Jewish and Christian ministries have used stories of faith to form communal identity and mission since their beginning. Jews continue to celebrate the founding story of the Exodus in their homes each Passover, and the rabbis tell us that God created human beings, in part, because “God loves stories.” Christians started out as a band of storytellers who put the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus into narrative forms in liturgy, preaching, and a new genre called “gospels.” Storytelling and faith narratives are so much a part of Jewish and Christian practice, in fact, that most congregations take them for granted. We at the Alban Institute believe it is time to reclaim the power of these stories—biblical, personal, and communal—for renewing our faith traditions and transforming the shape of ministry and congregational practice.

Since 2005, Alban has been engaged in a three-year project called Narrative Leadership in Ministry, an initiative made possible by the Luce Foundation. We have talked with local pastors, lay leaders, seminary educators, and congregations to discover how they “story” their ministries, especially in times of renewal. We have mined the literature of theology, business, psychology, and education to discover how narrative work and leadership in those fields might transfer to congregational life. And we have tapped the growing expertise of Alban consultants in the use of narrative frameworks in their practice. Through it all, the power of storytelling and narrative approaches to leadership has convinced us that this is a ground-breaking arena for developing new forms of pastoral and lay leadership in ministry. In short, we believe good narrative leadership has the potential to transform congregational traditions, practices, and mission to be more engaging of the changing narratives of this postmodern, global age.

The Narrative Situation

The playwright Paul Auster wrote that “stories happen to people who are able to tell them.”1 Otherwise events come crashing down upon us at random, and we scramble to make sense of them. In other words, people who learn to shape life experiences into stories discover patterns of meaning and possibilities for proactive response. People who can reframe life events—especially those of hardship and tragedy—into stories of resilience, discovery, and growth can shape a life narrative that supports personal agency, faithfulness, and civic responsibility.

The prospects of building coherent, life-giving narratives in this day and age, however, are highly debated. Postmodern theorists like Jean-Francois Lyotard argue that the “master narratives” that shaped modern, Enlightenment society—like historical progress, the rational self, and the enlightenment of science—have eroded or collapsed.2 Parallel changes in religion—like the decline of biblical literacy, authority, and confessional traditions—confirm that the “grand narratives” of denominations and congregational life no longer hold the power they once did. Because these master, framing narratives are weak or missing, people are bombarded by an endless stream of images, vignettes, and emotional moments in this postmodern culture, to the point that many become “saturated selves” without agency or purpose, in the language of psychologist Kenneth Gergen.3 Others learn to juggle several identities—one at home, one at work, one while traveling—in a postmodern pastiche that often exhausts moral energy and focus.

As master narratives of religious tradition and modernity decline, local forms of narrative construction arise to fill the void. The moral philosopher Charles Taylor describes how self-narration began to rise in the modern period to reframe or even replace older, inherited schemes. He writes that we “can only find an identity in self-narration. Life has to be lived as a story…. But now it becomes harder to take over the story ready-made from the canonical models and archetypes…” of religious tradition or Enlightenment.4 To form a rich, personal, and life-giving narrative, Taylor claims, we must find a sense of “place” in the world, from which agency and purpose can spring. This happens primarily by mapping that world through our own stories.

At Alban, we believe a new focus on the narrative work and leadership of ministry can challenge congregations to become the primary source for “place-forming” narratives that help people locate themselves within the changing, postmodern society. Narrative leadership by ministers, rabbis, and lay leaders in America, we believe, has the potential to transform personal lives, congregational practice and mission, and even the wider social fabric. If a person’s location in the world can be mapped in and through a congregation’s story and practice, then his or her sense of moral agency to make a difference in that world can be empowered.

The Matrix of Narrative, Tradition, and Practices in Congregational Life

During our project on narrative leadership, we have discovered that the narrative work of pastors, lay leaders, and congregations is multifaceted and complex. By “narrative work” we mean the intentional retrieval, construction, and performance of narratives in all areas of ministry and congregational life: from preaching and worship, to education and pastoral care, to community outreach and governance. These refashioned narratives are drawn from biblical, personal, and communal stories, and when used well they help revitalize the traditions and practices of each church or synagogue.

