How to Be More Creative

Developing Your Idea Factory

Do you think it’s possible to become more creative?  Is creativity natural, or developed?  Is it a limited commodity, and you’re just stuck with however much of it you have?  Is it even possible for a small-church pastor to be creative with limited budgets, no staff, and few options?

I think you CAN become more creative.

Here’s my definition of creativity: The skill or ability to view problems and possibilities in new ways, and find solutions that are novel and courageous.

So how do we develop the skill of creativity?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Read broadly.

Take some time and check out authors that break boxes, think fresh thoughts, and have an “upside down” way of viewing things.  This will mean reading people who disagree with you politically, who synthesize differently than you are used to.

Try some of these:

2. Strategically break your routine.

Seeing the same things the same ways will eventually result in stifled creativity, because it doesn’t give you new experiences and info to process and synthesize.

  • Eat somewhere new.
  • Take a new road to work.
  • Learn a new skill.
  • Read a book about something different or weird
  • Do a new kind of recreation (If you’re an inside guy, go out. Or vice versa!)
  • Talk with someone outside your normal circle – ask them questions

Identify what is unique and different about these experiences.  You may not like them – you might even decide not to do it again.

3. Think childish.

Kids see ways to solve problems creatively because they haven’t been discouraged yet by how many WRONG answers there are. What if you recaptured that mindset, by deciding to ignore the voice that says there’s only one right answer?

  • Shut down the inner voice that says “that’s stupid.”
  • Deliberately suspend your disbelief.
  • Force yourself to come up with 10 different ways to do something, even if 4 of them are completely ludicrous.

The person who rolls their eyes at an over-the-top suggestion may be RIGHT, but they are not creative.  So don’t be that guy.

4. Involve others.

Some people are “Yes, and…” people.  Some are “yes, but…” people.  You know who I’m talking about.  When you want to get creative, it is important who you choose to be around you.  The right people will help you break through a creative block.

“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” ~ Sherlock Holmes (Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir A. Conan Doyle)

5. Be ready to capture ideas.

Brainstorming is a huge part of the art of creativity.  But you have to have a way to capture those creative ideas.

Don’t let a flash of insight slip by!  Write them down in Evernote, or put them in your Todoist list.  Sketch it on a napkin.  Take pictures with your smartphone.

6. Plan ahead.

Don’t wait until the last minute.  Creativity is useless if you don’t have time to execute the idea.

Time pressure only creates the base layer of creativity.  Going to the next level of great creative ideas requires margin. So start early.

7. Get enough sleep.

There is abundant research saying that if you don’t sleep, your life will suffer.  You’ll make less effective decisions, your productivity will drop, and your creativity will suffer.  So make yourself go to sleep.  Check out Michael Hyatt’s post on evening routines for help.

8. Ask “What if…?” and “Why not?”

The more you ask these two questions, the more you unleash your creativity.  Even if the answer is “obvious,” go ahead and ask the question.  What you gain from the question is more than the answer – it is perspective.

9. Use metaphor and simile often.

If creativity really is the synthesis of ideas, metaphor is a great laboratory.  To practice this, think these kinds of thoughts:

  • “How is this problem LIKE other problems?”
  • “If this situation was a ___ (car, storm, war, family, factory, etc), what would each piece be called?”

This forces your brain into a synthesis mode of completely different sets of ideas, which is the essence of creativity.

10. Laugh at yourself.

Creativity = Ridiculous.
Ridiculous = funny.
Funny = people laugh at it.
People laughing at you = bad.
THEREFORE, Creativity = bad.

If that’s your logic, you’ll never grow your creative skill.

So if you decide that you’re OK with being a little ridiculous, and can develop the ability to laugh at yourself, you’ll be further down the road toward being truly creative.

In the comments below, share this: Which of these ideas surprised you?  Why?

How Living In the Urgent Can Kill Your Creativity

And how to reclaim your life from the stress...

If you haven’t read Stephen Covey’s excellent book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” you’re missing out.  Out of the many helpful things in the book, here’s one I have found most useful:  Covey’s distinction between URGENT things and IMPORTANT things.

  • Urgent things shout at you – flashing lights, ringing phones.
  • Important things will not – maintenance, relationships, planning.
  • Urgent and Important things must be done or things will fall apart immediately.
  • Important, not Urgent things must be done or things will fall apart eventually.
  • Urgent and Important things are like filling up with gas when you’re on empty.
  • Important things are like changing the oil after 3,000 miles.

