As he left worship last August, Ted commented to me, “I bet if we had been telling these stories about ourselves, we wouldn’t be where we are today.” On this particular Sunday the mayor of the city, the school district superintendent and the executive director of the local service agency were there to give thanks to the congregation for all it had done for the sake of the children, youth and adults in the city during their 96 years of ministry. They told stories of specific ministries and the difference the congregation had made in the community. I think Ted was right. In less than a month the members would be leaving their beautiful building and joining other congregations. The next two Sundays I would tell stories and remind them of how God’s people have often left their “homes” when God called them to go, connecting their coming experiences with our faith ancestors. But it didn’t lessen the truth of Ted’s comment or the reality of the grief they knew.
I had listened to their individual stories about how they came to this congregation and why they stayed when I arrived as their interim pastor. As we began to explore options for their future, I invited members of other congregations to come and tell their stories as a way to help my congregation understand the possibilities they faced. Members of two congregations who had intentionally closed their doors brought tears to the hearts of my members as they recognized a similar situation. Members of two congregations who had merged brought hope as they described models of new life that enabled relationships to continue. But it was the person who came to talk about the process of redeveloping and revitalizing the congregation who opened my own eyes. Rather than simply telling his story, he started with the question, “What are you known for in this community?” There was a long silence that rapidly grew awkward until one person spoke up and said, “Our stained glass windows.”
Stories have enormous power to transform, give insight, open understandings and, at times, disarm us. On the other hand, they can also oppress, limit and discourage, as can the absence of a story. The story my congregation didn’t want to tell our guests that morning was the story of all the surveys they had taken about the future, the disappointment of the same people always showing up while others didn’t, the lessons from workshops about things they needed to change in order to survive and how they had tried, the reality of having enough money to either maintain the building or pay the pastor but not both, and lots of efforts that hadn’t yielded much “success.” They had stories, but they were stories of disappointment and discouragement.
The kind of story we think we are a part of has tremendous power in terms of what we see as our options and the roles we see for ourselves. The consequences of the congregation believing, and not quite admitting, that their story was primarily one of failure and disappointment were huge as this story affected their ability to look ahead and to entertain new possibilities. Like the woman in Luke who was bent over and unable to straighten up, the congregation had become burdened by their failures and couldn’t see beyond what was right in front of them.
The power of story to heal is also critical. After that uncomfortable morning, we set out to review the history of the congregation, the blessings and burdens of each chapter of its life. Some of this history came from those who gathered a couple of weeks later; a college student and I researched other parts in advance to supplement the stories of those gathered. It was helpful to hear of earlier struggles, to laugh at tales of bats in the sanctuary and smile at remembrances of friendship becoming love. People began to see some patterns and remembered their gifts. In the months that followed we celebrated different areas of ministry in worship through pictures and stories. Gradually the story of the congregation was set in a fuller context and they were ultimately able to stand proudly in a story of ministry that had made a difference. It was primarily through education that the story in this congregation was transformed. And because of that transformation, their ministry continues and other faith communities are blessed by their gifts.
In a time when mainline denominations and congregations continue to lose members, it is easy to fall into the stories of discouragement. Gil Rendle (Journey in the wilderness: New life for mainline churches. Abingdon Press, 2010) notes that too many congregations are “dying of terminal seriousness.” He argues that understanding the story of 21st century church set in the context of the church facing major upheavals every 500 years is critical in understanding the story we find ourselves in today. It isn’t always trying the newest and latest trends in church transformation that will lead a congregation into the future. Sometimes we find the future by recovering or reframing the stories we tell. May Ted’s wisdom remind us of the power of stories for they do inform the options and roles we see for our future.
Deb DeMeester has done intentional interim ministry and leadership development for most of her 26 years as a teaching elder, working most recently with small congregations in the process of discerning their futures. She also teaches leadership and research classes at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, MN.