Now in its fifth year, Auburn Seminary’s Learning Pastoral Imagination project (LPI) is tracking 50 pastoral leaders as they move from seminary into their early years of professional ministry. The study’s purpose is to learn how “pastoral imagination” — shorthand for the ability to understand ministry fully and to respond wisely to ministry situations — is formed through practice. The project focuses on the learning trajectory that begins in childhood and extends beyond seminary. 

Is ministry a calling? How is it like other professions? How is it unique? How is preparation for ministry different across theological traditions and denominations? What conditions prepare pastors for the wise practice of ministry? How are theological schools, classes, and teachers getting it right? What changes would better prepare ministers for their work?  

Learning Pastoral Imagination: A Five-Year Report on How New Ministers Learn in Practice, by Christian A.B. Scharen and Eileen R. Campbell-Reed (Auburn Theological Seminary, 2016). 

Read or download the 62-page report at

In short, how can pastors be trained for the complexity of mission and ministry today, rather than slipping into ministry patterns prevalent in the past?

In asking such questions, the Learning Pastoral Imagination project is contributing to an expanding body of knowledge about theological education in the United States and Canada. Past studies have focused on seminaries — their campuses, faculties, administrations, curricula, and students. The goal has been to determine how seminary educators can foster among students an imagination that integrates knowledge, skill, integrity, and religious commitment into the roles, relationships, and responsibilities that clergy assume in practice. 


By contrast, the LPI project examines how clergy learn by doing; that is, how pastors learn in practice over time. Rather than focus on teaching, we focus on learning; and instead of focusing on faculty, the project focuses on students. Our conviction is that the capacity for wise pastoral leadership often is sparked early in life and comes to fruition through years of daily practice. Formal theological education is an important part of this lengthy process, but only a part. To understand more fully how ministers learn to exercise pastoral imagination, the LPI research team has been walking alongside 50 diverse and gifted seminary graduates as their careers begin to unfold. Our hope is that the lessons we learn on this journey will significantly strengthen the work of persons who care deeply about excellence in ministry and who seek to shape future pastoral leaders. 


Progress report: Six findings

As we pause and take stock of the LPI project at its five-year point, we note common themes in the stories that our project participants tell us. They express tensions between classroom concepts and “real life” practice and describe moments of feeling overwhelmed as they recognize the risks of responsible action. Experience with these tensions is aiding their movement from imagining ministry to pastoral imagination.  


At this juncture we can report the emergence of six major findings that indicate conditions that lead to pastoral imagination and how pastoral imagination grows over time. These findings are, in a way, like overlaid transparencies in an anatomy and physiology book, one showing the circulation system, another depicting the bone structure, and a third adding the nervous system. Together, the various pages show the key systems of the whole body in its complicated interconnections. So, too, with aspects of learning pastoral imagination. Many interconnections and implications flow between the sections, even if each is distinct. With the caveat that LPI is a work in progress, here is a snapshot of what we’ve learned so far.


1. Learning pastoral imagination happens best when formation is integrative, embodied, and relational.

Many pastors describe their preparation for ministry as being more about information than formation. Too often the information conveyed in class isn’t connected to the ministry settings where students intend to apply their learnings. The M.Div. curriculum sometimes takes two tracks, with classroom work and field work as distinct and separate pathways through a degree program. In such cases, efforts to integrate information and formation tend to be delayed until the final semester and then take the form of a capstone seminar or a “reflection group” that is part of field education.


Our research shows that ongoing, integrated, contextualized moments are keys to forming pastoral imagination. Participants in our study tell us they have gained the most formative learning by being immersed in ministry practice and in seminary activities — classroom or otherwise — that always have ministry clearly in view. As students engage in these immersion activities, a pattern emerges. They experience the clash of abstract knowledge with “real life” situations; they feel overwhelmed by the need to deal with multiple variables that are present in these situations; and they develop a sense of responsibility as they recognize the risk entailed in choosing a course of action. The result of this sequence is a sharpened perception and a deeper wisdom, which are key characteristics of pastoral imagination. 


