This article is cross-posted from Carol Howard Merritt's series on The Christian Century blog.
Find her original posts here: pt 1, pt 2, pt 3.
|Montreat's Institute for Church Leadership|
October 15 - 18, 2012
Learn more and register at Montreat.org
Montreat: What makes your ministry “imaginative”?
|Carol Howard Merritt|
When I began in the ministry, I was a nervous twenty-something pastor, serving a small congregation. My father eased my concerns when he said, “Carol, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to know whom to ask.”
Throughout my ministry, whether my work has to do with reading an ancient text, handling a complicated administrative matter, understanding a social justice issue, or dreaming about the future, I relied on the wisdom and knowledge of others in order to navigate leadership. I learned from colleagues, as we sipped strong coffee in our lectionary groups. I gleaned from denominational resources, as ruling and teaching elders gathered for meetings on cold folding chairs in fellowship halls. And I received wisdom of women who blazed the trail before me, as my questions peppered our picked-over lunch salads.
Now that physical network has been enhanced with social media. This digital age allows me to rely on colleagues more readily, and my on-line networks often spark my imagination and inspire me to dream.
Montreat: As an innovator and a “possibility thinker” within the church, what are your greatest challenges?
Carol: Bridging the quick passion of the Internet culture and the long-term devotion of the denominational culture.
Clay Shirky wrote a book entitled Here Comes Everybody in which he writes about the Internet’s unique power of organizing without an organization. Shirky points out how, with great fervor, movements swell along our social networks. We’ve certainly seen how things like the Occupy movement sprang up in urban parks and their message spread through Twitter and Facebook. They called out for economic justice in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor increases every year.
"We work with strong structures, bureaucracies and committees, but we can lack the nimble vigor of the Internet culture."
This is much different from the world in which most of us move. Denominational bodies have great organization. We work with strong structures, bureaucracies and committees, but we can lack the nimble vigor of the Internet culture. Church leaders often meet in order to discuss how we will be doing everything next year exactly the same way we did it last year.
In my work, I often straddle these two worlds: 1) the fast-paced and passionate world fueled by the Internet and 2) the wise and steady world of organizations and committees. I understand the strengths and weaknesses of both, and I wonder if there is any way to marry the two.
Can people with organized structures (and—let’s be frank—often they are the people with money) begin to listen to the ardor of those who change their Twitter avatar in the hope that their voice might be heard? Can established organizations learn from social media how to spread the message of what they accomplish among a new generation?
And, can those with strong social networks realize that substantial change takes time? Can we learn how to buld trust and apply pressure over the long run? Can the quick fervor of Internet culture use some of the wisdom that comes from prolonged organization?
We have much to learn from one another.
Montreat: What inspires you and gives you the courage you need to break with the ordinary?
Carol: I draw from Paul Tillich a great deal here and remind myself that 1) breaking from the ordinary means very small changes, 2) without creativity, we can fall into indifference or antipathy, but 3) acting creatively leads us to spiritual meaning.
Breaking from the ordinary means very small changes. I’ve always been inspired by Tillich’s understanding of creativity in The Courage to Be:
Creative... has the sense not of original creativity as performed by the genius but of living spontaneously, in action and reaction, with the contents of one’s cultural life. In order to be spiritually creative one need not be what is called a creative artist or scientist or statesman [sic], but one must be able to participate meaningfully in their original creations. Such a participation is creative insofar as it changes that in which one participates, even if in very small ways.Tillich reminds us that breaking with the ordinary does not mean that we need to quit our day job, become a full-time artist, and overturn every aspect of our lives. On the contrary, as creatives, we make small changes within our own cultures that change us as wel as our surroundings. Since I'm not a particularly bold person, this is a great comfort to me. When working in church contexts, those very small changes can often revise the course of congregational life for decades to come.
Without creativity, we can fall into indifference or antipathy. Tillich also cautions that when we are cut off from creativity, that ability to change things, then the love for the creative vanishes, and our passion turns into indifference or aversion.
How many times have we seen that in our ministries? It plays out time and time again.
The new committee chair brims with ideas, until his excitement is met with furrowed brows, folded arms and “We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.” In a few months, we watch as he begins the meetings with deep sighs and a discouraged resignation.
