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Tina Fey’s book Bossypants is somewhat like an episode of her TV show, 30 Rock. The show defies genres, sometimes driven by romantic comedy, sometimes by classic sitcom ensemble dynamics, and sometimes by seventh-grade bathroom humor. Her book, in similar form, ranges from a poignant memoir to absurd comedy. It’s foul-mouthed, honest, and a touch insecure, which is probably also true of Fey.

One of the pleasant surprises of Bossypants is Fey’s reflection on leadership. Having spent many years under the mentoring of Lorne Michaels (creator of Saturday Night Live), Fey has gleaned a tremendous amount of wisdom on leadership and creativity. In her chapter “A Childhood Dream, Realized,” she recounts eight things she learned from Michaels, and I was struck by the parallels (of a very different scale, of course) between getting ready for Saturday Night Live and getting ready for Sunday morning.

So here, for you, is my adapted version of Fey’s eight lessons, with a particular slant towards the work we do as pastors, getting ready for Sunday.

Lesson One: “Producing is about discouraging creativity.”

Fey describes how the many creative minds who make up a TV show’s crew (set dressers, costumers, props managers, effects directors, and more) require a leader who can discerningly restrain the gifts of their team. Without good leadership, without good restraint upon these gifts, the show descends into a cacophony of overdone costumes, props, scripts, and acting.

Sunday morning can be similar. The guitar player has a new pedal he wants to use, the audio engineer has an idea for looping echoes, the multimedia tech has found some fancy new backdrops with puppies that dance to the beat of “Your Grace Is Enough,” and there’s a line out your door of people who want to do solos, skits, interpretive dance, and something frightening called “Clown Communion.” (You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)

The gathering is a catalytic moment for the whole church. It’s meant to be an encouraging, covenant-renewing, Christ-exalting experience. It takes a discerning pastor to drift through the endless sea of voices calling for their songs, their ideas, their stylistic decisions to take center stage. Sometimes the best thing a pastor can do is discourage creativity, calling people to simply focus on the ministries of Word and prayer.

Lesson Two: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30.”

Fey says, “You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go” (p. 123). A live show like SNL has a no margins for “fixing it in the editing room” or endless rewrites. Sound familiar?

The pressures we feel heading into Sundays can be extreme. We need to edify the congregation, confront unbelief, comfort the hurting, and get the lighting and sound cues right, all while fitting in preparation between marriage counseling appointments, church discipline cases, and conversations with staff.

The fact that time simply runs out is countered by an equally helpful word of comfort. Fey says, “What I learned about ‘bombing’ as an improviser at Second City [a Chicago-based comedy troupe] was that bombing is painful, but it doesn’t kill you” (p. 123). The same thing goes for Sunday. Some sermons, some worship services, sail right out of the park. Some are like Ambien, and our congregation is glad when they’re over. We can only hope our church heeds the admonition of the author of Hebrews, “Don’t give up meeting together.” Even so, it’s not worth losing sleep. Sunday will come around again, and agonizing over our misses (or our “hits” for that matter) is just another form of narcissism.

Lesson Three: “When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.”

Michaels has always staffed SNL with “hyperintelligent Harvard boys” and “visceral, fun performers,” an alchemy that consistently results in better comedy. The Harvard contingency “checks the logic of every joke, and the Improvisers teach them how to be human. It’s Spock and Kirk.”

There’s a need for a similar alchemy in any church leadership team. At Sojourn, we’ve seen the most beautiful things happen when “Harvard” (in our case, a traditional, theologically educated leader) comes together with the “Improviser” (an indigenous, homegrown leader). It’s not an either/or (though it’s often treated that way); it’s a great team dynamic.

Lesson Four: “Television is a visual medium.”

Fey writes, “It basically means, ‘Go to bed. You look tired.’ . . . Your ‘street cred’ with the staff [because you burned obscene hours] won’t help anybody if you look like a cadaver on camera. . . . It’s not vanity, because if you look weird, it will distract from what you’re trying to do. If you look as good as you can, people will be able to pay attention to what you’re actually saying.”