He draws a matrix like this:

Quadrant 2 graphic

As you can see, Quadrant 1 is Urgent & Important.  Quadrant 2 is Important, but not Urgent.

Now, think about your life in terms of this diagram.

I think of Sunday as a Quadrant 1 day.   If you don’t lead worship, don’t preach… if you fail to do whatever your core activities are, there will be an immediate negative effect.  Some activities eventually change quadrants.  For instance, sermon prep is a Quadrant 2 activity, but Saturday night… it’s moved up.

Here’s why it’s better to do activities while they’re still in Quadrant 2:

1. Living in Quadrant 1 is exhausting.

Living your whole life in Quadrant 1 means you’ll be like Mario, leaping from crisis to crisis, barely escaping destruction at each turn, always inches from disaster.

It means not being able to sleep because of the stress of upcoming deadlines.

That’s exhausting.  Better to live in Quadrant 2, where you do important things before they move into Quadrant 1.

2. Relaxed thinking is better than crisis thinking.

You do better quality thinking when you’re relaxed.  Research is clear: You make better quality decisions when your stress is lower.

In his ground-breaking book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell tells of a study where college students were brought to a snack table, and offered a choice between healthy snacks (fruit, etc) and unhealthy snacks (cookies, cupcakes).  Half of the students were given a phone number to memorize and repeat back after the snack.  Those students were much more likely to choose the unhealthy snack.  Why?  They defaulted, under even that mild stress, to choosing what was immediately rewarding, instead of what was smarter.

3. Creativity flows better when you are not in urgent mode.

Ever think that your creativity goes up right before the deadline?  It doesn’t.  Your desperation does.  You may produce, but it’s not your creativity that gets your sermon finished!  It’s shame, and the potential embarrassment of having nothing to say.

It’s not more creative, it’s just… finished.

Instead, take time and focus early in the week to get in a creative flow.  (I’ll be writing more on this soon.)  You may not think of yourself as a particularly creative person, but I bet that you’re more creative when you aren’t “under the gun.”

4. Creativity is useless when you have no time left to execute.

In Quadrant 2, when you think of a really creative way to present a sermon, you can do it.  You can find that prop, create that Powerpoint, locate that great historical story, find that song that complements, think of that person whose testimony should be shared.

But in Quadrant 1, even if you think of it, you often don’t have enough time to do anything about it. I’ve been there too many times, finishing up a sermon on Sunday morning, when I realized – “You know what would be GREAT?!… ah, never mind, I don’t have time to do that this morning!”

Don’t do it.  Commit to living in the Important, not Urgent.

One final thought:

“What if I’m already overwhelmed?  How do I get into Quadrant 2 when Quadrant 1 is already so full?”

I’m glad you asked.  You can’t just stop doing Quadrant 1 activities.  Everything would fall apart, because they really ARE important!  There are only 2 places that you can find time to do Quadrant 2 activities at first: Quadrants 3 & 4.

Here’s what that might look like:

  • Turn off the phone.
  • Block Netflix.
  • Shut off talk radio.
  • Turn off the TV.
  • Use Stayfocusd to keep off Facebook.
  • Get off Youtube.
  • Turn off your wireless access altogether for 3 hours.

And do something Quadrant 2.  Like this:

  • Prepare for NEXT week’s message.
  • Prep for a series that’s a month away on your sermon calendar.
  • Invest in a key relationship.
  • Learn something new.
  • Do that item you’ve been putting off.
  • Check your calendar for tomorrow.
  • Schedule lunch with someone.
  • Pray.

I think you’ll find that if you’ll do this for a week, Quadrant 1 will be slightly smaller, and Quadrant 2 will be slightly larger.

Now, imagine 6 months from now, if you did that every day!

The Simplest Strategic Planning Process for Your Church

Some fancy terms that get thrown around in the world seem complicated — but really are more simple than you might think at first.  One is “strategic planning.”  It can sound scary.  It leads to lots of questions:

  • What if I don’t have any strategy?
  • What if our plan doesn’t work?
  • How do we know what is best to do?
  • What if we don’t have a mission?
  • How detailed are we supposed to go?

Entire books have been written on this subject.  And they’re great.  But I’m guessing most pastors on this list don’t feel that they have time to read an entire book on strategic planning… and don’t feel like you have the time to do a “deep dive” into a process even if you did.  One strategic planning resource says “… a good rule of thumb is to plan on spending 3-4 months developing a complete strategic plan.”

That might be nice in their world, but mine is too full of pre-marital counseling, training greeter volunteers, and preaching 3X per week.

