Congregational leadership is seldom dull. Even before the pandemic, congregational life brought weekly challenges, opportunities and surprises. How leaders lead when the unexpected happens … well, that’s improvisation.

This week, we hear from several leaders about what it takes to improvise well. L. Gregory Jones asks what we can learn about leadership from jazz, while Sam Wells invites us to look to the theater for inspiration. Gretchen Ziegenhals helps us claim leadership even when things go awry, and MaryAnn McKibben Dana reminds us that improvisation is actually theological.

Of course, to improvise well, leaders need to be good listeners, paying attention to what’s happening around them and to what God is inviting them to do. You can learn more about that in Donald Zimmer’s Leadership & Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance. We’ll introduce you to that book at the end of this edition.

Welcome to the Weekly. 

Why good leadership is like jazz

Why good leadership is like jazz

Throughout his career, Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones has been thinking, writing and speaking about leadership. In this interview with our colleagues at Faith & Leadership, he reflects on what he has learned and why leaders should find inspiration in jazz.

Resources for leaders during the pandemic

Leading when things go awry

Congregational leaders need few reminders that things can go wrong. In this 2017 reflection, Gretchen Ziegenhals offers us some advice for when they do.

What improvisational theater offers leaders

What improvisational theater offers leaders

Improvisational theater and leadership both require trust, faithfulness and imagination, says the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Improvisation is theological

We are all improvising, whether we realize it or not, says MaryAnn McKibben Dana. And it’s not always zany and funny. In fact, we need improvisation most when we are at our lowest moments.

From the Alban Library

Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance

by Donald E. Zimmer

Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance

In Leadership and Listening, Donald Zimmer observes that the contemporary church is rooted in both the kingdom of God and the systems and cultures of government and business. Most people who serve in leadership roles in the church in the United States today have been formed in the corporate world and acculturated to parliamentary process. As a result, many church governing boards are about ‘business,’ rather than their primary task: discerning God’s desires for the part of the church they serve. How might it be different?

Before you go…

A former colleague was an actor in addition to her work at Duke Divinity School. In several of our leadership development programs, she would invite participants into improvisational play. It was great fun to see a bishop cluck like a chicken or a pastor invent a new dance on the spot. The mood in the room would lighten as people laughed together.

Then, she or I would ask the critical question — “what might this mean for your work back home?” And the room would turn somber again. “I could never,” people would object. I’ll never forget the leader who said, “I can’t play in my job. In my job, I have to be right.”

This week, in the midst of all the serious pastoral work you are doing leading a congregation, responding to a pandemic and working for racial justice, consider this an invitation to let go of being “right” for a bit. Celebrate how well you can improvise. Like the best jazz ensemble, it’s beautiful when you do. 

We’ll see you next week, and in the meantime, peace! 

Nathan Kirkpatrick

Managing Director, Alban at Duke Divinity