Many Voices One Mission: Ministry As Art

Many Voices One Mission: Ministry As Art


“Art is a human activity,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “consisting in this, that one man hands on to others feelings he has lived through.” 
The work of ministry is, to be sure, an art.  In crafting worship we attempt to make space for the breadth of human experience, the joys, the struggles, the vagaries, the hopes.  In pastoral work and mission we connect individuals and groups to share in a common purpose to bring dignity, compassion and justice to the other.
I like the use of the word “art” for ministry.  I think ministry is about one third imagination and two thirds project planning and time management.  Much like the writer who needs to put in the work to get the story in the form of so many well-constructed sentences, or the sculptor who must chisel the stone to match her imagination, the art of ministry needs space for both imagination and for the labor of creation.
Having spent 5 of the last 10 years in parish settings, I experienced that octopus of parish ministry—the many legs of obligation that seek to entwine:  calendar and meeting and pastoral visit and sermon preparation and phone call and bible study and premarital session and mission presence. 
Still I suggest (and try to practice) keeping key appointments with one’s self.   A minister needs time to think creatively and playfully. 
My first appointment takes the form of reading, walking, looking at art, meditating, looking deeply at objects in my home, and imagining the ridiculous in order to extract the possible (last night I was looking at my dogs and wondering if you could get dogs to serve communion).  I engage these blocks of time with a question in my mind, such as “what unusual thing could inspire new thinking in me today, “ or “what brings joy,” or “what are metaphors for compassion,” or “what helps things get unstuck?”  My goal is to schedule two “think” blocks into my calendar each month.  These often have direct pay off to the conference, as I often find new ideas for Blue Sky sessions, for InnoJazz and for Zip Equip out of this time.  (Email me at if you want to know more about these.)
A second key appointment with my call to leadership is around project or change planning.  A good idea needs to be operationalized. I usually start by writing a goal and impact on the right side of the page and then map out the steps necessary to accomplish the goal.  I end up with pieces of paper like this (see image).
This then goes into my desktop binder (which also has my calendar and to dos in it).  From this sketch, I begin to block out times to do the work and move tasks from the master project plan to my todo list.  Ideas don’t become reality unless I figure out how to operationalize them.  I try to give myself 30 to 60 minute blocks to do one of these project plan sketches, and then I spend about 60-90 minutes each Monday morning making sure that priority work gets scheduled before the calendar gets filled with all those octopus things.  This is the process that takes me from idea to delivery on something like General Association or launching the Do The New grant program. 
This pattern is always evolving, but in its basic form it has served me in the local church setting, in my consulting work and in the conference role.  I am interested in how others create space in their calendar to keep vision a priority and to give space to the whimsy of the creative process.  I’d love to hear about your tools. 

Susan Page Townsley is the Associate for Innovation, Leadership and Change for the CT Conference, UCC.
Many Voices
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.
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