Power of Stories


Time again to turn to readings for the upcoming term for the Studio for Strategic Leadership at VST. The ability to recognize, tell and engage key stories from various dimensions of our life is a key thread in the Studio experience.

Ran across this quote from a blog by Shawn Coyne on Steven Pressfield Online .

Interesting implications for the church and Gospel stories as well as retirement or career change.



When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before. To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on. To change anything about our lives, even our choice of toothpaste, causes great anxiety.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude. Because that’s what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job. It just does.

I think it is because change requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately.

Stories give us scripts to follow. It’s no different than young boys hearing the story of how an orphan in Baltimore dedicated himself to the love of a game and ended up the greatest baseball player of all time. If George Herman Ruth could find his life’s work and succeed from such humble origins, then maybe they could became big league ball players too.

We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.

So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will really care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness. These circumstances are called CONFLICTS. What we do or don’t do when we face conflict is the engine of storytelling.

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World Cafe Meets The U during First Session

Yesterday afternoon was spent primarily using the methodology of The World Cafe. Four people sit around a table and discuss a central question. Yesterday the question resembled: what are the major challenges facing leadership? They talk for 20-30 minutes, one person remains then the other three move to other tables. At the end of the day 4 themes that emerged from the conversations are written on post-it notes and stuck to  sheet on the all. (I’m not sure if or when these get reported out.)

The general process (as I understand it) for the 3 days, follows The U Theory outlined by Otto Scharmer. This process resembles one of the traditional Christian methodologies for discernment moving from a greater awareness of the current situation, identification of beliefs, habits and convictions that need to be let go and then cultivating an awareness of new possibilities which are then refined into practices or habits. So this morning will be spent identifying limiting beliefs present in our current approach to theological education/leadership development followed by a “letting go” of the most restrictive of those beliefs and practices.

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How Urgent is urgent?

Most of the BC folks straggled in last evening for the Future of Theological Education Consultation. The clock says 10 and the body says 7.

As Brenda, Jim and (later) Janet gathered for a late supper and Diet Cokes the conversation turned to the matter of urgency.

James Kotter names it as foundational in his theory of change. A sense of urgency certainly prevails at Naramata Centre. Two years ago it was very present during conversations about the need for sustained and intentional leadership development within BC conference. For many congregational leaders it is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning.

(Urgency of course differs from fear or frantically running around.)

Within the context of this consultation the question that comes to mind circles around strategy. With a sense of urgency growing within BC, does that (necessarily) mean a greater degree of cooperation between institutions like VST, Naramata and BC Conference (or even the General Council)? Any kind of formal agreement seems too time intensive (and more of the Modern Age) so will the future be defined more by informal, honour bound agreements? If we launch this can you host it? If you do A we won’t do B?

Certainly part of the future will rely upon the quality of the relationships between players versus formal agreements.

People have already proven they won’t wait. Congregational leaders have for years been seeking sustenance wherever they can. BC Conference has launched Sowing Promise and is redesigning its leadership modules: Foundations, Transitions, Supervision (all 3 scheduled at Naramata the week of September 29). The recently approved Leadership Development plan involves the creation of a new Collegium (for lack of a better word).

The second step in Kotter’s model is to Create A Coalition. I wonder what this might look like in BC, much less The United Church. Or, in postmodern times, is fragmented and provisional the only (and perhaps best) option?

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A Call

Sara Howard photo

A young man had just been admitted with terminal cancer and was not “doing well,” said the Emergency Room attendant. The call came around 7:30 am to Gaye who volunteers as an on-call chaplain at the hospital.

On Sunday I preached on another call, the famous call of Isaiah.

One of the points I circled around in that sermon was how the call of God does not always – indeed probably usually does not – involve six-winged seraphim and burning coals applied to lips. Our more subtle and persistent yearnings, interests, curiosities may also be a way God calls.

So I wonder about the call from the hospital. Was it simply another moment in the daily reality of a hospital or was it another link for me in a growing sequence of reminders of how precarious life can be – Ed’s multiple myeloma, John’s sudden death, the appearance of breast cancer and heart disease within apparently healthy people in the congregation.

During the sermon I teased about whether God might be calling me to a ministry of presence on a nice warm beach. The serious dimension of the caricature is wondering why, when the topic of call arises, I tend to go to the more sacrificial place of bearing a cross or becoming chaplain to a community of extroverts in a mosquito infested part of the world?  Can not the urge to stop and delight in the wonder of the gift of life, the joyous laughter of grandchildren or the grandeur of creation also be a form of call?

I wonder. Or is my spirit like Luongo facing down a shooter from the point, attempting to get something in the way to block a more dangerous word?

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Sermon – A New Way of Seeing

There is plenty of time to be careful about that for which we pray; this month perhaps we might just indulge the Dream-maker just a little. Who knows what might be envisioned?

Sermon Jan 1.2012

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So how are we doing?

Creative Commons

I am a big believer in the power of stories to form and transform lives.

As leaders, if we are unaware of the power and detail of our own story we may be shocked when a mine hidden in our past explodes when stepped upon by someone else. Although the parallels are not exact for the stories of groups, many parallels exist for congregations. (See James F. Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structures).

I have now been at Oak Bay United Church about 3 months. Much of that time has been spent trying to figure out the details of what is going on and how they fit into the larger story of the congregation.

This sermon is my first attempt to respond publically to the question I often receive – “So how do you think we’re doing anyway?”

sermon 11.20.11 (State of the cong)

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In the midst of milk and honey

I don’t know if you have ever lived on the edge of such bounty and comfort in your life but it is powerful stuff.

