To effect deep change, leaders must be able to stand outside the dominant story of whatever it is we are trying to change—rather than being so immersed in it that we cannot truly observe how to lead a particular group in a particular situation. Ron Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers, often talks about this as being able to take a balcony perspective. I have found the tools and perspectives of narrative therapy especially useful in helping clergy begin to get up on the balcony and become different observers of their situations, allowing for different actions and different results to become possible.

Recognizing the Problem-Saturated Story 

One of the primary kinds of stories that takes hold in congregations and makes change difficult is what is known in narrative therapy as the “problem-saturated story,” or one in which the focus is on who or what is or has been wrong.

You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is in the congregation and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is. We can almost hear ourselves saying, even if the words aren’t verbalized, “You think that’s bad, let me tell you how it is even worse than that!”

Problem-saturated stories have the impact of being taken as fact rather than as a narrative created by a particular sifting of facts.

As leaders, we can easily succumb to the power of the problem-saturated story and, in fact, can become the main storyteller—if not the main character—in many of these stories. I have often noticed in clergy groups that a pastor or rabbi will tell a story about his or her congregation and seek support from others. In response to some well-intentioned advice from colleagues, the clergyperson often goes deeper into why these suggestions wouldn’t work—or delves into more of the problem story. At this point even the helpers may chime in with sympathetic remarks about how desperate and despairing situations like this can be.

In moments like these, I help to spoil the pity party. I ask questions like, “What would someone else in the congregation say? What would the newest or longest member of the congregation say about this situation?” “What would a child say?” or, better yet, “What would someone who disagrees with your version of events say about this situation?”

In asking these obnoxious questions, I am merely trying to point out the possibility of multiple perspectives and to introduce various versions of the story in order to interrupt the trance of the problem-saturated story, at least momentarily. I also want to give the clergyperson an opportunity to take on the perspective of a different observer.

Sometimes just recognizing the dynamic of the problem-saturated story can release people from its mesmerizing effect and allow them to stand outside of it. Other times, taking on a different perspective allows the leader to recognize that the observer they have been offers only one of many perspectives. Shifting the observer can often reveal different actions that are available and different results that are possible.

Externalizing versus Personalizing 

A feature of the problem-saturated story within a congregation is that often there is a villain, a problem child, an unmensch.

There is usually a tendency to personalize what is going on in such a way that conveys the message that if only “so and so” would change, all would be well. In congregations, the tendency is to give this distinguished place of dishonor to the clergy or to a group of leaders, a group within the congregation, or even an individual. In my consulting work, I often hear the phrase “those people” used to refer to those considered the “problem children” in the congregation. From narrative training, we begin to see that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem—and, indeed, it is our relationship to the problem that is the problem.

Seeing the Exceptions 

Once leaders can externalize the problem they are facing, what often happens is that the leadership is freed up to recognize more of the situation than is usually allowed in our typical discourses about “what’s wrong with this congregation.” In the externalizing conversations, often a new kind of conversation—what Michael White, one of the originators of narrative therapy, calls a “reauthoring conversation”—begins to emerge. “Reauthoring conversations,” he explains, “invite people to continue to develop and tell stories about their lives, but they also help people to include some of the more neglected but potentially significant events and experiences that are ‘out of phase’ with their dominant storylines. These events and experiences can be considered ‘unique outcomes’ or ‘exceptions.’”1 

Singing the Songs of the Lord 

In the time of the Babylonian Exile of the Jewish people, the prophet Jeremiah could have commiserated with the problem-saturated story of a people who were in despair, far from home, and in captivity once again. Instead, he spoke the prophetic word:

Build houses to dwell in; plant gardens, and eat their fruits.

Take wives and beget sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. There you must increase in number, not decrease.

Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own (Jeremiah 29: 5-7, NAB).

In essence, he was saying, “Don’t cave in to your sense of despair and hopelessness.” He reminded them of who they were outside of the problem and encouraged them to do what they knew how to do when they were not in exile: plant gardens, start families, and promote the well-being of the place where they dwelled. These actions were the start of a new story. Jeremiah was prophetically helping the people of Israel to “reauthor” their story in the midst of exile.

The Psalmist ponders, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalms 137:4) As religious leaders, we, too, ponder how we can sing in the midst of turmoil. A narrative leader must dare to be as prophetic as Jeremiah. Even in the midst of trouble or uncertainty, the narrative leader must be able to help others stand outside the mesmerizing effects of the problem-saturated story. The narrative leader must be resilient and resourceful enough to resist internalizing the situation. Instead, by recognizing that the “problem is the problem,” the conversation the leader can facilitate is one that studies with curiosity the dynamic effects of this problem on the health, capacities, and faithfulness of the congregation.

Shifting the relationship to the problem comes only when the congregation can examine these effects and deeply and resoundingly say, “No, we don’t want to continue with these effects of the problem.” Then a threshold to a new possibility for the congregation emerges. This new threshold arises when the leader is able to ask, “What would you like instead? Where would you like to be headed?” “What would be the first sign that we are moving in that new direction?”

A narrative leader uses questions to help point a congregation toward the possibilities and directions that are inherent in a situation but often obscured by our usual problem-saturated and internalizing approaches to the situation.

The cumulative effect of the steps outlined here allow for a conversation of possibilities to emerge in what would otherwise seem like a dead-end. Margaret Wheatley, in her book Turning to One Another, underlines the power of conversation and the role of leaders in creating the kinds of conversations that can promote deep change: “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask, ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking. . . . Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”2 


Larry Peers  is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute  


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog 

1 Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 61.
2 Margaret J. Wheatley, Turning to One Another (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002), 145.

Adapted fromThe Problem Trap: A Narrative Therapy Approach to Escaping Our Limiting Stories from the Winter 2008 issue of Congregations magazine.  


AL388_SM Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership  
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 .

AL414_SM Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Leadership  
by Donald E. Zimmer 

Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.

AL278_SM Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change 
by Mark Lau Branson 

Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.

AL284_SM The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts  
by Luther K. Snow 

Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.  


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Peers,Larry 120x Aligning Strategy and Spirit: Whole Systems Leading and Planning    

Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant   

July 17-19, 2012   

Techny Towers Retreat Center, (near) Chicago, IL   

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