Cultivating and Nurturing Pastoral Imagination

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What is pastoral imagination? And how can it be nurtured by clergy and laity? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Eileen Campbell-Reed on the subject of how clergy can cultivate and nurture pastoral imagination to address conflict, experience joy, and develop a deep, wise knowing.

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Jessica Anschutz: Can you explain the term pastoral imagination? Tell us what it is and tell us what has drawn your attention to it as a study and research topic.

Eileen Campbell-Reed: It’s helpful to think about pastoral imagination at this moment in time as three things: it is my new book, it is also a research project which Chris Scharen and I have been working on since the beginning of 2009, and it is also a concept. And that’s what’s at the heart of both the research project and the book.

The concept of pastoral imagination is an idea that was coined by Craig Dykstra in the late 1990s. He was convening groups of practitioners, pastors, ministers and also theological educators to think about the pastoral life and work and what was it about and how do we understand it. In that period of time, people had begun to think more and more, not just about what we think, but also what we do. It’s about an embodied, relational, and even holy way of being in the world.

Pastoral imagination is a way of being a minister or pastor that sees into the fullness of a situation and knows what to do and takes a risk and does it. Then, it takes responsibility for what was done and learns from those mistakes.

Then about 10 or so years after, Craig had this idea of studying: what is pastoral imagination and how do people learn it over time? Chris and I picked up on it and Chris actually wrote a grant inviting us into this work because it’s not something you simply learn in a classroom and then go out and do. It is a skilled practice. It integrates knowing and doing and being and, in that holistic way over time, comes to life in these really beautiful embodied and powerful ways. We’ve made the connection to Aristotle’s idea of phronesis. Phronesis is practical wisdom. Pastoral imagination is a way of being a minister or pastor that sees into the fullness of a situation and knows what to do and takes a risk and does it. Then, it takes responsibility for what was done and learns from those mistakes. Things don’t always go the way we want and over time, instance after instance, experience after experience, we develop a deep wise knowing.

Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about cultivating pastoral imagination, do you have tips or words of wisdom for clergy as they seek to further enhance their pastoral imagination?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: The first thing to say is, “Just do it.” Try. Practice. Get on the bike. I keep bike bookends beside me to remind me that learning pastoral imagination is a lot like learning any other practice: cooking, tennis, riding a bike. There’s a beginning point when we don’t really know what we’re doing at all. We just see it out there. We think, I want to do that. You know, when we’re kids, we wanted to ride that bicycle. It was the most exciting thing to do to learn it, but I think about how long that took for me. It was months of training wheels, falling off, and figuring out how to keep my balance on that bike. Learning ministry is really not that different, only we’re adults when we start. We think we’re supposed to know everything to do already. In fact, we don’t. We need to take time to see what the people we admire are doing and how they embody pastoral imagination in the world. And we try to emulate them to begin with. And eventually we find our own ways of doing things like preaching, giving care, leading a meeting, and organizing volunteers. All of those are part of this larger capacity to embody pastoral imagination in the world. It’s also seeing the really painful, broken parts of the world and having some sense about how to respond and how to lead people to respond.

The only way to learn that is not sitting in a classroom reading books and writing papers. Those are valuable parts of information that we need, but that’s one slice of what the robust practice of pastoral imagination would be. So, we need to go ahead and practice soon and often. I encourage my students to start practicing being a minister long before they’re called to a church or ordained for ministry. Get your hands in the work. Get your body into the spaces where you’re leading and you’re going to know so much more. You’re going to make connections a lot quicker if you’re doing something.

We need to take time to see what the people we admire are doing and how they embody pastoral imagination in the world. And we try to emulate them to begin with. And eventually we find our own ways of doing things like preaching, giving care, leading a meeting, and organizing volunteers.

Jessica Anschutz: That’s wonderful. I really appreciate your image or metaphor of riding a bike and learning how to ride a bike. I remember when I was learning how to ride a bike, not only did I have training wheels, but I had my parents alongside helping me learn the ropes. I am mindful that there’s a connection back to pastoral ministry in that you’re not doing the work alone. You have colleagues that you can rely on and also the laity that you’re serving. So how can laity nurture pastoral imagination in their pastors?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: It’s a wonderful metaphor. The bike rider, especially the young bike rider, needs a person to go along behind them or beside them and show them, and we borrow their experience then. Our bodies, our brains are full of mirror neurons. When we see someone doing something, our bodies will attempt to do a similar thing. This is the way mirror neurons work. Mentors in ministry can be a kind of mirroring for people who are learning the practice of ministry. Now, it’s not that we simply need to emulate some other person or try to be like them. It’s that we can borrow from their wisdom and from their embodied practice. We see them interact with a person who’s really upset or anxious or acting out in a way that’s disruptive to a community, for instance. When a pastor approaches that situation and does it artfully and skillfully, we can see how they do that. We can start to think, well, how would I, in that same situation, do that? So, we borrow from their experience. We also, in conversation with them, borrow from their wisdom, what they know, their insights. And they on the other side can be incredibly encouraging and make space for us too and for the learners to think about what we’re doing.

