The Danger of a Single Storyline


storybookA client congregation is preparing for an upcoming pastoral transition. As part of that preparation we determined that it would be good to “tell the stories” of previous pastoral transitions, in the hopes of surfacing unstated assumptions and previous lessons learned in times of leadership transition.

We began by recollecting the story of a pastoral transition that had occurred twenty years earlier in the life of the congregation. It was easy for congregation leaders to tell a succinct story of success in short paragraph form. When asked to tell the story, leaders consistently recited identical phrases ending with a sunny summarization.  The problem was that the story they told left out a lot of the struggle and anxiety of that transition, which we later uncovered through an interview process with the pastor who entered the system during that transition. Had we not heard his side of the story we wouldn’t have understood the real complexity of that time.

Then we began to tell the story of a more recent transition, a transition begun with great hopes and dreams that ended in failure (the identified candidate accepted the job but left the congregation within an eighteen month time frame). It wasn’t an easy story line to tell. It was a less than successful story which was difficult for these leaders to tell, given their identity as a “successful” congregation. People hadn’t spent much time talking about the experience and as a result there were no “easy to tell” versions of what happened. Nevertheless we muddled our way through the telling of various versions of the story and in the process  came to a more complete understanding of what had happened during this transition, gleaning valuable leadership lessons along the way.

The danger of a single story line in telling congregational history is that it presents a very flat perception of what the struggles were, who the people were that engaged those struggles, and what real values were brought to bear on difficult decision making. If we discipline ourselves to tell more complete and well rounded story lines that represent a variety of perspectives on what really happened we stand to learn better leadership lessons.

Congregations often ask me to tell them the story of other congregations who have gone through what they are going through. I’m always stymied by these requests. Whose version of the story do I tell?  If I were to tell the story my version would be a composite of a variety of the viewpoints expressed to me during a consultation. Who is to say that the story I would tell is any more or less accurate than any other version?  And, do I have the right to try and represent any congregation’s story for them?

This video reflection by novelist Chimamanda Adichie does a beautiful job of addressing the danger of a single story line. She addresses the topic in the context of cultural storytelling, but I think that the points she illustrates apply richly to congregations.

Photo Credit: Children creating the background sketches for Walker Art Gallery Storybook ‘Something Wild…’
October 2008
©National Museums Liverpool.

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4 Responses to “The Danger of a Single Storyline”

  1. Tim Shapiro Says:

    I really like these insights about stories because they apply not only to congregations but to life. Stories have a kind of unlimited quality about them, don’t they? At least good stories do. They don’t end, they keep developing (Mark 16:8). At the Indianapolis Center we hear clergy and laity tell stories about any number of challenges and opportunities. And the stories get richer and more dynamic with each telling, with each version. What begins, at first, as a rather straightforward story about creating a more effective agenda for a board meeting ends up unfolding into chapters about a dramatic decision to stay downtown, a moving funeral of a long time member, a favorite Bible passage, and much more.

    I’m also thinking about a cultural moment right now with the release of the movie “Where the Wild Things Are” (of all story lines!). There are now (at least) three versions of this story, all with their own integrity – Sendak’s, Egger’s short novel, and the movie script.

  2. Alastair McKay Says:

    My recent experience leading a consultancy process for the leadership team of a medium-sized church here in the UK fully confirms the point being made in this article. Of the lay leaders on the team, one was a very longstanding leader (let me call him Jim – not his real name), while all the rest were fairly new on the team, and relatively new in the church. I asked about the history of the pastorates and pastoral transitions over the last 30 years, and got a full, clear and definite response from Jim. But I knew from private conversations with the pastor, that there was more to the story. As part of the consultation I arranged to do a small group interview of three former leaders who had been in the church for the last 20 to 30 years. It was a fascinating evening. What emerged was significantly different from the story that Jim had given us, with much more complexity, and greater admission of some of the difficulties faced, and also a better rounded picture of the previous pastors – including weaknesses of much-loved pastors. The evening proved a real eye-opener for the current leaders, who were able to appreciate – for the first time I think – that Jim’s authoritative account of the past wasn’t the only perspective, and that the history was more complicated and more mixed than they had previously realised. I think this subsequently helped these leaders to become more self-differentiated, and to be able to take their own stand more clearly, and to live less in Jim’s shadow.

  3. Paul Hooker Says:

    I think I have known about the power of stories to transform since I was a small child, and heard my mother read fairy tales and Bible stories to me. I couldn’t have said this then – nor, I suspect,could she – but what she was doing was teaching me that a story creates an alternate universe in which things function according to the conventions of the narrative, breaking the frame of the conventions of our limited experience.

    In my work with ministers and congregations, I am growing in my awareness of the way stories shape and norm the experience of churches. The stories of the “glory days” of a once-large, now-declining congregation, of the pastoral affair that is blamed for congregational schism… these stories create a narrative frame in which ministers and members live and from which they see the present. For good or ill, they define reality. What this piece helps to clarify for me is that there is a need to place alongside those stories other stories that create other alternative realities. From those alternatives, we can draw resources that transform the way we look at the present.

    For me, the normative example is the Bible itself. The Bible has not one story line but many. There are multiple traditions of the story of ancient Israel represented in the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History, and multiple traditions of the kerygma of the Christian faith in the gospel and in Paul. Each story line arises from dealing with a crisis of the past, and offers a resource for dealing with the crisis of the present. Taken as a whole, they offer us lenses of alternative realities through which we might better see what is happening to us.

    Thanks, Susan, for sharing this.

  4. The Danger of a Single Storyline | 4orty2wo Says:

    […] via The Danger of a Single Storyline « Inside the Large Congregation. […]

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