Chapter 9: Storytelling

Congregation: Stories and Structures
by James F. Hopewell

Chapter 9: Storytelling

The purpose of telling a congregation’s story with conscious reference to its mythic framework is to provide a fresh way to characterize its corporate life. The object is not simply to play a matching game that links a certain myth with the attitudes and actions of a certain local church. Although there is pleasure in the discovery of a myth that illuminates nuances in the events of a parish, the greater benefit of the exercise is its public expression. The considerable effort required to fit a myth to the cultural data of a congregation is best undertaken for the good of the church itself, not for one’s private entertainment or academic purposes. A congregational story told with its mythic counterpoint helps church members to grasp how much their corporate life contains and means. It also prompts them to ask at the story’s ending, "And then?"

Many churches fail to tell their story. They are paralyzed in prosaic self-description that follows depressingly predictable lines. They evaluate themselves by counting money, membership, and programs. Denying or ignoring the complexity of relationships in the congregation, they consistently proclaim their cohesion as a family. They tabulate the age, sex, race, and social class of their members. And they even equate themselves with the property they occupy. Such a pattern of self-reference reflects the aspects of household outlined much earlier: a mechanist side that focuses on numbers and tasks, an organicist side that portrays familial traits, a contextual side that stresses demography, and a symbolic side that may make property the household image.

In one sense the designations form a four-sided shell that defines the congregational household, representing the outer limit of creative self-portrayal in a community’s life. But may it not also function as a protective device by which a parish conceals its essential life and shields itself from more telling and exciting self-knowledge? To concentrate upon numbers, programs, and family feelings may represent a flight from the ambiguous, demanding story of the group. Consider Daedalus and Briar Rose churches. Their intriguing dramas can be easily obscured by conventional self-description. Parish portrayal that ignores story is certainly simpler, and it undergirds piety as a private concern uninvolved with any vital household life.

A congregation can learn to tell its stories. It can search for their relationship to large epics and myths. It can argue about which is most apposite and can seek a variety of interpretations. In what might be a radical departure from its normal practice of self-description, the congregation can talk about the particularity and worth of its own character. Rather than reduce its self-image to that of a machine or an organism, the congregation might begin to give account of itself as the full, storied household the Bible promises it can be.

Who Explores Character?

The characterization of the church should be a collaborative undertaking. Although an examination of the setting -- the world view of a congregation might well be the work of a single individual, the development of an effective interpretation of the congregation’s ethos requires a collective effort. This is true for several reasons. The first is the magnitude of the task. Not only does characterization involve a great deal of interview and observation, it also concludes with a number of attempts at narrative interpretation. To have several collaborators both divides the task and provides partners in the attempt to tell powerful stories.

Because myths are often troubling, even unflattering portrayals of character, the involvement of several people in their discovery has another advantage: it increases the likelihood that a congregation may be able to hear and ultimately to accept its own meaning. One church developed a helpful twofold grouping of people to explore the mythic dimension of its character. Doing the original search were a small group of lay investigators and the pastor. They reported to a larger group of members, who tried on the observations, stories, and myths that the smaller group proposed as important. Having refined the characterization in this way and made it the property of diverse representatives of the parish, the larger group then was able to portray and dramatize the story to the congregation as a whole.

A group of members whose talents are nominally underused in a congregation may become leaders in the exercise of characterization. Social workers, psychologists, English teachers, raconteurs, and lovers of drama and literature bring special talents to the process. They already have an appreciation of culture in its broad sense and of the narrative link to social observation. Their collective memory of myths and tales also supplements the usually limited knowledge of a single investigator.

A final advantage of collective storytelling is that it tempers the fancies of any single interpreter. It is very easy in the late stages of developing a mythic framework to bend or break off the observations of parish ethos that contradict the myth. An individual examiner especially confronts this temptation. Colleagues in the search for story can check this tendency in each other and together set a higher standard of accountability to the evidence.

The ministry of characterization does not begin with the presentation of the final story to the full parish. It begins in the conversations among collaborators who are forced to move beyond the standard ways of considering their parish. In their interviews and conversations with other members they then become engaged in what is essentially moral discourse, the determination of what constitutes the ethical stance of themselves and their group. In gathering and interpreting their collective ethos, they further participate as Christians in a prophetic ministry that sets forth the story of group in the light of God’s covenantal history with all God’s people.

