Getting to the Heart of the Matter

by Susan  Beaumont

As a consultant to congregations, I am often called to work with churches that are stuck. Leaders are aware that something is holding the congregation back from achieving its full poten­tial, but they cannot get a clear enough perspective to figure out what the problems might be. In most situations I find that the story the congregation is telling about being stuck contains the clues for getting unstuck. Once I hear congregational mem­bers tell a story about their situation, I can begin to help them understand how their own narrative scenarios keep them from moving ahead. Within the stories I have collected over the years I have noted three problematic story types that often sit at the heart of stuck congregations:

1. The story that illustrates where things went wrong in the past and how the congregation will never recover from that event

2. The story that illustrates a triumphant moment in the past, but memorializes that event in such a way that it limits the congregation’s future

3. The story about being stuck in the present, casting the teller in a noble role and finding someone else to blame for the congregation’s problems

Story Listening

Listening to the stories a congregation tells itself about its his­tory, its heritage, its proudest moments and its sorriest mo­ments can help surface and articulate core values that may be preventing the church from moving into a more positive future. Posing questions to a congregation to help verbalize the stories that are currently being formed about its experience can also surface the helpful and hurtful issues that frame people’s per­ceptions. The following questions, posed within a safe story­telling environment, can invite a congregation to become more conscious of its own story line.

1. Reflecting on your entire experience at this congregation, tell about a time when you felt the most engaged, alive, and motivated. Who was involved? What did you do? How did it feel?

2. Tell about a time when you were most proud of your association with this congregation.

3. Tell about a time when you felt sorry about something this congregation did.

4. In everything that has led up to this moment in the life of this congregation, what is at the heart of the matter for you?

The first two questions are appreciative in nature and are in­formed by the discipline of appreciative inquiry. As people describe their proudest moments, they tend to place themselves within the story, reflecting upon their competence and strength. The third question invites them to reflect upon their place within a sorrier moment. When framed in this way, the question generally prevents blaming and shaming and invites the storyteller to reflect upon his or her own role in that mo­ment of regret. The final question allows the speaker to craft a story about the present anxiety. Generally, the stories that are told in response to this question reveal important clues about how a congregation is limiting itself, its thinking, and its response to current anxiety-producing circumstances.

As people respond to these questions, they reveal their story journey and the ways in which they make meaning out of con­gregational experience. Collectively, these four questions invite the telling of stories that contain rich references to the values people hold dear and the heroes they admire. These stories also contain the seeds of current discontent. Within a congrega­tion’s best and worst moments are clues to what people long for in their current experience: their unmet needs, lost values, and memories of a less anxious time.

A congregational leader might pose these questions to members of the congregation within the safety of a one-on-one interview. People are generally eager to share stories and impressions when they feel that someone is genuinely in­terested in their perspective. It can also be invigorating for the congregation as a whole to engage in group storytelling. People are delighted to share their stories within the context of a small group and to listen to the stories of others. I often find that group storytelling sessions result in newly forged relationships as people connect with the story of another. When we hold the story that another has shared with us, we hold onto something sacred and holy. Sharing your own story and receiving the story of another is an exercise in sacred trust.

Should you decide to host a group storytelling session to help your congregation articulate its narrative theme, follow these simple steps:

1. Brief everyone in the room on the importance of hon­esty, speaking the truth, and honoring the truth shared by another.

2. Invite each participant to pair up with someone else they do not know well and who, on the surface, appears to be quite unlike them.

3. Direct each partnership to find a relatively quiet space to work for thirty to forty-five minutes. Then have each person interview his or her partner using the four ques­tions posed earlier, taking careful notes to record the stories that are shared.

4. Next, direct each partnership to join with two other partnerships in the room to form a group of six people. Every person in the group selects one of his or her part­ner’s stories and shares it with the group of six, telling the story in the first person, as if it were his or her own story.

5. After each member of the group has shared a story in the first person, the group reflects on the common themes and values that were contained within the col­lective stories. These themes and values are written on a flipchart and shared with the larger group.

6. Next, the facilitator hosts a large-group conversation about thematic elements that emerged and ways in which those themes empower or restrict the ministry of the congregation.

Note that this exercise is not appropriate for a group that is ex­periencing high levels of conflict. A certain level of trust must be present in order for genuine storytelling to emerge. In a highly conflicted environment, the facilitator will want to con­duct one-on-one storytelling interviews in place of the group experience.

At the conclusion of this exercise, the facilitator has a rich collection of story themes and values to use in crafting a leader­ship narrative. Once the stories have been assembled the leader can begin to do the following:

• Articulate the collective story that the congregation tells about its past and present.

• Identify the core values of the congregation and hold them up to scrutiny. Are these really the values that the congregation wants to embrace moving forward?

• Identify problematic or limiting organizational themes that need to be reframed.

• Pinpoint inaccuracies and factual errors that prevent the story from teaching its genuine message.

If congregations are to thrive in the midst of chaos and change, then their members must become intentional about telling better stories. Congregations need to identify the ways in which the stories they tell are limiting their potential. Their leaders must become more adept at listening to, articulating, and re­framing truthful stories that lead the congregation toward a fuller existence and ministry.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Adapted from Finding Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, edited by Larry A. Golemon, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Alban Weekly, 2010-01-11
Number 285