Every so often, Sharefaith interviews people who are involved in Christian ministry where creative arts and media are major part of their calling. We think you’ll find these interviews to be helpful as you learn from others who are serving God.
I spent some time catching up with Whitney George, from Church on the Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Whitney’s official title is Performing Arts Director, and his responsibilities are just about as vast and diverse as that title suggests. Whitney is a pretty talented guy. He is equally skilled at leading a worship band as he is at directing a drama, leading a brainstorming session, or watching a Notre Dame football game. So does it take mad skills and on-fire talent to be an effective Creative Arts director, Media Guru, or Guy Plugging in the PowerPoint Projector at church? Not according to Whitney: “I say this as humbly as I know how, but I think the most common misconception is that to do what I do, you have to be some sort of genius. I’m not a genius, I’m just called. If you’re called, then you’re also graced and equipped to do what God has called you to do..”
Wow… long, long story that I’m not sure anyone is interested in! The short version is that I hated school, so when I graduated in 1994 I knew college wasn’t for me and I went to work for my dad [pastor of COTM]. I started at the VERY bottom laying sod around the campus for minimum wage which lasted for all of about two weeks, at which point my dad transferred me into our TV/Media department.
Again, I started at the bottom. Sweeping the studio, running camera. I had minimal creative input but I really loved what I was doing. From there I started doing graphic design. I had no formal training in it so I taught myself and with a little help from some friends I got pretty good at it. I won a few advertising awards here locally and was promoted to leading a team of graphic designers here at the church.
Somewhere around 2003, me and my dad visited Fellowship Church in Dallas and we came back bursting with creative ideas about how we could update what we were doing in our church. We didn’t exactly know how we would pull it all off but we knew we had to do something so it was decided that we would merge our TV and graphics departments into a new department called creative arts and that I would lead it. After a few twists and turns, including me doing a short stint as the youth pastor up at Oneighty, our department has finally evolved over the years to what it is today, the Performing Arts department, which basically includes worship, video, graphic design, drama, marketing, audio, lighting, production, and a bit more here and there.
So, what is a creative director anyway (if that’s what you call yourself)? What do you do in the church? Are you a pastor? A deacon? An in-between?
We have a saying around here that “it’s not about getting it done, it’s about getting right.” For us, being a creative director means taking whatever project that you’re working on, whether it’s a ladies event or weekend service or a simple promo, and making sure that it’s done right. So that’s what I do. I oversee all the meetings, all the brainstorming, all the planning that goes into the events, brochures, promos, etc. and to make sure that they’re not just done, but that they’re done right.
As for the church, I am a pastor and I also serve on the church’s executive leadership team.
Creative. That’s a big word. What do you focus on? If you have help or assistance, what do your helpers/assistants do?
The funny thing is I don’t “do” much. I don’t create the videos, I don’t sing the songs, I don’t write the scripts, I don’t stage the interviews. I’m not really a doer. I guess my job is sort of like that of a conductor. I set the tempo and provide guidance. Honestly, we have a lot of talented and creative people around here and my job isn’t to tell them how to do what they do, my job is to bring focus to what they’re already doing. Sometimes I start the creative ball rolling, sometimes I don’t, but I’m always the guy to steer the ship.
As for assistants, I really only have one. He just helps me to keep up with all the crazy stuff going on around the church. He’s a detail guy, I’m definitely not! Other than that I would consider the people on my team to be more like partners than assistants. I don’t think the creative genius surrounded by his minions is really an approach that works anymore.
Where do you find creative inspiration to do what you do?
I guess I’m just like everyone else in that I find inspiration in good creative work, whether that be another church or something I found online or on TV or whatever, but ideally I’m inspired by the very work that I’m doing. In other words, I try to find inspiration in the core of the project we’re working on. An example would be Dad Life. We were inspired by the very notion of Father’s Day. I mean when you boil it down, we’re honoring guys who have chosen their family over their image, so that right there is pretty inspiring. From there you just look for a vehicle to carry your idea and having recently seen Swagger Wagon we we’re pretty sure that a rap video would work. You never sit down with the idea to just “make something cool” that your message will fit into, you always start with your core message and let the idea and inspiration come from that.
