In my early days of ministry, after graduating from seminary, I invested time and energy into writing for the church. I mostly wrote curriculum for youth and adults. And I wrote a couple of small books, also for teaching in the church.
One of my early outlets for that writing was Smyth & Helwys Publishing. The organization began when a group of Baptists determined it was time to provide alternatives to materials produced by the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC was failing many of us in many ways. It was falling short for everyone who had a more expansive view of ministry and God’s presence and love for the world. Out of that failure began many creative initiatives.
For me, new organizations like S&H gave me a sense of belonging and a place to learn, lead, and write. For example, while serving a church in North Georgia, I also kept a steady stream of writing and consulting projects. Many of my deadlines were for editors at the new and growing Smyth & Helwys. This work is how I first came to know David Cassady. He edited my work and later managed the publishing at S&H.
David is currently the President of the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. His his path toward that role includes many moments of creating something new out of the losses and let-downs of Baptist life. He is an innovator and entrepreneur. See more of his story below.
When I wrote my first small book, it was for a joint project between Smyth and Helwys and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Being Baptist: A Resource for Individual and Group Study was one of my own attempts to wrestle something creative out of the widespread crisis and failures of Baptist life. For months I got up and 5AM and wrote for two or three hours, before driving over to the church to do my work there.
When the book was finished, I was relieved. Yet I realized I had floundered and failed in a way I didn’t see at the time. I held my Baptist world, and my local congregation front of mind while I wrote. But I told almost none of them. It was my own failure at community making. When the book published, it was anti-climactic because I had not shared widely what I was doing. I remember talking to my colleagues on the church staff, nearly in tears, wondering aloud if anyone would even notice that I had written a book.
Some weeks or months later, David Cassady showed up one Sunday in worship. I was glad to see him, but not too surprised because it was Georgia, and Baptist leaders liked to show up in our congregation unannounced. At the end of the service, however, I was surprised. Our pastor called David to the front of the sanctuary, and he presented me with a framed cover of my book. Now I was crying. Sometimes our communities really do see us more than we know. And this gesture helped seal in for me three things: my sense of being a writer, my willingness to trust my communities, and the power of wrestling creativity out of failure.
Sometimes failure feels like a sense of personal let down, something we have done to fall short. But failures take many forms. For many of us steeped in Southern Baptist life, we experienced the failures of the Mother institution which had been cradle and support all of our lives. Responses to that failure also took many forms. A lot of Baptists needed to walk away and start anew. Others needed to make something new.
A few felt a need to stay and try to wrestle something good from the loss of the SBC. Mostly that led to more disappointment and loss. And a very large and diverse group threw their energies into creating new ways to be Baptist and do shared work together. These pastors, educators, and thousands of lay people, Created a new ecology of Baptist life. And there were more failures and losses and let downs, because failure is a process and not an event.
The good news of God’s Spirit in the world is that new life rises, and new creation begins again and again. What role does failure play in your creative endeavors, in your practice of ministry?
Learning in Practice with David Cassady
David Cassady is the President & Professor of Christian Education and Media Studies at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (BSK).
An Arkansas native, Cassady earned a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Ouachita Baptist University, studied philosophy at Baylor University, and received an M.Div. C.E. and a Ph.D. in Christian Education from Southern Seminary. David has served as minister in churches in Arkansas and Kentucky.
Cassady brings over 16 years of experience in Christian publishing. He is also the founder and president of Faithlab, a communications firm serving churches and non-profits. He can be heard weekly as host of the Faithelement Podcast.
We are so grateful to feature the creative ministry of David Cassady this week. Here is our interview with him.
What question do you live by?
DC: When my life is done, what will I wish I had attempted?
What question(s) do you wrestle with in your practice of ministry?
DC: What new thing is God up to and how can I be part of it?
This week’s episode discusses “failing creatively.” How have you seen failure lead to creativity and new life – for a minister, an organization, or a church?
DC: After 16 years at Smyth & Helwys Publishing, I left to join a local creative services firm. I knew publishing was changing fast and wanted to explore media beyond print.
While at the firm I learned a tremendous amount about design, audio, video and website production. It was an exciting time of growth. But I was not successful in making it work for me. After three years, I left the firm.
Together with Jim Dant, I formed a new company we named “Faithlab.” The idea was to use insights from traditional publishing as well as the new media skills gained from the creative services firm — in the service of churches and religious non-profits. Faithlab was tightly focused on the new sorts of communications challenges faced in the religious sphere and grew quickly. Last year Faithlab turned 10 years old, with multiple full-time and part-time staffers on the team.
Sometimes we have all the needed puzzle pieces at our disposal, and simply need to assemble them in a way that is relevant and meets real needs. For me, failing at one effort led to starting something new that took on a life of its own.
How has your practice of ministry changed over time?
DC: I responded to a call to ministry while I was in high school. My father would often talk with me about it as we were fishing in a nearby creek. He encouraged me to keep my heart open to all the ways a person can minister. At the time, I thought he was silly — that I was to be a pastor. But looking back, his wisdom is clear.
I have served as youth minister and associate pastor in churches, as an editor and writer of youth curriculum, as an editor and administrator overseeing the production of a full range of curriculum resources and books for churches and their leaders. I have helped churches and non-profits learn how to use media to better connect with their communities. And since 2017, I have worked in theological education at BSK.
While there is a lot of variety in my ministry path, it could be summarized as a sort of generative ministry. My gift is in helping create things, whether they are resources, communications tools, or new ways of shaping the education of ministers.
As I have aged, I realize that ministry is increasingly about empowering others to flourish in their own ministry paths.
What is on your must-read list right now?
DC: These days I am very focused on learning more about the need for the church to be a change agent for racial justice, so my reading is tilted in that direction. These are some titles I have found helpful:
White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, by Esau McCaulley
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby
“Failing Creatively” is the topic of one of fifty chapters of Eileen’s forthcoming book, Pastoral Imagination: Bringing the Practice of Ministry to Life . Pre-orders are open now!
We are working on a special opportunity for you to order both Pastoral Imagination and its companion journal. Announcement coming soon!
This week as you allow yourself to think honestly about your failures, small and large, and the ways you have been let down, I hope you will also ask what creative energy is waiting to be released?