First Third Conversations

Integration and Imagination

By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary

What will future leadership in the church entail? That’s the question our faculty are asking as we think about redesigning theological education. With my colleagues this weekend, we had the chance to name moments where students were living into the kind of leadership we think the church needs in the future. It was a fun conversation and engaged us on several levels. As teachers seeking to prepare and equip leaders for ministry, it tapped into core commitments, shared and unique. And forced us to push past ideas as we named moments we’d seen students, real people, embody the concepts we were talking about. It was affirming and hopeful.

What was interesting was the list of leadership competencies ebbed and flowed with each story, but two ideas surfaced again and again. The first was integration, or the ability to weave together separate ideas into a whole. Moving into the 21st century, Christian public leaders who thrive will be integration artists as they weave together various ideas and disciplines, as well as tradition and culture. This integration will have both regular and irregular patterns and like jazz, will draw on core concepts, while also exercising improvisational freedom. And it is my hope that each time the group plays, it will learn and grow.

Connected to integration is the second idea - imagination. Imagination is the ability to formulate mental images which are not present. My colleagues are convinced that ministry in the years ahead will rely less on the ability to replicate ministry of the past and more on imagining a future grown out of the current conditions. This imagineering will be faithful to the Christian story, as it also takes seriously the church’s call to the world. And, as all imagining does, will have success and failure.

Several weeks ago I lifted up the dance between Scripture, tradition and human experience. Integration and imagination will take place within and between each of these. For example, God’s Word in many congregations has been reduced to a book to study, leaving many congregants feeling inadequate and impassionate. Yet God’s Word is filled with poetry, as well as history; parables, as well as genealogy. How might Christian public leaders engage God’s Word imaginatively? Studying Scripture is one avenue to explore, but what might be other ways? Or take worship. Each tradition has core commitments regarding worship, yet what would it mean to imagine these core elements differently? Or change locations or leadership? And what would integrating these two imaginative areas of ministry look like? What new questions would be asked? What insights would surface?

In the future I’ll bet many of the leadership competencies we draw on today will be important. Yet, I can’t imagine ministry will look and feel the same. Why? Because the human experience is changing, changing the whole equation. What does it mean to cultivate Christian communities made up of primarily people not raised in the Christian tradition? How does one help people discover meaningful Christian practices without knowing the Christian story? How does one confess Jesus as Christ, in the midst of a pluralistic religious context? The questions asked today are real and beg attention. Such questions offer the opportunity for Christian public leaders and communities of faith to take them up, to address them. And doing so will bring in unconventional conversation.

So this week, practice Imagineering! And then integrate some of that imaginative work into ministry in your context!

- Terri

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Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She's our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.

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