of some cure-alls is that they can be sold at all!) For a definition, let’s say that creativity is the fragile ability to synthesize accumulated knowledge and past experiences with present reality in order to bring into being something new. The new thing brought into being is not totally new—nothing is—but it is new to those to whom it applies.

I deliberately emphasize creativity as a “fragile” ability. Few people lack creativeness; but far too many, especially those in church leadership, have allowed the ducts through which the creative juices flow to be blocked. The following obstructions to creativity must be identified:

Cynicism. “I had a creative idea once. But then I suggested it to be board and …” Few pastors would make such a statement, but the experience of having a creative idea summarily shot down in a committee meeting is common. The leader who allows these experiences to lead to a cynical, pessimistic attitude is choosing to languish in self-pity and tedious routine. First tries are seldom successful. Perhaps only two out of ten creative ideas will blossom into workable programs. But all ten ideas, including the two that would have worked, may be stifled by cynicism.

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Intolerance of error. This also carries a two-out-of-ten rule: you may have eight losers before the first winner. You can forget about being creative if you can’t stand to make a mistake. Any organization must develop a high tolerance for failure, for failures are the necessary price we pay for good, successful, creative ideas.

Excuses. The commonest excuse for being uncreative may be, “I just don’t have a creative personality.” I do not believe one’s personality is irrevocably formed by age five; you can change your personality for the better. You may not win a Nobel Prize, but you can be more creative if you work at it.

Laziness. Nothing kills creativity more than laziness. Unless you were born some kind of genius, creativity will require more effort than uncreative colleagues are willing to exert. You must discipline yourself so you can take extra time to think about where you want yourself and your organization to be in the future. It is in such thoughts that the imaginative moment arrives—the moment you are able to synthesize what you know and what you’ve done and relate these to your current situation. Strict discipline and hard thinking are prerequisites for this.

Overexposure. Another obstruction to creativity is overexposure, for no one has an unlimited reservoir of creativity. The reservoir can dry up if it is tapped too often. Pastors who must create three or more public speeches or presentations weekly face this danger. The creative edge is easily dulled through overuse—too many sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school lessons, “devotional” talks, and so on. Without realizing it, many pastors are dissipating their creative energy through overexposure.

Another dimension of the fragility of creativity not to be overlooked is its spontaneity: you can’t force it. Sometimes I have a week or a few days when I have many creative ideas. There are other times when I have none at all. I have the same experience in memorizing Scripture—some periods are more productive than others. Creative thoughts often come when you least expect them. I once had a brainstorm for a new Sunday school promotional program while shaving in a cabin in northern Minnesota on my vacation. Creative ideas come to a friend at night in bed. He always keeps a pencil and note pad ready by the side of his bed. Good ideas must be caught as they appear or they tend to disappear quickly; they may never return.

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Once the main obstacles are identified there still is the most potent factor of creativity to deal with: your own attitude. In his book, The Making of a Christian Leader, Ted Engstrom points out that the key to creativity lies within the leader’s own personality. The constituent parts of attitude—a healthy view of yourself, your relationship with God and others, and your belief in the work God has called you to do—combine to make you capable of creative thinking.

Here are a few practical suggestions you can use in the process of increasing your creativity:

Make time. Creativity takes time, especially quiet, think time. Time management expert Alan Lakein emphasizes the need to achieve a balance between quiet time and activity time. Many pastors are so overwhelmed by the demands of people and programs that their quiet time either disappears or is totally taken up with sermon preparation. Create more quiet time by having your secretary intercept all incoming calls and visitors. If you have no secretary, dial your own number and leave the phone off the hook for a half-hour. Better yet, spend an hour or two back in the stacks of the nearest library. But put limits on your creative quiet time as well—lest you be all thinking and no doing.

Read. Take time to read, and not just religious books. If there is more creativity in the secular world than in the church—and I think there is—then it stands to reason that you should read some secular books if you want to increase your creativity. Read whatever you find to be interesting and challenging: and read especially in the fields of management and social commentary.

Keep a file. Every good preacher keeps a file of “back-burner” sermon ideas. Why not do the same for program and promotion brainstorms? Write down your ideas as soon as they occur. More creative ideas are lost because they were forgotten than are lost to any to the obstacles named.

If you work at it, you, too, can become a creative person exercising a truly creative ministry.

Michael J. Hostetler is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Mahomet, Illinois.

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