On the Arts: Reflections on Art-Based Workshops for Pastors
Dr. Maria Fee is the author of Beauty Is a Basic Service: Theology and Hospitality in the Work of Theaster Gates. Maria holds an MFA in painting, an MA in theological studies, and a PhD in theology and culture.
I’m feeling the limits of words alone. I’m feeling the limits of a verbal tradition. —A Presbyterian pastor and workshop participant
In Protestant traditions, text and proclamation—spoken, sung, or silently read—are paramount to Christian formation. Broadening the phrase to include physical pronouncements involves the senses, thus why artistic processes help enlarge the incarnational dimensions of proclamation. This is one reason why I, a trained artist and theologian, decided to establish and facilitate a series of art-based, leadership-development workshops for pastors. Initially, I was interested in the ways creative tasks could benefit ministerial work. Inspired by research literature listing benefits of art-based training in managerial and educational sectors, I asked, why not extend such studies to the religious arena? Thanks to a Teacher-Scholar Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,1 the project expanded to profit worshiping communities. Eight volunteer pastors agreed to participate in workshops and implement a creative strategy within their church context.
Four workshops provided tangible models for life together. My intent was to pattern a safe space for church leaders to experience the ways art mediates connection to God, self, others, and the world and to empower them to use their experiences in their own contexts. While there is much to relate about the project—assignments, pedagogies, hypotheses, and findings—I keep to the topic of text and proclamation by sharing some of the art-based projects carried out by workshop participants in their contexts. Their testimonies confirm the ways the visible profoundly communicates the invisible.
To commence junior high church camp, the pastor of a United Methodist congregation led a study of the Genesis creation accounts that incorporated a painting activity. Amazed by the process, one teen asked if they could continue studying the Bible this way! Artmaking, for this pastor, became a way to focus the attention of the youth she led, invite them to a broader understanding of God and self, and provide a visual vocabulary to reference in social interactions throughout the week.
The worship and creative director of a large, multilingual church spoke of the communication challenges when planning word-based, churchwide functions. For her, the art training illuminated art’s capacity to “surpass any type of linguistic barriers.” Consequently, during Advent her team displayed illustrated posters from Scott Erikson’s Honest Advent series throughout the church campus with corresponding interactive stations for all to theologically reflect on the incarnation.
One of the workshop assignments was the construction of a self-portrait. A Presbyterian pastor decided to present his self-portrait as part of a sermon in which he noted the importance of the painted blue background in his work. The color represented waves, visually unifying collaged elements that signified various parts of his life. In a revelatory moment, he shared that the color blue epitomized God’s grace for him. “No matter what I did in life or didn’t do, I believe myself to be held in grace,” he shared. While he showed his own work, the pastor noticed folks leaning in. “Their eyes were just on it,” he said. The collage served as a sermon illustration, deepening the message for hearers, but it also tied the congregation to their spiritual leader. This connection is the reason why the rest of the church staff also created and shared their self-portraits at a retreat. “There is an immediate sort of vulnerability, and that is the space where trust is built,” explained the pastor, who led the process noting “it really was an exercise in helping people open up.”
The associate pastor of a Congregational church led a small group Bible study through engaging in a collage activity with participants. The materiality of the responses in the form of collage offered rich insights concerning the text and the members of the group. Suffused with a “sense of camaraderie and understanding,” the depth of response surprised and pleased the church leader. One person realized she was a visual learner and shared, “To immerse myself in Scripture in a visual way was much more meaningful.”
These art ventures are declarations. They exhibit faith in the material to mediate what is immaterial. Just as Jesus tutors by holding up bread and wine with the invitation to eat and drink, art calls us to be participants. No longer bystanders, we are invited through art to experience empathy and give material meaning to feelings of shame, forgiveness, dismay, lament, hope, joy, and gratitude. A workshop participant who was an Episcopal priest commented that the workshops helped reframe liturgical gestures as a way “to reinforce another reality.” Just as the Lord’s Supper places Christ at our tables, art hosts the Spirit of the living God. “The Holy Spirit moves through art and moves us spiritually,” reflected one pastor, while another spoke of encountering layers of divine revelation through the workshop’s collaborative endeavors.
Many find limited opportunities to exercise such holistic declarations of divine love using more than words. As one participant put it, “The only way you are allowed to be incarnational with your faith is either through evangelism, whatever that means to you, or to volunteer somewhere.” Theologian Willie Jennings argues that the church’s “deepest life calling, our truth vocation,” is helping folks “enter into the revolutionary power of creativity as its birthright.” Jennings discusses creativity as a way of securing truth about the human condition while also hosting “the Holy Spirit in the expressive impulse of God.”2
The church leaders who attended these art workshops stated various reasons for participating in the program, and their take-aways were just as wide-ranging. Yet all agreed that at the start, they felt intimidated by having to make and share their art. But despite this initial dismay, all felt they had gained a creative voice and expressed gratitude. They experienced congenial interactions and developed relationships that bound the group together to safely negotiate vulnerabilities. The aesthetic exercises became pathways to learn more about God, self, and others. “There is an element of trust necessary,” mused a pastor who later facilitated a safe space for their church’s youth group to make art as well.
To conclude, I quote the wise words of a participating chaplain, “We can only lead as far as we are willing to go.” The workshops guided an intrepid group of pastors in a creative process to discover their vocations as artists in ministry. Validated as creative agents, they obtained the confidence to engage and develop the creativity of others. Together, they recovered their creative birthright, discovered avenues to God’s abundant love, and further found ways to express and proclaim that good news through original activities.
1. The research was employed under the aegis of a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
2. Willie James Jennings, “The Aesthetic Struggle and Ecclesial Vision,” in Black Practical Theology, ed. Dale B. Andrews and Robert London Smith Jr. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 182.