Creativity, Sharing Your Ideas, and Failure: Insights on Preaching Drawn from Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc.

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I recently read Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull.

If you are unfamiliar with Ed Catmull he is one of the three founding members of Pixar.

If you are unfamiliar with Pixar. Go watch one of their movies and you’ll thank me.

The book shares his insights into leading at Pixar and the lessons he has learned about building and managing creative teams. The book is great and gives thoughtful insight into the creative process and offers a compelling window into the animation industry.

My head is still spinning from the sheer amount of material in this book.

As I read, I came across some ideas that have clear merits for us as preachers. In this post, I’m going to pull out three quotes and talk about how they inspire me as a preacher.

I hope they inspire you too.

Quote #1:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

One of the core principles of the early process at Pixar was the development of a creative brain trust. This group was made of up creative people, directors and producers, who gathered to look at and discuss the latest version of a film/story. The goal of the group was to offer feedback and reactions in order to help the director of the film continue to refine their story.

The central word to this process is “candor.” All members agree to be open and honest and to accept that encouragement or criticism as an effort to help the director push their creative vision to the best it can be.

As preachers, we encounter this sort of criticism outside of the safety of a brain trust. On a given Sunday, we may encounter all sorts of responses to our preaching. The key difference being that we have delivered our finished product and are now finding out what people think good or bad.

In this case, Catmull’s quote rises to the surface. How closely do you associate with the ideas of your preaching? 

Of course, you have a personal connection to what you preach: you believe what you preach and are often trying to share that belief or persuade someone to it.

But, if we could find a way to separate our self-worth or value as a minister from our preaching (both topic and method) we might find our ability to engage and respond to our congregation’s thoughts and feedback with greater tact and grace.

Quote #2:

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”

It amazed me how much work goes into the storytelling at Pixar. I mean, I knew, but I had no idea how often they redesign, scrap, or start over in effort to develop excellent stories.

The brain trust happened often and regularly in order that flawed ideas or gaps in storytelling could be caught and engaged with. As Catmull shares about the development of different films, there is a huge gap between the early versions and the released films. The key to their creative success seems to be connected to the quote above. Sharing your work before you get to the due date will help make the final product of your work better.

For preachers, this is difficult because Sunday is always coming. Pixar takes years to develop great stories and it feels like pastors have days.

The preacher’s challenge of not having enough time to share can be met. Here are two key questions you can ask yourself to see how you are sharing and what you are doing to share your ideas.

  1. How often are you sharing your sermon ideas as you are working on them? It is tempting to keep your exciting story, clever big idea, or keen observations to yourself and release them on a Sunday morning. But, if Catmull’s view of creativity and excellence is accurate, by keeping your ideas to yourself you are actually guaranteeing a worse outcome than if you shared your idea (and got feedback) with key people in your circles.

  2. What systems do you have in place to share your ideas with other people? It may feel like adding extra work to your day but you should find a way to connect with people as you write your sermons. You will find the quality of preaching and your enthusiasm for your work will go up. Find another local pastor and meet on Wednesdays to talk sermons. Get a group of passionate and trustworthy congregants together to brainstorm on upcoming sermons. However, you do it you should find a way to share your ideas sooner and more often.

Time remains a problem but things can be done to overcome this. Mainly, the further ahead of the game you can work in planning your sermons the better. I’m not the first to suggest this. It is a common encouragement but in light of the desire to collaborate with people you need to plan further ahead and find time for regular connections with people as you plan, write, and prepare to preach your sermon. This effort will raise the quality of your work and give you the time/space you need to collaborate.

Quote #3:

 “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

Many pastors find themselves trapped between their desire to do well and their desire not to fail as a preacher. We become stuck in the methods and practices of preaching that we are comfortable with, that have been reliable, and we know won’t rock the boat.

Our desire to not fail leaves us with little options but to stay in a stagnant position.

Catmull suggests that people often look at failure as the enemy but in truth failure is a sign that we are open to trying to do new things and push the boundaries of our field/creativity. Without failure, there will never be progress.

We do ourselves and our congregation a disservice when we are driven by the desire to avoid failure.

We should instead be motivated by our desire to see the gospel reach new ears and be heard afresh every week.

There are probably a million other ways that the book inspired me to be more creative and to build creativity into my process as a preacher and a leader. I encourage you to pick it up and explore the amazing stories and hard-won lessons that Catmull shares.

If you are looking to explore some creative ways of preaching you can check out my series on alternative forms of preaching.