But what if it doesn’t have to be scary for your first experience?  What if your first try could be rather simple, be accomplished in a few hours, and then you could learn and build on it the next time?

That’s what this post is about.

Strategic planning is basically 3 things:

  1. Recognizing and recommitting to your mission, vision and values.
  2. Creating a set of goals & actions you believe will help you fulfill the mission & vision.
  3. Creating measurements that will help you figure out whether you accomplished it.

So here’s the simplest process I’ve ever seen, just to get you started for 2016.

Step 1: Gather a few influencers, and lay out an agenda. (15 minutes)

Get the right people in the room.  You want

  • people with influence
  • people with ideas
  • people whose influence you want to grow.
  • people who are “yes, and…” people, not “yes, but…” people.

Step 2: Review your mission & vision. (15 minutes)

For the purpose of this post, I’ll assume you have a mission and vision.

Mission is why you exist.

Vision is what you will become, or the impact you will make.

Our mission: To help people Love God, Love Others, & Serve the World.

Our vision: By the year 2020, we will:

  • Grow to a total attendance of 1,000 at all sites.
  • See 500 people filled with the Spirit.
  • See 500 people in community groups.
  • Plant 5 churches in US cities.
  • Help plant 5 churches in other countries.
  • Help equip and support 10 international pastors.

Write your versions of mission and vision on a piece of posterboard, and post them visibly in the room where you’re meeting.  Ask them to rate their commitment to it, or if they think it should be changed.  Then pray over it and continue.

Step 3: Do a SWOT analysis. (1 hour)

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats.

Strengths & Weaknesses are internal (in your control)

  • – What do we do well?
  • – What do we not do well?

Opportunities & Threats are external (not in your control).

  • – What could really boost us if we took advantage of it? What’s going on in our location we should be involved in? What needs exist around us that we could meet?
  • – What could really hit us if we don’t watch out? What has the potential to limit our growth? What’s going on in our location that’s not good for us?

Don’t try to solve problems yet!  Just identify them and move on.  Just recognizing them will help you be clear as you go through the next few steps.

Step 4: Split up your mission.  (5 minutes)

In our example, it would be:

  • – Love God (worship & discipleship)
  • – Love Others (fellowship)
  • – Serve the World (ministry & outreach)

Step 5: Brainstorm lists of ideas for each area. (1 hour)

As fast as you can, list as many ideas as you can.  This is not the time to evaluate or judge, just write ideas.  Go until you have anywhere from 10-30 ideas for each area.

In the previous example, if it’s “Serve the World,” you might have 20 ideas:

  • * start a food pantry
  • * advertise on Facebook or with Google
  • * do street preaching
  • * prayer station ministry
  • * do an evangelism class
  • * teach people to invite others
  • * create better church invitation materials
  • * plan big outreach days like Friend Day
  • * invite a high-powered evangelist
  • * plan more outreach-oriented sermons
  • * go door-to-door calling
  • * do a prayer walk in the neighborhood
  • * Improve the church sign
  • * kindness outreach at the local skate park
  • * We Care Ministry

Step 6: Organize ideas into groups. (1 hour)

Some of the ideas you brainstormed will naturally group together.  List them together in boxes on your whiteboard.  Usually, you will see 3-4 groups begin to emerge.  For instance, in the above list you might group them into:

  • Marketing (church sign, materials, Facebook, door-to-door)
  • Training (evangelism class, inviting training)
  • Good Works (We Care, kindness outreach, food pantry)
  • Events (Friend Day, outreach sermons, invite evangelist)

You’ll want to phrase them as sentences, such as “Execute a church Marketing Plan” or “Provide quality training to our congregation.”  Any ideas that are by themselves and don’t fit into these groups, you can set aside for now.

Step 7: Trim your ideas into a list of GOALS. (1 hour)

Decide which ideas under each group are achievable & worth your time and money.

These ideas you commit to will become your GOALS.

Step 8: Under each GOAL, write out 5-10 ACTIONS you can take. (1 hour)

These ACTION STEPS should be phrased as completely as possible, in SMART Language.  That stands for:

  • * Specific
  • * Measureable
  • * Action-oriented
  • * Realistic
  • * Time-based (deadline)

“Improve church materials ASAP” will not cut it.  “Dan will submit design for a new church invitation materials by April 9th” is far better.

Step 9: Ask influencers to team up and adopt one of the GOALS to champion.

Teaming up builds in accountability & assures more gets done.  Adopting a goal builds in ownership and increases buy-in.

Step 10: Print copies for everyone, ask them to highlight ACTIONS they’re responsible for.