Good narrative work revitalizes tradition by retrieving and reframing the sacred stories of a community for their new time and place. Tradition grows out of the tacit knowledge or habitus of a way of life, but gradually it becomes self-conscious as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument… about the goods which constitute that tradition,” as ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre puts it.5 In other words, the tradition that is embedded in the scripture, liturgy, and moral and theological claims of a religion becomes more conscious and powerful through narrative retrieval and reframing. The story of the Good Samaritan, for example, takes on new meaning and relevance when extended to Southeast Asian or Muslim immigrants that move into the neighborhood, as it forces us to ask, “Will they be Samaritans to us?”

Religious practices, according to Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2006), are things that congregations “do together in community that form them in God’s love for the world.”6 Practices in this sense are forms of social interaction that extend the values or goods inherent in the practice—like the openness to the other in hospitality, or the self-transparency of testimony—to higher levels of excellence and to more participants. Over time, religious practices form people into deeper patterns of service to God and neighbor. Congregational practices are newly directed, and sometimes created, as story retrieval of the tradition points the way to new forms of ministry in one’s context. We believe the narrative work of congregations—through sustained retrieval, construction, and presentation of the stories of faith—lies at the heart of a renewing relationship between tradition and social practices. As Bass writes, “Tradition is embodied in practices. And practices convey meaning through narrative.”7

This dynamic, mutually supporting relationship between tradition, narratives, and practices can be illustrated as a circle of generativity. As these interact, they begin to transform the life context of the faith community.

At the center of this generative circle lies the imagination—in both pastoral and congregational forms8—which crafts n
ew narratives from tradition in ways that revitalize congregational practice. As Bass puts it, “Imagination is the stage on which narrative, tradition, and practice perform their dance.”9

Guiding Principles of Narrative Leadership in Ministry

Because good narrative work encompasses biblical, personal, and communal stories, we have drawn upon narrative research in several fields—psychology, education, leadership theory, and theology—to inform a set of principles for this complex work. Dan McAdams, psychologist at Northwestern University, has done extensive work on life stories to identify marks of “the redemptive self.”10 Jerome Bruner, education theorist at New York University, has developed a “social construction” view of narrative based on the interactions of time, genre, and canonical disruption.11 Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist and educator, argues that careful narrative construction is key to effective leadership in public life and professional domains.12 Mary Doak, professor of theology at Notre Dame, argues for a critical correlation between particular, even local Christian narratives and larger public narratives about the nature and purpose of American life.13 While summarizing their contributions is not possible in this essay, we have identified four principles of narrative leadership that arise from their work in relation to our conversations with pastors and leaders in action.

Principle 1: Redemptive stories of faith place human relevance within divine time in ways that shape persons, communities, and public life and generate the norms they live by.

This is the “formative” aspect of narrative leadership that shapes individuals, communities of faith, and public life and the norms each of them lives by. Religious communities are unique in that they place human action, time, and purpose within a wider matrix of divine purpose and mystery. By doing so, they link the community’s faith claims with larger public claims about national and global life.

For example, Rev. Beth Braxton of Burke Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia reads about the AIDS orphan crisis in The Washington Post in 2003, including the lack of a concerted U.S. response. After hearing from others in the congregation about the same article, she fashions a Martin Luther King sermon about the Transfiguration (Matthew 17) to draw the congregation toward a “new vision” of an orphan ministry with long-term mission partners in Kibwezi, Kenya (see page 36). This church felt the “call” of God’s desire to find a home for these children as part of their global mission, a call they answered in ways that showed that American Christians can and do care.

Story retrieval, reconstruction, and presentation in faith communities often seek a theological horizon as the ultimate context for forming meaning, identity, and mission. By reclaiming “redemptive genres” of atonement, liberation, healing, and the like, narrative leaders in ministry draw their people and the communities they serve into revitalized identity and action. They also reshape the public mission of these communities to contribute to national and global priorities.

Principle 2: Narrative leaders in ministry use personal and symbolic intelligence to draw their congregations into story retrieval and construction, through a rhythm of collaborative interpretation, reflection, and response.

Narrative work in communities of faith is social and collaborative by nature. Effective narrative leaders draw their congregations into participatory practices of reclaiming, reconstructing, and presenting narratives of faith for their context. Part of this collaborative story-crafting extends the truth claims of the community of faith into the public arena for further debate and refinement.