The seminary graduate has a passion for starting an additional service. She is given the permission, but is not given money for musicians or support for administration. The service is quietly strangled before it has a chance to flourish and she becomes frustrated with a calling that once gave her life.
Acting creatively leads us to spiritual meaning. On the other hand, Tillich also reminds us that breaking with the ordinary ignites a love for “the contents” and for ourselves. To transfer that into the context of our congregational life, if a church leader can begin to act creatively, even in those small ways, she begins to have spiritual self-affirmation as well as a blossoming love for her community of faith.
We have also watched this happen in our congregations.
A person lives with the drudgery of his retail position, where the placement of each item has been mapped out and his every word has been scripted. But he finds refuge in the church, where he sings in the choir. The melodies present new challenges and he finds resonance with each note. Week after week, the director encourages him to soar in ways that he didn’t even realize were possible. He begins to move beyond the redundant toil of his job and finds a sense of meaning in being a part of something creative.
And with that sense of meaning, a deep love for the music and his community of faith (what Tillich refers to as the contents) begins to root. But not only that, he begins to have that spiritual self-affirmation that Tillich identifies. This is extremely important. In a new generation, where many people work in big-business, where the corporate office dictates an employee’s every move, our churches give opportunities to act creatively, which is an amazing gift.
Montreat: Are there colleagues, mentors, other leaders with whom you have the freedom to dream big dreams? Where do you find support for and assistance in implementing an imaginative ministry?
Carol: Right now, my biggest source of inspiration and collegial support has been with Unco (short for Unconference). This is an open-space gathering and ongoing community where we dream about the future of the church. We like to think of it as a percolator for new ideas. We have organized over the Internet (particularly through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs) and worked in partnership with established institutions like Stony Point Retreat Center, National Capital Presbytery, Auburn Seminary, and San Francisco Theological Seminary. The gatherings are usually small (35 to 75 people). And we spend three intense days brainstorming, discussing, and planning. We try to provide a community for those who are starting new ministries, in the form of technical support, advertising, and collegial networks.
Montreat: What would you consider one of the greatest triumphs in your ministry? What would you name as one of your greatest disappointments?
"That may sound strange, but I simply had this sense that my creative life would be pulling me beyond my particular faith community."
Carol: About eight years ago, when I was walking and praying, I felt a call to ministry outside of my local congregational context. That may sound strange, but I simply had this sense that my creative life would be pulling me beyond my particular faith community.
I went home and wrote the experience down in my journal. Other than having that spark of intuition, I was thoroughly confused. So I began to buy beautiful silk and learn how to embroidery. I figured that I would begin to learn how to design and sew liturgical art, and that would be my ministry beyond the local church. I also began to write every morning, mainly so I could get some ideas for stoles and banners. Soon I got tired of my needle and thread, but I never tired of that pen and paper.
I never imagined that I had much to say or much to offer. And—believe me—I’m not trying portray any sense of false humility. In academic settings, I had always been discouraged in my writing, so I really didn’t think I had it in me. But as I kept picking up that pen and paper, a library began to develop inside of me and I couldn’t stop writing. That’s been my greatest achievement: that regular pounding on the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning.
My greatest disappointments have been that I didn’t stay at my first two pastorates long enough. I served two small churches for three-and-a-half years each. There were many factors that led to me leaving, but I cannot shake the fact that in both places, I quickly folded to the concerns and pressures that we didn’t “have enough money” in search of a place that had “enough” to support a pastor. My deep fears of scarcity mingled with my shallow feelings of self-worth, and I allowed that toxic combination to dictate when I needed to move.
Montreat: What would you say to others who might follow your lead as innovators and imaginative risk-takers within their own faith communities?
Carol: This is a difficult time in ministry. There are generational, technological, and cultural shifts occurring right now—and the church is not faring well in most of them. Many people look at decades past and imagine that church leaders must have been much more awesome forty-five years ago.
Yet, I tend to see things a bit differently. God has called us in this particular season of the church because we are innovators and imaginative risk-takers. The Spirit is moving among us, giving us the prophetic imagination that we need to lead. We are enough. We have enough. And I’m excited to see what happens in the decades to come.