Sustaining Pastoral Excellence
Open printable version in new window.
Close this window.

Keys to Excellence: Pastoral Imagination and Holy Friendship

This article is excerpted and adapted from remarks delivered at an SPE forum, January 22, 2004.

Pastors, pastoral leaders, and members of congregations are profoundly important people in our lives and in our communities and culture. Were these pastors and people missing, were these institutions not there, were this faith and the wisdom and orientation to life that it makes available to human beings not working quietly as a yeast in the whole of our society, every one of us would be somehow bereft, living with a strange and troubling emptiness that we would feel quite profoundly. Pastors and church members are indispensable in our lives and in our culture. Pastors and congregations are earthen vessels, no doubt, but they are still nonetheless great treasures.

There is, to be sure, much to worry about. We all worry about congregations and pastors: their quality, effectiveness, morale, and health. The problems and obstacles are significant, difficult to deal with and, in some cases, perhaps impossible to overcome. Yet, I want to lift up a ground for hope and a place from which to build: There are today many splendid pastors of hundreds and hundreds of very fine congregations of every size and denomination all around this country.

We know this from a number of sources. Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Programs, both the Indiana version and a nationwide version, invite congregations to apply for funds so their pastors can take time off for spiritual, intellectual and physical renewal. As they apply, pastors and congregation members work together to design a renewal program that will benefit both the congregation and the pastor. In the hundreds of applications we have received, we repeatedly find congregation members expressing deep respect for their pastors. We have also discovered many very thoughtful ministers in places we had never heard of, doing wonderful work and thinking very significant thoughts. The complementary Sabbatical Grants Program for Pastoral Leaders run by the Louisville Institute has had similar results.

What are we learning from these and other programs? First, we are learning that many splendid pastors are out there, doing important, strong pastoral work. Their congregations, although often facing significant challenges, cherish these pastors and are eager for them to thrive. They are pastors of congregations whose members are deeply commited and enormously grateful. In reviewing applications for our Clergy Renewal programs, I was surprised, frankly, by the lay people who wrote so warmly about their pastors, expressing how much they care for them.

We are also learning that many pastors are very well equipped for ministry. Although many have specific frustrations and far too many feel more than just a little bit isolated, they are nonetheless pursuing their callings with a deep sense of satisfaction and even joy.

Finally, we are increasingly convinced that those ministers who do the best pastoral work and who sustain their ministries over the long haul with real creativity and integrity have two things in common. First, they possess within themselves a kind of internal gyroscope and a distinctive kind of intelligence that I call “a pastoral imagination.” Second, they have been able either to tap into or to create around themselves meaningful networks of ongoing support, stimulation, and challenge that make them part of a profoundly significant sustaining community of faith and vocation. These together are the key ingredients of true pastoral excellence.

We are far from understanding fully what is involved with either of these. Indeed, a great part of our hope for the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence projects is that, together, we will all learn a great deal more about excellence in ministry—what it consists of and what it will require of us all to sustain it over time.

The pastoral imagination

There is something about pastoral ministry which requires of its best practitioners the capacity to see deeply—and realistically—into what is going on in the world and to do so with eyes of Christian faith. The pastoral imagination is just that—an imagination, a way of seeing into and interpreting the world that shapes everything one thinks and does.

Typically, when we hear the word “imagination” we think of such synonyms as “creativity” or even “fantasy.” Imagination, in this sense, is all about creating—in our minds or with clay or paint or in work with other people—things that do not exist. It means seeing what is not, and then, perhaps, bringing it into being. That is certainly part of it. But there is another meaning to “imagination” that is closer to what I have in mind. It involves what my friend Brad Wigger calls “seeing in depth.” The “pastoral imagination” as it operates in really good pastoral work is the capacity to perceive the “more” in what is already before us. It is the capacity to see beneath the surface, to get beyond the obvious and the merely conventional, to note the many aspects of any particular thing or situation, to attend to the deep meanings of things.

Those who have explored the workings of the human imagination recognize it to be the foundation of human perception, of all our understanding and interpretation, and of whatever deep probings we may make into the significance, meaning and mystery of human life and reality. It is not just a cognitive phenomenon, although it is the foundation of all cognition. “Its impetus comes,” the philosopher Mary Warnock points out, “from the emotions as much as from the reason, from the heart as much as from the head.”

Every human being lives by the power of imagination understood in this way. Our imaginations are the integrating process that provides the linkages between ourselves and our world—and, within ourselves, among our bodies, minds, emotions, our very souls and spirits. It is by means of the imagination that we are able really to “see” anything at all—even, indeed, in a sense, to “see” God.

Yet our imaginations are different. Our imaginations are different from one another largely because our ordinary life experiences differ—the conditions under which we were raised and in which we now live; the joys and tragedies that happen to have befallen us; our class, gender, and race; our economic and social circumstances. Our imaginations are also deeply affected by our educations, by those powerful formative influences that gave us the words we use in our everyday life and work; the stories, images, concepts and metaphors that now frame the ways we interpret our everyday experiences; the music that sometimes sings itself deep in our hearts. Finally, our imaginations may also be powerfully shaped by our work; especially by demanding, difficult work that requires all that is in us, all that we have of ourselves to give--work such as the ministry.

The pastoral situation demands of and, in turn, shapes its best practitioners in a distinctive imagination, a distinctive way of perceiving, understanding and relating to the world. The unique confluence of forces and influences, impinging on people who engage deeply and well in this work, shapes them so powerfully that they become people of peculiar virtues, sensitivities and skills that are largely distinctive to really good pastors. Dealing every day with the constant interplay of attention to Scripture in relation to the gospel’s call and demand on them and their congregations; leading worship, preaching, teaching, and responding to requests for help from myriad people in need; living with children, youth and adults through whole life-cycles marked both by great joy and profound sadness; sustaining unending responsibility for running a non-profit organization with its buildings, budgets, public relations and personnel issues—through the almost chaotic interplay of all this, pastors are changed, transformed. The unique confluence of all these forces both requires and gives shape to a distinctive imagination marked by characteristics and features unlike those in any other walk of life. Life lived long enough and fully enough in the pastoral office gives rise to a distinctive imagination, a way of seeing in depth that is an indispensable gift to the church and its members.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity
312 Blackwell St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701
919.613.5323 •
The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.