I grew up in a relatively small place about 12-15 miles from the American border. And almost every year, our family would spend one of the two paid weeks of vacation my Dad received setting up camp outside of Spokane Washington.

Sermon 11.13.11

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Heresy and Hospitality

One of the ways Emerging Spirit talked of the shift in the spiritual and generational foundations of our time was through a focus on the words believe, behave and belong.

In times past, if one was curious about being a Christian the entry point was often a conversation about beliefs. Many very bright and gifted people spent their lives wrestling with and writing through the meaning and implications of beliefs deemed central to Christian discipleship. Once some framework of belief was pieced together, the conversation then usually shifted to the implications of these beliefs for personal and societal behaviour. Once there was some understanding of beliefs and compliance with various standards of Christian behaviour then one belonged (to the church, to the Christian family).

Now that order has flipped. The entry point for people, especially (but not limited to) those under the age of 45 is their experience of belonging. The phrases vary – we just never seemed to click, we never felt at home, I knew I belonged, we got it almost as soon as we walked through the door – but the core message remains the same.

The prime – and often only – criteria through which a Christian community is judged initially is through their practice of hospitality.

Now the answer to the question – where a good church? – is not determined initially by a congregation’s adherence or flexibility with respect to a certain set of beliefs but by how welcome people (and particularly their children) feel. The acuteness of people’ antennae used to be around how the name of Jesus was used, which creeds were said or sermons preached; now, with just as much rigor, the signals being processed go beyond superficial friendliness right to the heart of congregational culture. Are these people really serious about accepting and welcoming me and my family? What signals are they sending?

The shift in initial focus has moved from heresy to hospitality.

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Meetings – weapons of mass interruption

If an apocalyptic meltdown of the national umbrella of the United Church does occur – as some predict – what will be the last things standing? The Pension Fund (I hope); the Standard Salary Schedule; our penchant for meetings?

A friend casually remarked that the roots of the system upon which ours is based actually reach back before the time of the telephone.

Historically meetings have served many purposes – information sharing, an excuse to socialize and organize and, occasionally, to make or (double) check decisions.

Al Pittampalli’s e-book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting probes the role of the much maligned meeting in this postmodern time. (And in this the subtitle perhaps misleads – “the modern meeting standard for successful organizations.”) He seeks to redefine the purpose and style of meetings.

Seven principles define his understanding.

  1. The Modern Meeting supports a decision that has already been made.
  2. The Modern Meeting moves fast and ends on schedule.
  3. The Modern Meeting limits the number of attendees.
  4. The Modern Meeting rejects the unprepared.
  5. The Modern Meeting produces committed action plans.
  6. The Modern Meeting refuses to be informational. Reading memos is mandatory.
  7. The Modern Meeting works only alongside a culture of brainstorming.

Pittampalli is not against meetings. In fact, echoing George Clooney’s stance on marriage, they matter so much that he cannot abide bad ones. “If an operating room were as sloppily as we run as our meetings, patients would die.” Since meetings are so tightly woven into the fabric of many organizations, much has been written in recent years about effective meetings. (See Patrick Lencioni, Death by Meeting)

From a church point of view, a helpful contribution of Pittampalli is his identification of how poor meetings not only are a leadership and management issue but a spiritual one.

Bad meetings corrode the spirit.

They dilute responsibility. “We’re now all addicted to meetings that insulate us from the work we ought to be doing.”

Worse, mediocre meetings create a culture of compromise and kill any sense of urgency. Viewed positively, these may have been the original purpose behind meetings – compromise and a sense of sober deliberation – but the shadow side proves devastating in truly urgent times. In too many cases, meetings have become a way of diluting urgency or deflecting hard decisions so, as in the church, even though we can see marks of the future clearly on the horizon, we seem unable to make the necessary decisions.

At their best, effective meetings help an organization move forward. When that fails to happen, hope begins to rust and discouragement, if not despair, takes root.

Pittampalli contends that meetings are for making and defending strong decisions.

The brevity of the book means reading is not difficult; however, for those of us in the church too many of his insights ring too true and it may require therapy to deal with all the memories of boring, ineffective, spirit sapping and ultimately expensive meetings we have been required to endure.

If you have an e-reader the book is worth a download.

In the end though it reflects the general shape of postmodern leadership. Effective leaders spend much of their time thinking “up front,” deliberating about outcomes and strategy rather than just simply resorting to old patterns whether it comes to dealing with information, making decisions, or calling meetings.

“Like war, (meetings) are a means of last resort.”


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Connection and Conversation – What it’s All About

One of the books of which I have long been fond is Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations. Her company, Fierce, has put out a  SHORT white paper on the role of good conversations/relationships viewed from the business sector. I think there is lots to learn here for the church. Turning Conversations in a Driving Force for Growth and Success.

These quotes from Business leaders struck me.

Fierce President and COO Halley Bock puts it this way: “If you improve conversations, you improve relationships, which has a positive impact on key areas … including the bottom line.”

Starbucks’ Schultz has said his company is not in the coffee business, but in the people business serving coffee, and he built the company and its success squarely on his belief in the power of engaged employees.

“People directly affect the quality of products and services our customers receive,” Schultz wrote. “People will determine the ultimate success of Starbucks. Products are inert. You have to hire great people [and] celebrate their passions and their skills, and give them the freedom to do their jobs right.”

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