In congregations particularly, it’s helpful when there are laypeople who’ve been seasoned ministers and leaders in the church themselves. They may not have the title pastor, but they know how the church works. They know how things can happen in a good way, and they know how to love people. And when those lay people can love the new minister and be patient, it allows them a lot of room to learn from not just getting it right, but also missteps. When they have a lot of grace for that new minister, it makes a world of difference in how one can confidently learn in practice. I felt a little of this when I got out of seminary myself. I thought I’d been to school for three and a half years, I’d been through clinical pastoral education, I had my degree, and I was supposed to know what to do. And in fact, I didn’t know a lot of things about what to do. I had to learn and the stress I put on myself, the pressure I put on myself to do everything well, you know, backfired on me more than once. And so, when congregants, staff at a hospital if we’re talking about chaplains, or people in an organization, when a new leader comes out of seminary and starts to work with them, when they have the patience to let someone find their way, be in conversation and not leave them hanging out to dry and just figuring it out on their own — that’s not kind or encouraging, either — but will come alongside the person and say, “Wow, this is amazing. What are you learning? Tell me about it,” it gives that young or new minister who might not be so young an opportunity to reflect on what they’re learning, to do it together, and to learn how to lead collaboratively. I think that’s an important part of learning to do ministry well and embody a robust pastoral imagination.

I encourage my students to start practicing being a minister long before they’re called to a church or ordained for ministry. Get your hands in the work. Get your body into the spaces where you’re leading and you’re going to know so much more. You’re going to make connections a lot quicker if you’re doing something.

Jessica Anschutz: Collaboration is certainly key in ministry. And I’m so grateful that you lifted up the need for love and grace, because what more does our world need and do our clergy and laity need in the midst of their ministry? Eileen, I recognize that there’s another group, that comes alongside of recent seminary graduates, and that is either the board or committee that is part of the denomination that evaluates candidates for ministry. How can those bodies effectively assess and also help nurture a candidate’s pastoral imagination?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: I’m so glad you asked that. Because rarely do people realize how important those key figures are. They are those middle people who help make the connection between the new minister and their ministry site — whatever that is: hospital, congregation, organization — if they themselves have a sense of this trajectory that people start as beginners or novices and move to a kind of time of competence and eventually, many years into ministry probably, are going to be more proficient at what they do and eventually wise, perhaps even expert ministers.

And so, again, a lot of patience, generosity, and an ability to try to imagine what are the gifts and what are the potentials in the person in front of me so that I can think, yeah in a few more years, wow, this person will have developed more experience and will be able to move with more confidence and grace in their work.

Jessica Anschutz: We need to view people at the entry point and extend to them more love and grace as they as they go along. I want to shift gears to your book, and one of the things that I noted in reading it is that you share so many wonderful stories from pastors in from their experience in the practice of ministry. And so certainly you’ve gathered these stories through your research, but why don’t you give our listeners some background about how your book came to be?

When lay people have a lot of grace for that new minister, it makes a world of difference in how one can confidently learn in practice.

Eileen Campbell-Reed: Sure. The Learning Pastoral Imagination Project really got off the ground in 2009. We began right away by recruiting students or about-to-graduate seminarians from 10 schools. They were from a wide range of denominations: Pentecostal, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline, evangelical, Mennonite or Peace Church. So, we have a cohort of 50 who are from a lot of different backgrounds. We also interviewed 25 senior ministers in the early years of the study to kind of cheat on the end of the longitudinal study to see what very wise, experienced ministers might sound like, what their stories would be.

You can imagine, as we interviewed those 75 people, we amassed an enormous number of stories from their lives because we asked very open-ended, very few questions in an interview day. We asked them questions about how they came to that point in their lives, about aha moments they’ve learned and what has prepared them for ministry. And those questions yielded seven hours of transcription and conversation and really powerful stories about how people learn in practice.

I don’t really set out for this to happen, but inevitably, at the end of every interview, I find myself very emotional and very moved by the stories that we’ve been entrusted with and the experiences that people share with us. And it really, truly feels like we are on holy ground with them when we have spent the full day hearing what has been happening in their lives and in their ministries. They listen deeply to each other. We all ask good open questions, and they’re partners in this process of our learning. So, it’s been incredible. And the book I wrote has stories from many, not quite all, but many, many people who are in our study, and so when you’re reading about someone, they have a different name and maybe a different location, but it’s very much their story. And they’ve also given me permission to put that story in the book.

