Improvising Life: Building Trust, Sharing Courage through Improv

Today we welcome Ryan Bradney to The Blue Room! I met Ryan two years ago at an event I led in Kansas City and we bonded over our mutual interest in improv. Today he shares about an exciting ministry he's involved with: On Thursday mornings, I teach an improv class with the men and women of Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless in Winchester, Kentucky. In the class, the residents, along with their fellow actors from First Presbyterian Church, take turns playing and observing bold, gracious improv. Some games require a few actors, others the whole class, but all of the games are participatory in that the class provides the needed resources for the game. It could be quotes, quirks, settings, or even a visual storyboard. Whatever the elements, I invite the actors to engage with what is present in the hope that we open ourselves up to new possibilities.

In between games, we reflect on what we’ve learned, share stories, and laugh about our favorite moments. We also identify the ways in which the games empower us to creatively engage in problem solving and build community. Janet Ballard, an actor with the group, has observed that “the games have opened up the residents to share their joys and struggles. I am seeing them build confidence and friendships.”

As we engage a variety of creative quirks and scenes, Janet Robinson has noticed that the joyful and resilient voices of our improv class can sound a bit unusual, saying, “when you are walking the halls during improv, you will hear BAM, Quack, Barking, Tapping, Spanish, and best of all, the laughter. I have seen the concern that they have for each other and friendships formed through play. I have come to look forward to the Thursday morning meetings with our friends in the group.”

improv_Oct 22 2015

As we create unusual characters, quirks, and settings, we are often surprised by the unexpected ways in which the scenes play out. One of the actors, George Ballard, Janet’s husband, ran out of the classroom during a scene, sprinting into the hallway, his steps thundering like a thoroughbred. Following his bold exit, George’s fellow actors were startled with surprise, many with laughter and some even wondered (as they shared in our reflection after the game) if he was overwhelmed by a fear of improv. The clamor of his booming feet continued until he returned with a smile. It turned out that George ran not out of fear, but, in response to his given quirk, “Running”.

Weeks later, I spoke with George about his convincing portrayal running through the halls, and asked what the experience meant to him. Embracing the improv principle “yes and” (building creatively on what’s present) George responded in a way that I couldn’t have expected. “If I would have known that the residents would look outside, I would have run downstairs, out the door, and would have continued running on the sidewalk.” There’s power in recognizing courage in one another, seeing those who are willing to go to great lengths, several laps in George’s case, to speak a word of hope. George’s commitment to fully embrace his quirk, no matter how foolish it may have looked, allowed his fellow actors to witness the power of trust, that in loving community, we are free to embrace our own quirks and experience acceptance, imperfections and all.

In addition to our weekly improv class, the Clark County Homeless Coalition (CCHC) offers financial literacy, attentive case management, and additional educational opportunities with the goal of empowering their residents with long-term self-sufficiency. Terry Davidson, executive director of CCHC, says that in her work she is inspired by “Seeing God at work. Seeing our client’s successes.” Serving a vital role in the community, Wainscott Hall is only one of a few homeless shelters in Kentucky that welcomes both families and individuals.

(To learn more about supporting the Clark County Homeless Coalition, be sure to check out their website at:

In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann writes that, “one of the basic difficulties of Christian life in the world today is clearly the inability to identify with what is other, alien and contradictory.”[1] The quirks, imperfections, the seemingly disconnected scenes of our lives, all of it belongs to God’s story. Jesus assures us to be unafraid, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”[2] Christ overcame the abandonment of the cross, and through him we have been resurrected into eternal life. As we share the Good News, let us not forget our charge to take courage and creatively engage the suffering of this world.

To learn more about Community Improv and how to creatively engage suffering in your community, be sure to check out our blog at Community Improv.


Ryan Bradney

Ryan learned about the power of improv from his High School English teacher and lifelong mentor, Ken Bradbury. Through this gracious form of improv, Ryan learned to listen, to build creatively on what’s present, and boldly fail. Ryan now integrates improv into his ministry as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winchester, Kentucky.

Ryan enjoys sharing the practice of improv at conferences, churches, schools, and Clark County Homeless Coalition, where he is joined by church members, who serve as regular actors with the class.

Ryan and his wife Andrea share their home with their two loving rescue dogs, Winnie and Gracie, whom they adopted during seminary. The Bradneys share a deep love of basketball, cooking, the outdoors, storytelling, and yes, improv.


