Bounce – a way of working creatively

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My friend Clare and I are sitting at her kitchen table with a blank sheet of paper in front of us.

We have met to plan the school’s R.E. day in June. Last September we decided that the theme would be Pentecost but neither of us have given it a thought since, even though the day is now only three weeks away.

Neither of us is worried; we both know that by the time I leave in an hour’s time the day will have been planned and we will both be happy with the result.

Clare and I work together by bouncing ideas off each other.  She jots notes as they occur to her, I prefer spider diagrams.  We both throw ideas into the mix – to be greeted with “ooh, that would be brilliant”, “I don’t think that would be possible because…” or “not sure, have you thought about…”

It has taken time for us to develop working together in this way.  We work as equals and we both know that any criticism of the other’s ideas is not personal.   As we have the freedom to be critical, we work together towards a synthesis that is better than anything that we would have come up with apart.

Clare isn’t the only person I have worked with in this way.  My friend Su and I used to plan All Age Worship together like this.  I have friends I bounce ideas with over the phone – though that is usually to do with projects each of us is working on individually rather than something that we are doing together.  I’ve even known it happen on Facebook!

But surely we should be working in a team?

The current focus in children’s ministry, churches and pioneering is about working in teams.  While some emphasise “setting up your team” as a starting point, many simply assume that you already have a team and offer articles and chapters on “How to support your team” or “Keeping your team involved.”

I am not convinced by this team approach in all situations.  I think it depends what you are aiming at.

Teams are a good way forward if you are implementing something where the thinking has been done for you.  With things like Messy Church, certain kinds of Fresh Expression or various church programmes the principles have been established; all the team needs to do is put them into practice. (Interestingly Godly Play needs a “team” of two, a storyteller and a doorkeeper, though a larger team might be helpful for rotas, resources etc)

But if you want to be more creative, I am not sure that the team approach works best.  I have found it harder to be critical when there are more than two people.  In that context, criticism feels like conflict, especially if it is about fundamentals.  If two people disagree, the others find themselves drawn in.  Instead of working through the issue to find synthesis it is likely to turn into a battle between two sides.  The most dominant, most powerful person often wins. Or the leader may work towards consensus, which favours the lowest common denominator.  The visionary edge can become blunted.

This does not mean that the R.E. day that Clare and I have planned is delivered just by us. On the contrary, several people come along to story tell, provide the music or help with crafts.  They do, I think, feel part of the “team” even though they have not been part of the planning.

Some of this is about integrity.  There needs to be integrity for the whole event and in this case that is held jointly by Clare and me. But there also needs to be individual integrity.  If one of the storytellers told us they could not possibly tell the story in the way we have asked, then we would need to adapt or find someone else to do it.  We shouldn’t ask people to work against their own personal integrity.  Their reservations are usually valid.

Where is God in this context?  This is always a tricky question because it is so easy to twist what he wants into what you think. But often in these kind of planning sessions I am aware of him inspiring us, taking us down different paths from the way I expected.  It seems to be about awareness. And also about trust, our trust for God and for each other. (Just as an aside it is interesting that Jesus sent out the 72 disciples in pairs rather than teams!)

With 5 minutes to go before I need to leave, we have planned all the school Pentecost event except for the epilogue.

“We need something with a real wow factor,” I say.

“I know,” says Clare, “what about passing on the light?  We sit them in circles in the hall and give each one a candle. We light a few candles and then they pass the light to each other.”

“Hmmm,” I say trying to envisage 150 children aged 4-11 passing lighted flames around in the hall.

“It will be fine,” says Clare.

She is right. It is.

Playing the labyrinth

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Annie, aged 9, is walking the labyrinth.

Today’s story has been about Wangari Maathai planting trees across Kenya and everyone has been asked to take something into the labyrinth that reminds them of the natural world.  Annie has chosen a lemon and some bark.  She has placed the bark at a junction and the lemon in the centre and collected a tiny tree button to take back with her.

As an adult walking the labyrinth, I walk straight in and straight out.  I follow the rules, trying to focus on what has been asked.  It is a peaceful and reflective experience.

On her way out, Annie is stopping at every junction.

“Where am I?” she muses out loud.  “Am I going in or coming out?  Should I go this way or the other way?  I know I’ll go this way,” she adds choosing the way that leads back to the centre.

I know that she is doing this in part to wind up her friend Tom, who is waiting impatiently for his turn.  In this she is successful.

“Hurry up!” he calls to her, leaping from one foot to another. “Don’t go back again!  Oh, come on!”

I tell Tom that it is up to Annie how she walks the labyrinth and he needs to let her be.  He stops talking to her and tries to contain himself.  Annie glances at us, and continues on her way, backwards and forwards, making each junction a decision point.

And I wonder, as I frequently do in children’s ministry, how much should I intervene?

It is difficult to make the labyrinth a quiet personal experience in this room.  The children range in age from a few months to 12 years and there are too many other activities going on – planting trees, painting, craft, sand, free play. It is a noisy room acoustically; when I tell the story to those who come later it can be hard to make myself heard.  It probably doesn’t help that I frequently get up from my seat by the labyrinth to replenish craft supplies or talk to a child who has brought something to show me.

It seemed right to stop Tom interacting with Annie so that the labyrinth remains a personal experience.  But is there a right or wrong way to walk it?  Should I be insisting that the children walk slowly in silence?  Sometimes they do.  At others there seems to be an eager rush to take in whatever they have chosen.  Even the smallest children are keen to have a turn.

Did it matter that Annie seemed to be playing to the audience?  When I subdued Tom did it help her to focus on her own experience?  I don’t know.

But it seems to me now that real life is far more like Annie’s way of walking the labyrinth than mine.  Perhaps I should take more time to stop and wonder at the junctions?