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the imaginative preacher – viv coleman

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Imagination is a valuable commodity for kiwimade preachers; in fact, in my recent thesis about Ministry Review for AUT Business School, I identified “Imagination” as one of four key issues relevant to accountability and support for pastoral leaders. My inductive research project had found “collaborative planning” and “shaping missional concern” to be important areas to discuss when churches and their leaders have realistic and hopeful review conversations. Vital preaching feeds into this, and helps bridge the chasm between vision and reality.

Conventional business terms, like Vision, Strategy and Change Management, are all relevant to church ministry and clergy reviews. However in this study, the 15 pastor participants – all regular preachers – were acutely aware that vision is a process in which the Holy Spirit is intimately involved, so I searched for a word that embraced that mystical dimension. I decided on Imagination, often used in contemporary Christian literature to describe transformational leadership in a post-modern culture. My academic supervisors expressed consternation; what could Imagination possibly have to do with organisational leadership? I had to convince them that notions of innovation, inspiration, vision and creativity are often found in the business literature, and to point out that succession planning at Shell Oil includes ‘Imagination’ in its list of four desirable competencies for executive positions.

I discovered that clergy reviews today often address the effectiveness of the minister in stimulating the parish’s ‘missional imagination.’ This quality is a twist on Brueggeman’s 1978 notion of “prophetic imagination”, where the task of Christian ministry was described as nurturing an alternative consciousness that challenges the dominant culture. Brueggemann called on ministers to critique society, energise creativity, and construct an alternative community. Today that same imagination is needed for contemporary expressions of the gospel, in forms that connect authentically with postmodern society. Old assumptions that mission is located in buildings and programmes are being recalibrated by our growing awareness that God is already at work, in the neighbourhood. Care of our existing members must be balanced with reaching people outside the faith community, as leaders find a rhythm between transactional and transformational leadership. Canon Phil Potter likens today’s ‘fresh expressions’ to moving from an orchestra and conductor, to a jazz band improvising a new tune.

An energised pastoral imagination requires leaders and churches to challenge ecclesiastical norms and relinquish old roles, and those tasks bring emotional and ethical challenges.  When society is liquid, no longer fixed and dependable, church folk may want to “sandbag it” with custodial responses. The ministers in this study spoke of asking visionary questions, of leading collaborative discernment, and of carefully judging the pace of change; Jill Hudson calls this “dancing through minefields.” They told of facilitating strategic action in a mix of formal planning and emergent strategy, and acknowledged the power of mental models, both to free and to constrain. As leaders and preachers they aimed to clarify, articulate and implement vision, realising they have privileged access to congregational hearts and minds. Using the richness of literature, poetry and prayer in the Christian treasury, they spoke of re-presenting the future in symbols, stories and images that can powerfully shape the congregation’s culture. One minister successfully embedded a vision for indigenous change by writing a congregational narrative; another described his leadership role as one of “dreaming and steering” the congregation’s vision.

The Presbyterian and Baptist participants in this study testified that invention, imagination, innovation and hunches all have a place in Biblical preaching, as pastoral leaders seek to lead deep change marked by the Spirit’s signature.

The thesis “Realistic and Hopeful” will be posted online at AUT Library around the end of April.

One Comment

  1. I decided on Imagination, often used in contemporary Christian literature to describe transformational leadership in a post-modern culture.

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