We are our stories. Psychologists like Dan McAdams have been telling us we all have a narrative identity by which we come to terms with society, our past and our future. Missionaries also have a public story we use as we speak at churches, send out newsletters or maintain a blog. We share who we are, the need we see, and our heart or gifting to serve. Our organisations also have story, a history and a vision for the future.
I have spent the last six months interviewing more than twenty leaders at all levels across five different mission and ministry organizations. I heard a lot of positive things about the place of story and narrative identity in each organization, but again and again I was presented with two interesting impacts individual stories have: reluctant leaders who felt accepting a leadership role would be to give up on the story they have been telling and reluctant followers who felt submitting to leadership might force them to limit their story or abandon the vision they have told to supporters.
Daniel Kahneman says, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story with a decent hero” (Thinking, Fast and Slow). As Christians however, we have a true narrative identity that reflects our status as image bearers of God. We are made for relationship with God and our sense of purpose as workers in the harvest only truly makes sense in relation to the work God is doing as the great gardener.
For support-raised Christian workers, our relationship with our stories can be particularly problematic. So much of the impetus to support missionaries comes from an emphasis on an individual’s heart or giftedness. Even organizational stories are normally built on the stories of the lives of brave founders. These stories of heroic individualism form the origin story of many support-raised organizations but as organizations grow and diversify it becomes challenging for leadership to make space for the stories of each individual member.
In To Make a Change at Work, Tell Yourself a Different Story the authors suggest: “Once you’ve unearthed a story and dusted it off, the next step is to consider how it affects you. Is it constraining or liberating?” Often the stories we tell are motivating and help us persevere in challenging situations. For me, knowing I had a community of supporters who heard our story and wanted to partner by praying and giving was so helpful when a ministry initiative faltered or there was conflict on our team. But organizationally the stories can be constraining. They can make us reluctant or conflicted leaders and even worse followers.
I talked to many leaders who love the people they lead and serve; they feel humbled by their vision and their self-sacrifice but frustrated either by the distractions of leadership or the unwillingness of people to put team goals first. When asked to take on roles or responsibilities for the sake of the team, people have responded with “I’m not gifted at that” or “that’s not what I came to do”. Most often those are things like administration, management or leadership, things necessary for functioning organizations that are able to support them.
There is a sense that churches or individuals have financially supported them to do something very difficult in a difficult place that they are particularly gifted or equipped for it; like church-planting among an unreached group, evangelism among refugees or health care for people on society’s margins. They fear people won’t keep supporting them if the story changes, if suddenly they are in an office making it possible for other people to go rather than being on the frontline themselves.
I heard so much wisdom from people I interviewed. An International Director explained that most powerful stories, the ones that develop leadership character, were the ones that were “told from a position of humility, a desire to continue to learn and grow and a recognition that every person or character within the story contributed something into that story to enhance the work or enable it to happen.” He said: “That kind of story not only grows people but it strengthens organizations.”
A senior leader responsible for leadership development lamented that workers from non-Western contexts felt the need to copycat Western missionary stories that were individualistic and reflecting a linear arc of progress. Collectivistic cultures tend to have different kinds of stories, less neat and straightforward, more collaborative, more cyclical. She encouraged organizations to give those workers the space to tell stories that really reflected their cultural orientation and brought diversity to the overall vision.
Support-raised organizations have always been driven by individual stories, and we don’t want to lose that beauty and that power. However, individual workers should be constantly reexamining their stories and making sense of them within a greater organizational story. The leader of a student ministry saw particular benefits to this as people transitioned into roles leading and training others rather than doing evangelism every day.
Even more importantly we need to be connecting our individual and organizational stories to God’s big story. As Chuck De Groat reminds us “Today’s best thinkers are rediscovering the fact that we are relational to our core — storied beings whose narratives are meant to reflect God’s master narrative.” (Toughest People to Love)
God’s grand narrative is more powerful and compelling than anything we could conceive on our own, and ultimately our calling is not to go and do a hard thing in a hard place, but first and foremost to a relationship with God and sanctification by him. The story about our vocation, our stewardship of the gifts God has given us, should only be secondary to that calling. This can only help us have a narrative identity that is more oriented to growth and collaboration; that holds space for other stories allowing us to be more generous with how we lead and follow. Lets keep asking if our storied selves reflect God’s narrative? This is a liberating way to construct our story, one that emphasizes our dependence on God and on each other.
Rebecca has been serving cross-culturally since 2012 and is a 2020 Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries researching leadership development in mission and support-raised ministry organizations. Her research is published at www.entrustedwiththesent.com.