5 Improv Skills for Church Leadership


Incorporating lessons from improv comedy into ministry might seem unlikely, but it has profoundly impacted Elizabeth Hurd’s ministry. Through improv classes she’s discovered five key improv skills that enhance effective church leadership: listening, saying “yes, and,” staying grounded, being bold, and supporting from the backline.

“Dude, welcome to hell! Get ready for some torture!”

These are not words I normally say as a pastor. But when I played the devil in an improv scene? Sure. Those words fit the scene. I started taking Improv Comedy classes in January 2020, six months into my first pastoral appointment. I wanted to give myself a space outside of the church, and comedy had always interested me. I found an improv class and decided to sign up. Turns out, I love improv.

I try very hard to keep it my hobby, but part of being a pastor is that you never quite shake that identity when you leave the office. God’s calling is deeply ingrained. So, while I try to keep improv improv and church church, in my head they often meld and mix together. I have found many of the skills I’ve learned in improv classes inform my work in the church.

With these two worlds meeting, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on improv and how it speaks to church leadership, and I’ve compiled a list of five improv skills for church leadership.

1. Listen first.

One of my teachers once said, “The first rule of improv isn’t to say ‘yes, and,’ it’s to listen. How can you say ‘yes, and’ when you don’t know what you’re saying yes to?” In the church, listening is a key skill of any leader. Listening helps leaders understand the wants, needs, culture, and expectations of their congregations. It is through a posture of listening that leaders gain the vital information they need to effectively lead their congregation.

2. Say “yes, and.”

“Yes, and” is probably the most famous improv rule in the world. It’s the entire basis for improv. In improv, you and scene partners are building something together. “Yes, and” makes this building easier. In the church, you have to say “yes, and” to folks. Say “yes” by allowing people to use their gifts in the community and by affirming those gifts. Say “and” by offering your own gifts as well. Saying “yes, and” allows everyone to use their gifts to build community and live out the mission!

3. Stay grounded.

In the world of improv, grounding means keeping one foot in reality. This stops bold choices from going to a place where things are so chaotic you lose the audience! We have to be grounded in the church, too. Being grounded doesn’t mean saying “no” to bold ideas. It just means that we have a strong vision and mission in which our bold ideas can take root. If your congregation has a clear vision and mission for ministry on which all your bold ideas can center, you will have a grounded ministry!

4. Be bold.

While being grounded is good, scenes that are too grounded can be boring. We don’t want to be boring. Bold choices make it easier to say “yes, and…” and build something the audience can enjoy. Likewise, church leadership requires bold choices! Leaders need to be bold, creative, and innovative to keep the church moving forward in the future. Staying grounded and being bold work together in ministry, just like they do in an improv scene. As long as there is a good balance between the two (bold choices with a grounded vision) ministry can and will thrive.

5. Be comfortable on the backline.

In long-form improv, folks who aren’t in the scene form a backline. The backline is responsible for supporting those on stage. I would guess that in a show an improvisor will spend 30-50% of their time on the backline. Improvisors are always oscillating between being out front and being in support. Effective church leadership is like this, oscillating between being out front and being supportive. Being on the backline gives us a more objective look at ministries. We can objectively see if ministries are living into our vision and mission. Being on the backline also gives us a chance to rest, meaning we can nurture our spirits and better support our congregations with our strengths!

21st Century church leadership requires adaptation, creativity, change, and making-it-up on the spot sometimes. Maybe a little bit of improvisation is just what we need.

This article is adapted from the Strong Female Pastor Blog.

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Elizabeth Hurd

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.