Improv doesn’t come naturally to me. I know a number of accomplished improvisers, and read this blog for a while, but it’s a struggle for me personally. I am a first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout (to use my friend Meg’s phrase) and an off-the-charts J on the Myers-Briggs. I live by Evernote and Things. Even my leisure is relatively structured—I do Sabbath.
And yet try as I might, the universe does not conform to my meticulous management. The nerve!
But improv is also fun. It’s good to get messy. It’s important to risk, and to step into a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Improv is joyful and generative.
As my Facebook friends know, I’m a muffin-maker. It’s kinda my thing: Automatic portion control. Good for breakfast or a snack. “Maximum impact, minimum effort,” as my father-in-law says about his cooking.
But I’d never improvised on my muffins until the other day, when I improvised some low-fat banana-blueberry muffins with streusel topping. They were awesome.
I suspect a few of my readers are first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout J’s. Here are a few things I learned that might help all of us be more improvisational leaders/parents/individuals:
1. You don’t have to start from scratch. I wouldn’t know where to start to make up a muffin recipe. But I know how to take an underlying structure and build on it—to yes-and it. In this case, I adapted a recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook for my banana-berry beauties.
Maybe you’ve watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, or been to an improv show that starts with prompts from the audience. Then there’s TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, who don’t take audience suggestions. Instead they walk out on stage and stand in silence for several moments. Eventually and without fail, they pluck a story out of thin air and improvise a two-man one-act play.
My point is, you don’t have to be TJ and Dave.
2. In fact, starting with some constraints helps. I recently quoted Leonard Bernstein, who said to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. Creativity thrives on constraint: Pick a recipe, any recipe. What can I do with this recipe and the contents of my pantry?
My seven-year-old loves to make things with paper and tape. We’ve bought various glues and epoxies for her, and there’s all kinds of random glue-ables in bins in our blue room, from bottle caps to craft foam. But she always comes back to paper and tape.
2. It helps to have the skills.
I had to throw in some flour at the end of mixing because my batter was too gloppy. After so many batches of muffins, I know what proper batter looks like. (BTW, the Food Substitutions Bible is a useful tool for food improv.)
We did a lot of experimentation with liturgy in seminary, with varying results. I’m not saying those novice efforts weren’t fruitful—they were. But there’s something very freeing about being a decade into this ministry thing. You get to know the order of worship so deeply—not to mention a congregation—that you know what can be pushed and pulled, folded and spindled.
3. Risk from a place of abundance. This is a big one for me. I’ve been tempted to play around with my muffins, but have hesitated up to now, because what if they don’t turn out? When I say “risk from a place of abundance,” I don’t mean to trust that something good will come of your experimentation… though it probably will, just not what you expected. I mean that improv becomes easier in a context of abundant creativity.
If I’m only making muffins every month or so, I don’t want to mess with the tried-and-true recipes because if they fail, then there’s no muffins for a long time, and I have a sad, and my kids have to resort to boring old Corn Chex. But if I’m making muffins once or twice a week, why not play around? If something turns out to be inedible, something new will quickly come to take its place.
Last year at the NEXT Church national gathering, we heard a leader from the Ecclesia Project in Kentucky talk about starting new worshiping communities. The old model is to spend a few hundred thousand dollars trying to get a new church development started. But instead of spending $100,000 on one community, they give 20 grants of $5,000 each to small, diverse projects. The assumption is that many new initiatives fail, whether it’s a business or a church. So we should sow our seeds as widely as possible. Our denomination currently has the 1,001 Worshiping Communities initiative. But instead of 1,001, we were told at NEXT, we should be starting 10,000 worshiping communities!
That’s risk from a place of abundance. I like it.
Now the trick for me is to keep improvising low-fat muffins, so that I do not gain abundant weight.
I was with a group of folk from another congregation recently, introducing them to NEXT Church and talking about my involvement as co-chair. We got to talking about generational differences when it comes to membership in an institution, particularly a church. Millenials are way less wired toward joining a group in the sense of signing on the dotted line. In many cases they are committed to the organization and will support it through time and money, but they do not see the point of being a member.
