Free to Dream: Pastors and Imagination

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Perhaps it started with The Phantom Tollbooth. I still remember reading the children’s fantasy novel when I was a child.[1] The strange, and at times bizarre, text captured my imagination. I sat eagerly with the hero as he drove his toy car through the mysterious tollbooth, and I was catapulted into a magical kingdom alongside him. The Phantom Tollbooth is famous for its agenda: stimulating in children a desire to learn. However, the fantasy may have bequeathed a greater gift to me: the power of imagination.

As a pastor, I experience the demands of ministry, just as you do. We all face the challenges of the pastorate, especially in these uncertain times. We must develop a weekly sermon. We must engage in crisis counseling. We must train leaders. We must design outreach plans. We must equip parents. And that was before the pandemic.

In the last few months, we’ve scrambled to come up with an online worship service. We’ve struggled to digitally disciple our members. We’ve spent time pouring through CDC reports in an attempt to learn how to protect the health of our members.

A New Normal is Coming

Soon, all of our churches will go back to normal. Except they won’t. A new normal is coming, and no one is quite sure what that is. But now that we’ve got online church just about figured out, we’re moving to in-person again, this time with social distancing, masks, and a variety of health precautions.

As a pastor of a small church in New York City, the last few months have been the toughest and most exhausting of my ministry. As a church at the epicenter of a pandemic, we’ve reeled as an invisible virus has lashed out at our community. By God’s grace, none of our members passed away, although several became sick. Yet our church was dramatically affected by the pandemic. Over 25% of our church members left the city, some temporarily, some permanently.

We struggled to discern a path forward, both in discipling our members and serving our neighborhood. Like most churches, we launched digital versions of discipleship, which included a livestream of our worship services, a Zoom Sunday School for kids, and an online book club. We created a COVID-19 relief effort, which has delivered hundreds of dollars of groceries each week to people in our community, most of whom are outside of our church. We call them “Boxes of Hope.”

The Desire of Normal Life

Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and protests shook our streets. We watched the protests on our phones, we heard the helicopters whirring overhead, and we marched in the streets as a church family. Now, we look at the horizon, wondering, what’s next.

This Sunday we plan to convert our church into a series of “micro-churches.” Each will consist of 10 or fewer individuals who meet in-person for prayer, worship, communion, and a sermon. We don’t know how long this will last, and we hope that there’s no dramatic new development. We desperately desire a more normal life. A more normal ministry.

And yet, I am convinced that this is a crucial moment for pastors. There is no better time to be alive, as we serve and lead God’s people. The challenges that lie before us are intimidating. We need to harness the power of imagination if we are to rise to the challenge.

3 Simple Ways Pastors Can Nuture Their Creative Imaginations

The Phantom Tollbooth taught me to dream. It taught me to look at two closed doors, and to imagine a third option. Of course, there are biblical guardrails in pastoral ministry. Praise God for those guardrails. We’re not free to dream endlessly without limitations. But we can unleash our inner creativity to tackle old problems and propose fresh solutions.

There are three simple ways that pastors can nurture their creative imaginations.

First, pastors should steep themselves in the story of Scripture. This should seem obvious. We’re people of the Bible, and we preach from it at least once a week. Yet that doesn’t mean that we soak in the story as we should. The Bible is a compelling narrative, a beautifully crafted story of creation and fall, of rescue and renewal.

When I immerse myself into the strange world of the Bible, I soak up the metaphors and the symbols of another era. I learn about mustard seeds from Jesus, and large fish from Jonah. A writer on Patmos will teach me about beasts (if I have ears to hear), and a troubled Hebrew King will teach me about life under the sun. It is a lifelong journey into the center of this text. At its center, we find Jesus, waiting for us. As we press more deeply into the Scriptures, it will fuel the fire of our imagination.

Second, pastors should learn from history. Mark Twain allegedly declared that history doesn’t repeat, but that it rhymes. My 21st century New York problems might be unique. However, there’s a good chance that someone in church history has faced something similar. For instance, when COVID-19 first became a problem in NYC, I consulted the giants of the past. I learned that Luther stayed in his city and ministered in times of plague. That helped me to understand that I shouldn’t leave New York.

I also discovered that it was Christians who ministered to their neighbors in the ancient Roman cities, thereby helping to win the Roman Empire to Christ. As a result, we launched our neighborhood relief efforts. In a time of social distancing, I turned to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Since he knew what it was like to be cut off from God’s people, I wanted to learn from him. At every step, reflecting upon the past has enabled me to creatively apply older insights to current challenges.

Finally, pastors should cultivate their imagination through creative pursuits. We should read books by imaginative authors (I read C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy early this year, and it has stayed with me during this crisis). We should watch creative movies. Christopher Nolan is my favorite director, because he’s a suspenseful storyteller who understands the power of imagination. We should dabble in artistic pursuits; but don’t think that you have to pick up a violin or a paintbrush. If that’s you, then by all means!

My creativity, however, tends to take on a less sophisticated shape. I like to play with my children’s Legos, always building and tinkering in the pursuit of something imaginative. I make hot sauce, which means that I’m on a never-ending quest to find the best recipe. It requires trial and error. Lots of taste tests. And above all: imagination. These outside pursuits enhance ministry because they stimulate the creativity that we so desperately need within the church.

Breaking Out of the Rut

In the season finale of Star Trek: Picard, someone faced an ethical dilemma. They were attempting to choose which group of people to kill, and which to save. Admiral Picard argued that this person was suffering from “a failure of imagination.” He argued that there was always another way. I believe that, if we’re not careful, those of us who are pastors could suffer from a failure of imagination.

We might get into a rut (perhaps one we learned in seminary or in our early years of ministry). Let’s prayerfully break out of the rut. Because we are all approaching a new normal with new challenges. So, let’s hop into our toy cars, and ride through The Phantom Tollbooth.

[1] The Phantom Tollbooth was penned in 1961 and was eventually adapted into a movie.

  • COVID-19
  • Imagination
  • Pastoral Ministry
Stephen Stallard

Stephen Stallard is the lead pastor at Mosaic Baptist Church in Brooklyn. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Sonya, the woman of his dreams. They have a daughter, Malia, and two sons: Xavier and Darius. Stephen loves New York City, especially its rich diversity of cultures, and he is a hot sauce connoisseur.

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