Once upon a time… The Center for Congregations encourages faith communities to reflect on once upon a time—that is, we listen to and encourage stories. Sharing stories builds commitment to the congregation’s mission. Stories testify to the rhythm of a congregation’s institutional life. Listening to these stories helps people know where the faith community has been and provides clues to where God is leading. Stories invite people into the ongoing narrative of the congregation. Gaps in a story, elements still unresolved, suggest learning waiting to happen. Positive stories reveal a congregation’s key strengths.

Life has a narrative quality. We live in a hectic time, but even the powers that be can’t thwart the flow of reality shaped by the interplay of character, plot, and conflict. Congregations exist in a story-shaped world. The expansive story of scripture sweeps from Eden to Canaan, and further still through the imagination of the prophets and the life of Jesus Christ.

Communities are forged by their stories, so it is best that they know the message their stories tell. As Robert Kegan notes in his book In Over Our Heads, if “we are not aware of these stories they continue to author us, and not merely our past but our present and our future as well.” Strong congregations are self-authoring. Clergy and leaders are writers of their own spiritual drama, not actors in a drama already scripted for them.

In our Life Together program, a strategic planning process involving 30 congregations in central Indiana, the Center for Congregations staff encourages participants to gather stories from their congregations’ past. Curiously, we’ve discovered that storytelling (and listening) does not come naturally for congregations. Congregational life unfolds like a story, but in this 10-second-video-clip world many of us struggle to tell a good story. When people are asked to tell a story about congregational life, they often respond with something other than a story, something more like a description, an example, an analogy, or an assertion. For example, when a clergyperson was asked to tell a story about the construction of a new sanctuary, he responded, “We needed more space, so we built the new sanctuary in 2004. It will be paid for in 2010. Most people are happy as kids at Christmas with the new space.”

Descriptions, examples, analogies, and assertions are elements of a story, but without the details, such elements sound flat and don’t connect us to the inspired drama behind the facts. When people can be prompted to tell more, to describe an experience in such a way that it becomes three-dimensional, fully fleshed out, the real learning begins.

In Life Together, we remind clergy and laity that a story has many elements. It has characters who face challenges, quests, or goals. It moves forward or backward in time, or both. A story will have a key moment that leads to a resolution or a partial resolution of the challenge. A good narrative will relate some change in the characters as a result of the experience they have undergone.

In addition to encouraging congregations to tell thicker, more substantial stories, we coach listeners to ask questions to prompt the development of the story, such as:

  • What happened first?
  • Who was the main person?
  • What did he/she do first?
  • What problems developed?
  • When was the turning point?
  • What happened next?
  • What was solved?
  • What is still unresolved?

A more fully developed story of the new sanctuary might begin like this: “We knew we needed more space when families could no longer sit together. We found out that several families with very young children were staying home because there was ‘no room for them at the inn.’ That’s how our pastor put it at the annual meeting. At first, hardly any of us wanted to think about a new sanctuary. I rolled my eyes each time it was brought up. Then a team of us went to visit another church…”

Reaping stories about congregational life sounds safe, but in practice creative tensions develop. At one gathering, a pastor raised her hand and asked, “What do we do? When members talk about the best of times and the worst of times we find they are talking about the same time.” Gathering fully formed stories often leads to competing truths. The task then is deep listening, holy inquiry that doesn’t move too quickly to reconciliation, and ultimately constructing a positive vision that honors the former stories while beginning a new chapter with new possibilities.

Once upon a time… In the beginning… Congregations are part of an ongoing story that has many dimensions. These dimensions connect congregational life with the narrative of scripture. These dimensions track the journey of individual congregants, every pilgrim’s progress. And these dimensions include the institutional development of the congregation. Vibrant stories intertwine in ways that make the storytelling and listening engaging as well as ultimately redemptive.

Tim Shapiro is president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations, founded in 1997, is an affiliate of the Alban Institute dedicated to helping Indiana congregations find solutions to their pressing practical problems by connecting them with excellent local and national resources. The Center is a gift from Lilly Endowment Inc.

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