As professor of Old Testament at Trevecca Nazarene University, Tim Green is deeply committed to the power of story to transform and change lives. Grace and Peace Magazine asked Tim to share how leaders can use story to better lead congregations. In addition, Tim explains how a stronger grasp of our biblical and denominational stories will result in more faithful, holiness people. Either way, Tim Green will help get the story straight.
Grace and Peace Magazine: What is the value of narrative leadership?
Tim Green: Speaking from a Wesleyan perspective, I’d say the use of story or narrative is a means by which the grace of God works in our lives to transform his people. I think some have a tendency to dismiss narrative/story due to a misunderstanding of what is meant; narrative leadership is more than clever, disconnected stories. The stories are purposeful and well thought out. Ultimately, we are talking about the grand narrative/story of God that emerges out of Scripture and continues through the history of the church, from the church fathers and mothers all the way to the present. More than telling stories about what happened recently, the narrative of God is grounded in Scripture and the subsequent tradition of the Christian Church.
G&P: Story is holistic then—the mind, the heart, and so on.
Green: Narrative engages the whole person, including the body. Consider how movies provoke reactions from us. We might lean forward in our seats or close our eyes out of fear. Yet, good films also deeply engage our minds. Narrative leadership, when it’s appropriately utilized, engages the whole person.
G&P: As a new pastor thinks about this type of leadership, how much do they need to revere their congregation’s story to be able to lead?
Green: New pastors almost naturally seek out the story of their new congregation as well as the location in which their congregation is situated. Even if new pastors do not think in terms of narrative, when they hear the separate stories of persons in the church, and begin to piece them together into the larger story of the congregation, they realize they can’t just all of a sudden rewrite that story.
G&P: If, as pastors, we try to change things too quickly, we may be changing a congregation’s story. Even if our motivation is for the best, can we impose trauma or conflict on a congregation, if we do this too quickly?
Green: Absolutely. The pastor/minister/leader must carry out a delicate Spirit-led dance between how to accept the story in progress (even if it appears to be a dysfunctional story) and realize God has been at work all the same. We see this carried out both in the life of Israel in the Old Testament and the disciples and early Christian churches in the New Testament. Even when people are at their worst, the story of God continues. This delicate dance is certainly not a matter of just “giving in” to the story of the local church—complete with its dysfunctions—so as to compromise the grand narrative of God. Nor can a new leader superimpose what she or he considers to be the perfect God-story onto the church. We need to figure out how to continue from where the church currently is, while at the same time inviting the congregation to find redemption and identity in the story of God.
G&P: Is there hope for a congregation stuck in a paralyzing and dysfunctional narrative? How do you help a church re-write their story and move forward?
The story we have here in this local congregation may have great shadows over it, but so did the story of our ancestors. If God held out hope to them, he will hold out hope to us.
Green: We need to realize ours is not the first congregation to experience this. Generations across the story of God’s people have had great crises, great disappointments, great failures; however, the story of God’s redeeming love, life-giving hope, and transforming grace has continued to unfold. The story we have here in this local congregation may have great shadows over it, but so did the story of our ancestors. If God held out hope to them, he will hold out hope to us. Preaching is one of the most significant ways that the minister partners with God to assist the congregation in finding their place. However, pastoral tasks such as care and counseling, administration and leadership, and spiritual formation and evangelism all function as ways to invite the congregation to engage in the narrative of God.
G&P: Sometimes, we reduce leadership to a series of dos and don’ts rather than seeing the big picture. How does narrative leadership help us?
Green: All people use propositional ways of thinking: “If I can do these three things,” or “If our church can carry out those five steps.” While such a propositional approach to life and ministry can be helpful, it often puts the cart before the horse. Narrative leadership requires us to reorient our way of thinking. The pastor asks, “Are these propositions or steps consistent with the overall narrative plot of God? Do they ‘fit’ within the God-story, or have they been simply incorporated from another story of our prevailing culture and called ‘Christian?’”
G&P: So, proposition only makes sense in the context of story.
