Lisa Nichols Hickman: The bard not the boss

Institutions stuck in bureaucracy or communities struggling to overcome divisions need Christian leaders to be more like poets than managers.

Institutions stuck in bureaucracy or communities struggling to overcome divisions need Christian leaders to be more like poets than managers.

Two experiences -- one old, one recent -- provoked that idea.

My college professor Dr. Garrison taught poetry. When I was an undergrad, he and his wife invited a small group of students to enjoy tea under their outside gazebo at their home in Staunton, Virginia.

I remember looking up at the beams to spy three words carved into the the wood: Kindness. Grace. Imagination. It was as if those three words belonged together, as if each word added to and implied something about the others.

The simple combination hints at the particular genius and beauty of poetry. The poet has the capacity to at once know and work within the boundaries of language, but also to bend those rules, to extend them, to mix and move words, evoke images and create meanings, pull out a truth that wasn’t readily visible but only latent in the configuration and rhythm of words.

Think about what it would be like to approach the work of leading communities and institutions with the mindset of a poet.

Of course that isn’t always easy. While at a workshop recently at the Collegeville Institute (as a part of the Ecclesial Literature Project), I thought about how moved, maybe even inspired I was during my trip to Dr. Garrison’s, and then realized how barren the landscape of my imagination had become. The goal of the workshop and larger project is to foster pastoral imagination so that congregations across America might become centers of creative and restorative work in their communities and in the world.

Thinking back to Dr. Garrison’s class, I remember struggling to “get poetry.” The interpretation of it proved hard for me in college, and now as a pastor and community leader, I struggle with a spectrum of challenges beyond rhyme and meter. Scripture, emotion, conflict, vision, finance, community, and soul now replace the world of couplets, simile and iambic pentameter. But there is something to the way a poet works within the world of poetry that translates into how leaders ought to work within the life of communities and institutions.

In the Presbyterian tradition, one of the vows for ordination is to promise to serve the people with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” I believe the poet’s mindset helps us do that. The imagination of the poet has the possibility of serving well and seeding parenthood, marriage, our vocations, our self-care and the healing and help we bring to our communities.

I know that when Dr. Garrison tucked the word imagination into our hearts all those years ago, he knew there was something of the imago dei that would take root and grow to engage those places in our world that cry out for new and creative interpretations.

In turn, I’m thankful for places like the Collegeville Institute and opportunities like the Ecclesial Literature Project to rekindle my imagination. And my hope is to create places in my community and congregation, in my pastoral care and at my home where courageous and faithful imagination might provide respite from the heat of strife and stagnancy and instead create the potential for seedlings of new life to grow.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Penn.