Bear with me for a moment. I’m going to equate the soul to my cat.

Perhaps a little context first. I’m preparing to lead my church’s council retreat on Saturday. I’ll be using the book Know Your Story and Lead with It by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones to guide our conversation about narrative leadership.

The basic premise of narrative leadership is this: when we tell a story, there is almost always a gap between the reality of that story and the way in which we tell it. We are selective about the details. We leave things out or add elements in. We remember that which serves a purpose in our use of the story.

Narrative leadership – whether in a congregation or a school or a family – invites curious questions about a story to help us unpack what else might be going on, why someone tells a story the way they do, and what stories we’ve assumed to be true, but which might in fact be thin versions of a much wider reality.

A woman complains constantly about the new praise team music. That’s a story. But ask the right questions, and you’ll discover a parishioner wracked with the fear of failing eyesight, a reality confronting her when she can’t read the words on the projection screen. Thicker story.

As you can well imagine, such leadership takes time, emotional energy, and courage. Our tendency is to quickly name the problem and move forward. What are the answers? What needs to be done? And if you’re like me, your tendency is to do it all yourself. A good leader, we assume, gets us from point A to point B as painlessly and quickly as possible.

But in the process, we might miss a deeper, fuller story and the possibility to see people as more than “those I need to move from point A to point B.” A people with souls.

Parker Palmer talks about the soul in his book A Hidden Wholeness. This is where the cat comes in. The soul, he writes, is best described as being like a wild animal. It’s tough and resilient, knowing how to survive in hard places, even as things like the ego or intellect are battered over time.

But the soul is also shy. “Like a wild animal,” writes Palmer, “it seeks safety in the dense underbrush…if we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.”

My two cats could hardly be called “wild.” But they, like most animals – like our souls – are a bit skittish. The second they hear the door they go bolting up the stairs and under my bed, where they might cower for hours or even days if there are strangers in the house.

My friend’s kids tend to go hunting for the cats, barreling through the rooms trying to find them. Not surprisingly this strategy never works. But when they’re given their space, when my friends (usually sans children) sit relaxed and quiet in the living room, eventually the cats will slink downstairs and might even rub up against someone’s leg.

Unfortunately, writes Palmer, too often we act like small children hunting cats. “Community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. In spaces ranging from congregations to classrooms, we preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and generally behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding. Under these conditions, the intellect, emotions, will and ego may emerge, but not the soul: we scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope.”

The hope of narrative leadership is that we might encourage the soul to emerge. To plumb deeper depths, to expand simple stories, to do the hard work of sitting and waiting and staying with our people even as they seek to sort out their own stories. This takes resilience and self-differentiation, which also means that a good leader must know his or her own story. When we do – when we have recognized our own soul – we can engage with others and appreciate them as fully defined selves with stories and complexities and souls seeking a place to call home.

I wonder, then, what home looks like in the council room, the sanctuary, the classroom, the dining room table. What questions do we need to ask, what practices do we need to cultivate, to encourage the soul to poke its head out from under the bed? And what stories do we need to question or expand or thicken? Is there an alternative story to the people for whom we’ve scripted our own narratives, the parishioner who is always in a fluster, the overprotective parent, the lazy colleague?

One of my favorite literary lines comes from Gary Schmidt’s novel, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. It’s the moment of realization Turner has as he paddles among a pod of whales, the knowledge of what he saw in the eye of the whale and the eye of his father:

The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on. And there is nothing more woeful and soul-saddening than when they are parted. Turner knew that everything in the world rejoices in the touch, and everything in the world laments in the losing.

Narrative leadership takes practice. And time. But when we pay attention to process, and not just product, when we’re okay being in a place of not knowing all the answers, but asking the right questions, when we seek to know one another’s souls, my hunch is that our communities with strengthen and flourish.

And who knows. Maybe curiosity didn’t kill the cat after all. Maybe it allowed the cat to feel at home.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

2 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is really valuable. I am thinking about the Reformed Church in America, and its travails, and how we needed to have done this with each other, and that had we let our General Synods take their time and really talked, and not run them like conventions, we might have done some of this. I fear it might be too late for the RCA, but we certainly need to practice this in our other assemblies and judicatories.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    In our English skills tutoring center at the community college, we employ the very same concepts in our tutoring sessions, to listen for and listen to students’ stories, not just correct their grammar or comment on their style. Many are traditional-age international students, many more are new or next generation immigrants, and along with their insecurities and difficulties with English literacy are their insecurities about living in general. Every one has a story, which we don’t elicit, but which often comes out, especially in subsequent visits for tutoring as relationships are built. I appreciate the Parker Palmer quotes—I have used those very quotes and others from his works as talking points in tutor training.

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