Post Author: Julie Jensen
I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.
When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “here’s what it means”:
“The truth is, we’re not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of what’s on hand.” (p. 119)
How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Dana’s book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us.
The response to yes is then, “and.” So often when we face realities, we shut down options by saying “but.” Living life improvisationally requires us to build upon what is there, not to shut it down. Saying “we need to replace the roof, but we can’t afford it” shuts down the options of replacing the roof; saying “and” instead gives us permission to dream about other alternatives. As a result of reading this book, I have become more aware of how often I use the word “but” in written communication, and how often “and” is a much better replacement. Saying “I can’t met Tuesday and let’s look at other dates” extends an invitation to look at other ideas.
This is not only a book about playing games and replacing “but” with “and.” The theology McKibben Dana weaves through is solid. She describes a heart-wrenching pastoral care event that involved having to say “yes, and” to the worst things parents could imagine, and trying to figure out where God was in the midst of that. She describes Jesus as a master of improvisation, and encourages us to seek out God’s “and” in scripture. There are no trite or easy answers offered to life’s hard questions – only invitations to seek out God’s “and” and to fight back with beauty, among other options.
As someone who loves a good list, and almost always has a plan C just in case A and B don’t work, it was an interesting experiment to live into the words on the page. I could see using this as a book for church leaders to read, and then using the exercises provided to build trust and play together. There is potential to change how church leadership makes decisions and engages in conversation. Playing these games opens up opportunities to talk about communication, trust, and moving forward in uncertain times together. This is the book I wish I had to use with a session when I served as their Transitional (Interim) Pastor.
This was a book worth waiting for, and well worth buying for church leaders or those in any type of leadership. Yes, it is about God, and (not but!) it is also about us. Don’t just put it on a shelf – read it together, play the games together, and see if you notice any changes in yourself or your congregation as a result.
Rev. Julie Jensen is the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. After almost 12 years of Ordained Ministry in the PC(USA) she believes that ministry is, in fact, improvisational even on the days when there is a plan. As an alumna of YCWI, she is grateful every day for the ways this group helped form her as a minister, as well as the friends and colleagues she made along the way. In her down time, Julie is a runner (or working up to being one), enjoys cooking, and reading on the beach. In fact, when she read this book, she was so engrossed she forgot to reapply her sunscreen and got sunburnt.