The Awkwardness of Improv: Links and Update

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Hello friends!

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It's been a few weeks since I've sent a message to you all. 'Tis the season... for kid performances, lots of speaking engagements, and a good bit of writing... and I also managed to fit in a half marathon too. But I've missed our twice-monthly dispatches, and will be getting back to a regular schedule this spring and summer.

Work has been ramping up on my next book, Improvising with God, with a September due date for the manuscript. Yikes! But it's been a blast to write, and is some of the most energizing work I've done so far.

It's also really hard work. As much as I'm intrigued by improvisation, especially as a way of approaching life, it doesn't come easily to me. I like having a script and a plan. The improv classes I'm taking are tiring for this borderline introvert. Every Monday morning I have to steel myself to go. I'm in level 2, which means I'm still a beginner, but just experienced enough to know what I don't know. That's a painful place to be, full of missteps and embarrassing silences in which my mind feels like it's gone completely blank.

But the other side is this: I feel energized in class (though gangly as all get out!) and I never regret going. I always learn something about myself and this improvisation we call life. In improv, we don't talk about mistakes, but rather opportunities: opportunities to learn, opportunities to turn a scene around through saying "Yes-And."

In other words, I'm right here:


So... onward!

Here are a few things that have been inspiring me lately... all of which have an eye toward improv:

A Much Better View of the Moon (song) This is a song I've loved for years, and I was reminded of it while working on a chapter of the book today. Sit tight through the goofy intro. Lovely lyrics and sweet harmonies from George Wurzbach and the rest of Modern Man.


Improv your life: How freeform comedy makes you a better person (article) People think improvisation is about being clever or funny, but it's really about paying attention. And couldn't we use more listening in our world?


A Lovely Spring Day (poem)

Here, Steve Garnaas-Holmes of Unfolding Light shares a poem about spring, and about a world of infinite possibility:

...Life is this, not something else. Pay attention. Even God does not yet know what’s in store before unfolding in it.

Tightrope image is from OakOak, a public artist who uses urban landscapes to create whimsical images. A great example of Yes-And.

Monday Runday: "Retuning" to Running

Returning to Running following an Injury Last Wednesday morning, I got up veeeeeeeeeery early to drive down to Springfield to run with a bunch of my 5 a.m. mama runners. I knew I wanted to be with them for my first run back. They've been such treasured friends over the past year, I knew I wanted to celebrate my return from injury with them.

And if it didn't go well--if the stress fracture site flared up--well, I'd need them there for Mental Health Watch.

It's been a long 12 weeks.

Thankfully, everything went fine and I've run twice since then. Half a mile each time, plus about a mile of walking, with a day of rest in between each workout.

I've got all this pent-up energy (and I'm soooo sick of the pool and the bike) that I want to go full-out. I'm eager to get back to my previous fitness level. It's humbling to go from 120 miles a month to maybe 10.

Plus the fall has been gorgeous.

Returning to Running Following Injury


Returning to Running Following Injury

When I was researching how to train safely following a stress fracture, I ran across an article with a typo in the title. It should have said "returning to running" but it said "retuning." That seemed right though. Like a musical instrument that's fallen out of tune, or a car in need of some TLC.

In theory, the body mends a stress fracture stronger than before. Assuming you're healed, you shouldn't get re-injured in the same spot. But the rest of the body compensates for the hurt place, and that can cause its own problems. Whatever precipitated your injury in the first place needs to be tended to as well.

So I'm returning, and retuning. For me that means continuing to cross train, incorporating more strength work, and at least for now, not running more than three days a week.

What are you retuning these days?

What Will Be in 2015?

The week of New Year's is one of my favorites of the year. The run-up to Christmas is over but schedules aren't quite back to normal, so things are quieter, more relaxed. The kids are out of school (though they've been driving me a tidge crazy at times). And my birthday so close to New Year's invites reflection and taking stock. I love the idea of the new year being a clean slate. I need that every year. (I need it more often than that, actually---thank heaven for the weekly prayer of confession in worship, when we let go of the brokenness and ask that it be healed and renewed.)

