By Stephanie Swanson
On our first morning together a lone sock appeared in the middle of the room.
It was right at the center of the space where we had gathered the night before and where we would continue to come together as a group. It was a child’s sock — possibly that of a 10 or 11-year-old boy or girl. But there were no children in our group, only adults.
No one claimed the sock as their child’s, thinking perhaps it had tagged along somehow in a duffel bag. How the sock came to be there and who it belonged to was a complete mystery. And so the sock stayed there. No one moved it. (Thankfully it did not smell!) It became both a point of humor and a kind of sacred object around which we gathered — and it also became a subject of curious questions.
We had come together, ministers from across the Heartland (Missouri, Illinois and Kansas), to explore narrative leadership. We were the joining together of three peer learning groups and a few additional ministers we had invited to add to the richness of the retreat. Over the course of three days Dr. Keith Herron, Pastor at St. Lucas United Church of Christ in St. Louis, and Dr. Steve Graham, Coordinator of CBF of Oklahoma, led us in a time of exploring narrative leadership.
As a group we began to explore our own narratives as we shared formative and memorable stories.
For many of us, telling these stories was nothing new — we knew our stories well, or so we thought. And as ministers, let’s be honest, we’re fairly good at telling stories. This wasn’t the first time each of us used an illustration to make a point or share an insight.
Then the curious questions came. Our narrative story reveals pieces about who we are and how we encounter the world, but we have edited these stories with each telling and, in the process, have left behind fragments that speak to alternative narratives present. Our purpose then in this re-telling of our stories during the retreat, was to pick up some of those fragments and begin to discover another narrative — an inner story.
To do this, we asked curious questions of one another. We adopted rules from Parker Palmer of not fixing or saving one another as a way to pull out of the pastoral costume we so often wear, by which we hope to direct people on right paths to mending their problems or correcting their ways. We endeavored to not tell one another what we thought they should hear in their own story or to ask them leading questions. Instead, we adopted a “curious, not-knowing” approach and began to ask questions that would help us further understand and learn from one another, opening our stories up to new threads, new narratives.
What did you feel in that moment? Why do you think this story is the one that comes to mind? How do you think that experience affects the way you minister today? Curious questions. Questions that created a pathway for deeper discovery of ourselves and how narrative speaks to and informs our ministry and leadership.
I attended this same retreat almost seven years ago when I was starting out in my first church call.
At the time, the approach seemed revelatory to me and also comforting. Not only did it begin to unfold a deeper narrative in my life, but it informed my own ministerial style. As a young minister I was greatly fearful of having to fix parishioners’ problems, so it came as a relief to discover I could ask curious questions and perhaps be even more effective in my ministry by doing so.
Several years later I still find myself asking questions because I’ve learned that I can’t solve someone else’s problems, but I can explore and learn with them from their own narrative, and oftentimes, begin to find threads of new life and hope even in the bleakest of narratives.
We came together, a group of ministers, some old friends and some brand new, gathered around a mysterious, unknown sock.
What is the name of the child that wore that sock? What places has that sock trod? Where is the other sock in the pair? We asked curious questions that enriched our narratives, gathering up fragments we had forgotten or not thought to consider before and discovered new meaning and power in our story. The sock stayed with us till the end of the retreat.
I wonder where it is now.
Stephanie Swanson serves as the Pastor at First Baptist Church of Smithville, Mo., and is part of the Kansas City Peer Learning Group of Senior Pastors.