Jessica Anschutz: As you think about these stories and in the book, how do you see those the stories empowering or enabling or supporting people, pastors in cultivating the pastoral imagination? What is your hope for those stories?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: Yeah, one is I hope that it will be affirming to the person who reads it to say, “oh, I’m not the only one who experienced that.” When somebody doesn’t learn until their third call that they need to show up every time there’s a person in their congregation going into surgery or for a major cancer treatment, you know, they can say, “oh, I’ve forgotten some things, too. So maybe I’m not the only one.” Maybe they’re so new at the beginning of their training, they haven’t had that opportunity yet to miss that. And so, they have that story to say, “I am not going to let that happen.” It’s a kind of learning from the mistakes of others that’s really powerful. We learn from our own mistakes. We also learn really a lot from the mistakes that others are willing to let us in on.

I want people to recognize themselves. I want them to learn from the missteps. I want them to look at the questions that I ask in every chapter and ask themselves those questions now and more than once, because those questions are really questions of learning and practice and they ask the person who reads them to think reflectively about their own lives and what would they do in these 50 different situations. The book is full of 50 different topics or situations that they might encounter.

That’s the fourth thing, it helps them anticipate what ministry might be like in a closer-to-the-ground, more realistic way that actually happened. It wasn’t an ideal situation; this is a real situation. It helps the clergyperson think about how to enlist mentors for themselves, to start to imagine. We say there’s a shift that happens from imagining ministry to embodying pastoral imagination. That shift sometimes comes almost suddenly in a moment — what one of our participants called a “holy cow” moment. But really, it also is a shift that’s happening gradually over time. I want people to have that sense of “I’m on a long-term learning process, I’m on a long curve here, and I’m going to be learning a lot as I go.”

I want people to have that sense of I’m on a long-term learning process, I’m on a long curve here, and I’m going to be learning a lot as I go.

The final thing I would say about that is when we enter into a new situation. For instance, when we step into a meeting where there’s a huge amount of tension and people are about to break into a fight, they look to you because you’re the minister who walks into the room and they want you to do something, to say something, to show up in a particular pastoral way. At that moment, you have to draw on everything you’ve got: all the theology you’ve read, everything in the scriptures, everything you’ve experienced, all the feelings that you sense in the room, and attentiveness to the holy. You’ve got to just pull together so much in that moment.

One of the metaphors I like for that is that through my theological training and in my ministry, I built this library of cases in my interior life. I can pull from that library any time I need to. Certain moments will feel very similar to other moments. “What did I do then? Oh, don’t do that again.” Or, “oh, I saw a person deal with a very similar situation. I’m going to borrow from that now.” In real life, we don’t have time to deliberate. Instead, we step into that room where there’s a fight about to break out and we need to say something immediately, do something, call people to a different way to be together. It feels like what we would call intuition, but in fact, we are drawing on a sedimented kind of knowing that is pastoral imagination. It’s sedimented into layers and layers of stories. My book gives you a head start on a lot of other people’s stories about beginning in ministry. You have all of them in your library in addition to your experiences. It gives people a little jump-start on their library of what they’re going to draw on that becomes part of their pastoral imagination.

Jessica Anschutz: I think most clergy and many laity encounter conflict in in their congregations, and I’m so glad that you that you raised that and that you also addressed it in the book. In thinking about navigating conflicts, you can navigate conflict well or poorly. Are there aspects of pastoral imagination that help clergy navigate conflict well, and what are they?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: It’s one of those things that we can’t give an answer for. Lots of people try to write rules about conflict. Right? You need to take this step and this step. And they’re not terrible rules. The reality is, when we enter into a live-in-the-moment situation, it may not adhere itself to the rules that we know. Rules are a low level of learning, and so we do want to learn some rules and some guidelines for how to approach, for instance, listening. Listening is a really great guideline for how to approach almost any human activity leading or dealing with conflict or anything else.

So certainly, we want people to have that as a basic. They need to listen. But we also know that there come moments where listening is not the thing that needs to happen because there’s a crisis underway and we need to say something. An expert sort of wise pastoral imagination knows without deliberating what the right response is. When you’re new, you don’t know so you again draw on everything. It’s good to have all those rules. It’s good to have learned some theories about how conflict works, some ideas about how to navigate a crisis, and seminary should give you lots of that, I hope. You need all that in the moment, but you also need to be willing to improvise and trust your gut. Your gut is a distillation of everything you know. It’s not some magical off-in-the-stratosphere thing or the feather of the Holy Spirit. It might be that, too, but it’s really a distillation of everything you know in a moment. And learning to practice a kind of pastoral presence in that moment is the real key. The only way to do it is to practice it. It means taking risks, and taking risks is scary. We don’t always want to do that, but that is a part of the pastoral life. Recognizing what’s at stake is a big thing that becomes like a kind of hurdle to get over.

