Rearrange and fit to size.
Change. Adapt. And revise
Move it around as time flies.
Pivot. Shift. Sidestep. Riff.
Play it like jazz.
Do you get my drift?
A finely honed practice of professional tennis, or vegan cooking, or performing upright base can be beautiful to watch. Not simply for their perfections for even their mastery. These are essential. But the deeper and more profound beauty is to see them in action, changing, flowing, and improvising.
Such profound and fluid practice is something akin to wisdom, or kinesthesia or phronesis. And practice at the level of unself-conscious improvisation across multiple domains as wide and far-ranging as writing, singing, driving, acting, and arts and sports of all kinds, give us a vision for how to practice ministry with improvisation.
Certain arts of ministry like preaching, teaching, leading worship, administering daily work, and leading people through change have a consistency and a definable arc of planning, creating, doing and then reflecting to see if there are ways to improve later. We thought recently about how these routines of ministry life can be deadening and erode ones’ sense of call and well-being.
Yet most of ministry, including these daily and weekly rounds of practice, is inflected with a character that is best understood as open-ended and under-defined. We don’t really know what is coming or where it will lead. If we are attuned to see the holy depths of the situation, we will experience the demand for improvisation of our practice every day.
You never know when a dog will show up in the choir loft, or your robe will nearly catch fire on from the altar candles, or the offering plates will go missing, or someone will confess they have been in a relationship marked by violence for two years, or the call will come that a young father in the congregation has died suddenly. Each of these are real moments I’ve experienced in the practice of ministry.
Some of the lighter moments call for laughter. Others deliver an emotional punch in the gut. All require improvisation.
Early in the beginnings of the practice of ministry, the demand for improvisation becomes a necessity when planning and leading fall short. Listen to Pastor Greg’s early experience of having to change his plans on the fly while he was teaching a Bible study.*
Becoming fluid and graceful at improvisation in ministry can take years. Yet, there are times when we may surprise ourselves at how fast our ability to improvise shows up when life just happens. In the moment, Pastor Greg improvised and went from “Oh, no!” to “Oh, Wow!” when he handed over some of the leadership to the people in his Bible study group.
Improvisation is not simply what we do when we fail to plan (although that makes improvising essential), it is also planning fully and then making a change in response to the situation. This more mature kind of improvisation is the art and beauty which makes any mature practice a delight to witness. It is wisdom in action.
Life in ministry will keep coming at you in the open-ended and under-defined ways it is prone to do. How will you keep leaning into those moments and learning to improvise your practice?
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* Pastor Greg (pseudonym) is a study participant in the LPI Project. This story is shared with his permission.