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15 Lessons From Walt Disney to Apply to Your Children’s Ministry

Dreaming, risk-taking, and diligence. Here’s what you can learn from the man who pioneered family entertainment experiences with passion and purpose Walt Disney.

A few weeks ago I revisited one of my favorite places — Walt Disney World. It was a working vacation (honestly!), as I looked for ideas I could use in my ministry from the masters of connecting with kids and families. I even did my homework, picking up a biography of the mouse mastermind himself: Walt Disney: an American Original (Disney Editions) by Bob Thomas. I read the book, and I scrutinized the park. And I realized that not only can children’s ministries learn from Disneyland’s success, but leaders too can learn from the man behind the vision, the man who effectively touched the hearts of millions of children and families for generations.

Walt Disney lived to bring joy to others — but he was also an incredibly driven, principled, precise, and visionary leader. It was Disney’s principles that helped make him one of the 20th century’s greatest pioneers and most effective leaders. Let’s look at how his principles can impact us as leaders, dreamers, and ministers.

15 Lessons From Walt Disney to Apply to Your Children’s Ministry

1. Work diligently.

Friends, family, and colleagues say Disney was the driving force behind the creative genius of his company. He regularly worked late at the studio, investing himself and his time into what he believed in.

Consider this:

  • Do you have a go-the-extra-mile attitude?
  • Are you dedicated to your ministry?
  • Are you and your team known as hard workers?

2. Don’t rest on past accomplishments.

Keep your eye on the future.

Disney rarely engaged in retrospection. He was focused on the future, preferring to explore new mediums and dream new dreams. Once he’d mastered one medium, he was on to the next, more challenging one.

Consider this:

  • Have you grown content with past successes?
  • What’s the next mountaintop you’re climbing?
  • Where do you want your ministry to be three years from now?

3. Maintain a radical commitment to excellence.

Disney wasn’t a man who showered praise on people; he simply expected excellence — and received it.

As a result of Disney’s commitment to excellence, Disney parks have a worldwide reputation for cleanliness and friendliness.

Consider this:

  • What qualifies as “excellent” in your ministry? What doesn’t?
  • Are you content with “good enough”?
  • Do people associate excellence with your ministry?

4. Gather talent that’ll make the vision a reality.

Disney’s dreams were on a grand scale, and to accomplish his dreams he took pains to assemble the right talent.

Consider this:

  • Do you attract quality people to your team?
  • Can your current team make your ministry’s dreams a reality?
  • Who do you need on your team?

5. Gather positive people around you.

Disney once witnessed a staff member treat park guests curtly. Frustrated, he told an assistant, “See if you can’t give that fellow a better understanding of the business we’re in. Try to cheer him up. If you can’t, then he shouldn’t be working here. We’re selling happiness. We don’t want sourpusses around.” Consider this:

  • Is your ministry known as a positive, happy place?
  • Are you willing to deal with negative team members and attitudes?
  • Do you and your team spend more time dwelling on the positive or negative aspects of your ministry?

6. Create a place families can experience together.

Disney’s dream for his first park was ultimately simple. He wanted it to be a place where children and their parents could find “happiness and knowledge”-a place where families could share good times.

Consider this:

  • Does your ministry provide experiences families can enjoy together?
  • How do you equip parents to explore faith with their children outside church walls?
  • How can you make your church a more welcoming environment for families with children?

7. Remember that ministry is all about the people.

When Disney opened the first park in California, staff members urged him to build an administration building; he refused. He reportedly told the staff, “There isn’t going to be any administration building. The public isn’t here to see an administration building. Besides, I don’t want you guys sitting behind desks. I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them.”

Consider this:

  • Do first-time guests have a great experience?
  • Do people at your church feel loved and cared for?
  • Are people put before rules?

8. Bring out the best in others.

Those who worked with Disney have said that one of his most valuable traits was the ability to recognize someone else’s creative potential and then encourage him or her to achieve it.

Consider this:

  • Do you help people discover their gifts and use them?
  • Do you make the people around you better?
  • Who are you mentoring right now?

9. Be optimistic.

Disney was unswayed by critics and those who cheered his failures — and by all accounts he had some. His optimism drove him to overcome critics, foreclosing bankers, disloyal employees, and many other perils.

Consider this:

  • Do you see the bright side of things?
  • Are your words negative or positive?
  • How do you cope with failure?

10. Remember that it’s not just about brainpower.

Young Disney didn’t demonstrate brilliance as a student. In fact, his teachers reported that he daydreamed his way through school.

Consider this:

  • Do you depend on God’s strength or your own?
  • Are you working where God gifted you?
  • Do you make yourself available to God?

11. Build a ministry that’s known for quality.

The name Disney is synonymous with quality — throughout the world. That was exactly how Disney himself wanted it to be; he wanted his company to raise the standard of excellence, and above all, leave consumers smiling and wowed.

Consider this:

  • How would people describe your ministry?
  • Do people think of your ministry as a symbol of quality?
  • What would it take to elevate your ministry to the next level?

12. Take risks.

Disney’s brother Roy, who was also the business head behind their company, remained opposed to the idea of Disneyland. Disney realized he’d have to go it alone — coming up with financing and planning on his own. To Disney’s wife’s dismay, he borrowed on his life insurance; before the park was finished, he was $100,000 in debt.

Consider this:

  • When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone?
  • What risks do you need to take?
  • Are you willing to try something and fail?

13. Make people smile.

Disney made it known to his designers that he wasn’t looking for architectural masterpieces. He told his team of designers that he wanted them to focus on one thing as they designed the park: “When [people] leave, I want them to have smiles on their faces. It’s all I ask of you as a designer.”

Consider this:

  • Are people entering your doors with a spirit of anticipation?
  • Do kids smile and have fun?
  • Do kids say your services or programs are boring?

14. Pay extreme attention to details.

Disney had little patience for staff who disturbed the environment he was attempting to create at Disneyland. Once he reprimanded a staff member for parking near the Frontierland railroad station. Reportedly, Disney told the man, “When people come here, they expect to see a frontier. Your car destroys the whole illusion.”

Consider this:

  • Do you pay careful attention to details?
  • Are typos and errors the norm or the exception?
  • Who, if not you, takes care of the details?

15. Change what doesn’t work.

During Disneyland’s first season, a circus was one of the attractions. While the tent seated 2,000, no performance drew more than 500 people. People don’t come to Disneyland to see a circus, Walt concluded, and he shut it down.

Consider this:

  • What programs need to be evaluated and possibly changed?
  • Are you willing to change, even if it causes a few people to get upset?
  • What’s your plan to deal with areas of weakness?

Psst…you might like this article: 10 Things We Can Learn From Walt Disney.

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