Ministry Sustainability: Creativity and Mastery
Feb 05, 2010 by Don Payne | 0 Comments
In my last post, I drew from Matthew Crawford's book, Shop Class as Soulcraft to place ministry in his category of stochastic arts. These are trades that, by definition, never achieve their ends because they are not dealing with the completion of products but with complex variables that must constantly be assessed and engaged to foster movement toward an ideal. Medicine is one example. It only exists because we lack health and things go wrong. Yet, it never fully produces health and never eliminates the need for its own existence. I find all kinds of parallels with what we customarily call "ministry" vocations.
The alarming and endless rates of attrition, burnout, fatigue, and disillusionment in ministry vocations has received lots of attention. The subject is not new and resources aplenty have been developed. May we look at sustainability in ministry from yet another angle, though? People struggle in ministry vocations struggle for many of the same reasons that people struggle in any stochastic art. This is not to ignore or downplay the reality of spiritual warfare that is involved as we battle with principalities and powers through the power of the gospel. Warfare itself is taxing and there is no way around that. Yet, that reality must not eclipse the fact that we bring to ministry vocations the same humanity and human needs that anyone brings to any work. If we don't pay attention to those needs, we place ourselves at peril, a peril amplified if we assume that we should not have those needs when engaged in "the Lord's work".
Consider our deeply human need for creativity and mastery. The first, creativity, is no stranger to ministry conversations, especially within American evangelicalism. Creative forms of ministry and approaches to ministry are not only in high fashion among us, but also seem deeply embedded in the evangelical psyche. Mastery, though, gets less attention. It's the need to grow in our competence and wisdom so that we can increasingly deal well with difficult and complex situations. I suspect this need is overlooked because of we rely on (and perhaps misinterpret) biblical exhortations not to depend on our own strength but on God's. We rightly want to acknowledge our utter dependence on God to do His work. In doing so, however, we can lose the God-ordained need to grow in mastery and find satisfaction in what we do. Ultimately, there should be no tension between relying radically on God, seeking His power and wisdom, giving Him glory, and, on the other hand, growing in competence.
Creativity is an easier sell, partly because of the popular accent on creativity as spontaneity and serendipity. It feels consistent with relying on the Spirit of God to do the work, doesn't it? This brings me back to Matt Crawford, the Ph.D. motorcycle mechanic. Take in this passage from Shop Class as Soulcraft.
"The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence" (51).
Sustainability in ministry, as in any stochastic art, depends on our ability to exercise creativity. However, this has little to do with whether our ministry responsibilities tolerate change or progressive ideas (though those can be nice if given the opportunity). In its deepest form creativity is matter of seeing more deeply into the almost infinitely complex realities (or "materials") with which we work and growing in our ability (mastery) to work with those realities to bring about beauty (or healing or hope or forgiveness or faith or you name it). It's about seeing what is really there, what we miss in our impatience to simply do things differently. It's about learning to work with intricacies and help these variables fit together in ways we would not have believed they could. All this we miss if we are enslaved to the pseudo-creativity that ignores the disciplines needed to grow in mastery. Submission, mastery, creativity; these are friends that God uses to keep us alive in ministry and to make our ministries sources of life for those we serve.