Methods of Inquiry

A team that seeks to characterize a congregation by narrative begins with methods of observation and interview. The general nature of this ethnographic approach is described in chapter 6. In the present section, several more specific ways are presented by which the effort to uncover the ethos of a congregation is pressed: (a) listening for narrative elements, (b) participant observation, (c) guided interviews for value patterns, and (d) corporate moral inquiry.

a. Listening for narrative elements. Short and longer stories constitute the bulk of everyday parish discourse. Thus some of the most valuable narrative sources are readily accessible, requiring the study team only to give a special kind of attention to the narratives they hear in the ordinary course of congregational life. Some of the tales are informal accounts shared among people gathered quite casually, perhaps after worship or between meetings. Other stories are recounted during programs and business sessions, and still others emerge in pastoral conversations.

The inquirers listen to, and possibly tape-record, the discourse. The stories it contains are later analyzed to detect at least the following elements:

1. The points of stress or crisis that the narrative seeks to describe and resolve, and the nature of the resolution.

2. Stereotypic characters and scenes portrayed in the stories and their proficient or otherwise typical manner.

3. The atmosphere or prevailing mood depicted in the stories.

4. Forms of hope or wish fulfillment projected in the discourse.1

These elements served to organize the stories told in the last chapter. They are the ones a congregational study team will use in discerning the structure of the congregational story and its mythic parallels.

b. Participant observation. The study team that seeks to identify a congregation by its character must, like the researcher looking for setting or world view, assume the role of observing participant, a posture that takes nothing for granted. The methods of participant observation are the same as those set forth in chapter 6, but the object of the inquiry is somewhat different. Inquiry about setting focuses on what the congregation assumes, presupposes, and believes. Research into ethos is oriented to capacities, behavior, and values. Thus the team must note the characteristic behavior of nuclear members and principal leaders, comparing it with the attributes and activities of marginal members. Actions must be recorded, especially those taken in instances of crisis and stress, because there values are patently at stake. Observers must pay special attention to the congregation’s "street wisdom" about how things really get done; to evidence about what the congregation seeks to avoid; and to expressions of wishes, desires, and instances of their fulfillment. Etiquette, style, and stereotypic behavior are important. Clues about mood and values may be found in the way a congregation uses and decorates its physical space. Publications and bulletin boards may convey proficiency, style, and mood. Throughout the study the team keeps in mind the underlying question: What do members demonstrate is the preferable and reliable practice of their household?

c. Guided interviews for value patterns. Open-ended interviews that pose a predesigned series of questions permit members themselves to ponder their behavior and to develop their own ideas about what congregational actions intend. Some interviews should engage marginal members, who often bring a more critical interpretation to church behavior. Others are conducted among active participants. All informants are asked the same type of questions:

—What’s the news around the church now?

—Tell me about your own association with this church.

—What changes have you noticed since you became a member?

—How is this church most likely to fall apart?

—What would you say were the most valuable characteristics of this church?

—What sort of talk dampens the spirit of this church?

—What distinguishes this church from [a nearby competitor]?

—What sort of church program or project is frustrating and unproductive?

—Think of a respected member. Without naming the person, describe the person’s characteristics.

—Think of an embarrassing member. Without naming the person, describe the person’s characteristics.

—At what points in church life do you feel closest to God?

—At what points in church life do you feel this congregation is in danger of losing touch with God?