This is why step 8 is so important.  Action steps are necessary to make sure people know EXACTLY what needs to be done, and when it will be expected.

Step 11: Schedule your next follow-up meeting in 30 days to measure where you stand, and see what’s next.

For a bonus, text people at the 15 day mark and tell them you’re praying for them, and ask how it’s going.  If you use Mighty Text, you can schedule this text early, of course — from your computer.

There you go.  Now, share this article with 3-4 people in your church and tell them, “I’d like you to be in the room when this happens!”

Can We Stop Talking About Technology Like It’s An Enemy?

One of the questions I get asked frequently is about technology… about what tools I’m using, what new things I’m trying.  This week, I’m launching my first e-book: “The Top 9 Tech Tools and Apps I’m Using to Get More Done!”  In it, I share my favorite tools, and how I’m using each one.

Before you download and read it, a few words on the role of technology in your life:

Technology is not a savior or an enemy.  It’s a magnifier.

It’s kind of popular to talk about tech as a savior (“This app is the greatest thing ever…”) or enemy (“it will make you ADHD and you’ll forget how to talk.”)  But the truth is that it’s neither.  The iPhone, the laptop… they didn’t cause your issues.  They are only “magnifiers.”  They simply magnify your strengths or weaknesses.

If you were easily distracted, not disciplined, lustful & have little self-control:

  • …just wait until you meet Facebook & Youtube!  Your problem is about to be magnified.
  • …just wait until you meet the 12% of the internet that is porn.
  • …wait until you have a video game permanently implanted in your life.

On the other hand, if you are growing in focus, discipline, spiritual desire and maturity:

  • …just wait until you have an audio & text version of the Bible permanently implanted in your life!
  • …just wait until you have tools that let you capture great ideas.
  • …just wait until you have tools that allow you to keep commitments, track time, and manage details.

In other words:

…wait until you see what happens when you meet the tools & apps I talk about in this e-book!

  • Evernote
  • MightyText
  • Todoist
  • SmartReceipts
  • If This, Then That
  • Google Drive
  • Google Calendar (& Business Calendar)
  • Morning Routine Alarm Clock
  • StayFocusd Chrome Extension

And every one is free!  Or at least they all have a free level or option.

So cut out the dramatic language about technology, and just go get busy magnifying what you do best.  If you like the ebook, share this post with someone who might find that it can take their productivity up a notch!

Get the Free E-book!

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How to Build a Morning Routine – Part 2

How I Capture the Most Important Part of the Day

There isn’t one “right” morning routine.  It’s built on your values and realities.  My reality is self-employed (pastor) and 6 kids.  Yours might look totally different.  But for some ideas and encouragement, here’s a walkthru of my morning routine, from start to finish, with tips of what makes it work better for me.

If you want to read the first post I wrote on this, you’ll need to go here: How to Build a Morning Routine In 7 Steps.

First 90: Getting Started Right

10 Ways Evernote Is Making Pastoring Easier For Me

I am loving Evernote.  I had an account with Evernote for a couple years, but I confess I didn’t see the benefits & uses at the time, so I didn’t start using it. Then I read a post by Michael Hyatt on how he uses Evernote, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities. Since then, Evernote has become one of my absolute favorite tools.

It’s really useful on on a personal level — I keep my budget there, gift lists, etc. But in this post, I’ll talk about how I’m using it professionally in my ministry work. Here’s what I’m doing with it, and how it’s making my life easier as a pastor:

The Easiest Way to Continuously Improve Your Outreach

I once heard John C. Maxwell tell a story of a man who was angry at being passed over for a promotion.  “They can’t do that — I have 20 years experience!” he grouched.  “No you don’t!” Maxwell retorted. “You have one year of experience 20 times!”

Team brainstorming over their mission with coffee

If you have been in church work for long, you know: Repetition doesn’t mean improvement.  You can do something 20 times and not really be any better at it on the 20th than you were last time.  Is there a way to change that?  Is there a way to make sure you always improve, and next year really is BETTER than last?

Yes!  Follow these steps and your Christmas and Easter outreaches will improve year-over-year!

There’s only one thing you need to do, and do it early, while it’s still fresh:  Get people together… make lists.  Done right, this is REALLY FUN.  I have a blast with it every year.

I’ve heard it called in the business world AAR’s (After Action Reports).  I’ve heard it called “doing a post-mortem.”  (Hope your Christmas service wasn’t that bad!)  Whatever you call it, here’s HOW you do it:

Books I Am Most Excited to Read This Year

Want to read more books in 2016?  Here’s a little tip from Michael Hyatt — Don’t feel pressure to finish: “Here’s publishing’s dirty little secret: most books are not worth finishing. Most books could be cut in half and you wouldn’t miss a thing. The key is to read as long as you are interested and then stop.”