Green: Absolutely. The story tells us who we are; it gives us our identity. Our ethics—the life that we live—emerge from the story. This has tremendous significance for congregations committed to the life of holiness. Only as we are shaped into the image of Christ—the ultimate story in which we live, and move, and have our being—can we begin to embody and live out Christlikeness.
G&P: When propositional thinking dominates our understanding of holiness, we end up focusing on “oughts” and “shoulds.” Is having a better grasp of our biblical and denominational story a key to truly understanding holiness?
Green: Propositional thinking can have significant limitations, but as we find ourselves “in Christ,” we shift to a narrative way of understanding who we are and what our life together looks like. Out of this life in Christ as discovered in life in the body of Christ, Christlike actions begin to emerge. True to what our holiness theology has said all along, we are transformed into the image of Christ, as we are found “in Christ.” It is all too easy to get the cart before the horse, and allow the way we live to guide who we are, rather than allowing who we are, and who we are becoming, to guide the way we live.
A narrative, story-formed understanding of what it means to be Christian is throughout Scripture and the church’s history. It is reflected in Paul, the Gospels, and even in ancient Israel. For example, the Ten Commandments don’t begin with: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, NIV), but rather they begin with a brief narrative: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2,
Throughout the Bible, there appears to be a consistent thread: as God’s people are “caught up” in the story of God, their character is formed and shaped.
NIV). The Sermon on the Mount begins with “being” or identity (“Blessed are…”) and proceeds to the doing. Throughout the Bible, there appears to be a consistent thread: as God’s people are “caught up” in the story of God, their character is formed and shaped. This brings a new excitement/fervor for the life of holiness—maybe it is coming back to what holiness really is.
That’s what I love about the release of Nazarene Roots by Stan Ingersol. It is more about how we, with our unique story, fit within the larger story of what God is doing.
G&P: I assume that story can unite; that story can transcend culture, language, and generations. But this probably assumes a knowledge and sensitivity to the stories that have shaped others as we share the biblical story with them.
Green: Right. Take the Hagar and Sarah story, for example. If we are not careful, the way we tell that story could fail to take other important stories represented in the congregation into consideration: the stories of women in the congregation, the stories of persons of diverse racial and ethnic groups in the congregation, the stories of single parents in the congregation, and so on. We need to be aware of the diverse backgrounds of those being called to participate in this grand narrative, because those stories will certainly affect the way they hear the story of God. Without our sensitivity to the multiple ways in which persons in our congregation hear the Word, there will probably be many who hear us tell a story in a way so foreign and alienating to them that they are unable to participate in the story of God’s people.
G&P: How do we ensure that our stories are faithful to the biblical story?
Green: Story is not individualistic, whether the individual person, the individual local church, the individual ethnic group, or even the individual nation; we are always in conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ: the Body of Christ. To use Paul’s analogy, that one individual or one local church or even one nation is a hand, a foot, or a mouth; it is a part of the whole, but it must ultimately understand its story in light of the larger whole. The global conversation with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, the conversation between local churches, and the conversation between regional areas that reflect diversity in the body of Christ is essential.
G&P: Alan Roxburg says in his book, Missional Churches, the healthy growth of a congregation directly results in churches where members see themselves as part of the story God is writing through them. Does that surprise you?
Green: Not at all. By healthy, I assume you mean they are not only growing numerically, but that they are a community being transformed into the image of Christ. They do not understand themselves simply as onlookers upon what God did or what God wants to do, but they perceive themselves to be participants in what God is doing. To me, that would be the healthiest of healthy churches. A reel of film is made up of numerous individual pictures; similarly a local church, an individual, a generation is a single clip in the “film of God,” but the grand narrative of God is much, much larger than a single clip. When we recognize that we are one clip in that grand movie of God, we will take our worship of God and our mission in the world much more seriously.
G&P: If a congregation is growing because they know their story, that story is probably infectious. That sounds like evangelism to me. Isn’t that really what it’s all about, sharing that story?
