Chapter 10: The Actions of Plot

Congregation: Stories and Structures
by James F. Hopewell

Chapter 10: The Actions of Plot

This chapter’s revision coincides with my second hospitalization for cancer. Again my friends join me in my room. Our struggle for stories to encompass this new reality differ from those told earlier when my disease was first discovered. Our new accounts are more intricate; now they recount our common history lived in the light of my illness, a three-year collaboration that, among other intentions, battles my death.

What thickens our present tales is their richer plots. Neither the settings nor the characterizations we employ in our storytelling have changed notably. But plot has gathered our meantime actions, choosing and weaving them into now more eventful narratives.

This section of the book explores the nature of plot in the congregation. The major aspects of parish story already examined, setting and characterization, depict features of congregational life that -- though by no means immutable -- usually remain the same over long periods of time. Respectively, they represent a church’s persistent views and its values. Plot, by contrast, traces the occurrence and consequence of changing events. Plot relates the unfolding activity of a group, its unsettled venture through time and circumstance. Plot tells what happens.

Studying the diachronic, or ongoing, nature of plot requires an exploratory device different from those used to investigate the synchronic, or simultaneous, aspects of setting and character. Remember the typology of literary genres used to distinguish the variety of congregational world views, and the corpus of world myths employed to interpret congregational ethos. Although both literary genres and myths themselves contain evolving stories, their usefulness in examining setting and character rests primarily upon their capacity to preserve abiding patterns of views and values. Because plot conveys change and chance in a story, it requires other tools for its examination.

One such tool can be fashioned from terms commonly used to describe what plot accomplishes. Plots are customarily said to link, unfold, thicken, and twist. The terms depict important distinctions among the actions of plot:

a. Plots link. They collect and concatenate past events, giving order to action and an identity to the actors. (In my hospital room we recall various happenings in the last three years that typify our common experience and present feelings.)

b. Plots also unfold. They show cause for story’s development or dissolution, thus giving reasons for the present situation and evidence of the likely future. (Our hospital tales seek by sequencing certain events to understand our current predicament and to anticipate what might happen next.)

c. Plots thicken. They acknowledge happenings that counter the independent unfolding of action, thus depicting the tension and agony, or struggle, of life. (Our narratives must address problems in our own fellowship, and our involvement in other predicaments.)

d. Plots twist. They discover an unexpected indeterminate action that transforms for good or ill the character of the actors. (We also witness among us the rare graceful event that redeems our plight.)

One evening a group of pastors and church consultants related a pungent array of stories that depicted the congregation that each served. I shall use their anecdotes to probe at greater depth the various actions of plot.

Plots link

One of the actions of plot is linkage, the drawing of a story line from among the entanglement of various happenings. A myriad of events occur in any day of parish life. If W. H. Auden is correct in his assertion that the day’s events in the life of an average person could fill a novel, an account of the activity of a congregation in the same period might occupy several shelves. That huge account would be called a chronicle. Containing every detail of the congregation’s activity, from the singing of a syllable to the turning of a doorknob, the chronicle would have no plot. In fact, reflecting the raw cascade of time itself, the account would have no beginning, development, or end. It would record an unremitting flow of happenings.

An important function of plot is to make human sense of this formless rush of incidents. Plot links by recalling only a few events from among everything that has happened, thus changing chronicle into history. By recollection -- what Plato called anamnesis -- a community reduces its association with the chaotic immensity of its past. And plot’s linkage of remembered events helps create its subject’s present identity.

Here is a story whose plot links a few incidents to represent the identity of a congregation in a culture disposed to deny it.

Adhering to its own denominational heritage rather than to local religious custom, a small congregation of Brethren in rural Texas developed an unfortunate reputation among its neighbors for not being a "Gospel Church." To mend its image the congregation decided to host one of the Gospel Sings for which the region was well known. Groups from other churches arrived with all their percussive enthusiasm and performed with such vigor that the plant on the piano danced to the floor. Finally the terrified quartet of the Brethren Church offered up their own calm hymn, and no one clapped or stomped. The pastor felt that all was lost, but the noise of the other numbers was sufficient exorcism, for thereafter neighbors told him, "You really got a Gospel Church."