Broadway Methodist Church in urban Indianapolis, for example, sends lay leaders and staff into the congregation and surrounding community to gather stories of “gifts” and “dreams” among the people, in order for the church to draw new circles of people together to celebrate these gifts and newfound relationships—often with public implications (see page 23). Cooks, artists, health care workers, and others are drawn into common fellowship in ways that deepen their shared gifts and concerns, and often issue in public contributions to the wider community, like new eateries or health initiatives for seniors.

Pastors and lay leaders must utilize symbolic intelligence to unpack meanings from sacred texts and community stories, and they must demonstrate personal intelligence to draw others into the process of interpreting those symbols for their lives. This collaborative process involves the ongoing negotiation of meanings, shared reflection, and common action.

Principle 3: The choice of genre or redemptive motifs for the stories of a congregation clarifies how the details of character and plot relate to a broader purpose, and it identifies what kinds of responses are available to that faith community in their context.

The genre or redemptive motifs that a leader chooses to form a story around a crisis or challenging situation can make or break the community’s response. After 9/11, political leaders in the U.S. chose the genres of heroic tragedy and martyrdom, which narrowed public response to fit a drama of good versus evil. Had they chosen the genre of irony or the redemptive motif of atonement, then the inconsistencies between American ideals and U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, might have shaped a more open, collaborative, and international response.

Likewise, the genre that congregational leaders choose to respond to a time of transition shapes how that time is interpreted, and what range of choices follow. Rev. Sam Lloyd, Episcopal priest and dean of the National Cathedral, helped that community shift its historic identification with the beautiful stones of their monumental, 100-year-long building process to become a community of “living stones” (I Peter) built upon hospitality and service to Washington, D.C. By discovering a new metaphor to live into, the Cathedral community is shifting its primary genre of self-understanding from that of heroic sacrifice and structural achievement to a redemptive motif of becoming a healing, reconciling community for the nation.

Life-story research tells us that one of the marks of generative adults, and by extension resilient communities of faith, is how they choose to interpret and overcome tragedy or loss. Is the chronic illness of a beloved rabbi seen as a tragic blow to the synagogue, or as the climax of a romantic tale of mutual affection and esteem? Is a level-four conflict in a congregation interpreted by the judicatory as a tragic and fatal illness, or as an ongoing comedy of errors with restorative hope? The genre and motifs one uses are more than “lenses,” as they actually arrange the facts and possible responses into new paradigms of meaning and action.

Principle 4: Reconstructive narratives appeal to a canonical understanding of tradition but invite its disruption and renegotiation as a sign of the tradition’s vitality.

Almost all narratives draw on an established body of storytelling, plot lines, and interpretations. Folk storytellers, for example, often draw on the plots and characters of the fairy- and folktales of their culture: brave princes, cunning villains, noble princesses, and the like. Good storytellers, however, often provide a new cadence, character details, or a turn of plot that makes each re-telling novel. Narrative leaders exploit the elasticity of stories—and the traditions they represent—by culling new details, values, and plot outcomes from them. Recasting David as a repentant, humbled leader rather than as a dashing hero
opens up new avenues of response to him.

Likewise, congregations need to re-examine their established “canons” of tradition and custom so they can be challenged and renewed at points in their life. For example, in his article in this issue of Congregations (see page 30), Alban senior consultant Bob Leventhal likens the conflict in one synagogue to the story of Jacob deceiving his father Isaac for a blessing (Gen. 27:23). When the congregation was upset about the loss of a staff member, they “spoke in disguise,” like Jacob, until the consultant and leaders realized they had major issues with the long-standing rabbi. Their customary canon of loyalty and noncriticism of authority had to be reconfigured in order for the true issues and multiple perspectives to surface, so they could be constructively engaged.

Only as the canons of custom and tradition are broken open and reconfigured can religious communities revitalize their frameworks of faith for changing contexts. Furthermore, by opening these renewed traditions to public engagement and critical dialogue, the faith can gain a new voice and credibility in public life.

These four principles of narrative leadership in ministry, congregational life, and public mission provide a guiding framework for how narrative retrieval, reconstruction, and presentation in ministry unfold. Given these principles about time, collaboration, genre, and canon, what are the implications for identifying and nurturing narrative leaders in ministry today?