If a congregation is truly finding its identity and life in the narrative of God, it means they are living out their life together.
Green: It is. If a congregation is truly finding its identity and life in the narrative of God, it means they are living out their life together. That life goes beyond simply the moments they spend together. They are living out, participating in, what God is doing in the world. Evangelism—proclamation and embodiment of the Good News of God—naturally occurs out of their lives together. Their lives become a natural incarnation of who they are; in other words, the story they now live is simply the “fleshing out” of their story-formed identity. Like the salt described in the Sermon on the Mount, the people of God don’t have to try to be salt; they are salt. The people of God are called to be who they already are!
G&P: Do things like globalization, mass media, and cultural forces affect our stories, and do these then require us periodically to update or reframe our stories?
Green: Certainly these have affected the story of God’s people throughout time, and they continue to do so today. Our individual stories—and here I mean the local communal stories we all have—vary from generation to generation, culture to culture. We must ask: how do we hear these stories, how do we understand them, and how do we interpret them in light of the grand narrative of God? The God story in Christ becomes the lens through which we read and interpret all other cultural, generational, and regional stories.
G&P: Story in a social media age: would you care to reflect? I’m assuming on one level, this is the greatest opportunity to get the story out. Yet, with all the different forms out there, we also have great potential to muddle the story.
Green: With social media, we have opportunities that no generation has had before, whether through Facebook and MySpace, or through the use of movie clips for teaching. At the same time, every generation has had its own social
Just as the words we speak, media should be used thoughtfully and reflectively.
media. The danger is that the method can easily become an end in itself. We can use these media to speak to this generation for the sake of the social media itself and not for the sake of the grand narrative of God or not giving consideration to and respect for the community in which we live. Twenty years ago, we told hokey jokes at the beginning of our sermons, because we wanted to warm up the audience. More recent forms of social media could become just that as well. Careful consideration must be given in each generation to the function of media (visual, oral, etc.) as a means to invite women and men into the story of God and not simply to invite them into a popular medium of the day. Just as the words we speak, media should be used thoughtfully and reflectively. They should be consistent with the God story as reflected in Scripture and Christian tradition.
G&P: As a pastor considering a narrative style of leadership, what this really comes down to is having a clear sense of what the story is, knowing how to share it, and then living it. That is what authenticates whether it is real.
Green: I used that line you just said in chapel at TNU a couple of days ago. The truthfulness of the story is ultimately embodied in the lifestyle that the story engenders. One of the most important things for us is to realize that the truthfulness, the authenticity, the validity of the story is ultimately embodied in the community that is being shaped by that
“They will know we are Christians by our love.”
story and the form of life that they share together. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
G&P: The holiness credibility gap we have had at times is really solved here, isn’t it?
Green: Very much so. As God’s people find themselves in the narrative/story of God, thus as we are found “in Christ,” we will be transformed by the Spirit to the very mind of Christ and to the image of Jesus Christ himself. That narrative will be embodied in a community that comprises the self-giving, life-giving, body of Jesus Christ to the world. People and communities shaped by that story have a story worth telling!
G&P: Out of all you have said, how would you then say that a minister can practically carry out narrative leadership?
Green: As ministers, we recognize we are caught up in a grander plot/narrative/story than simply our own lives and callings. We are participants in the mission of God, engaged in the Gospel of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We come to view our multiple, diverse tasks from preaching to administration, from worship planning to care and counseling, from spiritual formation to fellowship, as engaged in one broad act: participation in the divine plot. God is “up to something,” and we have been invited to engage in that “something” as well as to provide supervision over the flock who are also engaged in that “something.” We must first come to know intimately what that divine plot is. We then proceed to view every task—from the trivial to the monumental— as inviting women and men to participate in that plot, equipping them to engage in that story, and modeling through leadership, care, and proclamation what that narrative actually looks like.
TIM GREEN serves as the Dean of the School of Religion, Chaplain of the University, and Professor of Old Testament at Trevecca Nazarene University, Nashville, Tennessee