Many of the guidelines laid down for world view interviews apply here as well, though again with a different object. It is important that interviewers concentrate upon the responses of their partners and not use the occasion to argue with them, to present an affirmative or alternative view, or to analyze what might be the motivation behind the respondent’s answer. A "flat approach" from the interviewer is required. Such an approach tries to understand the interpretation of the informant and does not fall back into rejoinders of the interviewer or forward into psychoanalytic or sociological explanation. The object of inquiry is neither a negotiation between two opinions nor a second level explication of the informant’s ideas. It is, rather, to understand as clearly as possible the interpretations of incident and value that informants themselves present.

d. Corporate moral inquiry. James Gustafson has proposed that local churches and other Christian groups become "communities of moral discourse."2 What he has in mind is not the ongoing and largely unconscious operation of the inherent ethos of a congregation but its conscious attention to moral issues raised for the purpose of making a Christian decision about them. "By a community of moral discourse," Gustafson writes, "I mean a gathering of people with the explicit intention to survey and critically assess their personal and social responsibilities in the light of moral convictions about which there is some consensus and to which there is some loyalty."3 He distinguishes such explicit gatherings from other occasions such as church business meetings and Bible studies where the consideration of ethical responsibility is an occasional and secondary occurrence.

Gustafson’s basic idea is acknowledged in the following exercise, but greater emphasis is placed upon its descriptive dimensions than upon its prescriptive aspects. The transformative conclusion of the project is not, however, forgotten. A Christian community is, as Gustafson points out, bound to be concerned not only with its inherent system of values but also with their transformation in the light of Christian ethics. This exercise, therefore, is intended to assist the congregation in seeing both its inherent moral posture and its attempt to reach new decisions that reflect a more explicitly Christian character.

The exercise presented here differs from Gustafson’s model in the attention it gives to exploring the existing value patterns in a congregation. It can easily miss the point, therefore, if its sessions are convened to develop a specific "right" response to a particular moral question, as discussions about moral issues usually are. Seminars in local churches that aim at moral discourse today frequently begin with a challenge to find the right answer. Such a process is implied in programs entitled "What is the Christian answer to . . . ?" Discourse conducted in response to such an introduction has several ethnographic handicaps, including the implication that some people present, notably the pastor, probably know the answer and that those who do not know it are there to be taught. That implication is likely to impede any corporate search for the actual attitudes of all participants.

A more exploratory discussion might begin from a different premise: "We all have deep opinions about this issue, and we want to see how they differ from and relate to each other." Less attention is placed on the conclusion, more on exploring the resources of the group. Several simple methods undergird the emphasis upon finding the given attitudes of people. People’s understandings of their own viewpoints are recorded on newsprint. The ideas they offer are set down as statements, not, in the first instance, as arguments. Discussion is directed toward clarification and implication rather than persuasion. A moderator makes sure that all persons have an opportunity to express their positions. The formation of a consensus is considerably less important for this exercise than the development of an understanding of the range of values held by members of the same congregational household.

Beyond these perhaps obvious procedures to encourage participation and fair treatment of each member’s contribution, an attempt can be made to claim the resources that narrative holds for elucidating character. A skillful leader might ask an individual venturing an opinion how that person came to hold it. The response will probably be a story of some significance that knits together both the given dimensions of a person’s character (natural gifts and capacities, or those nurtured over a lifetime) and critical moments in which character has been formed by deliberate choice. Once the range of opinions (and stories) has been displayed, the leader might pose a question to the whole group: "Have we ever in this congregation faced an issue like this? What was it? When? How did we as a congregation respond?" Such questions will very likely provoke stories that portray the congregation’s characteristic behavior and values. If the issue is a particularly difficult or controversial one, either for individual members or their congregation as a whole, it may be wise to begin the conversation in a narrative frame, using a carefully prepared case that poses the issue in a specific instance. A case lends some distance. Participants in the discussion may be readier to respond to a hypothetical example than to declare as their own an abstract moral position that brings them into direct conflict with others present.

These uses of narrative in moral discourse are more than clever devices. They are ways to introduce the possibility that the seeds of moral fortitude are already germinating in the rich history of the congregation’s character. Sometimes the bringing to light of such history will provide precedents for moral courage ("If the last generation could take such bold measures, why can’t we?"). In other instances, the account of characteristic decisions of the past may display traits or patterns that the congregation now sees it must modify or reject. But in either case the telling of stories grounds the possibilities for future decision and action in the particularities of character. Such a grounding casts in new perspective issues that may at first have seemed unwelcome impositions from outside the characteristic life of the congregation and its members.

Like other methods, the practice of corporate moral discourse requires careful recording and a later search for dominant themes. The team of parish investigators meets together to compare observations and to develop descriptions of congregational character it observes in members, situations, and conversations.