In the long history of the relationship between the congregation and its neighbors, many other events occurred, most of them ambiguous or opaque in their significance. Plot reaches into that jumble to give sequence and coherence to a story that comes to stand for the complex life of this congregation.1

The power of plot to give coherence is often acknowledged in the charge that the stories of congregations about themselves are frequently self-congratulatory or constructed to justify the miserable moments of parish life. But plot can also reveal matters that congregations would rather hide than explain, such as the pulpit one Episcopal congregation must keep in its boiler room:

Defying both the rector and the vestry of a young Episcopal congregation, a powerful member and his cronies wrestled a huge pulpit of his own acquisition into the nave of the new church building. Rather than counter the challenge of this heavyweight, the rector preached from the pulpit the following Sunday. But members had to retreat to the rear of the church in order to see him. The pulpit remained in the sanctuary for several months while the rector refused to use it and the donor refused to remove it. Finally it was inched to a neutral corner in the boiler room.

Note how bland and inaccurate the portrayal of these last two churches would be were a report of the music program to replace the tale of the Gospel Sing or an account of the order of worship to obscure the story of the boiler room pulpit. A congregation’s identity depends upon the unique link that plot forges with certain events in its past.

Plots unfold

Plots do more than recollect the past, however; they also disclose the unfolding of the present. "In a closely contrived plot," Rene Wellek and Austin Warren state, "something has happened in time: the situation at the end is very different from that at the opening. To tell a story, one has to be concerned about the happening, not merely the outcome."2 A good plot ripens former events to reveal the present, and from the present seeds a likely future. Parish plot is a scenario that demonstrates a causal sequence in congregational life.

Unless incidents unfold, their succession loses meaning. Persons in despair, for example, find little plot in their experience. They see their lives instead as just one damn thing after another.3 Communities as much as individuals require the unfolding action of plot, the recognizable development of life toward fulfillment. Note how plot unfolds a situation that, without its narrative expectation, might prove intolerable to its participants.

Although frequently given to public acts of social and religious consequence, a pastor especially shook his flock when he helped by extralegal means to bring Hispanic refugees into the United States. The church board, listening to the mummers of city fathers and picturing the flight of funds and members to more placid parishes, decided to fire the pastor. But his adventurous nature had also attracted many supporters who disputed the board’s claim that the majority of members wanted the pastor discharged. A specialist in conflict management was appointed to break the impasse, and a final vote revealed that most members wanted to keep their minister. The minority opposition felt not only repudiated but also vindictive. They left the church, knowing their departure destroyed the congregation’s financial base. Today, a pensive remnant lives on with its pastor in increasingly shabby surroundings.

Were the church not sustained by a plot that shows cause for present conditions, the congregation would probably disintegrate. "Plots," says Wesley Kort, "are images of recognizable processes, particularly of growth or dissolution."4 They respond to the question "How come?" disclosing in this instance why a recently respectable and secure congregation now finds itself in dignified desperation.

Although both explicate the course of human action, plots are substantially different from theories. A social scientist might distill from the refugee incident the hypothesis that there are certain predictable community responses when attempts are made to help people marginal to its corporate life. Social science would test this hypothesis by careful comparison of parallel situations. If confirmed, the hypothesis would contribute to theories that could be used in making more or less accurate predictions of the outcomes of similar situations. The theory would contain causal conclusions that, as Northrop Frye points out, confer the right of science to say "hence." The future orientation of plot, however, conveys the more concrete but uncertain prospect which is implied, as Frye says, in story’s conjunction, "and then."

