When were your glory days? Pose this question and a congregation’s leaders will often tell stories of high attendance, engaged participation, and buildings that couldn’t hold it all. Glory-era memories are almost always recounted as blissful, happy times of pure goodness. However, parts of the story rarely get told—including how the seeds of decline may have been planted amidst the goodness.
The Power of a Story
Organizations tell standard stories about their past; stories about the founding era, the glory eras, troubled chapters, hero figures, and lessons learned. Stories package the collective wisdom of the organization, explaining who we are and how we got to be this way.
We revere, venerate and hallow our stories. This makes the work of remembering inherently sacred work. Our memories shape our identity. They are layered with interpretation and with the imposition of important values and beliefs.
Listening to the ways we recount institutional memories is important leadership work. Our memories serve as a touchstone, a benchmark for evaluating the authenticity of our available choices now.
The Limitations of Memory
When we remember our stories, we imagine that we are reciting facts, but we seldom are. Imagination secretly comes to the aid of faltering memory, and we pass fiction off unwittingly as truth. We rely on memory to bridge the gap between our present and former selves. And memory is not always trustworthy.
The stories organizations tell about their past are fictional accounts of noteworthy experience. Our accounts are complicated because they have been shaped by generations of retelling and interpretation. The fiction we tell today is formed by the interpretation of facts that the original keepers of the story and its subsequent re-tellers have imposed on it.
The pulpit at The Federated Church has long been regarded as home to the best and brightest in the denomination. The glory era of this congregation took place between 1993–2003, when a high-profile preacher occupied the pulpit. Energy was good, worship services were packed, and the congregation had plenty of resources to pursue ministry.
Fifteen years later the congregation is half the size that it was during its glory era. The current senior minister is respected as a strong administrator but isn’t a particularly charismatic figure. She is a solid preacher but doesn’t have the kind of status in the denomination that her predecessor had. The congregation appreciates her leadership, but at times members question whether she is the right leader for this congregation. If only they had a preacher like ____, things could return to the way they were in the good old days.
When leaders of the Federated Church tell its glory-era story, they emphasize the strength of the preaching and the energy and vibrancy of the senior minister. What this story doesn’t reflect is that decline began during that admired senior minister’s tenure. He was a marvelous preacher. That part of the story is true. However, he was an awful administrator, and he built the success of the church on his own persona. Programming was weak. The physical plant wasn’t taken care of. The staff consisted of weak leaders in a poorly formed team. When the heroic senior minister took his leave, the place crumbled.
The glory-era story of this congregation sounds like a positive story because it feels happy in style and outcome, but it is a negative story, an unhelpful shaping of organizational memory. It doesn’t value the strengths that present-day leaders are building in response to the weaknesses of the prior era. The people who hear the glory era story walk away worse off for having heard it. The organization is damaged in some way by telling and repeating a limited version of all that transpired.
Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones write in their book, Know Your Story and Lead with It, about the use of narrative therapy techniques in leadership. The authors make an important distinction between thin and thick narratives. The teller of a memory gathers pieces of information and organizes them into a plotline that fits the teller’s world view. The teller of the tale “selects, rejects, connects, pares down, smooths out, and compresses a messy conglomeration of information to create a story of what has happened. And most of the information about the event remains on the cutting room floor.”
Hester and Walker-Jones explain that a narrative is thin when it contains minimal detail, reflects a narrow viewpoint, and fails to incorporate competing perspectives. A thin narrative will glide over ambiguity and conflict. It flattens the story down to an easily digestible sound bite. The storylines are underdeveloped, shallow, too easy to digest, and not particularly revealing about choices made or difficult waters navigated.
A thick narrative is one that presents a more comprehensive and richer story line. It incorporates more detail. It reveals competing commitments and tension between values. It represents the viewpoints of multiple witnesses.
Thickening Our Story Lines
We can raise the consciousness of the organizations we lead by inviting people to think more critically about their often-told tales.
Ask someone to tell a favorite story that the congregation likes to tell, mirroring the way it is told in the organization. Once the story is told, ask people how the story makes them feel, and what the story makes them believe about the organization. What values, behaviors and practices are reinforced when the story is told in this way? In what ways does the story empower or limit the choices before leaders today? What important facts may have been omitted over time? Whose side of the story is not represented in this telling?
Posing questions about the stories of an organization can help leaders realize that their favorite stories do not represent objective truth. Our stories can be truthfully reshaped to illustrate more relevant truths and to reinforce alternative values that may better serve the church today.
This article is adapted from Susan Beaumont’s new book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season.