As I think about what 2015 might bring to birth in my life, the following video came my way, "Acorn" by Madeline Sharafian. I love the story that's told in just 4 beautiful minutes. I'm touched by this little acorn's attempt to fulfill its destiny of "acornness," yet in its own unique way. That is our human calling, is it not? I heard Jesuit priest and writer James Martin tell Krista Tippett this week:

As [Thomas] Merton said, for me to be a saint means to be myself. ...I remember in the novitiate, there was a young novice who would get up in the morning at 6:30 and pray all the time. And I thought well, gee, to be holy, I guess I have to do that. So I'd get up and I'd pray, and I was falling asleep all the time. And then there was another novice who was super quiet, so I thought oh I have to be really quiet, and diffident. And, sort of soft spoken. And my spiritual director said to me, what's wrong with you? You're so quiet. I said, well, so-and-so's quiet. And he's really holy. And he said, you know, in order to become holy, you don't become someone else. You just become yourself.

Whether you're a resolution/intention-maker like me or not, I invite you to watch this in with a seeker's heart and consider the hard work of transformation and the grace at play as well. What might 2015 hold for you?

As the artist says in her description: "Growing up is hard, but it's also beautiful. We can do it!" Indeed.

What's Your Pain Tolerance? Essential Questions for Leadership

I meet monthly with a group of pastors to talk about ministry, leadership, family systems stuff and more. (We also catch an occasional Nats game.) Today our facilitator shared this handout which inspired much discussion:

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The most effective leaders strive to be in quadrant B: high "pain tolerance" in self and in others. Pain tolerance in this case means willingness to experience discomfort in order to move a system forward, fostering growth and needed change.

I'd argue that quadrant C and D leaders are rare---if you have a low pain tolerance for yourself, you're not likely to want to attempt the work of leadership. But many of us probably cluster in quadrant A: willing to endure plenty of personal discomfort, but less willing to inflict it on others. We squirm when we have to hold people accountable and support them as they risk and grow.

Being a pastor undoubtedly compounds this quadrant A dynamic: we are tender-hearted types who want to comfort the afflicted. And news flash: everyone's afflicted. (Philo reminds us to be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.) So quadrant A leaders can come up with every excuse in the book for letting people off the hook.

And yet, for us Christians anyway, transformation is the name of the game, and that means some pain. Flannery O'Connor writes, "All human nature resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful."

What do you think? And where do you see yourself in this diagram?

Source: Leadership in Healthy Congregations


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Breaking in Interesting Ways

My friend Keith Snyder, a music geek, recently tweeted a line from Brian Eno: "Analog synthesizers break in interesting ways. Digital synthesizers just break." Keith has made that line into a prayer:

May I continue to break in interesting ways.

That may be a strange place to start talking about a beautiful change, but stick with me.

I hit two personal milestones recently. First, I ran a 10K race. That was big for me. Until a year ago I had never run for more than a few minutes at a time. Ever. I was the smart one, you see, and the musical one, but never the athletic one. My body was the thing that carried my brain around. Aside from the occasional mountain hike while on vacation, and an intermittent practice of walking to stay in basic shape, I was a sedentary type.

But at 40, with a father who dropped dead from cardiac stuff at age 56, getting in better shape felt non-negotiable---the reasonable thing to do from an actuarial standpoint. That's how the running started. Of course, it's become something deeper than that.

Before I ran the 10K (6.2 miles for the metrically challenged), I'd never run farther than 5 miles in training. When I reached mile 5 at the race, I thought, This is as far as I've ever gone. Beyond this point, it's all new. That's a wonderful thing.

Indeed, my whole life feels that way in this, my fifth decade. I'm not a rookie in ministry anymore; I'm not the mother of little ones anymore; as of this fall I will be a published writer. Lauren Winner talks in her latest book about reinventing oneself every ten years. That's happening, through my own volition and beyond it.

Among other things, running for me means embracing a blessed mediocrity. I'm not a fast runner; Robert has described my gait as "a bit loping." I've never experienced a runner's high. I like races because the crowd and the music provide a boost that my body chemistry seems unwilling to muster. I love the feeling of having run, but running itself is frequently a chore. At last month's race, I was second to last in my age group, and way down in the bottom third overall.

Yet I do it. And there's something liberating about doing something badly by most objective standards. I'm a perfectionist, you know. I like setting a goal and reaching for the top, and if I'm not good at something, eh...easy come, easy go. With so many luscious possibilities in this life, more than I could ever undertake, such a standard may not be the best way to discern what's mine to do, but it's what works.