The positive outcomes of immersive learning experiences cannot be overstated, and they underscore the importance of a particular kind of teaching, the topic we explore in our second finding.


2. Learning pastoral imagination centers on integrated teaching that understands and articulates the challenges of the practice of ministry today.

In alumni surveys conducted by the Association of Theological Schools, seminary graduates say their teachers were the most important feature of their education. Interviews with our project’s participants echo this feedback and highlight aspects of why and how teachers are crucial to student learning. Earning special praise are those teachers who put their academic subjects in the context of everyday ministry.


Education scholar David Perkins writes of the importance of faculty members teaching “junior versions of the whole game” so students can see how specific class topics make sense in relation to the whole. For most seminary students, this “whole game” translates as the practice of ministry in its many forms. The distinct challenge for seminaries, however, is that professors are formed to play a different game — the academic game. As a result, students struggle to see how the bits and pieces they are learning in a specific class connect to the “game” they are preparing to enter. It’s not that students aren’t interested in courses in liturgy, theology, church history, scripture, and so on. The trouble comes when faculty teach toward the horizon of their scholarly field rather than where students intend to take that scholarly knowledge after graduation. 


Teachers who know the stakes of ministry today and draw students into immersive, experiential situations are instrumental in the development of pastoral imagination. This process obviously does not happen with only one teacher, or in one moment, but over time and across multiple teachers whose influence spurs the growth of pastoral imagination. Our project’s third finding examines the dynamics of this growth, including the interplay of everyday practices of ministry and the emotionally fraught moments that shape an individual’s pastoral imagination.  


3. Learning pastoral imagination requires the daily practice of ministry over time and critical moments that may arise from crisis or clarity.

Knowing how to act in a difficult moment in ministry requires cultivating wise practice, yet seminary is limited in its ability to teach the range of crises or critical learning moments that arise in ministry. As a pastor accumulates multiple instances of pastoral situations, by the repetition of doing what is needed in the flow of the day, the experience of how to do it becomes intuitive, as if without thinking. However, ministry doesn’t start out that way. 


Salience, the capacity to pick out the important features of a complex situation, develops as a key feature of proficiency in any profession. When pastors begin their ministries, they may feel challenged by the need to prioritize tasks, to discern what aspects of a situation are most pressing and, therefore, where they should direct their skills and energy. 


Immersion in the daily practice of ministry is also relational, requiring time for a new pastor to learn the dynamics of a congregation, to see its history and relational networks, and to learn the language of the place. We think of this as understanding the “more” of the situation. The best congregations are already doing this work, and a new pastor joins in by offering another leading voice in the conversation, a new perspective on the mission of the congregation. However, many congregations are troubled and stuck in patterns that need dramatic new perspectives and attentions from their pastors.


For a crisis or moment of insight to have a lasting impact on a pastor requires time for processing and reflection. Only then can the crisis or moment of insight “stick” and leave a lasting, formative impression. Only then can it expand the minister’s pastoral imagination. Ministry practice over time helps move the minister beyond attempts to follow rules or “apply” knowledge to practice. In the next finding we show that situations in ministry can be very formative. But for those situations to have a lasting impact, budding ministers need mentors who can offer relational and reflective space for processing what happens and what it might mean.


4. Learning pastoral imagination requires apprenticeship to a situation and mentors who offer relational wisdom through shared reflection and making sense of a situation.

Through steady attention to the place and people where a pastor serves, perception can shift from speaking to or acting upon a situation to a more improvisational response that embodies practical wisdom in the moment. This capacity for pastoral imagination can be thought of as learning to think in action, making use of theological knowledge and skills in particular situations. 


