In The Languarge of God (Free Press, 2006), Francis S. Collins, the leader of the Human Genome Project, provides a passing account about the narrative failure of a pastor. Invited to speak at an annual men’s dinner at a “highly regarded Protestant church” just outside the District of Columbia, the world-class geneticist told his audience the story of breaking “the code of life” by spelling out the three billion letters of human DNA. Then he engaged in conversation with those invited to the church supper about the remarkable harmony he had found between the worlds of science and faith. He told his audience that the discoveries he had participated in as he led one of the greatest research projects in the history of science, along with those made by his predecessors in the fields of molecular biology, evolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, and astronomy, did not challenge his faith in God. On the contrary, his work in the laboratory convinced him that he was learning to read the language of God, and that what God had to say through the letters of the genome corresponded with what he read in his Bible.
As Collins tells the story, the conversation went well until one church member turned to the congregation’s senior pastor and asked “whether he believed that the first chapter of Genesis was a literal, step-by-step, day-by-day description of the origins of the earth and of humankind.” Most clergy have faced many such “fish or cut bait” moments. And most could predict what happened next. “In an instant,” Collins reports, “brows furrowed and jaws tightened. Harmony retreated to the far corners of the room. The pastor’s carefully worded response, worthy of the most deft politician, managed utterly to avoid answering the question. Most of the men looked relieved that a confrontation had been avoided, but the spell was broken.”
This small incident, which merits only a paragraph in the 300 pages of Collins’ important book, seems trivial in light of the size of the author’s achievement or the major argument he is making—that the so-called war between science and religion is unnecessary, and
that the 45 percent of Americans who answered the 2004 Gallup Poll’s question about human origins by choosing the answer “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” are choosing both bad science and bad faith. To overlook these larger purposes would be to slight the author and his accomplishments. Collins’ book should be talked about in congregations all over this country.
But for now, let’s focus on the small breakdown. Those of us who live in congregations, or who lead them, know that moments like this occur all the time. How often do we hear sermons in which a preacher dances up to the edge of a text’s real import for those sitting in the pews and then stops short? In Bible classes, congregational meetings, pastoral counseling sessions, and parking lot conversations, pastors and parishioners alike meet moments when the faith traditions they value fail to connect with the real-life issues of the day. Sometimes the personal and congregational narratives that shape their lives are interrupted by tragic events like the suicide of a member, a car accident that takes the life of a high school student, or the misconduct of a trusted congregational leader. At other times a troubling moral issue is too hot to handle, so the congregation dances around it or changes the subject. Each of these moments reveals a moment of narrative breakdown. In some cases, a life story is interrupted by unexpected events. In other cases, a religious worldview is challenged by new discoveries or an encounter with evil. In either case, one feels that the life story he or she was living no longer works.
It is easy to blame pastors for sidestepping the hard issues, as the pastor in Collins’ church supper story did when asked about the Creation account. And sometimes pastors, and all of us in leadership positions, lack the courage or competence to risk exposing the breakdown that exists in people’s lives and then attempting to make a breakthrough. But sometimes the problem is not a lack of courage. Often the congregation is so polarized on an issue, and so frightened by conflict, that stating one’s candid position may lead to greater breakdown in the lives of individual parish members and the congregation itself. Sometimes the problem is not an individual leader’s lack of courage. Instead, it may be the deep fear and absence of trust on the part of the congregation—its weak relational infrastructure—that stands in the way.
The irony in Collins’ story is that the congregational breakdown occurred at the very moment when someone else (in this case, a scientist whose own life story is about his pilgrimage from atheism to faith) is trying to help others make a breakthrough. If we look carefully and honestly at our lives and our congregations, most of us will find that our lives are not entirely of either the breakdown or the breakthrough variety. Instead, we live in a dynamic situation, where breakdown and breakthrough happen simultaneously.
Great things are at stake in these moments of narrative breakdown and breakthrough. In the case of Collins, the great thing at stake was whether our congregations (recall the Gallup statistic above) are going to be places that let people live with an intelligence failure worse than the one that informed our national decision to invade Iraq.
