Research has shown that leaders of large congregations deal with much more complex daily management issues than do small church pastors. But how do they do so while still providing a leadership that shapes a community of faith out of a diverse group of gathered people? This question is still being explored, but one answer that appears to be emerging is that effective visionary leaders of large congregations tell stories.
In a stunning article written in 1987, J. Gordon Kingsley, then president of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, tried to answer the question of what a college president does.1 Naturally, he acknowledged all of the business of leading: the meetings, the phone calls, the handshakes, the presentations, the dinners, the budgets, the spreadsheets, the personnel issues—the list goes on. But, having summarized the activities and tasks of a president, Kingsley made the claim that all of this is still not at the heart of what a college president does. In claiming the central purpose of the president’s role, Kingsley turned to images of the bard, the poet, “the solitary singer galvanizing a people to noble, even heroic action by the power of Their Story” (p. 18). With conviction, and with a suitably convincing telling, Kingsley wrote that the real work of the president is to learn the story of the college in order to tell its story—to help others find their place in that story, so that they can become participants in writing the college’s next chapter. Kingsley was pointing to the critical difference between all of the management activities that determine how an organization fulfills its purpose and the critical leadership skill of being able to give voice to why an organization fulfills its purpose.
I would argue that Kingsley’s thinking has direct application not only to colleges and their presidents, but also to congregations and their leaders. Learning, telling, and rewriting the story of the congregation is, I believe, a key and critical practice of leadership in the large congregation that needs to be understood more deeply. Attention to congregational size confirms that leaders in large congregations must develop more administrative and organizational forms of leadership. This shift challenges the management skills and capacities of many large congregation leaders, who are suddenly responsible for a complex organization with often competing differences and a sensitivity to quality and performance—all of which can no longer be negotiated by simply getting people together to agree, as is often done in small churches. Indeed, it is essential for large congregation leaders to master many of the organizational and administrative tasks named by Kingsley as the responsibility of a president of a college. But still we are not talking of leadership—of what makes the community “hum,” gives action purpose, gives faith meaning, makes ministry live.
Increasingly, I believe I am watching leadership surface in a new way as leaders tell the stories of their congregations. The effective use of story is leadership that goes well beyond efficient and effective organizational management. To be sure, large congregations require effective management, but a well-run organization does not call a person to personal searching, nor a community to reach beyond its own comfort for greater purpose.
The Power of Story
In the story of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, Mordecai learns of a plot to destroy the Jews. Haman, an officer of King Ahasuerus, plots against the Jews because Mordecai, himself a Jew, will not bow down before him as did all the other servants of the king. When Mordecai, knowing that all will be lost if the king is not alerted, charges Esther with going to the king in her role as queen to plead on behalf of the Jews, Esther shrinks from the task because she has not been summoned to speak with the king, a considerable problem since those who speak uninvited are subject to death. But Mordecai is not put off. He retells Esther’s own story in a way to empower and embolden her. “Who knows?” he says. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” In his retelling he shifts Esther’s understanding of herself from one of powerlessness as one of the servants of the king to a position of power in which she sees herself in a role of royal dignity. She is moved from fear to courage—all in the retelling of who she is.
Powerful stories do not need to be long and elaborate. Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, came upon two brothers, Simon and Andrew, who were fishermen. “Follow me,” he said to them, “and I will make you fishers of men.” In this very brief retelling of Simon and Andrew’s stories, Jesus used simple wordplay (from fishermen to fishers of men) and the first disciples answered the call and set out to do things they had never before dreamed of.
There are modern-day examples of the power of even the simplest story, as well. For instance, in a community divided by factions, one congregation realized that they were a safe place for all parties to meet, so they began to tell their story as the town “meeting place.” This retelling of their place in the community shifted them from a passive role to one of active ministry in reconciling groups with contentious differences.
Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, writes that when one thinks of the leader “as a storyteller, whose stories must wrestle with those that are already operative in the minds of the audience, one obtains a powerful way of conceptualizing the work of leading.”2 Gardner says the visionary leader doesn’t just rehearse or retell an existing story but, having learned the story of the people, actually creates a new story that produces change. Jesus took simple Galilean fishermen and gave them a better story to live: as fishers of men. Similarly, the “better story” told effectively and embodied authentically by the leader of the large congregation galvanizes, directs, and provides leadership.
Old Centers No Longer Hold
The people participating in large congregations are less and less able to find a common center around the links that once held people in congregational community together. Personal family relationships, ethnic identity, a shared denominational history or identity, polity—the way of “doing church”—or a neighborhood location were ways in the past by which the people in a congregation could share a commonly held center. While these centers can still hold in smaller congregations, they have, for the most part, disappeared in the large congregation. People are drawn to large congregations for the multiple opportunities and choices among programs, for the alternative worship settings they represent, and for the small group connection with others like them that they offer, all of which underscore the differences that people bring to the congregation rather than providing a common center that all share.
Increasingly, what seems to form the new center in the large congregation is the story—the narrative of who we are as a congregation, as a people of faith. The story that one large congregation tells is of being a place where people of great theological and social differences can gather, but where discernment and decisions will come from their center as a part of the reformed Christian movement. People of great differences in this congregation know that they are welcome, but that their congregation will behave in a way guided by tradition. The story that another large congregation tells is one that begins in the moments of high risk taken during the turmoil of the national civil rights movement in the United States. Participants know that their congregation, true to its history, will continue to seek social justice on a wide number of fronts, not all of which they will agree upon. To be sure, there are many smaller stories in each of these large congregations t
hat serve as examples and evidence of how the larger story of “who we are” rings true. The power of the story in the large congregation is that people can share a sense of “belonging” as long as they can see themselves in and as part of the larger story, yet they do not need to be in agreement or share great similarities with everyone else.
In one large urban congregation in the middle of a large metropolitan city, where people of very great differences live day by day, the central unifying story is one of the gathering together of great diversity. Members of the congregation see their church as having received this location as a gift from God, so they include in their congregation a very wide range of people of different ages, races, economic means, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, political alignments, and theological backgrounds, and they encourage people to hold these differences proudly. Like many large congregations, they are able to hold all the tension of their differences because the individual participants do not need to engage all of these differences directly. Participants can appreciate the differences present in the congregation, but because the congregation is large and provides multiple small groups and task forces with focused purpose, individuals can make their deeper connections in subgroups of people that they find to be much more like themselves. The idea of a fully diverse congregation and the visible witness to their differences can easily be seen in public moments, such as times of worship. But members and participants in the large congregation do not need to reconcile all of these differences. Diversity can be appreciated in the large gathering and in the identity of the congregation. But individual participants then commonly participate in small group programs with the people with whom they have the most in common—such as the people focused on public policy, the people centered on spiritual healing, the people who are gay and lesbian, or the people committed to neighborhood mission. Reflecting on the tension between the diversity of the whole and the similarities sought out in smaller groups, the senior pastor observed that “belonging” is never negotiated in the congregation. As long as individuals are able to see themselves in the congregation’s story about the inclusion of the great differences in God’s creation they can both participate themselves and welcome the participation of others who do not share their particular interests or life experiences.
Connection, Resonance, Meaning
Clearly, leadership is not telling people what they want to hear. It is not creating the story with enough “spin” to manipulate people for personal or congregational advantage. Leadership happens when the leader tells a story sufficiently healthy, authentic, and purposeful for others to feel connection, respond with resonance, and find greater meaning. Connection happens when people are able to say to themselves, “I see myself in that story.” Connection seems not to rely upon full agreement or a need for compliance from others. To feel like a part of the larger whole seems to be enough.