Several books last year I read, but didn’t finish — on purpose.  But there are some books that I want to finish.  Here are a few books I started and want to finish this year:

5 Reasons You Should Plan Sermons In Advance

There’s a running joke among preachers, where sermons are referred to as “Saturday Night Specials.”  It’s one of those jokes with an element of truth.  Every small church pastor knows the feeling of a busy week of ministry, outside jobs, counseling, maintenance — and an emergency crash sermon prep session on Saturday night.  (Or Sunday morning!)

I know the stress & pain in that.  Recently, I’ve had to a few times, with our 6th baby arriving in September.

But for some, it’s a distressing, stress-filled, regular occurrence.

Often, it’s just a function of life.  But for some guys, it goes deeper — down to a fundamental doubt about whether it’s really a good thing to prep sermons in advance.

Here are 5 reasons why you should plan your sermons in advance:

How to Thrive In A Tough Season

I know that title is pretty broad — I can’t do anything about some of the frustrations in your life.  I can’t do anything about that guy whose trash blows in your yard.  Or the guy on the interstate who cuts you off with no blinker.  And you really can’t do much about it, either.  Just get over yourself and get over them. 🙂

But there are some larger, enduring frustrations that I’ve experienced that I bet you have too.  And THOSE, I can teach you something about.  It’s the frustration that comes with seasons in your life.

I know you’re familiar with the concept of seasons of the year, but you might not have thought of life in terms of seasons.

3 things you need to remember to keep from being frustrated about seasons:

1. Seasons come in a micro- and a macro- version.

Here are some examples of micro-seasons:

  • Recovery from a medical procedure.
  • Bouncing back from a very busy project
  • Adjusting to a new neighborhood after moving

Examples of macro-seasons:

  • Raising young children
  • Old age
  • Teenage years

For micro-seasons, you just need to wait them out, and take some short term actions — medication, rest, etc.

For macro-seasons, you’ll need to adjust your attitude, check your values, and engage in personal growth.

2. Seasons are not something you can control.

You can’t just decide you’re not going to participate in this season any more.  You can’t stop most seasons of life any more than you can stop spring or winter from coming.

So the solution to the frustration can’t be found in how to change the season… it’s got to be found in how I respond to it.

3. You can’t control seasons, but you can choose your attitude.


The old saying “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what happens IN you,” applies here.  Author and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom….When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

So here are some ways that I have dealt with seasons, while trying to keep my attitude positive:

1. Watch your words.

Early in my ministry, when we were frustrated about a season we were facing, Liz and I would often say to each other, dramatially, “Well, in the grand scale of 30 years of ministry…”  It was usually good for a chuckle, but it did more.  It became a tagline that allowed us to “zoom out” and see the season from the larger perspective.

Be careful of your words.  They don’t just reveal your perspective — they help create it!  And your perspective helps create your reality… Create wisely.

2. Find the funny.


Kids have been probably the defining season of this part our life.  I have a saying my wife and I have laughed over for the last few years: “Someday, I’m going to change the world, but right now I have to change this kid’s diaper.”  It helps me laugh, and remember the delicious irony of a young kid that thought he was going to change the world through his career in ministry — then had 6 kids, and discovered that he needed to change himself first.

3. Grow.

Sam Chand says, “A leader can only grow up to the level of his tolerance for pain.”  Seasons can be full of pain.

But they are also prime places for “the growth that happens before the growth.”  You know what I mean by that, right?  It’s what Steven Covey calls the “private victory” that always precedes “public victory.”

I know what it’s like to be dealing with a season while wishing to be out “kicking behind and taking names.”  But while you’re waiting, don’t waste the time.  This is captured beautifully in John Waller’s song “While I’m Waiting” from the movie Fireproof. Check it out if you need some encouragement:

These are some behind the scenes areas where you can grow during tough seasons:

  • Attitudes
  • Personal Discipline
  • Family habits
  • Reading
  • Personal devotional time
  • Working on a new skill
  • Improving an old skill
  • Investing in a relationship
  • Seeking out coaching
  • Developing teamwork in your church/family
  • Creating better systems
  • Creating morning and evening routines

Choose your attitude.  Watch your words.  Create your plan.  You’re going to get through this.

Who do you know that’s in a tough season right now?  Share this with them!