Two years ago, I led a workshop on the public role of congregations for a group of denominational leaders. I held up Jimmy Carter’s book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (Simon and Schuster, 2005) as an example of how a single congregation member (in this case a former President) was attempting to state clearly his deepest convictions and then stimulate honest dialogue about the most pressing moral issues in our time. Then I told my audience that I thought our congregations should be places where such searching self-examination and candid conversation took place. One pastor, trembling with frustration, shot back, “My congregation is the last place where that could happen.”
When our congregations go silent or dance around serious issues, people get hurt. When no one confronts the addict, that person continues to hurt him- or herself and others. When no one talks about racism or sexism or the environmental crisis or the costs of American materialism, individuals, societies, nations, and even the earth itself are wounded, and sometimes destroyed. When people are stuck in destructive narratives that allow them to deceive themselves, that deny reality, and that hurt others, the choice they, and we, make between changing the subject or entering the encounter with breakdown can be a life-and-death one.
Our congregations can also experience another kind of narrative breakdown. On more than one occasion, I have worked with a vestry or church council on a particular issue only to find that the pastor and the key lay leaders do not share a story that can move them ahead. Instead, these groups operate with partially hidden individual stories—with very different beginnings, middles, and endings—that do not go in the same direction. The congregation cannot move forward because they are entangled in contending untold stories. The consequences are frustrated leaders, congregations mired in deadening routine, and little real difference being made in the larger world.
What about the other side of the narrative dynamic? What about breakthrough? The church supper story told by Francis Collins was a small breakdown moment in a much larger breakthrough story that has shaped his personal and professional life. Our congregations teem with breakthrough moments. An addict moves through the painful journey from breakdown to breakthrough via a Twelve Step Program. A bitterly alienated couple works with a marriage counselor and begins to shape a new story out
of the fragments of ones that had broken down. Our faith traditions carry big words like repentance, conversion, and resurrection to signal an expectation that individual, congregational, national, and even global stories can change and come to life in new ways.
One congregation in particular comes to mind as I think about the narrative dynamics of congregational life. In the dark days of World War II, when the national and personal stories of the people of Europe, Russia, the U.S., and all around the world broke down in the face of the Nazi juggernaut, one small church in the French village of Le Chambon had a breakthrough. This village of 3,000 managed to save 5,000 refugees (2,500 of them Jews) from the occupying Nazis all around them.
The story of Le Chambon’s breakthrough is carefully told in Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (Harper Perennial, 1994). An out-of- the-way town in southern France, Le Chambon carried the imprint of the Huguenots (French Protestants dating back to the time of the Reformation) in its more than 300-year story. This group of Protestants (a tiny minority in mostly Catholic or secular France) did something that almost no one else did. They practiced a kind of hospitality to strangers that could have cost them their lives. As the 1940s unfolded they built a school and surrounded it with a network of almost 20 houses where the targets of the Nazi death squads could live safely. They mastered the use of fake identification cards and kept their underground sanctuaries from being discovered even though the Nazis suspected that something was going on.
How did they do it? At least part of the answer is what I will call the narrative leadership of Pastor Andrew Trocmé and his wife Magda. In their years of ministry in that village, they took a small, quiet town and helped it live a new story. (In his autobiographical notes, Trocmé felt the town was moving toward “death, death, death, and the pastor was entrusted with helping the village die.”) Through countless everyday acts they shaped a new story that saved lives while the rest of France (and most of the world) were mired in their broken narratives of fear and despair. Pastor Trocmé preached sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan and called his people to resist and cherish life. He formed a leadership group of 13 townspeople who met bi-weekly to learn how to transform a sleepy village into a city of refuge. At the heart of the effort was what Philip Hallie called the “kitchen struggle” for the imagination of the citizens. At one kitchen table after another, Trocmé and the other congregational leaders demonstrated what pastoral calling really can be. They engaged in a kind of nitty-gritty spiritual conversation that made Le Chambon the breakthrough place it became.
The story of Le Chambon is full of high drama. The night the Gestapo arrested Trocmé, the villagers gathered outside his house and bade their pastor farewell, presenting him with gifts for prison and singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” This story is one I shall never forget. But the deeper story is that, through a whole set of basic leadership behaviors, practices, and actions, a powerful, life-giving narrative came to life. Pastor Trocmé instinctively knew what we have been discovering in Alban’s Narrative Leadership Project: that everything he did and said as a pastor was narrative work. And he proved—through the full, many-layered work he did—that narrative work was life-giving.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.