Both scientific theory and story address the future of a local church. Theory provides a relatively few abstract principles of which a particular parish might in time become an illustration. With a different sort of anticipation, plot projects the future. We are not sure of the outcome, but we are certain that it is the complex images of the storied present that are cast forward into the future. Neither theory nor story in fact reveals what is to come, but narrative brings to the future the stuff that will give it particularity. Theories predict, while plots unfold.5

Plots thicken

Plots also complicate their story line by recognizing elements in life that counter its simple unfolding. When we say that a plot thickens we mean that it has incorporated contradictory evidence that gives the story a strained intricacy. Thickening is inevitable. "All plots," say Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, "depend upon tension and resolution,"6 and Kenneth Burke demonstrates the inescapable dialectic found in both fictional and historical dramatizations.7 Although we are socialized to think that tension marks an embarrassing and probably unnecessary failure in ministry (one recent book for pastors asserts that "conflict was not God’s plan for humanity"), the agón of individual and corporate life is inextricable from a congregation’s plot.

Parishes in the thick of things do not escape tension:

To dramatize their commitment to the destitute of a troubled Northeastern city, an action group of a blue-collar United Church of Christ congregation arranged a march from their church building to an ecumenically supported food center. Carrying banners and sacks of food, and following a bagpipe player, the group set out under the eyes of other, disapproving, church members. The trip went smoothly enough, except that an alcoholic male parishioner who loved to touch women draped himself over the female pastor throughout the parade.

Many local church histories are written without reference to the elements that produce tensions and strains, in this case the neighborhood poor, doubting church colleagues, an incongruous parade, and an amorous drunk. Histories concentrate instead on dates and accomplishments; they avoid the tension that accompanies the complicated struggle to maintain and enliven any community. Most local church histories are therefore boring. It is not just prurience that makes us itch to learn the real story behind the usual church account of names and projects. It is much more a spiritual longing to participate in the tensed complexities and contradictions that roil our actual lives.

The conflicting intentions of several groups thicken the following plot:

The only black Episcopal congregation in its diocese, in distinction from other diocesan mission churches, founded itself without headquarters support and proudly maintained itself without diocesan aid throughout its history. It accepted, however, a diocesan proposal that it organize a conference to discuss how it could obtain better clergy leadership from its own ranks. The diocese sent in various experts and observers, including a white person, frustrated elsewhere in her desire to gain ordination. When the congregation faltered in its own conclusions, she announced, "I will be your priest." The participants received this unanticipated development with apparently great joy and immediately accepted her offer. But during the next week the congregation dismissed its wardens and vestry and never communicated further with the candidate who had volunteered her services.

We listen to these stories with their strange tensions, preferring them to thin, placid success stories because they recognize in their plots not insignificant or random events but the world’s own thickening. The recent spate of books about church fights and leader burnout 8 examines aspects of the church’s thickening plot. Acute moments in parish conflict now attract increasing numbers of specialist consultants. The analyses used by most students and referees of distress do not, however, go far enough. Constrained by a market that demands immediate results, consultants concentrate upon features of agony that are insoluble and responsive to treatment and tend to ignore the deeper and abiding dialectic of congregational life that stirs up the fights. Several of the books on church conflict begin with learned quotes that suggest that anything worthwhile begins in conflict but ends in reconciliation. That understanding is less than half the story. Things also fall apart, and much at stake in the household life of the congregation never approaches resolution. To advise churches that all their distresses have solutions palliates pain at the expense of allowing the church to experience its thick connection with the suffering of the wider world.

Plots twist

Plots also represent an action more irregular than the linkage, unfolding, and thickening described already. In so doing, they acknowledge the possibility of transformation. Like other groups, a local church is not bound to the images of its recollection, or the inevitability of sequential development, or the persistence of tension. Occasionally there occurs in corporate life an unanticipated and apparently deviant twist that transmutes the course and character of the group. Twists are better recognized when they occur in concrete situations than when they are defined or described in generalized theories about change, because, by their nature, twists contort the accepted definitions of things. Here are two accounts, one of a twist initiated by a pastor, the other the result of congregational action.