Or has worked in the past. Something in me had to "break in an interesting way" for me to start running---to do this thing that's never been part of my self-understanding. Something shattered in my brittle, do-it-well-or-don't-do-it exoskeleton.

And thank heaven it did. I'm healthier than I've ever been, in more ways than one.

I now ask myself: What else could I do badly for the sheer satisfaction of it?


The second health-related milestone happened a few days ago. I hit my weight-loss goal of 40 pounds.

I'm no numerologist, but there is significance in the numbers. James weighs about 40 pounds, so every time I pick up his stocky four-year-old frame I think to myself, This is the weight I carried around all the time nine months ago. It seems fitting somehow: in another year, James will be in kindergarten. There are no babies or toddlers in my house anymore. It feels right that as I move into another phase as a mother, my body would look different.

Also, it took me nine months to lose the weight. Is it an exaggeration to say that a new person has been born? Perhaps. But as with the running, something in me had to break in order for this change to occur. Caring for myself---I mean really caring, not punishing myself until I shrink down into some "acceptable" size---requires a certain vulnerability. I can do all the right things, as many people do, but there will always be aspects of our health that are beyond our control. Life is a genetic and environmental crap shoot. That's an uncomfortable truth to face. Denial feels easier sometimes.

Another thing that had to break: a rigid expectation of what I would look like as a 40 year old with a normal BMI.

Hint: it's not like a 20 year old.

Don't get me wrong, I look different than I did when I was a new mother, with all my ample post-pregnancy curves. But as I've left 40 pounds behind on so many jogging trails and city streets, I've been amazed at the parts of me that haven't been magically transformed. There is still...a thickness. A settledness. This body will never be that of a college student. Or a newlywed. Or a non-mother. As that great philosopher Indiana Jones says, "It's not the's the mileage."

And I'm grateful for every one of those miles.

What To Expect... Grandparents' Edition

My video on "What to Expect When Your Church is Expecting" has hit 4,000 views/pages and counting. I'm humbled and honored by the attention. It also makes me cringe since I hate watching myself on video.

A few folks have countered that there are places in which the church is not pregnant, but really and truly dying. I agree. One person rightly pointed out that the symptoms for pregnancy that I named are not unlike the symptoms of a cancer patient. Also true. As I've said, this video/post offers a metaphor. To the extent that the metaphor helps, great. If it gets in the way of the hard work of dying that must take place in many specific places, disregard.

May my words be faithful or may they slip harmlessly away.

The inimitable Jan Edmiston riffed on the metaphor in a wonderful way today. The church is graying. So what is our responsibility as grandparents to this new church that is coming into being?

It occurs to me that those in my and older generations need to keep something in the forefront of our minds as the church we love is pregnant:

The Next Church Will Not Be Our Baby.

We will have great ideas for how to care for it and treasure it.  We might even be able to help pay for its nurture and its future.  But it’s not our baby.

 This is not to say we will not be ideal grandparents.  But it’s possible that we could overstep our bounds.  We could chuckle at the disciplines the younger generations have chosen to follow. We might want to talk incessantly about the way we did it.  But let’s not.

She ends by saying that the church of the future will be a lot browner than it is now. That's also true. And yet the Presbyterian Church is very white. So what's going on there? Adoption is another metaphor that might help us. I wonder if there's someone out there that might riff on that in some creative ways. Susan? Alex?

Let's all keep dreaming and spinning generative metaphors.

Needing a Mentor, Being a Mentor

Ah, Generic Stock Photos. Where would blogs be without them.

I've been reading and thinking a lot about mentors lately. I thought this article was awesome: Get Ahead with a Mentor Who Scares You:

"You're the best!" the four American Idol contestants cried to their voice coach Patty after narrowly escaping elimination, "We couldn't have done it without you!" As they celebrated, I couldn't help but notice that their hero was the same irascible, no-holds-barred woman who had been shown yelling and screaming at the same contestants just minutes earlier, leaving her devastated charges in tears.

With the group's success, Patty's tough-love approach was validated (much more clearly, perhaps, than that of the show's previous tough-love artist Simon Cowell). Though her tactics were questionable, they certainly brought out the best in her team; she truly helped them to become better singers and performers. I'm not saying that you should go out and be like Patty, but if you're young, ambitious and motivated, you should take a page from that foursome.

