Ministry in the biblical traditions has utilized stories of faith for identity and renewal since its beginning. Jews celebrate the founding story of the exodus in their homes each Sabbath, and their tradition is laced with rabbinical midrash. Early Christians put the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus into the story forms of preaching, liturgy, and a unique genre called the Gospels. Narrative forms and storytelling are so much a part of Jewish and Christian practice, in fact, that most congregations take them for granted.
While stories of faith are second nature to local congregations, American popular culture has learned to exploit them in powerful ways. Bluegrass, gospel, country, and even hip-hop render images and stories of faith in new musical idioms. Hollywood and Broadway have capitalized on stories of faith in classics like The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and television captured the faith craze in hit series like Touched by an Angel (1994–2003). Public tragedies bring an outpouring of popular sentiment laced with religion—as in the death of Princess Diana in 1997 or the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, while popular culture and practice recognize the power of faith stories to address modern life, many churches and synagogues have yet to recognize the potential of their own narrative work for revitalizing religious traditions and practices.
At the Alban Institute, we believe the time has come to lift up the power of these narrative traditions and the art of story crafting and performance as primary resources for congregational leadership and renewal. For two years, the Alban Institute engaged in the Narrative Leadership project, research made possible by the Luce Foundation, which involved pastors, lay leaders, seminary educators, and several congregations in an exploration of the narrative resources and activities of ministry. We tapped the growing expertise of Alban consultants in narrative theory and practice. Through it all, the power of storytelling and narrative approaches to leadership have convinced us that this is a groundbreaking 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 for the current age.
The Narrative Situation
The playwright Paul Auster wrote, “Stories happen to people who are able to tell them.” Otherwise, stuff and crises “happen” to them. People who learn to shape life experiences into narrative form find patterns of meaning and response open to them. 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 funds 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 of contemporary society, like Jean-Francois Lyotard, argue that the “master narratives” that shaped modern, Enlightenment society—for example, the reflective self, historical progress, universal reason, and the enlightenment of science—have eroded or collapsed. 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 larger framing narratives are missing, people are bombarded by an endless stream of images, vignettes, and emotional moments in this media-driven culture, to the point that many become experiential receptacles, or what psychologist Kenneth Gergen calls “saturated selves.” Others learn to role-play 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, new forms of narrative construction arise to fill the void. The moral philosopher Charles Taylor describes how self-narration arose in the modern period to replace or reconstruct older, inherited schemes: “[One] 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. To form a rich, personal, and life-giving narrative, one must construct a sense of spatial location in the world from which direction and agency can spring. This happens only by mapping that world through story.
Two of the narrative “sources of the self” that Taylor identifies appear to be at odds with each other in the American context. The Romantic tradition—through writers like Emerson, landscape painting, and the modern novel—elevates “expressive individualism” as the primary form of self-narration. This form of personal narrative seeps into popular culture through the lone hero in film (like Rambo or Jason Bourne), the self-realization movement in pop psychology, and new age spirituality. The communitarian tradition elevates social practices and belonging—through traditional religion, ethnic community, generational affinity, or nationalism—as the primary locus of identity. The explosion of virtual communities in online chat rooms, Facebook, blogs, and Twitter is an attempt to build new, nonspatial communities as a place to construct one’s own story.
A new focus on the narrative leadership and the narrative work of ministry can develop congregations as a primary source for place-forming narratives in American society. Lifting up congregations as story-formed and forming communities draws upon the strength of communitarianism to locate personal identity within a given community. Lifting up the power of personal narratives to reshape congregational traditions and practice draws upon the strength of individualism to link moral agency and meaning with living narratives of one’s own making. In short, we believe the time has come for a community-based individualism in American religious life—one made possible by a new emphasis on the power of story in local congregations.
Narrative leadership in American churches and synagogues 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 congregational life, then his or her sense of moral agency to make a difference in that world can be enhanced. If congregations can encourage community-based individualism among their members, their personal stories will be entwined with that primary community and they will learn a form of story linking that can extend to other areas of their life: from family to work to civic engagement. As Christian and Jewish congregations become intentional story-forming communities, they can shape the lives of millions of Americans as generative, faithful, and civic-minded adults.
Adapted from Teaching Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Pastoral Formation, edited by Larry A. Golemon, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Other articles from the Narrative Leadership Collection:
Living the Story by Diana Butler Bass
Alban Weekly #131, January 22, 2007
Expeditions into What is Possible by Larry Peers
Alban Weekly #271, October 5, 2009
The Pastor as Narrative Leader by N. Graham Standish
Alban Weekly #284, January 4, 2010
Getting to the Heart of the Matter by Susan Beaumont
Alban Weekly #285, January 11, 2010
The Narrative Leadership Collection
Edited by Larry A. Golemon
The Alban Institute introduces a new series on the power of story in leading congregations. Edited by Larry A. Golemon, this collection brings together authors, teachers, preachers, and consultants to address the topic of narrative leadership and the impact it can have on a congregation.
Know Your Story and Lead with It:
The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership.
Claiming the Beatitudes:
Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, “What would the beatitudes look like today?” and “is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today’s world?” Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
When God Speaks through You:
How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission
by Craig A. Satterlee
Craig Satterlee helps congregations learn to articulate their convictions about the Christian faith and share them in a nonthreatening manner. This prepares them for broader conversation about how people’s faith convictions shape both their lives and the congregation’s worship, life together, and mission.
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