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.”2
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 that needs to be understood more deeply.
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, 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.” 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.
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.”3 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 congregation galvanizes, directs, and provides leadership.
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 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 toward 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 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. The new story, however, does not always have all members’ agreement. In fact, the new collaboration is often th
e 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 congregations do need to be decisive and able to make decisions at appropriate moments. But the truer act of leadership in the faith community 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 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. Ibid., 18
3. Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), xi.
4. Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2003).
Adapted from “Telling the Better Story” in Leadership in Congregations, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
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