Eight Strategies for Change Leaders: Imagination


Strategy One (see my April blog post) was Listen and Learn.

Strategy Two is Envision an Approach.

“Everybody talks about the weather,” the saying goes, “but nobody ever does anything about it.” There is a kind of pathetic uselessness in spending very much time complaining about things if the conversation never turns toward doing something about them. Our congregations often talk about the challenges they face just like they talk about the weather. We complain or give thanks, but we don’t seem to take much responsibility. Why is that?

Real answers to new challenges require that we take risks, that we redirect our efforts in new ways, and that we do the intentional work of engaging our imaginations in truly creative ways. We don’t like to take risks, make new effort, or make time for imagination in our work together.

As it turns out, a conscious practice of the Christian life helps us to do the things that empower us to envision new approaches.

Here are some spiritual practices that help us to take risk, refocus effort and empower imagination.

  • Self-examination (Examen): Throughout the story of Christian people we have been taught to reflect on our actual lives in the light of our commitment to following the way of Jesus. For John Wesley and many early Methodists this took the form of daily journaling. Practicing Christians ask themselves each day, “How did I fail today to express the life Jesus calls me to lead, and how did I succeed in expressing it?” Of course we can only stand to do that if we believe fully in the inexhaustible grace of Jesus, who always steps beside us where we are so that he can accompany us toward where he wants us to be.

The practice of examen helps us to see our lives as a journey toward Christlikeness. This actually makes our failures less significant and puts the focus on development instead of status. We know that we can fail forward. This makes risk worth taking.

  • Repent: You all know that the biblical word for repent literally means “to turn,” right? Repentance really refers to “refocusing our effort.” Frederich Buechner, in his little book Wishful Thinking wrote that repentance is not so much looking backward and saying, “I’m sorry,” as looking forward and saying, “Wow!”

If we are examining our lives and noticing something short of what Jesus desires for us, then we want to let go of what is wrong, but we will also want to claim what moves us forward. That is the essence of repentance. It is also the essence of a willingness to refocus our effort on what is blessed, beautiful and fruitful. It is not really about working more it is about working different and better.

  • Retreat: Our imaginations are easily swamped by the status quo. Responsibilities and routines end up claiming every bit of our time, ability and energy. Change leaders and innovators make intentional space in their lives to do nothing. In consumerist and productivity oriented American culture, doing nothing is seen as a waste of time. But doing nothing is a core practice of Christianity. John Wesley’s first rule was “do no harm.” He clearly understood that before we would be able to do good, we would have to stop doing something. The first “behavior” commandment is to keep the Sabbath, defined as a day (a whole day!) when we do no work.

We must find ways to do nothing at times when we are not already exhausted or distracted. It is this time of doing nothing that allows us to ask the questions, “Should we be doing what we are doing? Is what we are doing accomplishing what we desire and what God intends? Can we imagine doing something different that might work better?”

Thriving congregations have leaders who practice examen, repentance and retreat as part of their own spiritual development. But their leaders also practice these disciplines together for the spiritual development of the congregation. Does your congregation expect its leaders to evaluate the ways in which the congregation is expressing the will of Christ? Do you demand that they lead the congregation in being what Luther called a reforming church (much different than a reformed one)? And does your congregation demand that their leadership team get away for times of retreat in order to engage holy imagination in the leadership they give?

Steve Ross
Rev. Steve Ross is the Director of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Vital Church Project. Previously he served as Assistant to the Bishop for the Oregon Trail District.