New ministers cultivate pastoral imaginations when they apprentice themselves to the particular world where their ministry is situated, and when they find mentors who help them process their thinking, feeling, and action in that world. Learning to lead in ministry is not a matter of following a set of rules or replicating someone else’s model of ministry. Instead, ministers must find the way that works relationally for them in dialogue with the ancient wisdom of the Gospel and values of their particular tradition. The relational wisdom of mentoring helps new ministers translate the knowledge and skills learned in seminary into their new situation of ministry.


5. Learning pastoral imagination is complicated by the intersection of social and personal forces of injustice.

Adversity, injustice, sexism, racism, and other forms of social and economic inequality are powerful shaping forces of culture and identity. They reside in many institutional forms in the wider culture, including the church, and they are visible in the lives of ministers in the LPI study.


In the study we witness the resilience and determination of ministers who find ways to dwell in possibility rather than descend into despair over the “brick walls” of resistance they find along their path into ministry. We think it essential to explore the ways that ministers draw upon their emerging pastoral imagination to work around the barriers. 


Seminaries do not always prepare students for the inevitability of injustice, although some professors, courses, and schools focus precisely on forming “drum majors for justice” and encourage prophetic responses to injustice and inequity.


6. Learning pastoral imagination is needed for inhabiting ministry as a spiritual practice, opening up self and community to the presence and power of God.

Of all we have said about the qualities and capacities needed for leadership in ministry today, learning pastoral imagination perhaps matters most as a core integrative capacity which recognizes the holy depth of a person, a moment, or a situation. Leaders who embody this capacity in their ministries are able, even under difficult circumstances, to open up ways to engage the sacred depths of life. They do this through inhabiting the core practices of ministry — teaching, preaching, care, prayer and worship, mercy and justice, leadership and administration — and inviting their communities of faith to join them.  


Questions to ponder

Theological education is in turmoil. We’re seeing dramatic shifts in religious life and in the institutions that train leaders for ministry. Some may view the challenges before us as daunting, exciting, or both. In an effort to spark dialogue, our report offers several questions of faculty, staff, administration, and trustees who tend the ongoing life of theological schools. Here are five of them:  

  • How can your school’s culture and curricula deepen the alignment between classroom and context? 

  • What interventions, beyond tinkering with what you already do, might initiate adaptive cultural change?  

  • How might you recognize and assess the diversity of knowledge and abilities that students bring to their seminary experience? 

  • What practices can create a supportive environment for risk and growth?

  • How can review, promotion, and tenure procedures shift so they more directly reward teaching, research, and writing focused on how a scholarly area contributes to ministry leadership?

Defining “pastoral imagination”

To lead with courage and wisdom in the 21st century, ministers must develop “pastoral imagination.” Craig Dykstra, a practical theologian who served as vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment Inc., first used the phrase to refer to the capacity for seeing a situation of ministry in all its holy and relational depths, and for responding with wise and fitting judgment and action. 


We have extended this understanding by drawing upon the notion of “phronesis,” which is practical knowledge and judgment derived from experience over time. This capacity makes use of multiple kinds of knowledge about self, context, relationships of power, and ritual practices of ministry (such as pastoral care, preaching, presiding, teaching, and leading) to take risks and act with responsibility. Learning pastoral imagination can lead to a keen perception that sees situations as spaces of God’s presence and work, and an intuitive judgment regarding fitting responses.


LPI at a glance


Location: Until 2016, the Learning Pastoral Imagination project (LPI) was based at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Renewed funding for Phase 3 of the project is currently being sought.


Project funding source:  Lilly Endowment Inc.


Research question:  How is pastoral imagination formed through practice in ministry over time?


Time frame: The project was begun in 2009.


Study participants: The 50 participating ministers are graduates of 10 seminaries located in five states. They are evenly divided by gender and represent more than 20 faith traditions. Members are African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and white. About half of the participants currently serve in congregational ministry; the rest work in chaplaincy or at nonprofit organizations. 

This article is an edited excerpt from the full report, which is free to read or download at

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