A Pastor’s Scope for Imagination

Post Author: Emily Mitchell

Prince Edward Island coast

Prince Edward Island

When I was growing up, I would travel to Minnesota each year to visit my maternal grandparents. My grandmother had very strict parameters as to what content she would watch on her television.  Although she had cable and thus access to dozens of channels, she only watched Animal Planet and the Weather Channel because she deemed the others to be potentially sinful. An alternative to those television channels was the VHS version of a 1985 miniseries, “Anne of Green Gables,” and its 1987 sequel, “Anne of Avonlea.” I grew to love these videos, and I always opted to watch them over the Weather Channel. Returning to “Anne of Green Gables” year after year in my grandmother’s Minnesota living room left me brimming with the warmth of nostalgia and love.

The setting of “Anne of Green Gables” is Prince Edward Island (PEI), and scenery depicted in the miniseries made me eager to visit the Canadian island in person someday. I suggested that in 2017 the family vacation be to PEI. Happily, my family was on board and we spent two lovely weeks exploring the Atlantic Maritime provinces. PEI was gorgeous—the sand was distinctively red on some beaches; green potato plants were growing in neat rows; and the rural roads were dotted with quaint, old church buildings. In anticipation of the trip, I read the 1908 novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery that inspired the miniseries, and my appreciation for the fictional Anne grew all the more.

I love Anne’s emphasis on the pleasure and the necessity of having an imagination. Early in the novel, Anne declares, “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” 

I am grateful for how Anne places value on imagining myriad possibilities. Part of the satisfaction of ministry, I believe, comes from broadening our scope for imagination. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the questions asked of me at my ordination was, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” I love this question even as I’m challenged by it. Sometimes it is easy to slip into a cynical, customer-service mode where I’m serving the people out of obligation or out of a fear of failure and disappointment. But God calls me to pursue service that is characterized by love, imagination, intelligence, and energy. Increasingly, I am finding that ministry in the 21st century is inhibited not by a scarcity of resources but a scarcity of imagination.

Some years ago, in my annual performance review, a supervisor said, “The hardest thing about working with you is that the biggest thing in my life is my wife and kids, and I can’t tell you about it because you can’t hear.” I was shocked by what he said, and I don’t do my best speaking off the cuff. I stammered something there being a difference between hearing and relating. Just because I didn’t have a wife and children myself did not render me incapable of hearing about someone else’s experience of having them.

Significant time has passed since that performance review feedback, and I have come to the conclusion that his critique had more to do with him than it had to do with me. I can certainly hear from someone who is different than I am; in fact, I do it all the time. Each week, people share their stories with me. Although their stories may be dissimilar to my story, the Holy Spirit is at work to widen my imagination to encompass whatever joy or pain they describe. I have grown in my conviction that good pastoral care entails someone with a vast scope of imagination, not someone who can relate identically to whatever that person is experiencing. When we increase the scope of our imagination, we can listen deeply to others, which is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Sisters, I pray that we would tap our inner Anne and delight in the mystery and the discovery of things yet unknown or unimagined. It would not be very interesting if we knew all about everything, and our care for folks would grow stagnant. May we echo Anne and ask, “Isn’t it splendid?” as we listen for, and envision, the unfolding of God’s grace and salvation in the stories we tell and hear.

Emily began as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Maumee, Ohio, in 2015. She previously served as a pastoral resident at Bellevue Presbyterian in Washington State. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Whitman College.

Emily grew up in Seattle; therefore, she recycles, makes her own granola and enjoys spending time outdoors. She averages reading over 25 books a year.

Image by: Emily's Dad
Used with permission
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