Carol Howard Merritt: Leading with Bold Imagination, Part 2

Montreat's Institute for Church Leadership is holding a Leading with Bold Imagination Conference. Since I'm the conference preacher, they asked me a few questions. Here is part two and three of their interview with me:

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 CenterNational Capital PresbyteryAuburn 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.  

This is the third and final post in a series of interview questions. Montreat Conference Center has an Institute for Church Leadership. Since I will be preaching at their "Leading With Bold Imagination" Conference that is coming up, they asked me a few questions. If you'd like to read the whole interview, here is part one and part two. And if you have a chance to attend the conference, I would love to see you there. Montreat's setting can feed the soul.

Montreat: What would you consider one of the greatest triumphs in your ministry?  What would you name as one of your greatest disappointments?  

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.

Taken with permission from Carol's blog, Tribal Church, at