Tell Me a Story

Tell me a story about your congregation; about its founding era, its glory days, its heroes and villains. We all preserve memories through story. In organizations newcomers are told stories of the past, as a way of promoting the culture, the values, and the vision of the congregation. But the telling of stories is not just about scripting the past, it’s also about creating our future. The way we understand our past positions us to create futures that are imaginative and hope-filled, or discouraging and binding.  Are the stories told in your congregation enliveningstory or limiting its future potential?

The leaders of Crestview Community Church tell a story about the vision of their founding pastor, the pastor who dreamed of and designed their present day campus.  The story goes something like this. A sister congregation wanted to plant a new church on the outskirts of the city, in an area that was undeveloped at the time, but was expected to be the epicenter of the next growth boom.  The sister church called Pastor Paul and bought a significant tract of undeveloped land to establish Crestview.

Pastor Paul brought a huge vision for the future of this new congregation, and he had the charisma to make it happen.  He envisioned a mega-church with six thousand worshiping members. The church grew rapidly under his leadership and it appeared that the vision would come to fruition.  Then Pastor Paul retired. The housing bust of 2008-2009 resulted in much slower population growth than had been predicted.  The next pastor did not have Pastor Paul’s drawing power.  He did not adjust the vision and building plan accordingly, but completed the campus based on Paul’s original dream.

Today this large and healthy congregation is supporting a gorgeous and inspiring, but over-sized campus that they cannot afford. The stories that they tell of their history invoke its unrealized potential. They speak of oversized commitments, of scarcity born from unmanageable debt levels.  Most of the imagination of the church is tied up in worries about how to pay down the debt, and how to grow the church to a level that can support the campus. The campus is a daily reminder of Pastor Paul’s unrealized dream.  It is difficult for this congregation to think imaginatively about its future, bound by the shame of unmet potential.

According to Peg Neuhauser, author of “Corporate Legends & Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool”, storytelling is the most powerful form of human communication available. It is the primary tool that human beings use to pass on their cultures.  We may use story to inspire, teach, challenge, comfort and entertain.  Or we may use it to preserve a lackluster status quo, to destroy, stir up discontent, and demoralize.  Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler were both great storytellers.

Story can do what facts alone cannot do. Most of us have more facts than we can effectively process. Story helps us make meaning out of the facts that we have. Through story we develop collective wisdom and reinforce shared values. Stories make our messages more memorable and our information more believable. Stories enhance or diminish our creativity, our analytical thinking, and our capacity for imagination.

The Kinds of Stories We Tell

If you listen carefully to your own congregation, you will unearth a variety of story types that shape memory. There is the hero story, where the main character has done something beyond the normal range of human achievement and experience. There are survivor stories about how everything went wrong and an individual or group fixed it, surviving against the odds. There are “who we are” stories, that communicate our proudest moments, or berate and bemoan and blame choices of the past. Finally, there are “kick in the pants” stories that tell about historical dangers, mistakes and missed opportunities or shortsightedness. All of these story forms help leaders remain vigilant and attentive to the lessons of the past.

No historical event, as it is unfolding, has a single story line. There are always multiple ways to recite a history. The events of our past only become memorable when we find a way to frame them, to tell a value-based story that teaches something.  For example, the story of Crestview also has important factual elements that today’s leaders don’t emphasize.  There are remarkable examples of individuals who gave sacrificially, to ensure the future of the church at decisive moments, when it appeared the new church might falter and close. Those hero stories take a back seat to the stories that emphasize unfulfilled potential.  Why? Because the culture of this church is a worrisome culture that feels more comfortable in storylines about scarcity.  And, because leaders are afraid of promoting stories that might emphasize the elitism and material wealth of some congregants. So they continue to tell a less than truthful story, which is not particularly helpful to the future of the congregation.

Positive or Negative?

Most of the stories that we choose to tell about our past can be spun positively or negatively.  Whether a story is positive or negative is not determined by whether it leads to a happy ending. Happy ending stories can be negative for the culture of the congregation, and sad stories can be positive for the culture of the congregation.

A story is positive when the person who hears or tells the story is better off for having heard it.  They learned something, they felt proud, or the story resolved tensions in values. A story is negative when the person telling it, or the person hearing it, are worse off, or damaged, for having heard the story. A negative story illustrates or emphasizes values that are not authentic or helpful to the present chapter.  Crestview’s story elevates the attributes of their founding leader, but demoralizes the current leadership base. That is a negative story, even though it is told with a positive spirit.

The good news is that leaders can re-story a congregation. We can harvest commonly told stories and begin retelling them in more truthful, healthful and positive ways.  Pick a story, any story about your congregation’s past. Write the story in the form it is most commonly told among congregants. Identify the values that the story reinforces.  Is it a positive or a negative story? Then, rewrite the story honoring historical truth, but spinning the story to emphasize a positive core value or lesson learned.  Think about what you want listeners to feel, remember and believe based on the story.

Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism, wrote “in remembrance lies the secret to redemption.” Redemption depends on our ability to remember the past well. If we want to lead our congregations well, we must remember what has happened, but we must tell the story right. We are not bound by the restrictive storylines delivered to us. We are free to discover, excavate and re-story the truthful memories of the past, in ways that foster imaginative and hope-filled futures.