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The Creative Leader

Unconventional is a word that best describes Erwin McManus, the founder and lead pastor of Mosaic, a megachurch in Los Angeles. Like many church leaders of his stature, he writes books, speaks at conferences and co-hosts a podcast (Battle Ready). But few pastors have acted in films (such as 2018’s Waiting for a Miracle, starring Willie Nelson and Charlotte Rampling) or started a fashion company. This latest venture, launched in 2020, integrates authentic World War II military materials with luxury fabrics to create unique articles of clothing.

AVAIL recently caught up with Erwin to discuss the role of creativity in leadership—and why something that, in the 20th century, was seen as a detriment is now considered a core competency.

AVAIL: Most people would agree that creativity is important for leaders, but what do you think is the unique role of creativity in the lives of leaders who are also followers of Jesus?

Erwin McManus: I think it’s interesting that in your opening question you make the statement that creativity is important for leaders. This would not have been assumed 20 years ago, or maybe even ten years ago. The world has changed so much, so quickly. When you look back you see that excellence was important for leaders, execution, strategic thinking, vision. But not a single business writer would have said that creativity was important. In fact, they would have probably seen creativity as a liability. Most corporations would not hire a CEO who was creative. Even when you look at the history of entrepreneurship in America, the creatives had to start their own things, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They're not people companies hired. They are people who innovated and created their own companies.

We’re living through a conceptual transformation of the idea of creativity. That leaders should be creative is a very new social construct in modern times. And as far as creativity in the lives of leaders who are followers of Jesus, let's say that it's difficult. Not just in the world of business and in the world of education, but even more in the world of faith, churches that are creative are always seen as heretical. What you're supposed to do is teach the Bible, which means the same thing in the same way that as it's always been taught for the last 500 years, and the idea that the church is supposed to add any expression of creativity is not something that has been advocated, believed or embraced.

The creatives are the renegades, the outcasts, the ones that are out there. But they're not trustworthy. They're not dependable. You can't build a future on them. Now, though, we are hearing that we need creatives. They create the future. They're what make our world better. They're what make our lives better. We need creative CEOs, creative teachers, creative pastors in churches. The whole conversation shifted in one generation.

AVAIL: Creativity is sometimes relegated to “creative professionals” (artists, musicians, actors, etc.), and people sometimes say, “But I’m not creative …” Would you say that everyone has the capacity for creativity?

Erwin: In my book The Artisan Soul I make the argument that human beings as a species create. What makes humans different from every other species is that we create. In nature, silkworms make silk and honeybees make honey, but human beings are the only ones who can take an idea and translate it into reality. Humans create futures. We can imagine the future that exists and actually create it. We can imagine a future self and become what we can imagine, a future life we don't have and can actually build that life.

I found that, theologically, Christians were actually at war with their very intrinsic nature, because I would hear people say things like, “You know, well, if God wants it to happen, it's gonna happen. The future is out of our control. The future is all in God's hands.” If we were this deterministic with our children, we would say, “It doesn't matter what you eat. It doesn't matter if you study, doesn't matter who you date. It has no effect on your future. So just make whatever choices you want.” And this actually connects with the statement, “I'm not creative,” because the moment you understand you are creative, you begin to realize that you are also engaged in creating the future.

AVAIL: I’m guessing you don’t always have great ideas just flowing out of you, a lot of ideas never see the light of day and some things require a huge amount of labor that doesn’t feel that creative or fun. Can you talk a little about the integration of creativity, hard work and persevering?

ERWIN: I went into a Nike store one time, and I saw a big sign that said, “If you have a body, you're an athlete.” The problem is that it's not really completely true. It means that if I have a body, I have the potential to be athletic. You realize that there's a spectrum to being an athlete, there's also a spectrum to being good at math. And the same way with creativity, it doesn't mean everyone's going to be Picasso or DaVinci. But what it does mean is that every human being has creative capacity within them and to neglect that is a tragedy.

