Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Stories that lead us

We're well stuck in to our journey of "hearing to speech" the faith and joys, dreams and fears, ideals and pragmatism of our congregation members in Hodge Hill. There are already some fascinating themes and tensions emerging - but it's too early to issue a "report from the front". Alongside the listening process, one or two things that I've read recently have struck deep and resonant chords with what we've been hearing, and I want to share those here.

The first is from a newly-published book, 'Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership', by Vaughan Roberts (a parish priest) and David Sims (a Professor of Organizational Behaviour).

One thing I take from Roberts & Sims' book is that "we all follow ... stories as much as we follow people. 'People join with the narrative, rather than follow the leader.'" Rather than ideas of leadership that cluster around skilled individuals (ideas still popular in recent Church of England reports, for example), here is a concept of the story as the 'leader', and all kinds of roles that different people inhabit in relation to shaping, telling, questioning and re-forming the story. Just as there is no one 'leader', neither is there ever only one story - something very obvious in communities that are made up of multiple, overlapping sub-groups of one kind or another. "The task for those leading is to hear these different stories without getting so caught up in any one of them that they ignore the others. Then it is to build collaboration between the different groups to form a story that all can work with. This seems to happen best not by setting up storytelling sessions, but by getting members of the groups that sustain the different stories working on projects together."

Perhaps the most vivid image from the book is that of an "ecology" of stories, which acknowledges that dominant stories in organisations always co-exist with counter-narratives, which both contest and creatively develop the dominant story, and without which the dominant story dies. Yiannis Gabriel's work points to different "narrative ecologies", different ways that groups of stories live with each other. It's quite an extensive 'map', so I'm going to paste a couple of pages here:

"Gabriel identifies narrative temperate regions, where lots of things can grow, where stories are profuse and varied, and where storytellers are fairly tolerant of one another. This would be the case in socially complex and diverse places, and where people felt reasonably free to tell their own stories. Many stories can flourish in the temperate region, because these are very healthy regions in terms of their nourishing of diverse stories, but they are not easy places to control or to plan. The 'planned' church, with its mission statements, strategies and so on, may not want to be a narrative temperate region, because that sounds too chaotic for the taste of the senior management. 
Then there are narrative deserts, where only a few narratives can grow, and they are relatively scratty, struggling affairs. In the narrative desert the struggle for stories to survive is not because of the competition from other stories, but instead is because of a harsh environment which is not conducive to the survival of any story. There may be a taboo against stories, or it may be that the connections between people are not strong and trusting enough to promote the telling and hearing of stories. 
Then there are narrative monocultures, places where there are some stories around, but they are all very similar. These places lack counter-narratives, and fit in well with a totalitarian organization. There are certainly churches like this, where everyone tells very much the same story and where any other story struggles to survive. Think of a field of wheat, a monoculture, where any weeds (counter-narratives) are very obvious, and will be torn out quickly. Then imagine an insecure, anxious church where house-group leaders are reporting back on any inappropriate stories from their members, who will then be told why they are wrong. At the extreme, this becomes a cult. 
Narrative mountains can grow only a few feeble stories which cling on but show no vigour. Gabriel applies the term particularly to loosely structured places that meet only occasionally to do a particular task, but do not have enough life of their own for strong narratives to take root. No one cares enough about these environments to lavish their narrative energy on them. Think the local branch of 'Churches Together', or the Diocesan Synod. 
Narrative marshlands are also often networks rather than structured organizations. In the marshland many stories can grow and develop, but they risk sinking into the mud. The culture of stories is rich, but they do not necessarily survive all that long. This could be the realm of the task group or ad hoc committee, which meets, tells plenty of stories, and reaches a conclusion at which point the group has done its job, so the stories are not preserved. Sadly, those setting up such groups are not usually interested in collecting and preserving these stories, so the narrative richness is quickly lost and absorbed into the peat bog. 
Narrative jungles are a little like temperate regions, but hotter, with everything growing faster and competing more openly for light and space. They are dangerous places, with strange animals lurking in the undergrowth, and all sorts of wild stories being told - conspiracy theories, gossip about other people, alongside benevolent stories which could bear good fruit. They are hard to control, although, because of the sheer profusion of stories and the potential threat, it may be that much easier for an authoritarian to take charge of them, as people begin to look for clarity amid the chaos. 
Narrative allotments or gardens are where people grow their own private collection of narratives, carefully protecting them from counter-narratives. People's stories are treated with great interest and concern, and listened to carefully. The atmosphere on the allotment is warm and loving, and conflict is rare. At this point we might conclude that Gabriel has never owned an allotment, but never mind, we can see what he means by the metaphor. Narrative allotments work well if the objective is comfort, not so well if the development of better stories and an organization that learns are the objective. Narrative allotments can be planned and controlled, and the owner can keep up with the weeding. 
Stories are generally more like gardening that like sculpture. Many of the popular management techniques of 20 years ago, which are still being brought into the church, are like subtractive sculpture. You chip things off a block of stone or wood until you think it is the right shape. This does not fit with many people's experience of organizations, where you plant, water, weed, prune and so on, but you are never fully in control. The gardener cannot cause the growth. The best thing they can do is to try to give the plant as good a chance as they can to find its own pattern of growth." [pp.70-72]

