The role of the imagination in the life of leadership, particularly in faith communities, is embodied most vividly in the biblical story in the life of the prophets. When the prophets speak and act, they draw on all the people’s senses, triggering their memories, awakening their hearts and minds, and inspiring them to turn and return to God again and again.

This role, the prophetic, vision-casting role, can be one of the most intimidating parts of a leaders’ work. Therefore, in many congregations, the role of prophetic word and vision-casting is left up to the pastor. As many in pastoral leadership have learned the hard way, however, casting, holding, and enacting such a vision alone is neither sustainable or faithful. We must commit to the work of sparking and stretching the imaginations of our people collectively if there’s any hope of our ministry taking root or making real impact.

Graphic of the words energy, intelligence, imagination, and loveImagination is essential to Christian leadership. Without imagination it is almost impossible to remember and return to the cosmic Creator, the living and breathing God of creation. Imagination is essential because the gospel offers an alternative narrative to the reality many in our congregations live every day. In the face of greed, the gospel calls us to generosity. In the face of our human penchant for violence, the gospel calls us to be peacemakers. In the face of the inequality and abuse of power rife in our systems, the gospel calls us to demand justice. In the face of environmental destruction, the gospel reminds us that we are co-creators with a loving God. In the face of death, the gospel promises new life and a new reality. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, and church officers must learn how to embrace and proclaim it alongside our pastoral leadership.

How can leaders embrace creativity and imagination as real tools for faithful leadership? How do we empower leaders to claim their role in sparking the imagination of the congregation?

In Genesis, God is an artist, singing creation into reality. God’s breath moves like a brushstroke across the deep and all the beauty and complexity of life emerges. Then God takes a deep breath and creates human beings in God’s own image. We are created in the image of a creative, sustaining, and imaginative God. And God has been inviting us into the work of co-creators ever since.

What would happen if, instead of asking ruling elders and deacons to fill predetermined roles, people were asked, “What shall we create together this year?” There are, of course, certain items of business, fiduciary responsibilities, and important and consistent tasks that need completed for our organizations to run responsibility. But all too often, in an effort to make them manageable, we reduce the work of leaders to tiny technical tasks that make it impossible to see how they are contributing to something transformational.

Take worship, for example. Many of our congregations have worship teams. How often do those meetings get consumed by the technical questions of how often and who will prepare communion? How many readers/liturgists need to be recruited for worship? Has anyone seen the Advent paraments? Worship committees, teams, or collaborators need to be invited into generative questions: “What is happening in our community and in the world?” “Do our people need to hear a word of comfort? Challenge? Hope?” “What do we want our folks to see, hear, feel, smell, and experience in worship this season?” “What can we create together to move, inspire, or stretch our congregation in worship?”

For Reflection and Discussion:

What sparks your imagination? Is it a good story? Vibrant words? Art? Music? When you consider the ecosystem of your congregation, is there a biblical story that stretches your imagination or that might inspire the work God is calling you to do together?

Tell a story about a time your own imagination was sparked. Did it help you take a leap of faith or make a decision about the future?

Engage as a group in “Weaving Our Communal Prayers Together” (see Prayers and Spiritual Practice Resources).

Additional Activity

Invite leaders into a process of making something together. If you are a smaller group, invite a session member with a big kitchen to host a meeting and cook and eat together. This will be uncomfortable for some and a source of deep joy for others. Do it more than once! As we exercise our collaboration and creative muscles together, we will begin to see a deep cultural shift as our leaders begin to access their own imaginations.

Note: In some of our communities and cultures, it’s increasingly rare that we make things with our own hands. In other communities where we do continue to make things, this work is often tied to our employment, productivity, and self-worth. These prayers and activities are not about perfection or production, they are intended to engage a process that will unlock our creativity and joy.