Do you see any exciting trends in church media or arts today? Any not-so-exciting trends?
I’m not really someone who follows a lot of global church trends. Honestly, for me it just leads to comparisons and I’m not interested in that. I’m glad that the church has embraced the power of the arts and I see a lot of great work being done out there.
What’s one of the most common misconceptions about your job?
I say this as humbly as I know how, but I think the most common misconception is that to do what I do, you have to be some sort of genius. I’m not a genius, I’m just called. If you’re called, then you’re also graced and equipped to do what God has called you to do. Trust in your call, serve the church, don’t promote yourself, and you’ll be fine.
Talk to us about relevance, especially as it relates to your role.
Relevance isn’t really a word I spend a lot of time thinking about. I just try to serve the message in a way that moves me. I’m pretty cynical so if I’m moved, then I feel good about how it’ll impact our congregation. The only other thing I would add to that is that I avoid being cheesy. Our message isn’t a cute one full of nice sayings that would go nicely on a motivational poster. It’s real and it’s raw and it’s powerful and I don’t think we do it any favors by making it cute.
Can you briefly describe a normal day (if there is one) in your life as a creative director?
I’m pretty much meeting with different people all day every day. Often we’ll start the day with one big brainstorming meeting and then from there I’ll meet with smaller groups of people about specific parts of specific projects.
How do you do the cool stuff? The cool graphics, videos, etc.?
How should other churches, especially churches with a teeny budget or limited resources, get involved in media–if at all?
I like to think of creativity like a muscle, when you exercise it, it gets stronger. So make time every week, every day, to intentionally be creative. Involve other people if possible. Even if they’re not “creative” you never know what the accountant or secretary might be able to contribute, plus, I hate working alone so I think building a team, whether they’re staff or volunteers, is essential. I guess it depends on the church. This is our calling so it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, but I wouldn’t presume that everybody everywhere should do things just exactly like we do. If you were wanting to transition your church into this kind of thing, you could start just by making time to be creative on purpose. If you don’t create on purpose you’ll also never create by accident. It’s a practice, a habit, that you have to develop.
What is one of the best ways of using art in the church? (Besides, obviously, using a sound system to make sure people hear the speaker?)
Well I think art really allows us to connect people to God on an emotional level which I think is important. I can’t think of a better place to be “moved” than church. We have the greatest message and I think we have an opportunity every week to create moments where people can feel God even on an emotional level. Additionally, art is a perfect medium for telling stories and I think that’s a huge part of our calling as creative directors in our churches. We are charged with the great responsibility of taking the stories of what God has done and what He is doing across our communities and making those stories come to life.
What is one thing that every creative director needs besides a good cup of coffee?
You have to know what you want. If you constantly waffle and question yourself, chances are you’re not a creative leader. You may be a great contributor, but you’re not the leader and these are very different roles. The leader HAS to know what direction the team needs to head in. It isn’t that you can never allow yourself to be challenged or questioned, but there comes a point where you have to have a certain sense, a certain knowing that the group must head in a particular direction. If you don’t know where you’re headed, your team will either be hijacked by someone else or you’ll waffle around in no man’s land never really accomplishing anything.
What advice would you give to small churches regarding creative arts, media, etc.?
I would say recognize your advantages. I may be in a position where I have a larger team and a larger budget but larger doesn’t always equal better. Our size affords us some awesome opportunities but it also presents us with some disadvantages too. We can’t be as relational or intimate in our creative approach as a smaller church can be. When I saw U2 in Arrowhead stadium in 1997 for their Popmart tour it was HUGE in every way. That tour cost a fortune and it was amazing to see, but just as awesome as that was seeing Sigur Ros play a small venue with 1% of the budget of U2. So recognize your strengths and play off those instead of dwelling on what you don’t have and you’ll go a lot further.