Room for the Unimaginable

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

– Mary Oliver, Evidence (2009)

 Published in 2022, Shawn Ginwright ‘s The Four Pivots describes four shifts toward “Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves.”

From Lens to Mirror

From Transactional to Transformative

From Problem to Possibility

From Hustle to Flow

Each of these pivots deserves attention. But as we think of challenges before church boards today, we want to focus on the third pivot, from problem to possibility.

Ginwright is not dishing up some vacuous version of positive thinking here. He is highly specific about the ways that language traps leaders into “problem thinking” – and about the ways we can free our imagination for “possibility creating,” no matter how challenging our circumstance. Reminding readers that “no fundamental change has ever come from problem fixing,” Ginwright tells a story of a graduate class he taught some years ago, that was full of organizers and community activists working on important issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. These leaders were tackling problems like affordable housing, organizing homeless families, and helping build police accountability to mothers whose children had been killed by law enforcement. Ginwright asked each student to write a one-page summary describing the problem they were addressing and how they were attempting change.

A sample of the papers began:

“Fighting for greater accountability…”

“Resisting racist policies…”

“Confronting homophobia in schools…”

“Demanding anti-racist classrooms…”

“Struggling for environmental justice…”

“Most of their terms directly responded to the condition they wanted to change,” he observes. “Terms like fight, resist, struggle, confront, defend are connected to oppression, and they predefine the outcome of work in ways that fail to affirm what the students wanted to create or imagine.”

Ginwright then asked his students to rewrite their one-page summaries without using words from the left-hand column below, using words from the column on the right instead:


Resist                               Reimagine

Defend                            Dream

Disrupt                            Discover

Demand                          Create

Fight                                  Design

Struggle                          Play

Confront                         Invent

Destroy                           Visualize

Deconstruct                  Build


The students reported that this was one of the most difficult assignments they’d ever encountered. They had to imagine what they wanted to make possible rather than articulate what they wanted to eliminate. “This is why we need to be very careful in the terms we use to describe our work,” Ginwright concludes. “If we are not thoughtful about our words, our work is confined and prescribed and fails to use our human condition to dream and imagine beyond oppression.”

How is Ginwright’s framework relevant to your church board service? You might start by considering the words you use to describe your congregation’s work during board meetings — not when writing mission statements (or sermons), but during board meetings, when you are making decisions together. What words do you choose to talk through your shared work with one another? Do these words come from the column on the right … or the column on the left?

Scripture has a way of constantly reminding us that our God is larger than our imagination:

Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.         – Ephesians 3:20-21

That truth should inform what we do and how we pray … and the words we choose to use to talk with one another about our shared work.

In her first collection A Street in Bronzeville (1945), the great twentieth-century poet Gwendolyn Brooks imagines making room for dreams in a cramped building of shared kitchens, and bathrooms, and phrases, and smells.


kitchenette building

by Gwendolyn Brooks


We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”


But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms


Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?


We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.



Is there room for dreams in Brooks’ kitchenette building? Why or why not?


What is the difference between the dream described in stanza two and the hope that ends the poem? Are dreams and hopes different companions in the life of a congregation?


What kind of sound do words like “fight” or “resist” make?  What kind of sound do words like “dream” or “invent” make? Which words/sounds dominate your board discussions?


How can you make room for the unimaginable in your next board meeting?

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