The Pastor as Narrative Leader

by N. Graham Standish

Humans are living stories of experience. Our lives can be scripted like a narrative. In fact, when we think of individual lives in this way, what we discover is that those who live what seem to be successful lives have a generally compelling life narrative of overcoming obstacles in order to achieve. Those who seem to have dysfunctional lives often have life stories that read like disconnected or stuck narratives in which the main character struggles to overcome obstacles. Instead of overcoming obstacles, these obstacles overwhelm her or his life. Understanding the role of story is crucial to understanding the role narrative plays in leadership.

Over the years I have noticed a definite difference between good leaders and great leaders, a difference that is more than just a matter of great leaders doing certain things better than good leaders. Good leaders lead people toward a goal. They are able to articulate a common aim for an organization, a department, a team, or a congregation. They are able to get people on board enough so that the goals become common goals. And these good leaders are able to motivate people to want to achieve these goals. This is all good stuff.

What seems to make great leaders great is not that they are better at envisioning and articulating goals, as well as being better at uniting and motivating people to achieve these goals. What I notice is that great leaders seem to craft a story, a story that inspires others in the organization, team, or congregation so that they willingly become a part of and live out this story in their work and lives. Great leaders, through their whole style of leadership, tell a story about the organization or congregation that becomes a blueprint for its ongoing growth. 

To be a narrative leader means to be something very similar to a novel writer. It means to be able to see not only life in general, but also a congregation's life, as an unfolding story that to some extent she is the author of. Obviously the pastor is not the author, but then again, most writers of fiction will tell you that they are not truly the authors of their stories either. Listen to how an author describes the writing experience: Often she will say that she gets a general idea of the plot and the characters, but over time the story begins to tell itself. She will say that the characters determine the direction. She will say that it feels as though someone else is writing the story through her. The same is true for pastoral leaders.

Many writers also speak of writing as a process of listening to their muse. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine daughters of Zeus who inspired artists, poets, sculptors, and the likes. Present-day artists speak of their muses as being almost like spiritual voices that inspire them. Pastors also have a muse: Christ. The more open we pastors are to the Spirit as we lead, the more the Spirit guides us not only to craft our own story, or the congregation's story, but also to make these stories part of the larger story that God is writing about life throughout the universe. The great pastoral leaders write a story discerned through prayer.

As the author listening to his muse, the pastor recognizes when the congregation is or isn't meshing with God's story. And he finds a way to bring it back into harmony. At the same time, he still sees pain, crisis, death, birth, divorce, marriage, difficulty, and celebration as crucial elements of the story. He understands that without these elements, the story has no life. As a result, he is always looking for ways to turn the more difficult situations into times of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection.

While the pastor acts as the author, he also understands that he is something of the main character and narrator of the story. I don't mean this in some narcissistic way in which the pastor must be the main focus or that everything revolves around him. In fact, that is generally not the case with the best narrative leaders. The best leaders are able to let a congregation's story unfold. The leader is not the center, but he is the person who bears the most responsibility for attending to the story and ensuring that it follows the narrative. The pastor acts as narrator, sometimes merely observing, monitoring, and articulating what others are doing and sometimes acting as a character involved in the action. The key thing is that as narrator, the pastor is responsible for framing and articulating the events. The pastor provides an interpretation. And that interpretation comes through many avenues. It may be an interpretation of an event told in a sermon. It may be an interpretation of an event given by the pastor to leaders in committee and board meetings. Or it may simply be an interpretation the pastor gives as he talks casually with members. Whatever the means, the pastor recounts an event, and then teaches others through story how to understand it.

The good pastoral leader also seems to find a way to separate herself from the story in order to steer the story in a particular direction. While she may be the narrator, she also is something of the author, and like an author she is able to keep herself from becoming so trapped in the story's events that she becomes a helpless victim of the story. She does not let herself become trapped in a careening plot that ambles toward dysfunction and meaninglessness. Instead, she is able to see the story both from within and without. She is able to be both a subjective participant in the story and an objective observer of events who leads the story back into God's story.

Ultimately, being a pastoral, narrative leader means being a leader who is both immersed in the events of a church and, at the same time, an author of the congregation, leading the church to follow the plot that she or he believes God has scripted for the congregation. It means understanding the Christian story well enough to be able to move the congregation to follow the Christian narrative, which is a narrative of life, growth, turmoil, death, resurrection, redemption, and reconciliation.

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