The Dangers of a Single Storyline

by Susan Beaumont

A 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?

(Go to my blog, Inside the Large Congregation, to see a video reflection by novelist  Chimamanda Adichie   that 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.)

The Alban Express, 2009-11-25
November 25, 2009