The Gifts of Holy Imagination
In this season of Epiphany and the New Year, I’m reminded of the wide variety of gifts vestry members bring to the building up of God’s Kingdom. In some respects, our Christian tradition favors the concrete: the Magi are described as having brought the tangible gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh, and then there’s the familiar song of a drummer boy who brings his “pa rum pum pum pum.” Annual stewardship campaigns often focus on members giving their time, talent, and treasure. Yet, how often do we think about the less tangible gifts of creativity and imagination? Are vestries and other leadership teams bringing these sorely needed gifts to bear when addressing the complex challenges congregations face today? What resources could we, as congregational leaders, use to create environments for our teams in which new, creative strategies are able to emerge?
Might the gift of holy imagination bring us to a new way of thinking?
In December, The Living Church featured an article about an Episcopal congregation in New Jersey that is growing in many respects – both in terms of people and programs – but is struggling to raise enough for its annual budget. The article notes:
“But when Monday arrives and budgetary constraints come to bear, St. George’s has less to sing about. While more are worshiping, fewer are pledging — 20 percent fewer than five years ago. Traditional stewardship messages are not resonating with a younger generation. The task of coming up with more than $300,000 yearly to run the church now falls to fewer than 100 pledging families. ‘We have to figure out what’s going on here,’ said Dan Austin, co-chair of St. George’s stewardship committee. ‘A lot of the new families are coming from other faith traditions, so this whole stewardship thing has them wondering: what is that?’”
The challenge facing St. George’s goes beyond simply tweaking the annual stewardship campaign, finding a better fundraising theme, or improving ‘the ask’. This is a big picture challenge, one that requires members first explore ‘what’s going on here’ and then bring out-of-the-box thinking to how we respond.
It’s in these types of complex situations that generative practices are helpful. Generative leadership inserts a creative pause before any potential solutions are named, before any concrete plans are made, and well before any significant change is led. It’s about the initial meeting(s) where a leadership team tries to understand a presenting challenge from a much broader perspective, actively questions the underlying assumptions about what has brought it about, and frames the challenge in such a way that opens new avenues for potential solutions.
Practice #1: Framing
But enough of theory. Let’s get down to brass tacks here. There are many different ways to lead generative conversations in leadership meetings and so what follows is by no means an exhaustive list. These three are drawn from past Vestry Papers articles and from the excellent book Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Governing Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor.
The first practice is called ‘framing’ and it hinges on the fact that, to a surprising degree, whether or not a leadership team will be able to arrive at a creative solution largely depends on how a challenge is presented or described. At the most basic level, vestries should consider whether challenges are described as threats to the status quo or as an opportunity for learning and growth. But framing becomes more interesting as it becomes contextualized – that is, when teams strive to find a different starting point to their particular challenges.
In the Vestry Papers article Seeds of Hope about Grace Church in Biddeford, Maine, Shirley Bowen wrote about how longstanding, cyclical conversations about the ‘survival’ of their small parish in an impoverished and violence-ridden community finally shifted when their conversation began from a different starting point. The vestry of Grace Church first sought to understand the church’s role within the broader community and this led them to an alternative frame for discussions about their future: “For many years there had been conversations among congregations in Southern Maine regarding collaborations, mergers, and the like. Each time, the conversation ended with no substantive change. This time, the conversation focused not on our survival, but on our ministry in our neighborhood and the community. From the very beginning, it felt different.”
This alternative frame began an entirely new direction for the parish. As a result, the formerly 15-person parish closed and became Seeds of Hope jubilee ministries, open four days a week and serving over 70-100 persons a day, offering free clothing and a staffed career center while continuing to offer sacramental opportunities in the Episcopal tradition.
Looking at our own congregations, many of us have had the experience of seeing the same set of issues brought up year after year, with similar ideas offered year after year, and no movement forward either way. A successful framing (or reframing as the case may be) breaks open this cyclical conversation, offering a different starting point from which to brainstorm new, creative solutions.
Practice #2: Exploring Cues and Clues
As the name would suggest, the practice of exploring cues and clues is investigative; its ultimate goal is to broaden team members’ understanding of the challenge at hand. ‘Cues and clues’ recognizes that each congregation’s challenges are highly contextual, that any issue is the result of particular internal and external factors that need to be better understood prior to brainstorming potential solutions. To have team members explore cues and clues, therefore, means creating opportunities for members to learn more about the presenting challenge from a wide variety of angles, from both within the congregation (internal) and beyond the congregation (external).
What does this look like in practice? My favorite example of an externally focused exploration of cues and clues comes from St. Mary’s Episcopal in Los Angeles. This congregation began as a neighborhood church for the large Japanese immigrant population that lived in the Mariposa neighborhood prior to World War II. Since then the connection between the congregation and neighborhood has weakened as most of St. Mary’s long-time members now live in more suburban areas of greater LA and spend little time in the St. Mary’s neighborhood beyond Sunday service.