The Search for Myth

As the themes of congregational ethos become clear to the team, it begins the search for representative myths. There are countless myths in the world. An early collection, The Mythology of All Races, completed in 1932, runs to twelve volumes plus an index and represents only a small number of myths now known to exist in literate and nonliterate societies.4 Especially at a time in which relatively few people have learned even the so-called classic myths of Greece and Rome, there naturally arises a question about how to locate a suitable tale within the plethora of myths.

What might seem at first glance to be a great aid in the search may not, in fact, prove to be much help. Shortly after the anthology cited above was completed, Stith Thompson began to publish his six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.5 Motifs for Thompson were the significant details that compose full-fledged narratives. He classified the motifs of all the stories found in The Mythology of All Races and in four hundred other collections and studies of the folk tales that appear in ballads, fables, and other forms of traditional expression. One can dig into this feast of themes in two ways. The first way is to follow Thompson’s elaborate but sensible classification scheme that divides the motifs into major subjects (category B, for example, refers to animals, D to magic, T to sex). Within each subject, he factors out a clear but complex subdivision of parts (in section B: mythical animals, magic animals, animals with human traits, friendly animals -- and each of these types is then further subdivided). A second way into the collection is through the final volume’s fascinating alphabetical index (e.g.: "Abbot caught in sin permits monks to sin," or "Lost object found by throwing spade at ghost"). A standard reference item in university and many municipal libraries, Thompson’s Index is worth a search through its intricate system for references to themes that emerge in the exploration of a congregation’s ethos. The motifs may prove to be too specific, however, for sensing the gestalt of the folk tale, and the reader may tire of following false leads before finding something that parallels the value pattern of the congregation. But other investigators may have better fortune, or learn to work Thompson’s system better, than I.

I follow the more pedestrian and time-consuming practice of reading and rereading a relatively few anthologies of myths and tales best known in the West. My primary sources are Edith Hamilton’s collection of Greek, Roman, and Norse myths,6 plus one of the translations of Grimms’s fairy tales,7 and the Larousse encyclopedia of myths throughout the world.8 Once I find several likely candidates among the tales, I try to read everything written about them available in a library with large holdings in the humanities. When the short list includes a Greek myth, as it usually does, I go first to its extensive and analytical treatment in Robert Graves’s anthology.9 The collaboration of several teammates, especially if they are students of literature, is an invaluable help to such a search.

I have been pressed to elaborate a procedure for deciding which specific myth to employ. That is difficult to do. Like many other activities of ministry -- rendering a theological judgment, structuring a sermon, being present to persons in acute crisis, discerning the plan of action and strategy to which a congregation is called at a particular moment in its life -- choosing a myth requires the complex interworking of rational judgment, adequate information, emotional openness and self-awareness, intuition, sensitivity, prayerful reflection, and more. It helps if one begins the search already steeped in mythic materials. The choice is usually easier if, as earlier urged, it can be made by a group of inquirers. But finally, as for other acts of ministry, there is no technique whose workability is guaranteed in every case.

There are, however, some tests of appropriateness once a choice is tentatively made, though these lend only a general sort of ratification to the choice, not empirical certainty of its rightness. An appropriate myth is, for instance, one that is recognizable or learnable, not so obscure that its elements compound a church’s uncertainty about the unusual topic of their character. Moreover, the myth should illuminate the four basic elements of congregational character that have been mentioned before and utilized in each of the stories of churches presented in these latter chapters. In other words, the description of parish ethos and its mythic "genius" should be analogous at the following points: (a) the characteristic response to the crisis; (b) the style of behavior characteristically deemed most effective; (c) the pervasive mood; and (d) the characteristic expectation and hope. Finally, a myth should encapsule the major features of a congregation’s ethos. In a recent book I described the character of a New England congregation according to the myth of Zeus and his Olympian abode.10 More than just elements of the myth and the church’s ethos were in consonance: the parish had about it the jovial, Olympian atmosphere that characterized both myth and social situation as a whole.

When and How are Stories Told?

