I have seen too many churches burn through artists.
I have seen too many artists give up on the church.
It breaks my heart when the beautiful match of storytellers and keepers of the greatest story can’t figure out how to work together.
I’ve become convinced of this:
The most important thing isn’t talent. It’s good systems.
If a church wants to grow its creative and storytelling prowess it needs to build the kind of cultural environment an artist or storyteller wants to join. For example, here’s what Pixar did to create a better culture at Disney in the 2000s. The result was a string of better Disney animated films.
So how do you do it? I call it the 1-3-5-7 Method.
I wish I could credit the person I first heard this from. The idea relates to the leadership work of building a sustainable ministry culture that thrives beyond an individual leader’s influence. The premise is that it takes a minimum of seven years to build an outstanding creative culture. This has been true in my work in building creative teams at large churches, and I imagine it’s true in many leadership roles.
Here’s the breakdown of how it works.
Year 1 of Creative Culture: Vision
In the first year, you build the plane while you’re flying it. I tell this to my team all the time.
a) Name the existing situation (learning)
When you start someplace, you’re usually coming into an existing situation. Your first task is to understand the culture. It’s a learner’s role. What sort of visions and ideas about the future already exist? What sort of methods of relating to one another? What sort of expectations about acceptable behavior? What sort of administrative processes? Presumably, there’s some problems. That’s why you were hired!
b) Identify the juxtaposition between what is and what could be (visioning)
While you’re figuring that out, you’re also comparing the existing situation against your ideals. Hopefully, there’s a big disconnect between the reality and your vision. If not, you’re probably not going to succeed in your work.
The way I do this is by using problems as opportunities to teach. For example, early on at St. Andrew I’d see a worship screen image that was all wrong, and so as I’d talk to the team about changing it, I’d also talk through why the fix is better. I try to constantly use problems as opportunities to cultivate a bigger picture in everyone around me for why we’re going to do what we do.
c) Fix low hanging, “wow” moments (establishing)
When you’re new, there are probably some easy fixes sitting out there that are good opportunities for you to show off your chops. Snag those.
When I came to St. Andrew, the church had not done an annual giving campaign like I was used to doing it, so I was able to dramatically up the quality of the campaign. The purpose of these early wins is to establish yourself as an expert and build trust within the community that you can indeed do what you say you’re going to do.
Year One Goals: Learn culture. Establish vision and where you’re going. Begin to implement your plan.
Years 2-3 of Creative Culture: Systems
Here’s where you’re down in the weeds, doing the dirty work.
a) Look down
As I transition into year two, I spend a lot of time down in the details, working with teams (staff and volunteer) to model what I am talking about. Actually, to paraphrase one of my favorite sayings in the beginnings of a ministry, I spend a lot of time building the plane while I fly it.
b) Implement tools and workflows
You’ve already begun buying better tools and establishing better workflows in year one, but the bulk of this work happens here, in year two.
For example, at St. Andrew there were several problems in the workflow of worship design, but fixing them didn’t just mean putting in place things I’d done in previous churches or in my book Taking Flight with Creativity. It required developing a sufficiently deep understanding of the unique issues at play with the people and the processes of St Andrew in order to name solutions that would stick. My colleague Arthur Jones and I worked on a plan for months, vetting it through every person involved, using weekly situations as case studies, before rolling out a better plan. (I’ll talk about this plan in a future post.)
The reason that tools and workflows happen here is simply time: in my experience, it takes 18-24 months to really start to turn the ship toward your vision. I’ve been trying to do it sooner at S. Andrew, but there’s a limit to what can be done. There’s simply a lot of work involved. 18 months is the minimum. It wasn’t until year two at my previous church, Peachtree, that colleagues began telling me “I was killing it.”
c) Do double duty
One reason it takes so long is that nothing is a one-off. As with the teaching in year one, every time I see a problem, I try to not just fix it, but create a workflow so that it doesn’t happen again. Everything is an opportunity for development. Do double duty: fix the problem and automate the workflow.
Year Three Goals: A fully-functioning plane, in the air, with workflows in place to accomplish the ongoing goals and tasks of every major aspect of your ministry.
Years 4-5 of Creative Culture: Refinement
Hopefully by year 4 you’ve had some major wins. Here the focus shifts from project development to the more invisible and nuanced work of culture making. You return to the year one goal of spending more energy coaching the team, refining process, and preaching values.
a) Look up and around
To be clear, I’m not saying you ignore industry trends in years 2 and 3, or that you ignore your own workflows in years 4 and 5. These are general trends in terms of how I direct my time and energy. But by this time, hopefully the workflows from years 2- 3 are working on their own.
I so, I spend less time in the weeds and more time surveying the whole organization. What problems occurring in other areas can my area help improve? The goal all along is to avoid “silos”, and the longer you’re in place, the more you can pour into other ministries and their areas of overlap with yours.
b) Survey the industry and larger culture more
What emerging trends should you consider? There are lots of great resources for church creatives. One current destination is a Facebook group call Church Communications, led by Katie Allred.
c) Nuance and savvy
When it comes to your own workflows, I’ve found this is the time when you get sophisticated. When I taught a lot of workshops and seminars, I used to teach the complex and savvy, like for example the nuances of fonts and kerning in graphic design when putting together sermon series lyrics, until I realized how niche within niche within niche it was. These things matter, but they don’t matter early on. Don’t get stuck here early. They matter, but the team can hear it better once you’ve been in it a while.
Year Five Goal: Fully operating, refined systems, best practices, and an eye on moving to the front of the best of current thinking in the field. You should feel complete, almost bored here. It should be working without you.
Years 6-7 of Creative Culture: New Initiatives
The person who taught me this method said if you leave after year 1, nothing works. After year 3, the systems will survive a while and then fade away. After year 5, the systems may live on but without the ability to continue development. After year 7, the culture is deep enough that the vision you created will continue to grow in your absence. When done well, it lives beyond you.
b) Teach others
If done well, your culture is something that can help others. Around this time, if not before, you’re beginning to teach and coach others. But – a word of advice – avoid the temptation to jump full-time into the circuit. The tension of teaching while doing, though hard, keeps your credibility at its highest.
c) Leap off the plateau
But this of course isn’t guaranteed. The irony is that in order to make your culture vibrant, you have to some degree blow up your own workflows and systems. They have a way of calcifying. Using trends and ideas and your ongoing research, your job as a leader of a mature culture is to make something new – constant change and improvement. I already know what this will be at St. Andrew: a bigger vision for extending the content of St. Andrew beyond our community.
Year Seven Goal: By now you’re a leader of leaders. This is tricky. It seems smooth, but if you leave at year five it will wilt. The next step is to build leaders who will carry vision forward.