In the previous post I talked about the “narrative” nature of adaptive, or cultural, change in organizations. New cultural identities form around a new organizational narrative that is tethered to the actual conditions on the ground. I also suggested that there are two ways to invite a new congregational narrative: 1. re-narrating significant past narratives and 2. inviting people into new experiences from which narratives might arise through reflection and articulation.
So, let’s look at option one in this post. One of my favorite parts of the bible is Isaiah 40-66. The setting is the end of exile and the bold suggestion that the return of God’s struggling, dispirited people to Zion is nothing less than a new Exodus. The story of the exile hangs heavy over Israel’s identity. Exile is punishment for covenant infidelity. Exile is a story of shame and loss. Exile is a faith-shaking narrative that calls every premise of Israel’s identity as God’s people into doubt.
The prophet has a word of consolation. “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” are the opening words of this section of Isaiah. But comfort cannot ignore the realities of the exile. This experience will have to be a part of the story going forward. The prophet is persistent, “God is doing a new thing.” A new story will emerge. How will you know it? The details will look a lot like the old story. The new thing will emerge as a re-narration of older stories.
In particular, the experience of exile will have to be reinterpreted. The prophet does not ignore the “exile as punishment” narrative, but uses the length of the exile to suggest God was doing something more than punishing Israel. The exile was also formation for vocation in God’s mission for all of creation. This daring theological move makes Israel’s worst story a hopeful one for the sake of a new future.
I’ve seen this happen with organizations as well. In the consulting work I do with Church Innovations, we have an exercise we call the “Timeline Event.” Participants are given different colored sticky notes (yellow, red, blue, and green) and place them on a timeline placed on the wall. The blue sticky is for “blue days,” times that were disappointing or painful for the congregation/organization.
One group I did this for had a very painful experience in their recent past. Nearly every blue sticky was placed on the timeline in that time period. It was a shameful and accusing memory. But there were younger people present who had been a part of the organization as students, but had no idea any of this had happened. Hearing the stories of pain struck them, not as shameful, but as heroic as the organization had served them well through these darkest of days. Though painful events were happening, people still showed up and performed their roles, did their jobs, and served others with passion. They gave their best in the worst of circumstances.
You could feel the room change as the most shameful narrative became reinterpreted as their best moment as an organization. While this is a very dramatic example, I have seen this happen with other organizations as well. And I have experienced this personally. I had a therapist who helped me see that a narrative that filled me with shame and a sense of personal weakness was actually a story of resourcefulness and strength. I could hardly believe it could be a true story about me, but they were the same exact details, only re-narrated. I had a new possibility emerge precisely out of the accusing details of the past.
This kind of work requires artful care. It can’t be imposed, but has to emerge. This kind of re-narration is also in keeping with the gospel that calls strength “weakness” and weakness “strength.” The “word of the cross” is precisely an invitation to perceive our world differently and to tell a new kind of story about ourselves.