One of the myths about artists is that they thrive, find meaning and create their best work when they’re allowed to run free without any guardrails, any limitations or any restrictions on the how or what.
Artists are sometimes perceived as stubborn or hard-headed when it comes to executing their vision for a creative project instead of working within the limitations or guardrails given to them by the ones who are leading the project or responsible for the outcome.
Whether this behaviour is real or not, the perception that artists behave this way is one reason artists are often not invited to the table when it comes to project planning, brainstorming or even implementation. The assumption that artists will have a “don’t box me in!” attitude means they lose the opportunity – not only to be involved in the creative process of doing great work but they also miss the chance to be invited in on the discussion.
Now just because there’s an assumption out there about artists, this doesn’t mean the stereotype is true but both leaders and the artists they lead need to understand that working within limitations or guardrails will actually help artists create their best work.
Think of it this way. The work we are doing as a church is a highway. We’re headed in a specific direction and leaders should have a clear destination in mind. Artists want to be part of the journey but you can’t drive the car on whatever side of the road you want, you can’t go off-roading, you can’t just stop in the fast lane. You’ve got guardrails to keep you headed in the right direction and to give you limitations on where you can go.
These guardrails can exist within creative leadership to give you better creative work, help artists thrive and ultimately help move the mission and vision of your church forward.
Remember, everyone works within limitations. Within the church we all have someone we report to – artists might be serving under a worship pastor, that worship pastor could be serving under a lead pastor or executive pastor, that senior leader could be responsible to a board of elders and ultimately those elders are responsible to Jesus. As Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan sings, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Even Jesus, fully God and fully human served the Father and worked within the limitations of his full humanity:
“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The example here from Jesus and the Father is submission – God the Father anoints and sends out God the Son to do the work of the Father through the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus submits himself to the work of the Father and serves the mission set before him through submission, obedience, humility and sacrifice.
Quite the example for both artists and the ones who lead them!
The truth is that the best creative work is always done within the context of limitations. Those could be financial limitations, time limitations, material limitations or more creative limitations like media, colour palette, physical size for a physical art project or length of time for creative work like music or video.
Clarity with limitations, ironically, is what allows artists to truly thrive because artists are by nature creative and by definition creativity is what is needed to come up with a new solution within a set of limitations. Artists have been coming up with creative solutions their whole lives! So leaders, invite them into your conversations and let them know clearly the limitations and see them thrive.
Now, of course, artists who are only ever asked to participate in creative work with rigid limitations and no room for colouring outside the lines will not stay engaged and interested for very long in the work you are asking them to do. The creative leadership moment comes when you are able to invite and engage artists in a range of projects which have sets of guardrails which are more or less narrow.
Here’s an example from my context. We have some amazing visual artists in our church and here are two projects we invited them to be a part of:
Take this 12″x16″ canvas, these acrylic paints in these metallic colours and paint a visual representation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual. The paint should keep colours separate and not blend or overlap too match to show the distinctive relationship between the Spirit and the person.
Using Hebrews 11:1 as an inspiration, create something that can hang in a space in our lobby which is 3′ wide, 10′ tall. The final product, colours used and how it portrays the meaning of this verse is up to you as the artist.
Those are two examples of projects with very different guardrails. The guardrails on the first are very narrow – we are asking the artist to create something specific of a specific size, specific medium, specific colours and specific style. The guardrails on the second are very broad – we are clear on inspiration but the final representation is up the individual artist.
The truth is that neither project is more or less creative than the other. Neither project is more or less honouring to the individual artist. Neither project is more or less valuable for the sake of the kingdom, the mission of Jesus or the work of our church.
Leaders, you have a responsibility and an opportunity to invite artists to the table while clearly setting out expectations, limitations and guardrails for your artists. Watch them thrive!
Artists, you have a responsibility to see your art as a way to serve Jesus, your leaders and your church. Honour the limitations and guardrails and do your best work within them. Let your art and your obedience point people to Jesus!