Second City Sabbatical
How an improv class helped me find beauty and meaning amid anxiety in the church
By Mike Coglan | January 25, 2016
Last summer, I found myself in an unlikely situation for a pastor. I was aboard a gold-dredging ship off the coast of Alaska, suited up in diving gear and literally about to be dropped into the Bering Sea. I had no experience, and no training. In truth, I barely know how to swim. The only instructions I had received came during the terrifying journey out to the dredge. Along the way, I told my benefactor that there was no way I was going to remember all the instructions he was shouting at me. He shouted back, “That’s okay, Mike. You only have to remember one thing: panic equals death. Just stay calm and control your breathing. If you don’t panic, you will be fine.”
Obviously I survived.
My adventure in the Bering Sea was part of a three-month sabbatical in which I took a series of risks. Let me explain.
I was partially inspired by a short passage of Scripture that I had memorized in seminary: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Paul wrote those words in a specific context. Two seasoned leaders in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, were fighting, and their quarrel was threatening unity in the church. It was causing anxiety. Paul didn’t tell us what they were fighting about. It could have been a deep theological issue, or it could have been one of those stupid little arguments that escalates into something ridiculous.
When there is tension in the church, anxiety is understandable. But it can be deadly. How do we develop faithfulness in overcoming anxiety?
Many pastors rely on retreats. We get away to a quiet place and reacquaint ourselves with the presence of God. This is important and it was certainly a practice modeled by Jesus.
But I had a counterintuitive idea for my sabbatical. My thinking was that it’s easy to be peaceful in a peaceful setting. Yet I wanted the peace that transcends understanding. So rather than do lots of peaceful things, I decided to do things that were risky.
I purposely put myself into anxious settings so I could practice not being anxious. I went skydiving, solo wilderness canoe camping, mud running, bow hunting, and I earned my motorcycle license. I did a mission trip to western Alaska that resulted in my gold dredging experience. And then I did a one-week intensive class in improvisational acting at the Second City in Chicago.
It was the most important thing I did. Improv gave me practical instructions for dealing with social anxiety in a constructive manner. I expected to improve my communication skills, but I came away with much more. I discovered a profound way to view my role both as a leader of a church and as a follower of God.
Improv is something anybody can do. It’s live theater without a script. The actors make up a story spontaneously. Because no one knows what the others will contribute to the story, the results are a surprise to the cast as well as to the audience.
Christians often say that God has a “wonderful plan” for our lives. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe God has hopes and expectations for us, but I don’t think there is usually one specific script for a life. God grants us great freedom. While God wants to spare us the grief of destructive choices, I think God wants us to make some choices on our own. He wants us to tell a good story with our life, much the way a parent hopes his or her growing child will. In short, life is improvised, even for Christians.
Christians often say that God has a “wonderful plan” for our lives. I don’t believe that’s true.
Improv, like faith, has rules that provide structure, meaning, and beauty. Four basic rules of improv are: listen, cooperate, contribute, and have fun. To begin with, the players have to listen closely to their partners and to the audience. They have to pay attention to make sure that they are on the same page and telling the same story.
Listening is a Christian discipline. We all need to listen to God, and we need to listen to each other. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame,” says Proverbs 18:13. Real listening is rare today. Most people only listen to get enough information to pursue their own agenda. We have all spoken to a salesperson who only wanted to sell us something. And we all know someone who only listens enough to explain to us why we are wrong. I know that guy, because I am that guy more often than I like to admit.
A good definition of listening is this: “Listening is the willingness to change.” Improv doesn’t work unless the actors are willing to change. In our class there were people who were fun to work with, and there were people who were more difficult. Their willingness to listen made all the difference. If someone decides in advance what they do or don’t want in a sketch, then the story won’t happen. When only one person tells the story, there is no collaboration. Collaboration only happens if the collaborators are willing to change.
True listening means being vulnerable to new information that might change my life in some way, large or small. This isn’t people-pleasing or codependency. It doesn’t mean I have to give up my discernment. But if a group is going to develop in any type of endeavor, there has to be trust that what each member says is going to matter. That goes for a theater group or a business or a family or a church. We earn trust only to the extent that we are open to what other people say.
The second rule of improv is to cooperate. Improvisers often use the phrase “Say yes.” It’s a powerful response. That’s how I wound up in the Bering Sea. At the start of my sabbatical, I prayed and consecrated myself to saying “yes” to whatever opportunities God placed in front of me. (I figured that’s why I have life insurance!)
“Say yes” in improv simply means to affirm what your acting partner says. Obviously this is important in our relationship with God. In prayer, I need to say yes to God. But I also need to say yes to others within reasonable and moral limits. Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submitting to one another simply means to put others’ needs ahead of our own. When someone asks me to meet a legitimate healthy need, I should say yes, if I can. I need to be inclined to say yes to others.
The third rule is to contribute. We say not only “yes,” but “yes, and…” Improv is at its best when everybody unselfconsciously adds to the story. This is true in every group, especially in a church. This is why it says in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Everybody has a function. Everybody has a contribution to make.
The final rule is to have fun. Human beings are born playful, but as we mature we often lose this capacity. We go to school. We get serious and professional. We study Greek. It’s hard to have fun when you’re studying Greek. This is sad because having a sense of humor about life is essential to our health. If you look out at nature, even in your own backyard, you see God’s creatures playing. Jesus himself had fun. He was falsely accused of having too much fun, of attending the wrong dinner parties and drinking too much. He made jokes and he had nicknames for his disciples. They laughed together, and laughing cures anxiety.
Improv may not be for everybody, but I do think the rules of improv are a wonderful and biblical way to turn social conflict into creative energy. Listen, cooperate, contribute, and have fun. These are anxious times in church life, and panic equals death.