Tuesday, February 16, 2010

cultivating imaginative leaders

All this talk of fresh expressions and pioneer leaders, and of wood fired emerging pizza church, raises the ongoing, nagging question for me, of how we cultivate imaginative leaders?

Here’s what I think is a perceptive diagnosis:

“We are not trained to engage. We are trained to duplicate. We are often not able to read stories and allow them to ignite our local imaginations. Instead we try to mine stories for timeless principles that can be readily applied.” (Keel, Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Chaos, Baker, 2007, 80)

It names something really important: the lack of capacity for imagination, the way that current modes of thinking work against the imaginative.

I think that like many things, leadership is both caught and taught, art and science. It is intuitive yet can be studied. It is a gift, yet can be honed.

Which still leaves the page bare, the canvas blank. How do we cultivate imaginative leaders? How do we help leaders discern the Spirit’s uniquely creative work in their own unique context.

The talk of pioneer leaders worries me.

I worry that it emerges out of pragmatism, out of decline. If so, we are more than likely to import pragmatism into pioneer training.

I worry that we might create a separate class of person, rather than simply name a charism that is perhaps not fully appreciated in our current contexts.

I worry that we might end up leaving mission to the pioneers and not to the mixed economy “ministers of the word.”

I worry that we will simply bolt a few more courses onto what is potentially a broken way of thinking, that has, and is, training people to “timeless principles.”

Posted by steve at 10:24 AM


  1. Steve I think you are absolutely right.

    The capacity to imagine is, I think, one of the single greatest leadership gifts, back up by the capacity to drawn imagination from others.

    And from where I sit, its an area we could all stand to grow in a little.

    Imagination is like a muscle. Don’t use it, and it shrinks, atrophies. What would it take to create “imagination gymnasiums”, open space where wild imagination is encouraged, practiced, valued?

    I don’t have the answers, but that’s what I’m thinking about. My starting thoughts are here (http://tinyurl.com/yh96yt6) and here (http://tinyurl.com/yjc5hse).

    Comment by scott — February 16, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  2. thanks scott. i’ve got to give 2 talks on this at the Spirit of Wonder course in March, so this post is just trying to nab some of that swirl.

    imagine if church was called “imagination gymnasium”?

    And ta for the links. i’ll make some time to check them out


    Comment by steve — February 16, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  3. feel like i’m tooting my own trumpet, and i hesitate to click the submit button, but there is one story of a leader with an imaginative idea for a new shape of church who has been encouraged by Uniting College … http://www.estherproject.unitingchurch.org.au

    Comment by Sarah Agnew — February 16, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

  4. Hi Steve,

    I really agree with you, here in the UK, Pioneer Ministers are a big thing and I struggle with the concept. As a probationary presbyter in the British Methodist Church I don’t think any minister has an excuse not to be a pioneer/creative/imaginative (certainly not probationers) but I don’t feel I need to be in a special category to do this! I also worry that Churches will see pioneer ministers as a reason to carry on as they are because the Pioneers are doing the new stuff. So thank you for your affirming post.


    Comment by David — February 16, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  5. They’re valid worries mate. The disappearance of the skills and practices of contextual discernment and imagination (although perhaps these characteristics haven’t really been around for several decades – remember McGavran and the “church growth” movement?), and their replacement (if they were/are even really there) in favour of checking the boxes and pragmatic replication id endemic – think of Japan after the war; the Ford assembly line; McDonald’s; Hollywood – the list could go on, and their deep (conditioning) influence upon us all cannot be understated – it’s “the air we breath”.

    Comment by Paul Fromont — February 16, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  6. toot away Sarah. loud and long. 🙂

    the question is, getting back to my earlier post on fresh expressions 6 years on, are you, like much of the Baptist fresh expressions, epi-phenomenal ie a Spirit fluke. or have there been systemic factors that your church system have practiced that have cultivated you?

    what i’d love to do actually is grab about 20 innovative aussie leaders, put them in a room for a few days, and ask them that question. and the lecturers and leaders of training institutions can come, but only to listen.

    Comment by steve taylor — February 16, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  7. it would be interesting to find out if this is a fluke, or if I / The Esther Project has emerged out of sytematic cultivation … sometimes it feels as though the system has had to adjust to respond to what we’ve asked of it in order for this fresh expression to emerge … overall, to be fair, it’s been responding well.
    i think that gathering and listening would be very worthwhile.

    Comment by Sarah Agnew — February 17, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  8. I think that the metaphor of cultivation works in a number of areas. First, the area you describe, that of responding well to new life. (To use an agricultural image – to water, stake and fight of pests). And there is also a composting, sowing, preparing dimension. Both are dimensions that are important,


    Comment by steve — February 17, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  9. The educator in me wonders how much this also has to do with cultivating different thinking styles….maybe it is it is a bit too self-evident, but creative people tend to be global thinkers rather than linear ones. How much do denominational bodies and training institutions cater for those who think globally I wonder?

    Comment by kerry — February 17, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

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