Sometimes the plot of the church is twisted by deliberate action of leaders who realize that an important element of congregational life is wrong and who therefore force its change. In the following story, leadership is provided by a pastor who institutes a costly modification in the way the parish views its relationship with God:

Were members of a United Methodist church to have described the holiest moment of the year for their congregation, they would uniformly have cited the warm, candlelit hours of Christmas Eve when families would arrive whenever it was most convenient for them for a private Communion at the altar. Each group would wait discreetly outside if another family were already present. Once alone, the family would silently move forward to the pastor, who would first hug and greet them and then provide Christ’s body and blood for the kneeling kin. Tears would fall. Families felt a strange closeness.

In the view of the new pastor, however, the Christmas message was getting lost in this moist intimacy. Christ was born, he preached, to a world as disparate as shepherds and kings, not merely to nuclear families, and the way the church witnessed God’s new embrace at Christmas should be by congregation-wide Communion, not private huddles at the altar. He announced that future Christmas Eve services were to be held at a set time for the whole congregation.

The church’s millionaire member withdrew his pledge. Many members felt that their Christmases had been spoiled. The first year only the pastor’s family showed up at the service. A year later, some other members joined them.

Sometimes the twist occurs in spite of well-intentioned leadership:

At diocesan urging, a Roman Catholic congregation sought to start a parish council that would institute the principles of local lay leadership advocated in the documents of Vatican II. The organizational efforts of the pastor and his rural church members, however, went nowhere. The priest made speeches about democracy; the flock listened quietly but passively. Finally a woman in her sixties stood up. "Monsignor," she said, "let me say something. I have been sitting here listening to all these words and thinking that I am just a farmer. Have run my own farm for thirty-eight years. Then the more I listen the more I realize: You couldn’t run a farm. Now let’s get this council working."

That cracked the mold: heavenly patriarchy collapsed into matriarchal farmland earth. The bravery of an older layperson twisted millennia-old patterns of parish authority.

But twists are not necessarily acts of heroism, and they do not always bring benefits. Some are accidents, like the change initiated by the death of the pastor’s son in Corinth Methodist Church. Some are catastrophes, killing the church. Nor is their occurrence the prerogative or even the consequence of newly installed pastors who feel compelled to turn around their new congregations. Especially in the case of churches that suffer the entry of different, eager pastors every few years and that become indifferent to their prodding, new leaders are advised to appreciate the church’s existing story before attempting to twist it. They should first learn the other actions of a congregation’s plot: the years of local linkage, the unfolding and thickening which have happened only partially through the ministrations of a pastor. All actions of plot need attending. The twists of a congregation’s plot are infrequent and uncertain, and they are not the ultimate measure of ministry. It may be considerably more significant for a congregation to face its thickening circumstances than for it to try to twist its nature.

The Functions of Plot

Notice how stories differ from program description, the almost automatic form for summarizing parish life. Reports about a local church usually fix upon such regularities as worship services and committee meetings, not upon the plot that unfolds and twists. But formal, regular activities are relatively infrequent occurrences in the total activity of a congregation. Program description fails to account for most of the collective behavior that moves the church from one moment to the next. In spite of what most annual reports of congregations seem to attest, program descriptions do not sum up what happens in church or in society. Plots do. Analyzing parish narratives through the actions of their plots throws light on the nature of the congregation in several significant ways.

First, it demonstrates that congregations are capacious. They collect occurrences that otherwise might be dismissed as eccentric or irrelevant. The fact that such irregular events as aid to Hispanic refugees can be typified as actions of plot gives evidence that congregational life possesses a larger coherence than its sequence of liturgies and standard programs by themselves suggest. The ongoing corporate life of the local church is not a muddle of atomic incidents connected merely by the regularities of church worship and organization. Rather, a larger, hermeneutically richer story knits together the manifold existence of the parish household.

