I was in Málaga, Spain, to train pastors several years back and because of flight schedules had some time to kill after the closing session. It was pouring down rain, which was fitting given the mood I was in. Back home, Willow was in a slump—a slump that bothered me every day, even across a very large ocean.
“I might be one good idea away from a message series that could fire up our church again,” I thought. So I made a pact with God. “I’m going to walk up and down this beach until you give me a good idea. I believe you are a good God, and I am going to trust you to help me.”
After I’d spent four hours trudging the soggy beach, it started to get dark. I’d toyed with a lot of ideas, but not a single good idea emerged. “I’m trusting you for this, God. One good idea. And I’m not beyond begging at this point!”
I made a U-turn at the end of the beach, shook the rain off the hood of my jacket, and started back for yet another lap when it hit me—not just a good idea, but a really good idea. “We should do an outreach-oriented sermon series. We could title it ‘I Have a Friend Who …’ and we could invite the whole congregation to participate in creating the messages.”
Regardless how it would get refined, one thing was certain: God had ponied up to my pact.
I ran back to my hotel room and wrote down as much of the idea as I could remember. Once back in the States, I shared it with my senior staff. They loved it and agreed that we should poll the congregation to see what needs their circles of friends had before we confirmed each week’s theme. So we passed out index cards during a midweek service and asked every Creeker to think about their friends who weren’t plugged into a church. “What keeps them from coming?” I asked from the stage. “What keeps them from trusting God with their lives? What are the major obstacles they face? Give us your best thoughts on these questions, and we’ll give you the best messages and services we can come up with in response.”
The top three vote-getters became the three talks for the series: “I Have a Friend Who Has Doubts about God,” “I Have a Friend Who Struggles with Balancing Life’s Demands,” and “I Have a Friend Who Thinks All Religions Are the Same.” We grew by a thousand people during those three weekends, most of whom are still with us today. What is the value of a good idea? A thousand lives added and tens of thousands of lives touched—all of which could be traced back to a desperate plea to God on a rainy day in Spain.
Looking back, I now see that whatever pockets of success Willow has known can all be traced back to a good idea. Because of a good idea, we launched a new kind of church in a movie theater in 1975. Because of a good idea, the Leadership Summit was born. Because of a good idea, the Global Summit emerged. Because of a good idea, sermon series were rolled out, ministries were launched, outreach events were held, and new staff structures were adopted.
Leaders traffic in idea creation. The best leaders I know are ferociously disciplined about seeking them out and incredibly committed to stewarding them well.
My good friend Bob Galvin was the brains and heart behind the Motorola Corporation’s record-setting pace during the 1970s and 1980s. When he was at the operational helm of the company, he’d make senior leaders come to strategy meetings armed with a hundred good ideas about how to increase sales or improve R&D or generate greater market buzz. You couldn’t get into the meeting unless you showed your list. Why? Because he knew what too few ministry leaders know: in order to land one good idea—one breakthrough idea that will kick your organization’s activity into high gear—you have to allow for hundreds or even thousands of mediocre ideas. After all, if your big aha is number seventy-eight, you’ll never discover it unless you discipline yourself and your team to think through numbers one through seventy-seven.
Along these lines, great leaders also know which people should be invited to idea-generation meetings in the first place. They know who will work hard and show up with long lists and who will not. And they try to make the meetings themselves a ball!
But there’s more. Once a really good idea surfaces, you have to be a fanatic about stewarding it well. Great leaders keep a pad of paper and a pen by their bed so that ideas will be captured and not forgotten. When I’m on the road and a good idea hits, I often email my assistant, Jean, from my trusty BlackBerry. She’ll get some cryptic message from Dubai or Singapore that says, “Please put these six words front and center on my desk for when I get back.”
She has no idea what those six words mean, but she knows me well enough to know they’re the genesis of a good idea. A good idea that might have huge impact.
Sometimes a good idea can simply spice up an otherwise bland event. Several years ago, Willow invited NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs to come speak at our weekend services. Our programming team got together for a meeting to discuss the creative elements, the content of his talk, and the transitions. Everything seemed “fine”—the music scheduled was fine, the brief video of Gibbs’s life that would precede his talk was fine, and we were quite sure the talk itself was going to be at least “fine.” But something was missing.
“Gang, there’s nothing ‘really cool’ about this service,” I said. “There’s not a single point in the service when people will scratch their heads in disbelief, thinking, ‘How’d they come up with something as creative as that?’ ”
We had twenty minutes left in our allotted meeting time, so I said, “All right, bolt the doors. We’ve got to at least give this a shot. No idea is too stupid or too bizarre to be considered. Let’s treat the sky as the limit for a few minutes and see what we come up with.”
The first five or six ideas were, in fact, both stupid and bizarre, but then one of our drama guys spoke up. “What if we were to treat the transition between the video clip and Gibbs’s talk like a pit stop? We could put a whole bunch of stagehands in NASCAR uniforms and have them do a dozen different chores super-fast as Joe takes the stage.”
Smiles slowly appeared on faces. We were finally making progress.
We worked that idea through, sharpening it and adding elements to the original plan. The weekend arrived, the early part of the service went well, and just after we aired the video that told some of Joe’s story, our mock pit crew sprang into action. One person dropped the lectern into position while another took a bottle of Windex to it, furiously cleaning it as if it were the windshield of a race car. In the space of thirteen seconds, things were rolled into position, straightened up, tightened down, and spit-shined. Once the flurry of activity ended, the uniformed volunteers jumped over a fake pit wall and dashed to their front-row seats as if nothing had happened.
It absolutely blew everyone’s mind and in the end was the highlight of the entire service, even by Joe Gibbs’s assessment. It was in fact a good idea! (And not mine.) But it did require pushing for it. You get the point.
Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.