CREATIVITY AND THE CHURCH’S LONG HOURS CULTURE
Of all the things the Church needs right now, imaginative, risk-taking mission is top of the list. But are we in the right place for it?
News that a Cambridge professor had sent a stern missive to a new cohort of students caused some amusement when it became widely known. “Remember you are NOT at any other uni, where students do drink a lot and have what they regard as a ‘good time’…Physical sciences is a VERY hard subject, which will require ALL of your attention brain capacity”.
Few would doubt the seriousness of studying science at Cambridge, but it kicked off a debate about productivity. Surveys show that we work less efficiently after turning in fifty hours a week, yet it remains a badge of honour for many and anything less than one hundred hours a week in some places – Silicon Valley, the City – is suspect.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, himself a product of California’s high tech environment, has challenged the long hours culture in ‘Rest’ (Random House, 2016) by showing it makes people less creative at work and by demonstrating a symbiotic relationship between industry and leisure. Work and rest are partners. Developing science shows the brain works only marginally less hard when we are at ease than when we are striving. Rest is, paradoxically, active. Deep play - ‘psychologically restorative, physically active, and personally meaningful’ for Pang – is especially good at stimulating creativity.
To give ourselves a measure of the challenge we face, consider this. The average office email goes unread for…six seconds. Yet research noted in ‘Irresistible’ by Adam Alter shows it take up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task. If we open just twenty-five emails in even spaces throughout the course of the day, we spend no time in our most productive zone.
Workplaces can measure output and productivity very precisely when things are being made, customers helped or patients treated, but long-term creative projects are less susceptible to this. Pang’s theory is that people engaged in creative endeavour often work long hours to make up for it. Endless effort makes us look committed, but it does not mean we are more innovative; in fact the opposite is more likely.
It feels uneasily similar to the story of the modern Church. Those in Christian leadership usually work long hours. They usually do so because of their love for God and their ministry, but they may work longer hours than they need to because there is little tangible to show for ministry at the end of the day. They cannot easily measure outcomes, as the parables of Matthew’s Gospel show. The Kingdom of God grows in secret places and fruitfulness for God will only truly be shown at the end of all things, when the harvest is made. So the temptation is to make up for this by putting in bone-crushing hours each day.
It is not just creativity which is stifled by working too hard. Listening, and responding, to God takes practice, but many people are almost apologetic for time spent in quietness and make spurious distinctions between work and prayer, as if the latter were a sanctified version of the sneaky cigarette break.
Rested people are not just more creative, they are less risk-averse. Tiredness makes us cautious and introspective. Of all the things the Church needs right now, creative, risk-taking mission and ministry is top of the list.
Pity that together we may be working too hard to make it possible.
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