Seeking to reconnect to the neighborhood, rector Anna Olson devised a simple photo project that occurred during a one-day vestry retreat. Vestry members headed out in small groups into the Mariposa neighborhood for an hour to take photos of anything they found interesting. Upon returning they created and narrated a slideshow of all that they had seen. This slideshow then showed on an endless loop as the vestry identified themes and practical follow-up. Olson writes, “The photo project was designed to give the vestry the opportunity to take a closer look at our neighborhood. It was not intended to lead directly into strategic planning, but rather to shift our perspective and open our eyes to creative possibilities and creative ways of looking for God at work in our neighborhood and God’s call to us as a parish.”
Whereas this is an example of a vestry exploring the external cues and clues surrounding an issue, an example of exploring the internal cues and clues might involve speaking to various stakeholder groups within the congregation about a more internally-focused challenge, such as the fundraising difficulties facing St. George’s, New Jersey that I referred to earlier. In both cases, cues and clues is about creating opportunities for vestry leaders to explore a challenge from a variety of angles and to develop their own perspective on the issue, all of which lays the groundwork for more robust and imaginative conversations about potential solutions.
Practice #3: Retrospective Thinking
Many people are surprised when they see ‘retrospective thinking’ as a generative leadership practice. I’ve been asked, “Aren’t too many congregations already living in the past? Isn’t the fact that we’re so beholden to the so-called ‘glory days’ preventing us from real change?” While it’s true that many congregations either glorify or deny their past, and while it’s also true that traditional strategic thinking processes are almost exclusively focused on the future, ‘retrospective thinking’ recognizes that communities make meaning by reflecting on past events, and that this meaning directly influences a group’s ability to imagine a hopeful future. The authors of Governance as Leadership cite the work of leadership expert Rosabeth Kanter, who wrote, “In conceiving of a different future, innovators have to be historians as well.”
Retrospective thinking played an important role in the two congregations I’ve described above. At Grace Church, Biddeford, Maine, a key turning point was finding vestry meeting minutes from over half a century before that showed the congregation had been 1) vexed by issues of survival since the local mill had closed in the late 50s and 2) had then committed itself to helping those who had been recently laid off. This created a narrative bridge to Grace’s future as Seeds of Hope. At St. Mary’s Episcopal in Los Angeles, it was their origins as a neighborhood parish that led this largely Japanese-American congregation to reconnect with a neighborhood that is now largely Korean and Latino/Hispanic.
Finally, I want to note that the fairly widespread practice of appreciative inquiry is an example of congregation-wide retrospective thinking. To give the abbreviated version, in appreciative inquiry, time is set aside for members of a congregation to reflect on their past experience of the congregation and then collectively identify areas of strengths. Questions like “tell us about a time that you were most inspired by the congregation” and “tell us a time you were most challenged” bring the past up in such a way that congregational leaders leave with a lot of material (oftentimes, many sheets of paper!) that serve as springboards for future strategic conversations.
The Practicality of a Holy Imagination
Given the very real organizational challenges facing Episcopal congregations today, it can be tempting to quickly jump from identifying a problem to immediately planning out practical solutions. Generative leadership is about inserting an imaginative pause between those two tasks. It recognizes that the language we use to describe a problem circumscribes whether we’ll be open to finding new, creative solutions or whether we’ll be trapped in the same cycle of conversations as always; it’s about helping vestry members come to their own understanding of a presenting challenge so that later conversations are enriched by a diversity of perspectives; finally, it’s about recognizing the way the past continues to have a hold on us and leverages this fact in hopeful ways. And in every way, generative leadership is about recognizing that the challenges facing congregations today will not come out of a box, but will instead be created and implemented at the local level, by vestries and other leadership teams who regularly practice imagining a different future.
Miguel Angel Escobar serves as Senior Program Director of Leadership Resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF). There, he works with Nancy Davidge, editor of ECF Vital Practices, and Brendon Hunter, Assistant Program Director, to coordinate the Fellowship Partners Program, ECF Vital Practices, ECF’s many workshops and web conferences, and ECF Vital Teams. Miguel is a lay member of The Episcopal Church, an MDiv graduate of Union Theological Seminary, and an amateur bread maker. Write Miguel at email@example.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
- “Appreciative Inquiry” by Ann Ditzler, ECF Vital Practices’ Your Turn resource
- “A Snapshot of our Urban Neighborhood” by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, January 2012
- “Generative leadership: Nurturing innovation in complex systems” by Gita Surie and James K. Hazy, E:CO Issue Volume 8 No. 4, 2006 pp 13-26
- Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Governing Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor (Wiley, 2004)
- “Learning to Ask” by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, The Living Church, December 19, 2014
- “Seeds of Hope” by Shirley Bowen, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, July 2013
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