In terms of dealing with conflict, what do I want people to do? I want them to take a breath when they get into that moment. I want them to really survey, just quickly scan, the room. What is at stake here? It might be what’s obvious or it might be something less obvious. If you can take that breath to think what is really at stake here, then you can also probably take a half step back and realize I don’t need to enter in just on the level of what’s going on in this conflict. I need to remind people of the big picture, why we’re here, how we love each other, and what we’re going to do to listen together. If there’s an immediate crisis, you’re going to step in in a pastoral way and bring a kind of calm, non-anxious presence.

I need to remind people of the big picture, why we’re here, how we love each other, and what we’re going to do to listen together. If there’s an immediate crisis, you’re going to step in in a pastoral way and bring a kind of calm, non-anxious presence.

I’ve just named all different kinds of ways of entering into a conflicting moment. There’s no one answer for it. There is becoming improvisational in one’s ability to draw on what’s needed in that moment. And again, experience is the best way to get there, and putting yourself into situations like field education, clinical pastoral education, being the summer camp pastor, or whatever your opportunities are to learn soon and early is going to make you more ready for what comes later.

Jessica Anschutz: Each experience we have certainly builds on the next and empowers us as we move forward. Eileen, one of the things that you talk about in the book and that you’ve mentioned in our conversation is embodying ministry and embodying the pastoral imagination. I’m mindful that we have spent much of the last year plus limited in our in-person interactions. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and resume our person-to-person interactions, how can we lead by our bodies? How can we embody ministry?

Eileen Campbell-Reed: As we gradually come out of this long season of facing the racialized injustice in our country alongside the health pandemic, which impacts people who’ve been marginalized in a different way than people who live in more privileged, white communities, I think tending to our lament and our grief and how that shows up in our bodies is essential. We’ve lost a lot in the past year. There have been silver linings for many people — rediscovery of joy or family or solitude or something that is nurturing for them. There’s been a lot of loss — the loss of lives, the loss of connections, the loss of just getting to be with your people and see them day to day, week to week. So, tending to the grief and the lament that go with the pandemics is a very important way to embody ministry. That’s not just on the side of, “Oh, happy day, we’re back together,” but acknowledges the losses that we’ve all experienced in this time.

Also, being willing to improvise what it means to be church or do ministry going forward, because this last 16 or 18 months has changed the way we see the world and the way we think about doing ministry. It’s changed the way we do ministry. I think churches were pretty reluctant to take on the sort of virtual presence that we’ve been forced into largely in the last year and a half. So, being willing to see a fluidity between our in-person, in-proximity ministry and our virtual ministry and how they really flow into each other and are not neatly separable. They’re not bifurcated. Our bodies are in both places, whether it’s virtual or literally in the same building together face to face. And so, I think that reimagination of how we are the body of Christ coming out of this time when we’ve been apart is really part of our theological and spiritual work right now. To never lose sight of our embodied presence in whatever situation we find ourselves will be really crucial, and to attend more carefully to the long-term effects of the grief, the loss, and the trauma that people have experienced in ongoing intergenerational ways. People have experienced trauma while also isolated in the last year.

I think learning more about trauma-informed care is very important for ministers and congregations. This is actually the love that God calls us to offer to each other and the world and even our enemies. So, I think those are some things we need to think about related to embodying pastoral imagination and embodying love and justice and care for each other in this time.

Jessica Anschutz: All things that I think our listeners would agree are things that the world needs and that it’s crying out for. I thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me. Eileen, as we wrap up, are there any final words that you would like to offer our listeners about pastoral imagination?

Eileen Campbell Reed: One of the reasons I chose the bike as a metaphor for the opening part of my book and this talk is that learning ministry is like learning to ride a bike in a certain kind of way because there’s also a tremendous amount of joy in riding a bike once you know how. It’s got risk, it’s got a little bit of danger, but it’s also exhilarating, fun, joyous and ministry is that too. The final chapter in the book is about embracing joy. Whatever your calling is — lay minister, pastor, chaplain, activist, whatever that call is — I hope that you keep leaning into the joy of it and kind of feel the wind of the spirit in your hair or in your clothes as you as you make your way. That metaphor just sings to me about the joy of what this work can be, so the blessing I offer is the blessing of joy in the work of ministry, no matter how hard or challenging it might be.


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About Author

Eileen Campbell-Reed

Eileen Campbell-Reed (she/hers) co-directs the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, a national, ecumenical, and longitudinal study of ministry. She is visiting associate professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. She is founder and host of Three Minute Ministry Mentor featuring weekly episodes to inform and inspire the practice of ministry.

Jessica L. Anschutz is co-editor of Leading Ideas and teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary. She also serves as Senior Pastor of a three-point charge in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy.


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