A story is a spoken or written account of connected events. These connected events create a plot—a thread of unfolding happenings starting with an intention to head somewhere, followed by a phase of uncertainty, unpredictability, or crisis, and, finally, ending in a resolution. You can see this sequence in the story above. The plot leads hearers to ask, “What happened next?” The plot occurs within the teller’s sense of “this is the way the world is.” The teller has gathered pieces of information and organized them into a plot that fits her world view. The plot is moved forward by human—or humanlike—characters. The more detailed the plot, the more the personality of the characters is revealed.
Other elements shape a story; two of these are context and purpose. The context is the circumstance that prompts one to tell the story. In the story of Alice, the context was the collective experience of the accident. The purpose is the reason the storyteller tells it. The purpose for telling this story was to help the group talk about and emotionally assimilate a disturbing event. Two other purposes came into view as the stories unfolded. The telling helped knit together the relationships in this new group. It also helped the group see that “there’s always more than one story.”
When we tell a story of an event or series of events, we are selective. We choose only parts of an event for the plot, for we cannot possibly round up every detail of what occurred. Out of all the things that took place in the accident event, each person could collect and tell only a fraction of the total. When each one of us assembled the information for the story, we created our own version of what happened. Each version was different because each person was collecting and arranging different bits of information. As group members crafted their stories of the accident, these stories were shaped by other ongoing personal narratives. So, for example, when Will stepped into the street to direct traffic, he wondered whether any members of his congregation would pass by. What would go through their minds? In a way the congregation joined him in the street, and their presence shaped Will’s version of the accident.
We select, reject, connect, pare, smooth out, lengthen this, compress that, and tidy up a messy conglomeration of information to create a story of what happened—with this car accident or any other event in our lives. And most of the information about the event lies about us on the cutting room floor. We walk off with our story, leave the remains on the floor, and go on our way. We seldom notice we’ve left so much behind. In this situation, however, we had the chance to hear ten other people’s accounts and to see that they had gathered pieces of information we hadn’t noticed and had created a film somewhat different from ours.
This gap between what actually took place and what people can tell of it is the space where a narrative approach does its primary work. Much like a movie editor trying to find essential pieces of film for a scene, a curious person can go to that heap of neglected information on the cutting room floor and find other narratives—stories that may reinforce or challenge the one that’s been told. In our work with clergy, we’ve found that material from the cutting room floor often provides a story about the minister’s strength, courage, and resourcefulness that isn’t in the version being told.
Ben, from whom we’ve already heard, told his clergy group about two women in his community who were preparing Meals on Wheels in their church kitchen. They were attacked and stabbed by a young African American man. Later one of the women died. The city was already a tinderbox of racial tension. African American and white ministers in the community responded by organizing a series of interracial evening services. Ben said that an idea emerged for a love feast service to express the unity of the faith community and its commitment to put an end to violence. When Ben told this story, members of his clergy peer group began to ask: Who came up with the idea of the love feast? It was Ben. Who organized that service? Ben did. Who was exercising ongoing community leadership? Ben was. His peers went to the cutting room floor and retrieved information that he in turn had left out of this story. It went against his nature to claim these things; however, the group encouraged him to accept and appreciate these neglected parts of his vital leadership role.
The eliciting of missing details from Ben’s story by listeners is a case of thickening a thin narrative. His first telling of the story was a thin account that omitted his personal role in the clergy group’s response to the tragedy. His clergy peers weren’t satisfied to accept the thin version. They took a curious, not-knowing stance toward Ben’s account. That is a central idea in narrative theory: Approach stories with curiosity and don’t assume you know the situation. Stay on the curious side of things. You never know what you will uncover in the heap of information that’s been left on the floor.
Adapted from Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
This week – Featured Resources 30% off
Member discounts do not apply | Discount taken in shopping cart
ONLINE ORDERS ONLY | Valid through September 1, 2013
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 ..
Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony
by Lillian Daniel
When a study group at the seemingly traditional Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, Connecticut, read about the practice of testimony, members approached the descriptions of people sharing their faith as if they were reading an anthropology article—an intriguing account about what other people from some entirely different culture did. During the 2000 Lenten season, however, the congregation slowly began exploring the practice of testimony—a practice that would eventually revitalize their worship and transform their congregational culture.
Living Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture
Larry A. Golemon, editor
There is power in a good story well told. In Finding Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change , Alban consultants tell how they use story to help congregations heal, strengthen, and reinvent themselves. Part of the Narrative Leadership collection.
When God Speaks Through You: How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission
by Craig A. Satterlee
Frank, straightforward guidance for clergy seeking to develop a sound theology of money and skills for church administration, Ministry and Money also puts forth a new strategy for self-care, and a confident approach to managing both personal and congregational finances. Alban Senior Consultant and author Dan Hotchkiss wants to help clergy overcome their own anxieties about money matters so they can help others address the personal, social, and congregational aspects of this challenging and often difficult topic.
This is your chance to take this popular, skill-and-tool-filled in-depth seminar. This repeat of last March’s sold-out seminar will fill up fast.
Stepping up to Staffing and Supervision
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
October 1-3, 2013, Hilton Gardens (airport) Hotel, Phoenix, AZ
Copyright © 2013 the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please complete our reprint permission request form .
Subscribe to the Alban Weekly.
Archive of past issues of the Alban Weekly.