Improv to Improve

I recently participated in a church board of trustees’ retreat in which a congregant, Travis Ploeger, lead us in some improv exercises in the style of his work with the Washington Improv Theater. It was challenging and fun to be a part of a group stepping a little out of its collective comfort zone (no Robert’s Rules that night, that’s for sure) and engaging challenges requiring us to think on our feet and open ourselves to what was a novel learning experience for most of us. I was reminded by this experience of some important aspects of religious life and of leadership:

Pay attention to patterns. One of our exercises was a “fortune cookie” challenge in which we all stood in a circle, and each person had to come up with a word to follow his/her neighbor’s word, forming a (hopefully) coherent sentence — or deciding that the sentence had come to an end. One pattern I noticed was that many of our “fortune” sentences began with a noun. Many fortune cookie aphorisms, in my experience, begin with a pronoun (e.g., “You will find good fortune”) or an adverb (e.g., “never,” “always,” etc.). I wondered if one person began with a noun, and others in the group, perhaps unconsciously, followed suit. Patterns can be a source of stability and confidence, through which we can build on the creative and constructive work of others. Patterns can also be confining and can sometimes lead to staleness or to lack of insight — exemplified in the familiar aphorism “But we’ve always done it this way!” By paying attention to patterns and naming them aloud, we are not only calling attention to behaviors that may have gone unnoticed, but we can explore whether those patterns are a source of vitality or an unneeded burden.

Be willing to take risks. Self-consciousness is a prominent factor in a lot of human behavior. Most of us don’t want to look or feel foolish. We want to fit in and to be accepted. Being attentive to social decorum and others’ expectations can help us to meaningfully connect with others. It can also be a source of rigidity and anxiety. A goal of religious community is to establish and maintain human connections in which we can dare to take risks and “think outside the box” in the company of others of whom we have the right to expect forbearance, respect and yes, love. It can be scary to take risks, to throw ideas out there that may seem to be outside the realm of the familiar and the comfortable in the group we’re in; in a religious community, we should encourage that kind of daring from each other, and accept it from one another with appreciation.

Closely related to risk-taking: Creativity is a hallmark of both a rich religious and spiritual life and of constructive leadership. The great religious sages and spiritual leaders of history were not only deeply committed to the ideals and morals of their faith commitments; they were creative, original, and imaginative. Gandhi’s spiritual and political leadership of India’s independence struggle, through the strategy of satyagraha, was a triumph not only of moral rectitude and political savvy, but it was marvelously imaginative. It was a means to an end with scarcely any precedents in history. Undoubtedly Gandhi drew inspiration from sources like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” but the application of those concepts to the effort to dismantle an empire was an astounding gesture of creativity. By contrast, the heinousness of Nazism was remarkable not only for its sheer brutality, but for the appalling lack of imagination Hitler and his minions showed in trying to address difficult social problems. Scapegoating innocent people is a miserably unimaginative response to communal challenges, which is probably why it never accomplishes anything of value.

How is God calling us to attend to patterns, to take risks, and to use our imagination to meet the challenges we face?

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