Session 5a: Nurturing a Holy Imagination by Jill VerSteeg

So it was a hot humid day in Des Moines, Iowa, back in 2007. In front of me was my oldest son, Sam, a red Lego backpack commanded the space between his shoulders and his knees. To my left was my husband, Shane, who gently pushed our six month old twins in the double stroller. We were waiting for the school bus, so this long, anticipated day that Sam would launch into the big wide world of kindergarten.

Now, as the bus rolled up, Sam now with his very flimsy name tag twisted backwards behind him, he looked at us, gave us a wave, and simultaneously my husband, a mental health therapist, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Well, this is the beginning of goodbye.” And I said, “That’s just great.” And I huffed and puffed all my way back to the house. I was upset, this was not helpful to me in this moment at all.

But as I drove to the church where I served as executive pastor, I kept thinking about this threshold that I was about ready to cross, this threshold that we were crossing actually, and Shane’s gentle, but direct way of tilling the ground of preparation, the uncharted terrain that lies ahead, this liminal space between goodbye and hello. One hand holding tightly while the other hand letting go. Friends, this is the reality of leadership, the duality of holding both longing and loss.

To move yourself and your organization forward you must grow in three things. Pain, uncertainty, and chaos. The courageous conversation is the one that you don’t want to have. What is the step I don’t want to take? What is the measure of my reluctance? So the English poet, David White, writes at the intersection of longing and loss. Listen with me to an excerpt from his poem called Cleave. “To hold together and to split apart at one and the same time, like the shock of being born, breathing in this world while lamenting for the one we’ve left behind. We were born saying goodbye to what we love. We were born in a beautiful reluctance to be here, not quite ready to breathe in this new world we are here and we are almost not. We are present while still not wanting to admit we have arrived. Not quite arrived in our minds, yet always arriving in the body, always growing older while trying to grow younger. Always in the act of catching up of saying hello, of saying goodbye, finding strangely in each new and imagined future our still lived memory of our previous life.”

Friends, what is the measure of your reluctance? How do we help our people face a reality that they don’t want to face, that they are deeply vested in? Let me tell you about another threshold. As the chief Operating Officer of the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States, the reformed church in America with nearly 400 years of continuous ministry, the tectonic plates are shifting beneath us. The 21st century comes barreling with its question, what is the value of a denomination? And the general distrust of the institutional church lays like a heavy blanket.

Financial uncertainty and the impact of COVID-19 and the pressure and the re-imagining of a more nimble assessable gathered and scattered way of doing church, starting with the agency of God. We are in uncharted waters and those waters are churning. In a recent virtual meeting with one of my teams, as we were talking about the mental models of the default mode, you know what the default mode is? Continuing to do things like we’ve always done them, that we would in no uncertain terms, be facilitating conversations about letting go of some of our employees.

The anxiety and fear was visceral. How do you help people face a reality that they don’t want to face that they are deeply vested in? Friends, if you avoid chaos, you limit growth. You can have control or you can have growth, but you cannot have both. Friends, if you try to eliminate chaos in your organization and your church and your missional community, you can be the limiting factor in growth. This is the liminal space, turning up the heat with a pinch of reality and simultaneously turning the heat down enough to make the conversation safe. This is the paradox of leadership, holding, longing and loss, yours and the people that God has entrusted to your care.

Holy imagination is to create a culture of discomfort, a beautiful reluctance to be here, space where duality is held, both the brutal facts of current reality and simultaneously a space to rumble, to create and disrupt and imagine a larger narrative of what God is doing in this world. There is no pain like leadership pain. Second Corinthians 11, you know it well, Paul recounts his pain of leadership. He says, “I’ve been flogged, shipwrecked, beaten. I’ve struggled with foes and I’ve struggled with friends. I’ve struggled in the city, I’ve struggled in the country.” And then he says this, “And that’s not the half of it. Then you throw in the daily pressures and anxiety of all the churches.”

The difference between we know where you are and where you could be is often the painful decision you are unwilling to make. So how do you help people face a reality that they don’t want to face, that they are deeply vested in? Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in a changing world. This is the place where people want to go and need to go, and the place where they resist going. And leadership begins with listening, listening to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to your care.

So the Psalms give us a language for this beautiful reluctance. In fact, the Psalmist reminds us that God can handle our longings and our loss. Psalm 13 starts this way. “How long, oh Lord, how long will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? I’m tired of this trouble, I’m sick to my stomach. Enough, God, I don’t want to be in this place anymore. This is exhausting and I don’t want to lead these people.” And then we get to the end of the Psalm. “But I trusted in your steadfast love. God, you are the primary mover, you are the one in whom we live and move and have our being. You are out in front of us. My heart rejoices in your salvation.”

Friends, we put all of our eggs in that basket. We are shackled to hope. After all, if Christ has not been raised, then we are all fools. To hold together and to split apart at one in the same time, like the shock of being born, breathing in this world while lamenting the one we’ve left, this is the paradox of leadership. The courageous conversation is the one you don’t want to have. Friends, what is the threshold you are about to cross? Be brave to engage the conversation, be vulnerable enough to cultivate a culture of discomfort, and listen long enough to hear the longings and loss in you and in the people entrusted to your care. Amen and amen.

(automated transcript)