Plot analysis also displays the ubiquity of issues of power in congregational life. The very terms of analysis -- link, unfold, thicken, and twist -- suggest the work of power throughout local church events. All the anecdotes told that evening by the pastors and consultants deal more or less openly with political power: its absence, acquisition, contention, transfer, or consequence. The changes in location of the big pulpit are accomplished by contending forces. The food parade is a symbol of power’s absence. In facing the pastor, the farmer represents the transfer of power. To acknowledge the plot of the congregation is to recognize the political nature of God’s household.9

Third, analysis of parish plot demonstrates the historical nature of the congregation. The local church is more than a narrative setting, an assembly of ideas about the world that floats among those who hold them. Nor is the parish merely a narrative characterization, an ethos held in common by otherwise dissociated people. Despite our aspirations, congregations are not timeless havens of congenial views or values. By congregating, human beings are implicated in plot, in a corporate historicity that links us to a specific past, that thickens and unfolds a particular present, and that holds out a future open to transformation. Congregational story is a household confession that recognizes the continuing participation of the church in the passage of events. This theme regulates the final chapters of this book. First, in the remainder of the present chapter, I examine how the actions of congregational plot parallel the struggles for survival of people everywhere, but especially the poor and oppressed. In the next, I explore the complex relationship between the common human undertaking of a congregation and the Christian story. Then ways of interpreting Christ’s plot in and with the world are proposed in story form in chapter 12. Finally, all three major elements of narrative are reexamined for their meaning for the congregation’s wider ministry and mission.

Last and most significant, congregational plot --capacious, political, and historical -- testifies to the symbolic relationship that exists between the rich drama of church life and the struggle of the world’s peoples. Christianity did not, of course, create narratives and their attendant plots. Story is found in all societies, as essential to their own life and meaning as it is to the survival and identity of the Christian congregation. To explore the narrative structure of the local church by examining its elements and their representation is to participate, perhaps unknowingly, in a much larger adventure into how human societies everywhere struggle to communicate and maintain themselves. Understanding the local church story is subversive: this act of apparent self-reference brings to consciousness the symbolic forms and processes that bind together all humanity. The narrative structure that holds together the congregation binds it as well as to the world’s communities.

The Implications of Plot

Factors in the struggle of a people to exist as a corporate body are set forth in the four-function paradigm of Talcott Parsons.10 Although the adequacy of his analysis is challenged by other theories, especially those focused upon social change,11 Parsons’s model provides a useful delineation of the actions implicated in a group’s toil to perpetuate itself. According to his theory, an organization must fulfill four functional imperatives if it is to Survive. First, to sustain its identity an organization must preserve its values, history, and meanings. Parsons calls that action pattern maintenance. Second, the group must provide norms and means that give its members a coherent unity: the imperative of integration. Third, the organization by adaptation must develop the resources and skills to modify itself. And, fourth, members must function within a system of governance that enables them to accomplish goal attainment. Together the four functions encompass the activities that give a social structure both its equilibrium and its capacity to evolve through time.

Among suffering people, however, Parsons’s functions are more often represented by their contradiction than their accomplishment. Thus pattern maintenance is less characteristic of their life than the obliteration of cultural pattern, and integration less a present reality than its opposite, alienation. In like manner, poverty overtakes the resources and skills required for the function of adaptation, while oppression prevents the possibility of goal attainment. For the marginal societies of the world, therefore, the four functions of Parsons are much less achievements than the distant intentions of a grinding struggle to ameliorate cultural amnesia, alienation, poverty, and oppression.

The fourfold fight waged by the world’s poor is also expressed by the actions of plot in the local church. What is experienced in its own historical, political plot are movements that are pale but authentic forms of the life-and-death struggle waged by oppressed peoples. Can the congregation grasp

—that plot’s linkage, in the stories of both congregations and poor societies, marks the struggle for recollection of the past so that cultural identity, the pattern, is maintained in the face of cultural obliteration? The fight of a Brethren church to protect its identity in an overwhelmingly different religious ethos is structurally identified with the toil of sub-Saharan people to maintain their negritude in spite of massive Western influence.