We live in a time in which we have the mythology of genius, because we see people accomplish or perform at the highest level in the world. And it looks easy. Michael Jordan made basketball look easy. Tiger Woods made golf look easy. Stephen Hawking made physics look easy. When you have genius, you make the hardest aspects of your field look easy. Creativity takes hard work. Many times people of faith give up on their creative capacity because it didn’t come easy. After all, if God gives it you to do it, shouldn't it just come from the natural flow? My answer is, “Absolutely not.” God's not going to give you any level of greatness, genius or creative capacity that comes without the discipline and the crucible of hard work, determination and resilience.

AVAIL: Are there any specific biblical stories or texts that speak to you about creativity?

ERWIN: When I read the Bible, it oozes everywhere. You cannot read a passage without creativity. Even in the beginning, in Genesis 2, it says, “Then God rested from His work of creating.” What’s amazing to me is that God's work wasn't accounting, God's work wasn't organizing, and God's work wasn't moralizing. God's work was creating. So, it’s not just a single passage, it's the whole framework of the Scriptures. It begins with a God who creates, and then everything comes out of that as an expression of His creation.

AVAIL: As you lead teams—in ministry, business, etc.—what are some ways that you’ve discovered that stimulate creativity among those you lead and empower them to use that part of their giftings?

ERWIN: I think that's a great question because we may accidentally be creating environments that limit creativity without realizing it. And the first thing that comes to my mind, has to be your mindset about failure. One of the things that I've done throughout my life to help people be creative is I give them a lot of room to fail. If you don't give people permission to fail, you're not giving them permission to create. One time I was talking to a very influential pastor and told him I was starting a film company and a fashion company, and why I was doing it. He replied, “Well, just don’t fail.” I remember saying to him, “Well, I may fail, but it’s a really important endeavor for me to step into these arenas.”

The irony is, that pastor has probably trained at least a hundred thousand leaders on how to lead. That's why how you relate to failure has everything to do with whether you create a culture of creativity—which, by the way, is different than creating a culture where you get to be creative as a leader. There are cultures where the leader can be creative, but no one on his team or anyone in that particular community is also allowed to be creative. It's, it's much more challenging to create an environment where people are getting to create. And there has to be a lot more trust.

We have intention and mission, which just means that we’re incredibly adaptive and pliable in regard to how it might end up looking like when it’s done. You have to be willing to not necessarily be the one to get the credit. If something does succeed, the irony is that you have to give up all the credit, but you'll get credit because you’re seen as a curator of talent. So, you just have to decide what credit you want. Do you want the credit for what you do or the credit for the environment that you helped create?

AVAIL: Similarly, what are some ways you recharge yourself creatively? Any specific recommendations?

ERWIN: I would say I'm a relational introvert. I really enjoy people, but I don't recharge when I'm with people as much as I recharge when I'm alone. I actually recharge through experiences a lot of times—traveling, trying new restaurants, new cultures. I love experimenting. I love anything that surprises me or catches me off guard, that may be a little bit terrifying or puts me in an area of discomfort. Those things actually make me more creative because I'm experiencing new things and trying new things. In that sense, there are people who really do energize me, too. You have to find people who challenge you and don't just accept all your ideas. I think that aspect of intellectual conflict is really important. I'm always just trying new things, venturing into new spaces, pushing myself to do things I've never done before. All those things really do renew me.

AVAIL: You’ve been involved in areas that people don’t necessarily associate with church leadership, such as the arts and fashion. How do you see these things integrating with your role as a church leader?

ERWIN: Well, I never think of myself as a church leader. I think of myself as a human being who has a love for the church. And if I didn't create and be involved in these other areas, I don't think I would be who I am and would not be able to give to the church whatever I'm able to give. When I came to faith, it seemed like every pastor played golf, and I never really got into golf. Most pastors don't say, “How do I integrate by golf?” It could just be what they need to do to refuel themselves. Other pastors are more academic, and so they also teach at a Bible school or at a university.