Go out and find the most qualified or talented mentor, coach, or manager you can, and subject yourself to everything they can throw at you.

The comments rightly caution against a mentor who is abusive. I'm not interested in being yelled at. After all, my kids will be teens before I know it...

But I love the basic idea. Over my 12+ years in ministry, lay and ordained, I've had a number of nurturing and supportive mentors and guides---spiritual directors, coaches and professors.

Now I'm ready for someone to scare the bejesus out of me. Or scare the Jesus into me.

I'd like a mentor who assigns me challenging work to do. Who is constantly reinventing herself in ministry. Who understands that good pastoral leaders are as much futurists as they are caregivers and consensus-builders. Who is where I'd like to be on this writing/pastoring journey.

'Trouble is... I'm not sure I know anyone who fits that bill. Or who would be open to that kind of relationship. Do you? If not, I wonder what it says about the church that that's the case.


On the other side of the equation, I will be mentoring a woman who is newly graduated from seminary. I'm not interested in scaring her. She's looking for someone to guide and hold her accountable to her own goals and process. I'm excited, because she's an awesome person and is going to be an incredible minister, and to the extent that I can help her along her way, it's a great honor.

As I begin this process, though, I have a couple of questions for you, Gentle Readers of all persuasions:

Have you had a mentoring relationship that was helpful? Would you be willing to talk to me about that?

Have you ever wanted a mentor and not been able to find one? What stood in the way?

Have you ever been a mentor? If not, what has stood in your way?

If you'd like to talk off-blog, e-mail me at maryannmcdana (at) gmail (dot) com.

Endless Improvement and Other Myths and Idolatries

I recently began the Couch to 5K program. It's been a great experience, even though I wasn't exactly starting from Couch---I've been walking 3-5 times a week for over a year. I also don't have much interest in a 5K---I'm climbing Mt. Washington this summer with family, and would like to do so without a) injury, b) wheezing embarrassment, or c) death. But I wasn't able to find a Couch to Mt. Washington program, so this will have to do. The c25k app I use makes everything a no-brainer---load your own music onto the app's playlist, stick in your earbuds, and follow the verbal instructions, delivered in that Kindle text-t0-speech voice: "Warm-up," "Run," "Walk," and my current favorite phrase in the English language, "Cool down."

The app also includes a journal for jotting down notes, and there are several line graphs where you can view your progress in several areas, including distance traveled, average run pace, and average walk pace.

I wrote last week about Youngstown, Ohio and how they've decided to give up on the fundamental assumption of our economy: that a city (or a company, or a church?) should always be growing. I thought about that post again this morning, as I saw my line graph for "distance traveled" dip lower than it's been since I started c25k four weeks ago. Apparently I'm normally slow as molasses, but today I was slower than peanut butter.

I felt pretty discouraged that I was losing ground on distance, and therefore on run and walk pace. After four weeks of seeing the line go up and up, or at least stay the same, today was a decent-sized dip, and I was bummed. I am not a born runner, and I began to consider the possibility (nay, likelihood) that I would hit a ceiling and no longer be on an upward trajectory of performance.

I guess I've bought into the idea of endless growth and improvement more than I'd thought.

On the other hand, this week's program represents a major jump in ratio of running to walking. The 32-minute workout includes 16 minutes of running, in 2.5 and 5 minute increments. By contrast, last week's workout involved only 9 minutes of running, with increments no longer than 3 minutes. It makes sense---in my quest for endurance, I slowed down considerably. It will probably take me a while to get back to where I was... and heck, maybe I never will! And I've decided to be OK with that.

This is harder than you might think.

Can I get an Amen?

I remembered receiving Caroline's last report card. Caroline is a bright child, about whom I worry very little. The report card had nothing to worry about, really. Intellectually, I knew this. But I felt that expectation of endless growth and improvement heavy in the pit of my stomach when I saw that she had stayed the same or improved in every category except for one. She had slipped... in writing.

Way to hit me where it hurts, universe...

After sending a message to her teacher later that week to make sure there wasn't something obvious we could do to encourage her (there was, but her teacher wasn't worried about her progress), I remembered back to the baby and toddler years with our kids. It was common for them to regress in one area while they were making a developmental leap in another. Their sleep schedule would go to hell; meanwhile they'd bust out with complete sentences. Or they'd get very clumsy and trippy, but suddenly grow by leaps and bounds in terms of emotional intelligence and empathy.