Intentions of Narrative Leadership

During the Alban project, we have watched narrative leaders at work and heard their stories in a variety of congregational contexts. Through our conversations with pastors, educators, and congregational leaders, we have identified seven key intentions that inform the narrative work of ministry and congregational life. Our thesis is that the more pastors, leaders, and congregations exercise these “narrative intentions” with care, the deeper and more renewing their stories of faith will become. The narrative intentions of ministry are:

  • Living and Sharing God’s Story as Leaders: Are clergy and key laity aware of their own faith journeys, and do they use them intentionally and appropriately as a resource for the congregation’s own story of growth or change? How authentic, transparent, and fitting are leaders in using their story with God to unlock doors of possibility in the community’s story with God?
  • Hearing People’s Stories and Linking Them with God’s Story: Do leaders help members see analogies between biblical stories of change and their own lives, in ways that unlock new insight and choices? Do they have a redemptive motif or consistent strategy that informs the various forms of narrative work with individuals in pastoral care, education, preaching, and liturgy?
  • Creating a Community of Storytellers and Actors: What opportunities do congregation (and community) members have to tell their stories of faith in public, and to hear those of others? How can the congregation become a “listening post” for the stories and gifts of others so they can create a larger community of celebration and acting upon those passions?
  • Reframing Traditions and the Past for a Healthy Future: How often does a congregation have the chance to re-examine its assumed traditions and values? When crises erupt, do leaders help the community “externalize the problem” in story form so they can make decisions about how to change or respond to that story with new or redemptive motifs?
  • Engaging the World’s Stories with Stories of Faith: Which of the world’s stories—from consumerism to scientism to fundamentalism—do pastors, leaders, and their congregations “take on” as challenges (or as allies) to the faith? How do they marshal the narrative traditions of the faith to offer an alternative response to the world’s destructive claims?
  • Discerning God’s Call to a New Story in this Place: Are personal testimony and communal storytelling used as resources to forge the “next chapter” in a congregation’s identity and mission? What strengths, redemptive motifs, and discoveries of faith in the congregation and community are being tapped by God toward a new future and mission?
  • Embodying the Congregation’s Story in Renewed Practices: As new stories of change and future mission emerge, how well are established practices re-energized with the new narrative? What new congregational practices—of hospitality, healing, discernment, or justice, for example—are needed to embody this new story?This description of the narrative intentions of ministry begins with the person of the leader and moves outward toward the people—the congregation and public life—then back again to the heart of congregational vision and practices. Perhaps these intentions are best viewed as a series of concentric circles that flow outward, but in ways that reflect back upon the heart of congregational life and practice. Pastors, leaders, and their congregations may enter this movement, however, anywhere along the path, depending on the ministry situation or context they presently face.

Imagining a New Story for Ministry

Above all, we have learned two things so far in this project. First, that the greater the synergy created between biblical, personal, and community storytelling, the more these various levels of story work can be tapped for revitalizing churches and synagogues in America. It takes more than a “plan” or a “vision” to move a congregation. It requires instead a flow of conversations that allow a culture of storytelling and discernment to be created—a new kind of collective narrative imagination.

Secondly, the more intentional pastors, leaders, and congregations are about the kind of stories they tell, listen to, and act upon, the more power can be marshaled from these stories for new, strategic directions. Congregational practices and mission can be strategically engaged with clear motifs of redemption and renewal. But the narrative forms of such intent move well beyond “goals and objectives.” Instead, they allow the story of congregational life and mission to renew itself and its leaders to exercise adaptive change in ever new and shifting situations.

It is not enough any more, if it ever was, simply to “tell the Story” of God’s love and redemptive power. Instead we must let the Story loose to engage the stories of countless individuals, communities of faith, and public life, so that they and the Story itself can be renewed.

NOTES1. Paul Auster, The Locked Room (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).
2. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979).
3. Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: BasicBooks, 1991).
4. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 289.
5. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 207.
6. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 11.
7. Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004), 95.
8. Craig Dykstra, “The Pastoral Imagination,” in Initiatives in Religion, 2001, 9 (1), and Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation (Herndon, VA: Alban Inst
itute, 2004).
9. Bass, The Practicing Congregation, 98.
10. Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 42.
11. Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
12. Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: BasicBooks, 1996).
13. Mary Doak, Reclaiming Narrative for Public Theology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).

More on this topic

Tod Bolsinger: Navigating Change

In the first episode o...

The joy of administration

Yes, you read that correctly...