Where Moses stood, “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). In that holy encounter, he was being summoned into an experience of leadership that he would rather not pursue. After all, he was tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, minding the task at hand, he didn’t need anything else to do. But suddenly, out of nowhere, the Holy Presence calls him to move from the placidity of sheep herding to the seemingly unfathomable task of leading a captive people through an exodus and onto a circuitous journey of liberation. Going from herding sheep to herding people is a tremendous personal shift. Everything in Moses’s bones told him he would rather just stay with what he already knew how to do: herding sheep… and hiding out!
As religious leaders—clergy and lay alike—we often find ourselves in circumstances not too different from Moses. How often do we prefer the familiar and the safe? How much do we prefer to remain with what is, with no inclination to move toward what is possible? How often as leaders of faith communities do we stay on the edge of our own Red Sea waiting for some miracle to occur before we even budge?
Like Moses, only when we take the plunge of leading do we discover new capacities of self and of faith that were otherwise dormant or underutilized.
Leading change is not just doing something different. It is entering into a new way of being—and from this new way of being can emerge a distinctly new way of leading. That is what Moses’s encounter with the blazing bush was all about; it was the beginning of a shift from being a dutiful sheep herder to an empowered leader of a people. Although I doubt that any burning bushes will be appearing on our daily commute from home to office, we too know moments when in order to lead we need to feel called into some qualitatively different ways of being, beyond what is often safe and familiar.
Moving from what is known into a vast uncertainty (the wilderness) with only the slim promise of a new possibility to go toward is all too familiar terrain to any of us attempting to lead change in a congregation. Concurrent with that congregational change is our own journey of change as leaders, which can too often feel like exploring a new territory without a map to guide us.
To lead narratively, we leaders must be mindful of the relationship that we choose to have with the congregation’s story. How one embodies a story is distinct from how one’s words relate a story. For in embodying a story, we become that which we tell; we give a glimpse of what is possible. Such an effort requires us to be mindful of the dynamic tension we then initiate between what is and what can be. Howard Gardner tells us, in Leading Minds, that “the stories of the leaders—be they traditional or novel—must compete with many other extant stories and if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, supplement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary oppositional counter-stories.”
Moses not only led the Israelites out of Egypt but also led them to a new understanding of who they were and of what was possible. Along the way Moses too was authoring a new understanding of himself and his role in this pilgrimage of leading a throng of captives into becoming the people of a covenant.
We always have a choice about the relationship we have with the congregation’s dominant story about itself. In order to lead, we must be able to honor the story as well as shape the story of the congregation. To lead we must point—in our interactions and in our embodiment of our leadership—to some alternate ways of acting and ways of being that hold promise and possibility.
Michael White, a founder of narrative therapy, in his last book, Maps of Narrative Practice, writes of “expeditions into what is possible for people to know about their lives.” We need practical directions as we embark on our own expeditions into what is possible, not just for the congregations we lead but also for ourselves as leaders. In fact, for us to effect deep change—that is, change that is not just episodic and on the surface but change that is generative and transformative—we need to re-author our own leadership. In so doing, we are not merely agents of change but, like Moses, we are changed.
As part of my work in narrative leadership, I often ask leaders of faith communities to acknowledge that they are already swimming in a narrative they have about the congregation. I ask these leaders to imagine this inner chatter, this narrative, as a constant stream of words and sentences that flows through them and around them. Then I instruct them to reach out into this imaginary stream with their hand and randomly snatch a “line” from that inner story that they have about the congregation. As they hold that imaginary line from the story in one hand, I ask them to observe that line. What is that line? What is the mood of that line? How does that line fit into a larger story that they or members have about the congregation? Who else tends to tell this story about the congregation? How does this line typically lead to what comes next in their story? Such a simple (and perhaps ridiculous) exercise makes us aware that even the most random sentences from our inner conversations are fragments of a larger story that a congregation has composed about itself, or that we have participated in composing and sometimes enshrining.
Taking this exercise one step further, I then ask clergy as they are imaginatively holding the particular line from their story of the congregation, “What is the story about the story you are telling?” Here we recognize that our hermeneutics, our interpretation of the story, usually fits into some larger story that we inherit or embrace. As leaders, we do hold our congregational stories in particular ways. The ways we hold or interpret those stories affect not only what we do but also who we are as characters in that story.
In a recent gathering of clergy, a pastor realized that she tended to look at all the ways laypeople in her congregation fell short of their commitments. She became what she called a micromanager, creating a great deal of stress in her life and reinforcing her story that “you can’t trust lay leaders to follow up.” When encouraged to look at the big picture outside her own story, she realized that the story was just as much about her as it was about them. When the lay members didn’t follow through, it confirmed her suspicions about laypeople not taking their responsibilities or their faith seriously. Her tendency to be the rescuer and save the day when others didn’t follow through made her the hero in her story about them—and about her. When she recognized that her role was part of her story, she realized she was part of the problem. Desiring to be in a relationship of trust with them, she was open to being coached into a new role that she called “an equipper,” as in equipping the saints (Eph. 4:12). From this new narrative, she shifted her perspective of lay leaders and of her own role. She began to see all the ways she could encourage them and pass on skills. She imagined the lay leaders gradually owning their particular way of doing things and of leading.
As she shifted her narrative, her shoulders dropped, her jaw relaxed, her gaze softened. She was embodying her leadership in a new way, right before our eyes. From this new embodiment of her role, she gradually began to realize that there were already exceptions to the story she tended to tell about the laypeople in the congregation. She began to recognize that there were a myriad of ways in which they already did take on responsibilities and do things in their own way, even if it was not her way. These actual, real-life exceptions did not fit into the familiar story she told about them and about herself. Releasing herself from her old role, she stepped into another story that started a new “expedition into what was possible” for her own leadership. I suspect that something new is happening in the congregation as well.