Resonance suggests that the historicity or accuracy of the story is not as important as the question of whether or not it rings true. When the story rings true it enables the listeners to generate a new way of thinking and acting that embraces—and even advances—the truth the story represents.3
Meaning suggests that a purposefulness is found in the story. We increasingly understand faith and religion as a doorway to creating meaning in our lives. Much has been written about the spiritual search for meaning that has taken hold in a postmodern, post-9/11 world that found materialism and consumption to be empty and science and technology to be incomplete by themselves. The life-giving story has to point beyond ourselves and our congregation to some greater purpose. As such, the empowering story of the congregation must be connected to the much larger story of our faith.
Telling a Congregation’s Story
How do leaders provide story leadership? The most probable answer to that question is that they do so intuitively. Good leaders in large congregations seem to just know the power of story and intuitively learn to use the congregation’s story to shape the community and guide ministry. Narrative theory applied to organizations, institutions, and community has not been public long enough to give a rich language to this leadership by story. Nonetheless, there is a structure and a process that leaders bring to the authentic telling of the story. In this brief article, that structure might be captured simply in the notion of learning, challenging, and collaborating.
The first movement of leading by story is to learn the story that is currently being lived. This is leadership by listening—listening to how a people talk about themselves: the metaphors they use, the way in which behavior and attitude do or do not match their words, the memories captured and retold, and also the memories forgotten or denied. The leader, at this stage, does the homework of the objective, or dispassionate, learner, whose task is to capture the larger picture of this congregation in the real context of its own history, its changing environment, and in a shifting culture. The leader learns what is said and unsaid, seen and unseen, and willingly searches for connections to the biblical text and to spiritual practices.
Having listened, the leader then begins to tell the story of what was learned. In this second movement of leadership, the retelling task of the leader is always directed to helping the people find and live the “better” story of their future. To be in relationship with God, who believes that we can ever be more than we presently are, means to submit our stories of who we are to the challenge of the story of who we might be. So the leader shifts from the listening mode to the talking mode. As the story is retold, the leader challenges whether there can be more or less to the story—more health, more depth, more meaning, or less fear, less caution, less control. This period of challenge produces anxiety for all, including the leader. When our stories are challenged our identity is questioned, and this is experienced as a moment of chaos. What was once known is now uncertain, and what was once home is now wilderness. We all do not behave at our best in such anxiety, so the leader must provide support and safety along with the challenge of the retelling in order to help the people stay with and live into their new story.
The third movement of leadership by story comes as leader and people together use what they have learned to collaborate on the new telling of the story or the writing of its next chapter. Some large congregations use formal planning processes at this collaborative stage. Planning is a prime opportunity for the congregation to rehearse the formation questions of ministry that rest at the center: Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor?4 Some leaders use focusing moments such as leadership retreats since these are times to step away from daily duties and consider the “big picture” that allows for thinking about the future in a new way. Leaders will commonly use the established paths of structured conversations that come out of sermons, teaching moments, staff meetings, and governing board discussions. The new telling or the next chapter often has the energy that ignites passion in people, and a clarity that attracts people. In the large congregation, the new story does not always have all members’ agreement. In fact, the new collaboration is often the product of and dependent upon the ongoing argument and accommodation that will continue into the future as a way to shape and sharpen the story.
But is it Leadership?
The North American assumption of leadership is that it must be decisive and directive, a kind of leadership in which
the single leader points a direction that others cannot see. Leaders in large congregations do need to be decisive and able to make decisions at appropriate moments. But the truer act of leadership in the faith community—particularly in large, diverse congregations—is to stand with a people to discern together a future that is faithful to God’s call. The importance of shaping and claiming the story of identity and purpose in the large congregation stands out as even greater than the management tasks of budget, personnel, and program development. It is the leadership that stands at the center of the congregation.
1. J. Gordon Kingsley, “The President as Bard,” AGB Reports, July/August 1987, 18–21.
2. Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), xi.
3. Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations (Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2001), 38.
4. Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2003).