So perhaps Caroline's writing took a back seat to other developmental changes.

And maybe I run as slow as peanut butter, but I keep going for 16 minutes.

And maybe that's OK.

Great, even.


Image: How can you not love that pink stripe? Makes 6 a.m. a lot less dreadful.

Youngstown Ohio: A Parable for the Church

The Planet Money blog offered up this recent NPR story about Youngstown, Ohio, a town that has suffered in recent years from a shrinking population and diminishing economic opportunities.

The town cast about for various ideas to save it, to get it growing again:

Youngstown was going to replace the steel industry with a car factory. Or with a NASCAR racetrack, or a riverboat casino. Maybe a blimp factory out by the airport.

"That was the mentality," says Mayor Jay Williams. "It was grasping for straws. If you came in with what seemed to be an even marginally viable economic idea, there was a rush to make that the thing that was going to save Youngstown."

Where have I heard this story before? Ah yes... Our church needs a praise band! We need a shiny young minister! We need parenting classes to bring in those families with children that will save our church! Forget the fact that there were no young families nearby, and/or the population as a whole is declining in the neighborhood around the church.

To the credit of Youngstown's leadership, it finally decided to stop searching for the silver bullet that would solve all their problems. Instead, they are rejecting the "most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning": that a city should always be growing.

Instead, Youngstown is trying to remake itself into a smaller town. Those old homes that nobody's going to move back to? Demolished by the hundreds. With the closing of entire neighborhoods, garbage collection and other city services can be consolidated. And the few folks left behind in mostly abandoned neighborhoods are offered financial assistance to move to more populous areas within the city.

Though the Youngstown leadership might not put it this way, the message is clear: We are a community of people. We are more than our industries (what we do) and buildings (where we do it). Again, the parallels to church are obvious. Perhaps leaders of churches that have plateaued or are in decline don't necessarily need to close up shop tomorrow, but maybe they need to admit that the pews won't ever be filled again and (gasp!) remove some. Or (big gasp!) sell the building. Or maybe there needs to be some realistic expectations of the "services" members can expect to receive from the clergy. A part-time pastor will not be able to do everything that a full-time pastor did. (Yes, in case it wasn't clear, I'm comparing the pastor to the garbage collector.)

As you can imagine, there is resistance. Some folks would rather stay in the homes they've lived in for 50 years, surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty homes, than pick up and move a mile or two away. (I am picturing a smattering of churchfolk in a large building, sitting one person to a pew.)

So the process is messy, and slow. But I applaud the effort.

Growth is a tricky thing in the church. I do think we've become enamored of the same capitalist models that held Youngstown captive for so long. On the other hand, we are called to be evangelistic people. (I heard some grumbling this week about Rob Bell's new book on heaven and hell, and even did some myself. We've been talking about this stuff in the mainline for years and never made it onto Good Morning America. Yeah, and his book is #5 on Amazon and ours aren't, so maybe we need to do some soul-searching on why we've been having so much trouble getting the word out about a message that is clearly so compelling that people are flocking to this book in droves. As a fellow traveler in the way of Jesus, I am overjoyed that people are gravitating to the message of radical grace, and think we mainline folks need to keep our annoyance in check that people didn't choose to play for our intramural team.)

And I'm going to be honest: the fact that we are growing at Tiny Church is a source of relief for almost everyone, especially the leadership. We are small, but we do not have one foot in the grave. We recognize that we can't do things the way we've always done them and expect that to be compelling to a new generation; we understand that the culture is changing rapidly around us; but we're approaching these questions from a position of strength. This is a blessing. (It's also a challenge---how does one create a sense of urgency when everything's muddling along pretty well? Why do we need to do anything different if we're growing? But that's a post for another day.)

The growth question is sticky, but I agree with George Bullard, who emphasizes kingdom growth, which is not the same as church growth (see #6 in the link). The transformation training our church is engaged in talks about growing one's ministry capacity. That can happen through additional members. But it can also happen through a greater sense of depth and excitement among the folks who are there. And it can happen when churches free themselves from having to maintain large buildings, which can become a money pit for small membership congregations. (I once heard of a pastor of a small church with a large expensive building who semi-seriously prayed it would burn to the ground, it was such a burden.)

I wish the Youngstown, Ohio the best. I will be curious to see how it all works out.