Saturday, January 10, 2009

6.0 Who Do You Say That We Are?: Practicing Story in a Change Project

The literature about working with story is very convincing, but how does it work in life? In my change project I had an opportunity to practice using story to connect the different parts of a small group. I worked with an earth honoring spiritual community made up of mostly women. Similar to the literature noted in the previous section, I’m describing this project to illustrate some of the themes and approaches that I think can be adapted for application in the evangelical Christian church. I do not intend this project to represent a formula into which we enter the Christian story for direct results.

The group I worked with was about two years old and navigating a leadership transition when I became involved. Two of its three founders had left the group for personal reasons, leaving one founder and a new woman who had agreed to lead with her. At the same time they observed a lower participation of group members. So in addition to discerning who and how to lead, the two co-leaders were revisiting questions about the group’s purpose, what it would offer, and for whom.

They convened a core group of select group members, expecting that from this core, individuals would “step up” into leadership positions. I was absorbed into the core group and the co-leadership as part of my change project. Since I’d recently begun studying story, the concepts and methods I was reading about shaped my approach to the group’s challenges. Participating as a full member of the group, becoming part of its current story, provided me with the understanding and credibility to suggest a new story. I considered my role to be working with and within the group to deliver its next iteration.

In one of our earliest meetings, the remaining founder told me the group’s story. Her account emphasized the departures and dwindling participation. It was an expression of loss and confusion. It seemed to me that the story of a group couldn’t come from one person, even if that person is the founder. I started to wonder about other tellings this story might have. How might choosing a different story for the group shape this transition? I started “listening for stories” (Lawrence – Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) in meetings with the co-leaders and during social time with other group members. Beyond capturing discrete personal stories, I tried to destabilize the group’s story, as I’d heard it, in order to start suggesting other ways to understand our life together and then to choose our future.

I approached these goals by asking questions. I wanted to understand what certain behaviors or statements meant and how flexible those meanings were. Where did the ideas and commitments come from? What would happen if you believed and behaved differently? I had the most opportunities to do this with the remaining founder (the default authority of the group). By posing my questions to her I hoped to both prompt and support her in gentle reflection about our group’s story. Hearing her tell the group’s story, I was concerned that the events and characters of the past had become cemented for her, and determined the shape of things to come. I hoped to bring attention to the parts of the story from another point of view or another point in the chronology. I expected that this would render the story of loss a little less secure. Opening up the old version of the events for reinterpretation positioned us for a new story to emerge to make sense of the past, the group’s identity, and its future.

I conducted a more formal process of questions and reflection by interviewing each of the core group members. I synthesized their stories into one collective story of the group. This finished product offered a full-bodied illustration of the other meanings the group’s life held for its members and included suggestions for how to go forward together.

Writing the synthesis document gave me an opportunity to highlight the connections and patterns that I witnessed in the interview responses. I tried to show the different interpretations from different points of view, including the founder’s and my own. Woven together into a whole, it presented a very different story of the group. Rather than decline, this account highlighted the significance and vitality of the group for today’s participants plus their suggestions for its future. This helped to reveal leadership latent in the membership.

I think that the new story conveyed in the synthesis had the most direct impact on the remaining founder. We didn’t have a clear expectation of what the interview project would produce or how we would use the findings. Then the composition I presented to her challenged the story she told. For that matter, it challenged each of our stories, indicating that no one of us could perceive or express all of the group’s significance. But this was true for the founder in a different way. She had been with the group since its earliest inception as an idea. She knew what it had been created for and how it was supposed to do that. A new story, other than hers, what did that mean?

She asked for some time to sit with the story I’d offered to her. She wanted to move through her initial reactions to be able to understand and appreciate what the different responses meant. And then she started to change how she led. For example, members talked about rotating the locations of rituals as well as who performed them in the role of high priestess. So the next two events were hosted in different homes with different women leading them. The changes also supported the founder by shifting some of the work and responsibility off of her to other group members. The response to her changes confirmed, in member’s words and participation, that the group she initiated was still significant, vital, and growing.

The new story ended up serving multiple functions, which is what the literature indicates that story does. The process shifted the authority for defining the group from the remaining founder to the full membership. The story collection process, gave each member an opportunity for her or his version of the truth of the group to be acknowledged. This multiplicity of views shook loose the existing story of loss and provided a new story with which to grow. The documentation of this is not a final word from me about the group. Peppered with questions and multiple points of view it is reminds us to be reflective, flexible, and to call upon our many parts in order to more deeply know the whole we make together.

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