“Your job here is to make us look good.” It was my first week on staff at a large church when I heard these words from my new boss. The words were delivered with a smile, half-jokingly, but with an air of truth. It got my attention. After all, this church was well known for its culture of excellence, attended by high achievers, staffed with professionals. I was the new kid in town, young and eager to impress my teammates. I took the message to heart and got to work.
And I worked like crazy.
Weekend after weekend, project after project, I made sure my work was first rate. I got it done, and I was rewarded for my efforts. I thrived and grew creatively in ways that have benefitted me ever since. It’s a season of my life for which I’ll always be grateful.
But those words, make us look good, had gotten in my head. They stuck around for years, following me into every new project I started. I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the great lie that harasses creative people relentlessly – that I’m only worth what I can create, that my gifts are a commodity, that my life is an audition that never really ends.
Ultimately I realized that this wasn’t my church’s issue or my boss’s issue. This was my issue, a mental trap that God has graciously, patiently freed me from again and again. But it’s an issue that comes up a lot whenever I talk to creatives in the church. Different stories, different struggles, but the same nagging thought – am I only valuable because of what I can do? What if I’m just here to make this place look good?
Creatives in ministry live in a weird tension a lot of the time. We have instincts that feel like the opposite of the people around us. Church leaders can seem so certain about what they believe, while creatives often feel conflicted and insecure. Leaders like good answers. Creatives like good questions. Leaders prefer predictability. Creatives tend to disrupt it. It can all start to feel like an awkward first date. And the tension mounts.
If you lead creative people, you have the opportunity to speak life and encouragement into your team members. In fact, the word encouragement means to impart courage, as if you’re literally handing someone the thing they need in order to move forward.
It’s a big deal, because to be creative is to be vulnerable, putting yourself and your ideas out there for people’s approval or criticism. Courage is absolutely essential to the creative process. If you lead creative people, here are three things you can say today to encourage them.
“I See You”
If creative people have one common theme, it’s that they’re convinced no one understands how hard they work. (Roll your eyes, it’s fine, they’re used to it.) Here’s the truth. Creative work might look like fun. But their process is usually slower and more tedious and painful than they’re willing to admit. So they keep it to themselves and don’t let people see it.
When people walk in their door, they always want something. Can you get this done? Can you fix this? Can you change this? It starts to feel like creative people are the means to an end instead of … well, people.
I see you is a way of reminding creatives that they have a name, a place, and purpose beyond the thing you’re asking them to work on. They need to be reminded of this all the time because creatives put themselves under enormous amounts of pressure to perform well.
If I’m meeting with someone I lead and I want to see them light up, I’ll say, you know what you’re really good at? They hang on every last word. I don’t just do this to make them feel better. This is imparting courage, calling out their identity and gifts. Show your team members that you see them, not just their work. Call out the person God created them to be.
“I Hear You”
When it comes to decision-making, creatives don’t always get a seat at the table. That’s fair enough. But if it starts to feel like the church is only interested in their creative output instead of their creative input, they’ll start to disconnect.
Want some team buy-in on your new project? Try this question – I’m not sure, what do you think? Ask for input, then listen. Creative people can be very observant. Let them speak into the process, even if you don’t use all their ideas.
And what about those moments when they’re just venting their frustration? I hear you is a way of showing that you understand their concerns. Knowing that they’ll be heard will help your team build trust, which is the key ingredient of any good working relationship. Ask your creatives for input and hear them out.
“I Love You”
Really? I love you? How about do your job?
If I love you feels too mushy, try I’m proud of you. Love is a strong word. And maybe you don’t love that new design they just sent over or that video they’re working on. Actually you kind of hate it. Cool. But you still don’t get to withhold love.
Ministry leadership is always meant to be rooted in love. The Bible is clear – without love, your words come across as noise. Lead in love and you’ll create a culture where your creatives are more likely to thrive, with the courage to bring their best ideas to the table. And even when those ideas fall flat, love remains.
Proverbs 18:21 tells us that the power of life or death is in the tongue. Speak life and courage to the creatives on your team. Foster an environment of collaboration, feedback, and mutual respect. Your team will flourish when they know they are seen, heard, and loved.