Last week my blog was inspired by the thesis of one of the students of the Master in Leadership course that Andrews University offers through Newbold College to some fifty mature students from all over Europe (with which I have been involved for the last two years). This week also an aspect of this course has led to a blog. One of the ten pillars of the study program is ‘Creative Leadership and Innovation.’ During the last few weeks I had to read a few papers in which students describe what innovative projects they have recently undertaken and what theoretical basis they found for their approach in the literature they were told to read.
Perhaps it should not have amazed me, and yet I had not expected that the creative element stayed so far in the background as it did, and that the innovation was mainly one of technological innovation: the purchase and utilization of new equipment and the introduction of digital applications. It confirmed what I had seen throughout the years in my various assignments in the church. In practice, innovation usually means buying new things and seldom includes a totally new, creative approach to deal with the challenges one is facing.
When in the 1980’s I visited the Adventist publishing houses in various African countries, I noticed time and time again that funds could be found to purchase new machines, but that there were hardly any investments in the training of people in the creative sphere, and to develop a specific African graphic approach. At the time the publishing houses in Afrikca employed some 700-800 employees, who operated the type setting machines, the presses, the folding machines, etc., But the number of full-time editors and graphic designers could perhaps not be counted on the fingers of one hand, but the fingers of two hands more than sufficed.
Later I discovered that this pattern may be seen—though perhaps not quite in the same shocking proportions—worldwide. The Adventist Church has always been good in applying new technology, in the print media, as well as for radio and television. It was always possible to acquire new equipment, to update studio’s and install new computer systems. But many leaders do not sufficiently realize that real innovation has first and foremost to do with the development and stimulation of creative spirits. Certainly, there is a need for state-of-the-art camera’s and well-equipped studio’s, etc., but we need most of all talented authors, graphic experts and clever people who can develop new program formats and programs. We need people who are able to translate the Adventist message in new images and new words, which may be understood by those who are part of other subcultures than ours.
One of the major problems is, that the denominational publishers and program makers must constantly try to satisfy their financial sponsors. Do the people who pay the bill think that their project represents ‘kosher’ Adventism? Do they sufficiently recognize the ‘present truth’ in the publications and programs? Let me point to an example, Since many decades the church has published the journal ‘Signs’ (earlier named ‘Signs of the Times’). The most important innovation the journal has seen is that, at a given moment, it was decided to opt for the same format as the Readers’ Digest. Through the years the editorial staff has worked hard to make it a quality journal. However, the problem is that they must constantly ask the question: Do the older, conservative church members continue to like the journal to the extent that they are willing to buy gift subscriptions? If these gift-subscriptions would dryp up, the journal cannot survive. Unfortunately, this does not provide the creative impuls that is required to develop the journal into a medium that can stimulate the readers in a new way with relevant Adventist insights.
Being creatively innovative can be risky, as, a few years ago the makers of ‘the Record Keeper’ found out. Initially, the film project had the official imprimatur and even received substantial subsidy from the General Conference’s coffers. After the script had been approved and the over-all plan was found OK, the graphic innovators began their work. When the product was finished it was widely praised, but some of the top church leaders got ‘cold feet’ and prohibited its circulation. It was too ‘different’ and people might not understand what the project sought to accomplish!
Being truly innovative demands courage. And not everything has to be successful. But, without creative courage, innovation will not go beyond the purchase of new stuff.
(PS. A local church may decide to ‘stream’ its worship service. But this only becomes a genuine innovation if the format and content of the service has ‘new’ elements that will ‘catch’ the non-churched man or woman who happens to tune in.)