It’s just that my fields tend to be disassociated with what people think of when they think of the church. But if you thought the church as the epicenter of human creativity, then my work in film, my work in fashion, and the graphic novel I’m working on would not seem unusual. They seem strange because we don’t think of pastors as creative people. We see them as managers and administrators

I believe another reason for me—it's not just that I feel like I need to have these creative expressions—is that it opens up worlds of people to me to have conversations with and influence their lives with the message of Jesus. I think it allows me to be an expression of who Jesus is for people who are completely turned off to what they see as the conformity and standardization and predictability of the church.

AVAIL: The modern church has often found itself at odds with the creative industries (e.g. media and the arts) or has developed alternative versions for Christian audiences. Have you seen examples where this trend is being reversed and Christians are creating content that non-believing people are engaging with?

I do think that's happening. I just don't think it's probably where mainstream Christianity has acknowledged it. When we think of Christian films, we think of the films that are actually made by Christians for Christians. And I know there's a desire to reach the world, but any objective person can see that an unbelieving person really isn't going to be pulled in because the film often aren’t very good.

But also because the apologetic for the gospel isn't very strong.  But when I look at movies like Warrior with Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte, that, to me, is a great Christian film that has the gospel in a powerful way that connects with people. Or movies like Fury with Shia LaBeouf and Brad Pitt. Now Christians may not call them Christian films, but if the goal of a Christian foam is to have a great film where the message of Jesus and the Scriptures are powerfully communicated, then those are the best Christian films I can think of.

Or when I think of the art of Makoto Fujimura, who's a complete abstract pager. He's not painting the Last Supper, he's not painting pictures of Jesus in five minutes on-stage at a church while someone's preaching. His art is with the finest materials in the world, and it’s a rare art form. Yet his images are images of the resurrection, images of moments in the scriptures, images of the gospels. I think the key is that the artwork is world-class—it's worthy of being in any museum in the world. And that creates a platform from which you can talk about Jesus—which he does so openly.

And I think that Christians need to have a different strategy. You don’t try to moralize through arts. You create great art, and then you get to share your own story in your own space. The quality of your work gives you the platform and the credibility for the authenticity of your message.

I think it's interesting because I've written 10 or 11 books. And, and one of the great criticisms of my books is, “Well, he doesn't preach the gospel in the book, his book doesn't communicate the message of Jesus clearly.” I'm a writer. My books are not gospel tracts. And my books are not the Bible. The Bible has everything in it that you need to know to know about Jesus.

AVAIL: You talk about how the current cultural influences have shifted from business, education and the church to the arts, media, music, sports, fashion. What are the implications of this for Christian leaders who want to influence culture, and how should they respond?

ERWIN: One of the things that always fascinated me was how often cultural implications have an effect on CEOs, entrepreneurs, educators and politicians, but they have no effect on pastors and church leaders. Ironically, we all live in the same world. If the whole world is being influenced by technology, then the church is being influenced by technology. The same goes for film, music and art. Sometimes we think that people in the church are insulated from what everyone else in culture is affected by. So, the fact that there has been a shift in cultural influence from governments and corporations and institutions to the arts, film, television and music is significant in every arena.  It has the same implications on a pastor that it would have on a CEO. You have to ask yourself, what is shaping the values of the culture. What is shaping the view of reality that the people we’re speaking to are affected by. So, when you’re teaching the Bible on Sunday morning, you’re teaching to a 17-year-old who’s more influenced by Beyonce than they are being influenced by John, Paul or Peter. To ignore that is to ignore the language of the culture and is to effectively miss the frequency that will allow you to effectively influence an emerging generation.

AVAIL: Any final thoughts?

ERWIN: The more we can erase the lines in what we are doing in “ministry” and what we do in life, the more effective and relevant we will be. We have to stop thinking of our lives as insulated and separated from the rest of humanity. Before a person is Christian, they are a human. All human beings have things in common. The person who believes in Jesus and the person who does not believe in Jesus have this common humanity. When we talk about messages that are supposedly relevant to Christians and not relevant to non-Christians, the truth is that if a message is not helpful to all humans, it’s probably not helpful to Christians either. You have to ask the question, “How can I help human beings?” Out of that, you’ll be able to be more nuanced and unique in the way you can help human beings who have a relationship with Jesus, and then we can work from there.

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