Creative Thinking

It has been a long time since I have thought of myself as having a powerful brain. I can remember being 25 years old and being impressed with my ability to think, solve problems and engage in academic study. I was quick to argue with those with whom I disagreed and I enjoyed the process of pitting my thoughts against the thoughts of others. I was competitive in my academic pursuits and was pleased when I was able to earn an honor, impress a professor, publish an article or add a credential. These days, I am aware that my mind has its limits. There are times when I struggle to remember a name. Sometimes I lose my focus. And yes, I too have been known to wander into a room and forget why I went there.

Our human mental resources are limited. We can only cope with so many things. We can only remember so many names. It doesn’t mean we are weak. In fact, our capacity for thinking is very powerful. It is just that we are not unlimited.

One of the tricks that I have employed for many years is to not waste mental energy on decisions that are not important to me. People who know me will report that I don’t spend much time thinking about my clothes. If I find something I like, I’lll often purchase more than one item. The innovator Steve Jobs wore the same type of mock turtle neck and jeans every day. He was said to favor uniforms for his employees with the belief that if people don’t have to think about what to wear each day they free brain power for other, more important types of thinking. I’m not quite as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I did imitate his black shirt and jeans look for a number of years. I still wear the black mock turtlenecks often. I own five or six of them. I wear a dress shirt, dress slacks, a bowtie and a sports coat nearly every Sunday. I don’t want to have to think about what to wear. I want to think about worship and what I will be saying.

In a similar manner, I eat the same thing for breakfast every morning. Not having to think about the menu allows me to think of other things. This wasn’t always the case. I remember when my brothers and I used to think of creative ways to use the elements of the breakfast table nearly every morning. How far can you propel a piece of cereal using just a spoon. If you lay the spoon over a fulcrum, quit a distance. At least across the kitchen. Aiming the projectile is a challenge, however, and you can get into trouble with bad aim. I know from personal experience. The challenge of getting your brother to laugh at just the right moment to propel his beverage through his sinuses is considered gross by some, but we invested mental energy in the process.

These days, I know that I need to have quite a few mental shortcuts to function effectively. I love to think creatively, but I know that my creative thinking needs to be focused to accomplish the tasks and challenges that lie before me.

At the same time, I know that my brain needs creative stimulation in order to be able to come up with new solutions. The right answer isn’t always the familiar answer. The world changes and we need to have the ability to adapt. Ministry is different and the challenges faced by the church are unique in each generation. I’ve noticed that I need to be flexible and creative and my brain needs to be open to new ideas and new ways of solving problems.

Fairly early in my career I discovered that reading fiction and books on topics other than theology increased my capacity to think creatively about theological problems. Reading novels improved my preaching. Reading science stretched my ability to solve problems. In the past couple of months I’ve read science fiction, biology, history and Buddhist theology as well as books about church management, Christian theology and Biblical research. In recent years I’ve discovered that reading poetry can free up my mental resources for more creative thinking.

Experts in team building have devised a wide variety of exercises that enhance the ability of groups of people to solve problems and think creatively together. A famous example is called the Duncker candle problem. A small group, usually 3 to 5 people are given a candle, a box of matches and some pins or thumbtacks. They are given the task of attaching the candle to the wall so that it will burn properly and not drop wax onto the floor. The simplest solution, that can be accomplished quickly is to pin the match box to the wall and use it as a a candleholder. The candle can be stood up in the bottom of the box and ignited. There are other, more complex solutions, but teams often fail to think of the box as one of the resources. They see the matches, the candle and the tacks, but forget that the match box is one of their resources.

Attaching candles to the wall isn’t one of the challenges of the contemporary church. Solving the problem of how to install fire suppression sprinklers in an existing building is a challenge that recently came up. The solution involves motivating people to want the sprinklers. Some people are motivated by the potential increase in safety. Others are motivated by the fact that installing the sprinklers allows the church to get a building permit for another project. Others feel that the sprinklers are going to be required sooner than later and sooner is a lower price than later. And some people are quite disinterested in sprinklers all together, but have a desire to go along with the majority because they treasure the coherence of the community. And a few have the capacity to negotiate with the contractor for the best price.

The best resource I have for keeping my brain flexible and for continuing to think creatively as I age is my contact with other people. I don’t need a crowd of people who think like I do and who agree with me. That does little for my creativity, though it is nice for my ego. What I need are people who don’t see things from the same perspective and who aren’t afraid to disagree. They are more likely to come up with fresh solutions and new ways of solving problems.

Fortunately the church is a good place to meet folks from a wide variety of backgrounds with a wide variety of opinions. They are a rich resource for leaders.

What I have learned, that I didn’t know when I was 25, is that leadership has a lot more to do with listening than it has to do with talking.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!