Thank you, Ryan! That's beautiful stuff. Now, dear readers, do you know someone who’s improvising their life? I’d love to feature them here, so let me know!


[1] Jurgen Moltmann. The Crucified God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 25.

[2] John 16:33. NIV


Improvising Life: A Guest Post by Adam Walker Cleaveland

EdenHappy to welcome Adam to The Blue Room today! Adam shares the story of a great new ministry venture, Illustrated Children's Moments, which he began just a few weeks ago. I'm sure it will be of interest to many of you who work in congregations. And for my non-churchy readers, it's a great example of the ways that life doesn't always go according to our best-made plans. We often need to pivot... change course... improvise!  Also, don't miss the special offer for Blue Room readers at the end of the post!

By Adam Walker Cleaveland

It was spring of my senior year of high school. I was Hugo Peabody in our school’s version of Bye Bye Birdie. Life was good. I had a fun date planned for prom. In other words, it was the perfect time to get whooping cough.

While I was stuck at home for a few weeks, I wrote a 10-year plan of my life. Seemed like the obvious thing to do. My 10-year plan looked something like this:

  • Graduate college with a religion major
  • Get married the week after graduation
  • Move to Africa to be a missionary for a year
  • Go to seminary
  • Get a PhD
  • Teach at a seminary for the rest of my career

Thing turned out a bit differently than I had planned. My path has had twists and turns, fun surprises and blessings, deep grief and confusion, joy and much more. The most recent twist and turn was leaving a church I’d been serving for two years. The church wasn’t a great fit for me, and I’m glad to have made the decision. But I didn’t have any concrete plans for what to do.

About two years ago, I decided to spend time focusing on rediscovering my childhood love of drawing. I received a Clergy Self-Care Grant from the Chicago Presbytery, and used it to take some online classes and buy art supplies.

I loved drawing. I could get lost in my doodles, zentangles and watercolors. I was doing some good work. I started looking for ways to incorporate art into my ministry. And one Sunday before worship, I quickly sketched out a drawing to give the kids when I led the children’s moment.

The kids liked getting something to take with them that reminded them of the story, so I did that again the next time I led a children’s moment. And I kept drawing. Parents started telling me their children would put the drawings on the refrigerators and talk about the story throughout the week. Some parents even snagged an extra copy for themselves and placed it in their devotionals.


As ministry at my last call was ending, I started dreaming about how this rediscovered love of drawing could become a part of my ministry, and at the same time, bring in a few bucks. I thought there might be other pastors and Christian educators who could benefit from my illustrations and approach to children’s moments.

Two weeks ago, I launched Illustrated Children’s Moments.

It turns out I was correct.

In the past two weeks, I’ve welcomed over 700 subscribers to my email newsletter, gained some good traction on social media, made 82 sales, and my illustrations have been used in over 50 churches. I’m doing illustrations for both the Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary texts, and I’ve received many positive comments.

I’m sure God was chuckling a bit at me when I sat down to write that 10-year plan. If you had told me, when I was 18, that I’d be an artist/entrepreneur/pastor, I don’t think I would have believed you. But being open to the surprising ways God works has led me to a place where I am now using gifts I had forgotten about, and I’m meeting an important need that people in churches deal with on a weekly basis.

If you are interested in this original artwork that can be used for children’s moments or newsletters, emails or bulletins, please stop by my new website: Illustrated Children’s Moments. You can follow us on all the normal social media channels as well: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Or you can shop at our store. When you sign up for our email newsletter, you’ll immediately get a link to 5 free illustrations. Sign up here!

SPECIAL OFFER for Blue Room readers, today only! Adam has offered readers of The Blue Room Blog an offer code for $1 off any current illustration in his store. That means some will be free and some will only be $1. You can find them here. Code is blueroomblog .

Adam Walker Cleaveland is a pastor, artist and entrepreneur who lives in Chicago with his wife Sarah, also a pastor, and their 3-yr old son, Caleb. Adam is a Parish Associate at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, a Program Mentor at a new alternative education opportunity for kids in Evanston called Hackstudio (it’s seriously cool - check it out) and is doing a lot of drawing. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @adamwc or on Facebook here.

Do you know someone who's improvising their life? I'd love to feature them here, so let me know!