When We Tell Our Stories

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“Hello. My name is _____________and I am an ________________.”

Chances are--you know how that sentence usually ends. It’s an introduction to a life story, and it’s a built-in mechanism for a storyteller to own their weakness. It’s a powerful introduction because it is honest and allows for an experience of grace.

Stories are the way we connect the dots of our lives.  Stories are the way we remember the past…the way we introduce ourselves in the present…and the way we frame our future. And at the intersection of pastors and churches, stories—how they are told and the power they wield—are a revelation worth examining.

Every pastor has a story. A personal story.  A story of being called into ministry. A story that has chapters and chapters of ministry experiences.  And a story that intersects with the stories of churches.

Every church has a story too.  The people within that church have their own personal stories—but the church as a community has its collected story. And part of the church’s story will be different chapters with different pastors.

So when pastors and churches tell stories of their time together—do they sound identical?

Not exactly! Every story that is told has a point of view—the perspective of the storyteller. Why that is so, and what impacts that perspective is an interesting question all by itself. But the fact is-- when stories are told, they inevitably reveal something of the storyteller’s point of view.

A helpful thing to consider is that there are three basic vantage points from which stories are told: hero, victim and villain.

Hero & Victim: Typically, we tell stories from two of those vantage points quite readily. The hero is the vantage point of the well-intentioned person: the person who is relatively innocent and even righteous—who tries to do the right thing. That’s a person we imagine ourselves to be, and certainly the one we present ourselves to be.  Right there with the hero is the vantage point of the victim—the one to whom things have happened. The one who is hurting, who is being treated unjustly, whose life is hard—and ultimately, the one who bears no responsibility for whatever hurt or wrong is in view—this is the victim’s vantage point.

Villain: The viewpoint most challenging for us to access is that of the villain. Even the word “villain” sounds nasty—and we shy away from identifying ourselves as people whose intentions are twisted, even evil. This is the challenge of self-examination: owning the fact that there is this darker side to our being which is in play every bit as much as the good intentions and the reality of experiencing hurt.  A question that can be helpful in getting at this particular vantage point is this: how might I have contributed to a messy situation?

Integration: When we are healthiest, we know our own stories from all three of these vantage points, and can tell our stories in each of these different ways. For example, when I think of myself as a spouse, I know myself as a well-intentioned, thoughtful, kind and dependable person. I also know that in my marriage of over 40 years, I have experienced hurt of various kinds, some of it undeserved. Ah—but I also know that I have caused hurt, said things that were unkind, and disappointed my partner deeply.

If I think of myself as a parent—it becomes quite apparent—that I can tell my story from all three of these narrative points of view.  It’s possible to imagine people describing United States presidents in each of these ways as well: to think of President George W. Bush and the Iraqi War, or to think of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Health Care Act—these presidents have been described as heroes, victims and villains.

Ideally, we are able to sense that all three of these perspectives are integrated as we think about who we are and how we live our lives. To know ourselves in all these ways is to know ourselves as bundles of contradictions, and is to know ourselves with honesty and with grace. The apostle Paul didn’t use these terms, but a reading of Romans 7 suggests he knew this reality.

It’s fascinating to begin observing how it is that we introduce ourselves to others. As we begin to tell our stories, one person to another—what’s the vantage point we typically use? And why?

As pastors introduce themselves to churches, and churches introduce themselves to pastors—all with a view to a potential ministry call—how are these introductions framed? How much airbrushing is involved? Is our default perspective that of hero, victim or villain?

I wonder why we present ourselves in the ways that we do. It’s worth some reflecting.

Next: How do introductions to storytelling impact the way the story unfolds?

{Every life is a story; tells a story.

Every community is a story; tells a story.

Twists and turns, evil, grace, despair, hope, redemption, resolution.

Stories of individual lives and communities and civilizations find a place and receive meaning from the grand stories called metanarratives.}

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