A congregation possesses both a story and stories. When I speak of the singular story of a parish, I mean to represent the dramatic coherence of the group’s experience through time and circumstance. I would speak in a similar manner about the story of America or the story of a social movement or family. But I also recognize the changing, multiformed nature of any story that portrays a living community. No single, specifically worded story fully identifies the life of that group. Its plot continues to unfold and thicken and twist, its character slowly to develop, its setting perhaps to adjust or shift. Because the community has subsidiary stories and related plots, no specific story can be final or definitive. As it accounts for the ongoing nature of the parish, narrative is modified and requires retelling.

This pliant narrative process suggests a type of storytelling that occurs in a variety of modes and occasions. There can be no single event, no opening night, that presents a conclusive version of the story to its congregation. The story should instead reform itself and recur throughout parish life, the better to illuminate the ongoing activities of the household.

A congregation concerned about the prosaic quality of its self-understanding might therefore begin to tell its story in circumstances that before had encouraged the other types of self-description: mechanist accounts of numbers and program, organicist projections of family, contextualist categorizations of age, class, and the like, and formist symbolizations of property or other important totem. Possibly, out of such storytelling would emerge a new sense of parish identity, appreciative of the congregation’s corporate nature, accepting yet critical of its collective character. Consider four scenes ripe for storytelling.

Scene One: An annual parish meeting given to long program reports, statistics, and financial statements. The recitation of such reports might be halved in length to make time for a group to dramatize the previous year, not in terms of congregational accomplishments but in terms of its crises, typical actions and moods, and specific hopes.

Scene Two: A sermon that usually refers to the familial qualities of the congregation. Instead, the preacher might concentrate upon a mythic aspect of the congregational life in the previous month -- the spirit, hero, or creature that seems to have been inhabiting the place -- and wrestle with the way the gospel both emerges in that aspect and transforms it.

Scene Three: A parish planning session that, contending with the realities of a transitional neighborhood, desperately seeks strategies for the congregation’s survival in the midst of discouraging demographic information. Rather than concentrate upon the factors that describe the alienation of the church from a context with difficult social characteristics, the session might tell itself the story of why its present members do in fact participate in the church and how their own story approximates the social hopes of those now inhabiting the neighborhood.

Scene Four: An altar guild gathering usually devoted to cleaning and embellishing the church’s chancel. Putting aside, for the moment, its polishing and sewing, the guild might instead consider the people who sit in the pews, where they sit, what they think, how they participate not only in the liturgical drama but also the larger drama of the church’s life.

The scenes are only illustrative. They show some uses for parish story where now there tend to be none, as ways to give fresh sight and hope to members caught in the flat routine of standard parish self-understanding.

Telling the story develops the identity and mission of a congregation in at least three ways. By establishing the setting of the story of a local church, its picture of the world, narrative proclaims corporate nature. The congregation in story is not permitted to reduce itself to numbers of individual contributors of money, names added to the church rolls, or ticket holders at congregational programs. Story instead weaves a living fabric of common episode. Church members become actors integral to an encompassing drama. Narrative also provides, as this chapter argues, a ministry of characterization that particularizes the congregation by displaying in mood and incident the unique ethos of the individual parish. Through characterization, story reflects the specific configuration of moral choice and historical circumstance that identifies each local church. In the next section I turn to the action of story, its plot, that conveys both collective memory and corporate hope, past and future, in the present bodied moment. Narrative thus acknowledges what we have been and done, but in the presence of the world story, the gospel, that gives the telos to even the small stories of local parishes.



1. See a somewhat similar list for the analysis of group myth in Dexter C. Dunphy, The Primary Group: A Handbook for Analysis and Field Research (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972),281.

2. James M. Gustafson, The Church as Moral Decision-Maker (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970),83-95.

3. Ibid., 84.

4. Louis Herbert Gray, ed., The Mythology of All Races: In Thirteen Volumes (Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1916-1932).

5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folk-Tales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends, 6 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Studies, 1932-1936).

6. Edith Hamilton, Mythology.

7. Francis P. Magoun and Alexander H. Knappe, trans., The Grimms’ German Folk Tales.

8. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.

9. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955).

10. James F. Hopewell, "The Jovial Church: Narrative in Local Church Life," in Carl S. Dudley, ed., Building Effective Ministry, 68-83.