Leadership: Leaders Share the Story of Redemption and Restoration
Leaders Share the Story of Redemption and Restoration
Would you tell me about your church?
If I asked you that question, what story about your church would you tell me?
Some would tell me how old their congregation is, especially if historical. Others would talk about how many people they have in worship. I would hear stories of what the church used to be and a lament for what it is now. I would hope that some would tell me about their pastors and leaders. For sure, I would hear about ministries that excite them—because congregations in this synod are doing amazing ministry!
I would be surprised if the person told me the story of why their church exists in the first place—their reason for being.
The reason for being that would bring me joy is to hear someone say, “Our church exists because God raised Jesus from the dead to save us.”
Would you start with the story of Jesus when talking about your church?
In this blog on leadership, we will discuss a particular quality of leadership that allows mission to thrive in a congregation. That quality of leadership is SHARING THE STORY OF REDEMPTION AND RESTORATION. It is sharing the story of Jesus.
One final disclaimer. In his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Rabbi Edwin Friedman refers to leaders as anyone from parents to presidents.1 When I am speaking of leaders in churches, I am speaking of volunteers, lay leaders, elected lay leaders, staff members, council members, and clergy.
All of us are called to tell the story of the reason the church exists.
The Role of Stories
Having recently made the transition from parish ministry to the synod staff, I have been reminded of the need to hear stories. Listening to stories has played an important role in every transition in my life.
I first became aware of the need to hear stories after I became engaged to my wife. The best way to learn about her family, discover their values, and to see what made them tick was to hear their stories. A few years into the marriage, I realized I was fully a member of the family when I became part of those stories.
Starting my call to the synod staff has also included hearing stories. I have learned about the synod, its values, and have seen its motivations by listening to the synod’s stories. As the stories are shared, I am brought into the team and synod.
The Importance of Story for the Church
People in congregations tell many stories about their churches. Each story tells others what the church was and what it is has become. While having stories is common from church to church, each church has unique stories—from when they were founded to what they do each week. There is, however, a story that all congregations hold in common. The story they hold in common is the story of the one who brought them into being. Leaders in congregations create an environment where mission can thrive when they retell the story of Jesus and how he redeems and restores the world. If the church does not set its foundation on that story, the other stories told will be in vain—and told not in a spirit of faithfulness and humility but in hubris. To create an environment where mission can thrive, leaders ground their congregation’s story in the mercy and faithfulness of God.
By What Name Do We Live?2
In his book, Leading Christian Communities, C. Kavin Rowe identifies a major narrative device used in the book of Acts. That narrative device is a speech. The reason for speeches, Rowe states, is that they point “to the basic importance of what we may call the articulacy of belief: the ability to say what it is that forms the core of the thriving community’s existence.”3 More simply put, these speeches name “the ultimate reason for the community’s existence (by what name it lives).”4
Teaching and Transmitting the Story of Life
When I get a new cell phone, I can simply transfer all the photos, contacts, and apps from my old phone to my new one. Starting a new relationship or joining a new community doesn’t work like that. When starting relationships or joining a new community, the stories need “to be taught and transmitted.”5
In the early Christian community, Rowe writes, it was necessary to teach newcomers the reason the community exists. He goes on to write, “The new Christians learned, therefore, what the new life was that they had embraced, what it meant to be a Christian.”6 He concludes, “A thriving community is one that knows why it exists…”7
A Story of Identity and Restoration8
Leaders of faith communities are called to know why the community exists. They can articulate that reason for being. They also know the restorative nature of that story. These are leaders that can shape a community where mission can thrive.
Each person has a collection of stories/narratives at their disposal. These narratives include family stories, accounts of childhood adventures, coming of age stories, college myths, love and engagement stories, stories from work, their neighborhoods, their friendships, and growing old stories. These stories are accounts not only about a person but also about the relationships the person has with others, with institutions, with life experiences, and with their spiritual journeys. These stories provide an important part of a person’s identity.