I made an offhand comment about churches that have people re-commit to church membership every year. Rather than having someone join and be a member of a church “forever,” there is an annual discernment process. The church leadership re-introduces folks to what it means to be a member (and presumably, the expectations are high), and asks people to consider whether they are willing to devote the time and energy toward that endeavor. As always, non-members are welcome to worship and serve in the community, to receive pastoral care, etc.
There was some predictable backlash to this idea, some of which I can understand. There are times in a church’s life when things just aren’t that much fun. A beloved pastor leaves and the energy declines. There are conflicts and crises. Are we saying it’s OK for people to bail just because things get hard, or because the church is not suiting their needs?
And yes, our culture is one in which ties to institutions and communities are more tenuous than ever. So people are right to ask whether a yearly church membership drive feeds that lack of commitment. OR, does it simply acknowledge the world as it is, not as we want it to be? People can carp all they want about “kids today,” but how does that work as an evangelism strategy?
One comment really grabbed me: What, are people going to get married year by year now?I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to question that analogy. But now, a few days later… No. Just no.
Church membership is not like a marriage. It’s just not. Don’t believe me? Consider this: when a person relocates because of a job, there is often grief over leaving one’s church. But rarely does someone pass up that job because they have made a commitment to their worshiping community. But I know plenty of people who have done that because a move would be bad for their spouse or family.
We use the marriage analogy all the time in the church. Pastors seeking another call feel like they’re “cheating on their church,” like they’re “running around behind people’s backs.” I can relate to the sentiment—there is a zone of secrecy that must be present in these situations, and it can feel inauthentic and sneaky. Still, I find these kinds of metaphors very unhelpful. Pastors are not called to a church until death do they part. They are called for a season of the church’s life. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is at least a minimal sense of re-upping each year, in the sense of negotiating and re-approving terms of call.
Why would we not at least consider giving church members the same freedom to reaffirm their commitment to a congregation that pastors themselves have? Why do we get to leave whenever we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing, but church members are on the hook for the rest of their lives?
The real crux of this membership stuff is not people’s lack of commitment. It’s that the church has done a poor job of teaching discernment and discipleship.
Discernment:sensing the presence and leading of God, which goes beyond what makes me happy in the moment.
And discipleship: commitment to following the Way of Jesus, even when it’s hard, even when it means being in a community with people who are sometimes a pain to deal with.
A church that does a good job of this doesn’t need to worry about a mass exodus of people if the interim’s a boring preacher.
And a church that does a poor job of this wants to keep warm bodies (or not-so-warm ones) on the rolls any way they can.
One of the guiding principles of NEXT Church is a focus on healthy congregations. That’s what drives us, rather than an ideological or theological agenda. A big part of our focus is to identify, celebrate and support places of health in our denomination so that they can propagate.
But what does health look like? How do we know it when we see it? And what about churches that are currently struggling?
As a co-chair of NEXT, this is something our strategy team thinks about a lot. I think we all know (or serve) churches that are struggling, but that have a lot of potential—potential to transform, potential to be a vibrant witness to Jesus Christ in their neighborhood, potential to grow in depth or breadth of ministry. Maybe they need a little inspiration, or somehopeful connection with colleagues, or a burst of energy and new ideas that comes from, say, a kick-butt conference.
But we also know that countless churches will close their doors over the next several decades.
I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we’re about:
The Hour Has Come
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)
This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.
Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:
– Walking on water.
– Three healings.
– Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.
– Raising a guy from the dead.
– And… restocking the bar at a wedding.
One of these signs is not like the other.
* * *
Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.
Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.
And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.
And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.
I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.
Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.
But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.
He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.
You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.
But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.
I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.
And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward.
It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do.
It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.
It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.
And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars.
If we could just catch a break,
if we could just finish that camp,
if we could just get a few more young people to join our church,
if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.
Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry. And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
We’re a day late and a jar short.
Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign.
Unless we worship a God of possibility.
Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”
For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.
Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.
NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.
You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.
When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.
* * *
We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.
Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”
We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.
Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:
As I’m putting this post together on Thursday morning, they’re accepting votes for the sweet 16. Some are a slam dunk: Radiolab beats Morning Edition—sorry Steve Inskeep. Some are impossible: Fresh Air v. Prairie Home Companion? What if you find them equally irritating?
Speaking of NPR, Radiolab’s Speed episode was excellent as usual, and my kids and I continue to monitor the pitch drop experiment. Any week/month/year now…
I’m humbled to be the co-chair of NEXT Church for the next two years. NEXT is a conversation within the Presbyterian Church that’s seeking to find areas of health and innovation in the church so they can be nurtured and propagated. You can access the music, liturgy and “ribbon ritual” we did at the conference from our resources page. Or watch the presentations here. And here’s our video. You might recognize a familiar voice:
The big question remains: Can women really “have it all?” I tend to categorize myself in the “something’s got to give” camp—multi-tasking and juggling can take us just so far.
…It seems like we are feeling more exhausted and guilty than ever before because we are constantly reaching for the unreachable. And research seems to back this idea. Studies show that women today are less happy relative to where they were forty years ago and relative to men.
So, where do we go from here? The answer may be in the way we are defining a fulfilling life or “having it all.”
I could write about this tension between ambition and balance for the rest of my life. Suffice to say that there’s a reason that this E.B. White quote is so beloved to me:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
How can you not love a book called You Can Master Life? Adorable. Anyway:
Gilkey [the author] cites a “Worry Table” created by one of the era’s humorists — most likely Mark Twain, who is often quoted, though never with a specific source, as having said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The table was designed to distinguish between justified and unjustified worries:
On studying his chronic fears this man found they fell into five fairly distinct classifications:
Worries about disasters which, as later events proved, never happened. About 40% of my anxieties.
Worries about decisions I had made in the past, decisions about which I could now of course do nothing. About 30% of my anxieties.
Worries about possible sickness and a possible nervous breakdown, neither of which materialized. About 12% of my worries.
Worries about my children and my friends, worries arising from the fact I forgot these people have an ordinary amount of common sense. About 10% of my worries.
Worries that have a real foundation. Possibly 8% of the total.
Gilkey then prescribes:
What, of this man, is the first step in the conquest of anxiety? It is to limit his worrying to the few perils in his fifth group. This simple act will eliminate 92% of his fears. Or, to figure the matter differently, it will leave him free from worry 92% of the time.
Unfortunately Gilkey doesn’t understand that worry abhors a vacuum. Eliminating 1-4 will mean that we worry the same amount, just with greater focus… 😉
Sometimes good deeds make us feel good, so we do more. Other times we feel we’ve “done our share” so the good deed excuses us from goodness the next time. A brief discussion about the current research on this topic, which is scant, unfortunately.
Sendak continues to fascinate, even after his death:
Sendak made this book for those adults who had grown up with his stories.
This is a melancholy thought. In dedicating this last story to us, his once-children readers, he is marking the passage of time in our lives. He’s dated us. When I pick up this new book, I am reminded, as if I needed to be reminded, that I am no longer the ferocious, hyper-absorbed, small wonder of a Sendak reader I once was—nor, I’m guessing, are you. Had Sendak created another “Where the Wild Things Are” for us, would we even be able to appreciate it? For us obsolete children, as Theodor Geisel dubbed adults, it would be beside the point.
What makes this last book special is that Sendak is willing to meet his former-children readers where they are now in their lives—on the condition that they meet him where he was at the end of his. Kushner told me that he saw Sendak, toward the end of his life, eyes dimmed, hunched over his studio desk, pressing his face so close to the drafts that his dear nose was almost touching them. For his devoted readers, this tender proximity—this intimacy—may be the most affecting part of “My Brother’s Book.” The supple details are Sendak’s way of physically drawing us in, closer and closer, until we tap the page with our own noses: one last kiss goodnight.
And finally, some perspective. This was posted to Facebook this week:
I’m in Massachusetts until tomorrow, officiating a wedding for a high school friend. Congrats to D and D! (Hey, that’s handy for monogramming…)