—that plot’s unfolding, in the stories of both congregations and poor societies, characterizes the attempt to attain group goals in the face of oppression and other obstructing factors? A story like that of the pastor who sponsored refugees unfolds as pastor and congregation hold firmly to their principles in the face of bitter opposition. By similar action, peoples throughout the world struggle to attain their goals in societies dominated by oppressive political and economic systems.

—that plot’s thickening, in stories of both congregations and poor societies, describes a society’s labor to acknowledge alienated elements or members, whose activity now repudiates any orderly incorporation? Proud of its identity and independence, the black Episcopal church entered a divisive time when outside interventions thickened its plot. The quest for integration, an internal social health and wholeness, is a thickening that also occupies countries torn by civil war and peoples segregated into colors and classes.

-- that plot’s twist, in stories of both congregations and poor societies, seeks the potential of a group to adapt its nature to meet new circumstances and reflects a struggle to lay hold of the skills and resources that enable transformation? Although threatened by the withdrawal of resources, the Methodist church offering Christmas Eve Communion was able to transform itself because of the skill and fortitude of its prophetic pastor. The energetic strivings of poor and oppressed societies against considerable odds presuppose the possible twists of plot.

The congregation by its household narrative can mediate the entry of the individual into the fullness of the world, making manifest how the biography of a member is woven into the story of all human society. This mediatorial ministry of the local church can be probed, as suggested earlier and proposed at greater length in what follows, by exploring the setting, character, and plot of the congregation. In a church’s narrative setting, its world view, though idiomatic, is nonetheless oriented within the genres of all Western literature. The world’s mythology portrays the genius of a congregation’s character within a global labor of mythopeosis. And the plot of the local church, as just argued, is pitched within the struggle of humankind for significance and survival. Involvement in the local church can be itself a twist: a parochial venture that turns out to be a worldly risk.


1. "Ordering the world at a spontaneous level of story telling implies that the search for coherence in the universe is not futile; it testifies to a primal conviction that reality lays itself open to being ordered in a comprehensible way" (John Navone, Towards a Theology of Story [Slough, England: St. Paul Publications, 1977], 39).

2. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1942), 222-23.

3. "When someone complains—as do some of those who attempt or commit suicide—that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement towards a climax, or a telos" (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 202).

4. Wesley A. Kort, Narrative Elements and Religious Meanings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 62.

5. "Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future" (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 201).

6. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), 212.

7. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945).

8. John C. Harris, Stress, Power and Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute, 1977); Speed Leas and Paul Kittlaus, Church Fights; Douglass Lewis, Resolving Church Conflicts: A Case Study Approach for Local Congregations (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); Larry L. McSwain and William C. Treadwell, Jr., Conflict Ministry in the Church (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981); John M. Miller, The Contentious Community: Constructive Conflict in the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978); Charles L. Rassieur, Stress Management for Ministers: Practical Help for Clergy Who Deny Themselves the Care They Give Others (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982).

9. Cf. Johann Baptist Metz’s use of narrative and memory in his political theology in Faith in History and Society. Although Metz views the categories of narrative and memory as essential for Christian solidarity with the world, his categories refer primarily to the collective experience of the church universal expressed in theological terms (memory of the dead, apocalyptic hope, etc.).

10. Talcott Parsons, The System of Modern Societies (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 4-28; With Edward Shils, Kaspar Naegle, and Jesse Pitts, eds., Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory (New York: Free Press, 1961), 36-41; Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory (New York: Free Press, 1977), 43-53, 111- 16.

11. For a comparison of Parsonian and Marxist analyses, see Marie Augusta Neal, "The Comparative Implications of Functional and Conflict Theory as Theoretical Frameworks for Religious Research and Religious Decision Making," Review of Religious Research 22 (Fall 1979): 24-50.