Stating the importance of narrative for identity formation, Dan McAdams writes that a person’s life is given unity, meaning, and purpose” by having an inner story.9 His definition of a life story is “[that which] provides a moral frame of reference because it grounds your experiences in basic values and beliefs.”10 This moral framework aids a person in determining what is right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.
Without a “narrative identity”, a person’ life is “episodic”.11 Life as episodic is a concept developed by McAdams. He describes the life that is episodic as one where a person lives in the moment. Living in the moment, a person lacks self-awareness, does not reflect on the past, thus does not learn from experience. Being in the moment sees the present as one more argument or war to have. One moment does not appear to have a connection to the next moments, so there is minimal if any growth in the person. The person is typically lacking maturity. Moving from battlefield to battlefield, a person living in the moment does not gain experience and perspective from the previous moment. Living in the moment, according to McAdams, is “when one is compulsively in the present.”12
Having an inner story that is episodic leaves a person to identify trust as that which works at a particular time to “win the moment.” Each moment stands alone, so no consistency is seen between one’s actions at one moment to one’s actions at the next moment. A person’s value is believed to be based on success in each episode of life.13
In opposition to an episodic understanding of one’s life, McAdams proposes that we consider a narrative understanding of our lives. A narrative understanding is to believe that the experience of one moment applies to the next and applies to each new experience. It is to grow and gain perspective that aids living in the next moment.14
McAdams, for over 20 years, has been working with his students to study a particular kind of narrative story he calls a redemption story. Redemption stories are stories of “overcoming suffering or adversity.” Research has shown that those who have more themes of redemption in their life story, are healthier and happier. For those who do not have as many moments of redemption in their lives, there are health problems and lower levels of happiness.15 Additionally, research has shown “strong associations between redemptive life stories and an adult’s concern for the well-being of other generations.”16 With a narrative that includes redemption, a person is more likely to act in ways that are moral and more likely to have concern for other generations.
Lives Shaped by Redemption
Here is a simple test to determine if one’s life is shaped by redemption stories. Ask yourself these questions:
- In the stories that I tell others about myself, am I always the hero?
- In my stories, am I the one who is right, and others are the ones who are wrong?
- In these stories, am I the one who is always misunderstood?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, I hope you can find yourself in a place where you become aware of your brokenness and the need for redemption. Hear once again the story of Jesus.
The story that brings the church into being is the story of God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. This is a particular story. Redemption comes only through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Leaders know and tell this story. Leaders show more humility than hubris when they believe their life story is written into the story of Jesus’ redemption. A congregation that shows more humility than hubris is one that believes that God brought them into being through Jesus Christ.
It is not unusual for each of us to speak to another person in a way that requires the least amount of risk. For example, I think we criticize others more than affirm them because criticizing another person requires less risk. As soon as I tell another person what I think is wrong with what they did or said, the other person is on the defense, and I can sit back in emotional safety. However, if I take the risk to say what I think is right and good, I am then required to offer my rationale for why I think so.
I believe we do the same thing in our ministries. We choose to talk about things that require the least amount of risk for us. That is why we lead with stories of what is wrong with our congregations. Certainly, talking about what is right and good about our ministry increases the level of risk and releases positive energy into the community.
Yet, I believe that we are called to a greater risk. We are called to tell people WHY our congregations exist. We are called to tell others that God is the reason our churches exist. We are called to tell others about the work of Jesus through his death and resurrection.
Jesus states, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The abundant life of the church has its existence in Jesus Christ.
1 Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Seabury Books, New York.
2 Rowe, C. Kavin. Leading Christian Communities, 2023. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan.
3 Rowe, page 8.
4 Rowe, page 9.
5 Rowe, page 9.
6 Rowe, page 9.
7 Rowe, page 9.
8 Mentzer, Timothy A., Finding Meaning in Organized Religion: a Practical Theology for the Church’s Mission with Millennials, 2020. ProQuest.
9 Northwestern Now, “The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning,” accessed March 9, 2020, http://newsnorthwestern.edu.