I love this ecological image. It helps me greatly in considering what kind of narrative environments I inhabit, and help shape, from day to day in the parish of Hodge Hill (and wider). It also reminds me of the wonderful community allotment outside Ambridge House, on our estate, created by children and older people working together, and tended, irregularly but attentively, by a whole community of people. It's not like Gabriel's 'private' allotments - it's much more shared and messy. And it draws me back to a central image in my doctoral research, that of the ecotone: the 'borderland' between two different habitats - a place where differences rub up against each other, and where some of the most fruitful and diverse life is nurtured. It got me wondering how much of our time locally is spent inhabiting 'narrative ecotones' - embracing those borderland interactions between quite different stories, and looking for the life which those interactions generate.


The second thing I read recently that resonated profoundly for me with what I'm hearing in our listening process (and what, over a much longer time-span in Hodge Hill, I'm sensing might be unfolding here), came in the daily email from Richard Rohr's Centre for Action and Contemplation - an extended quote from an article by Brian McLaren. It points towards the kind of stories that might lead us forward in liberating and creative ways - but it also examines, with a healthy dose of self-criticism, how tempting and easy it is to craft and tell those stories in ways that foster resentment and frustration, idealism and arrogance...

“We are on a quest for a new kind of Christianity—a faith liberated from the institutional and dogmatic straightjackets we inherited, a way of life that integrates the personal and the social dimensions of spirituality, a practice that integrates centered contemplation and dynamic action. In our quest, we must remember how easy it is to self-sabotage; we must remember that how we get there will determine where we will be. 
. . . I see four areas where many of us need to pay special attention to the how, so we can be examples and midwives of emerging Christianity instead of its accidental saboteurs.
First, we need to process our pain, anger, and frustration with the institutional or inherited forms of church. . . . [If] we learn to process our pain, if we join Jesus in the way of redemptive suffering and gracious forgiveness, we will become sweeter and better, not meaner and bitter, and we will become the kinds of people who embody an emerging Christian faith indeed. 
Second, we need to manage our idealism. . . . The emerging church will never be a perfect church; it will always be a community of sinner-saints and stumbling bumblers touched by radical grace. Liberated by grace from a perfectionistic idealism, we can celebrate the beauty of what is emerging instead of letting its imperfections frustrate us. 
Third, we need to focus our circle of responsibility. . . . That means letting go of the things you can’t control—which includes the decisions that popes, bishops, pastors, councils, and church boards may make. . . . [If] you can’t get your congregation to care about homeless people, you can get involved yourself. If you can’t get your congregation to treat gay folks with respect, you can do so around your kitchen table. If you can’t get your church to focus on cross-racial relationships, you can take a step this Sunday and visit a church where you’re the minority, and from there, begin to build relationships. You don’t need anyone’s vote or permission to do these things: you only need to exercise your own responsibility and freedom. . . . 
Finally, we need to start small and celebrate small gains. One of the curses of late modernity was the belief that unless something was big and well-publicized, it didn’t count. . . . [Jesus] spoke of tiny mustard seeds, of a little yeast in a lot of dough, of a little flock, of the greatness of smallness, of a secret good deed and a simple cup of cold water given to one in need. 
As we process our pain, manage our idealism, do what’s doable, and celebrate the small and beautiful, we discover that all around us, new forms and expressions of Christian faith are emerging. Through a better how, a better where is possible.” 
[Brian McLaren, “Emerging Christianity: How We Get There Determines Where We Arrive,” Radical Grace, vol. 23, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), 4-5]

A number of things strike me about this piece.

Firstly, McLaren highlights how those of us who have a hunch that we're riding the wave of something that is emerging from, within or beyond the institutional church as we've known it, can all too easily be ourselves saboteurs of that emergence. In our search for something new, in our enthusiasm to all-too-quickly grasp something that we are only just beginning to discern, it can be so tempting to fall into the temptations of adolescence or heroism, to name but two.

This insight is linked to a second point, that we can so easily get entangled in resentment and frustration that those embedded in established patterns (locally) and institutional structures (more widely) "just doesn't get it" - and McLaren invites us instead to face that squarely, to embrace it and work at it, to 'process' it rather than let it determine us. His related point about doing what we can, and not what we can't, reminds me of Dave Andrews' re-working of the 'Serenity Prayer': "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and wisdom to know that it's me."

Third is McLaren's gentle puncturing of our idealism, inviting us to relax into the grace of imperfection - in what is emerging, as much as in what is already established - and to celebrate the little good things, rather than be seduced by the 'big'. The stories we tell about the 'new' (how wonderful and shiny it is) can be as deadly as the stories we tell about the 'old' (how awful and stuck-in-the-mud it was).

Much of the wisdom here rings loud bells with what we've been trying to do intentionally, for some time, where we are - as much in the wider neighbourhood of Hodge Hill, as within the more explicitly 'church' context. But these are also lessons we can quickly forget, so McLaren's article is a timely, wise and grace-full reminder of the "how" of our journeying, as well as hinting at the "where" we might be journeying towards - the telling of the story of what has been, and what is, as much as the story of what will, should, or could be...