Writers in a show like SNL or 30 Rock work absurd hours, cramming every waking moment they can with writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting. Pastors aren’t much different. In fact, we’re notorious workaholics. We bask in the glory of fawning parishioners who extend their sympathies for how tired we are, how overworked, how stressed.

Richard Foster once said that for some people, the most spiritual thing we can do is take a nap. Pastoring, preaching, leading in worship—they’re all visual. To put it another way, people are watching us, and sometimes the best thing we could do is get some rest. Being haggard impedes our ministry in more ways than one.

Lesson Five: “Don’t make any big decisions right after the season ends.”

In the church, this can look like the end of a grueling holiday season, a particularly trying counseling case, a building campaign, or any of a myriad of initiatives. It’s wise to give some space and breathing room after such a grueling season before we make any big career or strategic decisions for the church. But as Fey notes, “The most interesting thing about this piece of advice is that no one ever takes it” (p. 127).

Lesson Six: “Never cut to a closed door.”

Fey says, “This can mean a lot of things: Comedy is about confidence, and the moment an audience senses a slip in confidence, they’re nervous for you” (p. 127).

This is a particularly great tip for worship leaders. Nothing is more distracting than a song ending without a clear transition plan for the next moment in the service. Band members start tuning their instruments, vocalists stare at their shoes, and the congregation gets a tingling feeling of fear. Plan the details of your gathering well, not for the sake of showmanship, but for the sake of leadership. Help people remain confident that their leaders on the platform know where they’re going in the journey that happens on Sunday morning.

Lesson Seven: “Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.”

This pretty much speaks for itself. Bill Hybels, in Courageous Leadership, talks about hiring people on the basis of three C’s: Character, Competency, and Chemistry. In this point, Fey is talking about that third element—Chemistry. “If they’re too talkative or needy or angry to deal with in the middle of the night by the printer, steer clear.”

Lesson Eight: “Never tell a crazy person he’s crazy.”

One of the questions I’m often asked about Sojourn Music relates to this. People wonder why so many talented musicians came together in one church, when most churches are struggling to find enough musicians to stay afloat. I often wonder myself—I feel extremely blessed to work with the team I have at Sojourn. Part of my answer to “why” relates to this principle: The same person who suggests nightmarishly bad songs for your Easter service, strange ideas for puppets, or shows up looking like he has never, ever bathed might nonetheless be gifted to serve in ways that deeply bless the congregation. In fact, in my experience, the more talented members of a creative ministry (like music) often display grander and more frightening crazy streaks.

The challenge for a good leader is to skillfully help them feel heard, encouraged, and welcomed in spite of the strange ideas that occasionally bubble to the surface. Lorne Michaels, Fey says, has a unique way of steering those folks in ways that keep them from feeling ashamed or unwelcome, while keeping the crazy streak from shipwrecking the show.

It takes a unique leadership style to put together a show like SNL. Its sustained relevance, creativity, and prestige (with varying degrees) for 35 years, and the window Fey gives us into Michaels’s leadership shows us why. It takes a willingness to make space for creative people to be who they are, while keeping a strong central focus. It means embracing limits like time and sleep, and attention to details.

While the parallels between SNL and church ministry are certainly limited, I’ve found these lessons from Michaels incredibly helpful. There’s a culture he’s created that welcomes a certain kind of person, and if our churches want to make room for creatives, there’s a lot to learn.

Is the digital age making us foolish?

Do you feel yourself becoming more foolish the more time you spend scrolling on social media? You’re not alone. Addictive algorithms make huge money for Silicon Valley, but they make huge fools of us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With intentionality and the discipline to cultivate healthier media consumption habits, we can resist the foolishness of the age and instead become wise and spiritually mature. Brett McCracken’s The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World shows us the way.

To start cultivating a diet more conducive to wisdom, click below to access a FREE ebook of The Wisdom Pyramid.

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