Storytelling: The key to retaining your ministry’s Christian identity

Girl reading story to boy

Used with permission.

Do Christian ministries lose their Christian identities? Yes. Could it happen to your ministry? Yes. Can you prevent it? Yes. How do you prevent it? Well, you have to tell stories. But let’s lay the groundwork for storytelling first.

The real risk of losing Christian identity

Christian Horizons is fighting to retain its Christian identity by appealing a ruling of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that forces them to get rid of it if they want to continue to serve the public. As I sat in a courtroom listening to the arguments, I was deeply impressed by the pervasiveness of Christian faith at every level of this organization. The Tribunal argued that Christian faith, while it might motivate Christian Horizons’ employees, was not needed to simply feed people and care for their personal needs. Christian Horizons countered that their Christian faith informed every decision they made and the manner in which they provided care. They are not doing good deeds that anyone might do; they are doing Christian deeds for which they need to retain their Christian identity.

An external threat has endangered the faith-based identity of Christian Horizons, but history shows the greater danger usually comes from within the ministry. If you think it couldn’t happen to you, think again.

Churches, denominations and evangelism ministries have a clearly religious mission and are less likely to lose their Christian identity, but even they face the possibility they could lose their particular heritage from dangers within. If you think that would never happen, read a phenomenal PhD dissertation that analyzed the transformation of the United Church of Canada from its evangelical roots into the most liberal church in the country. Kevin Flatt, the author, had full access to the official records (including personal papers) of the UCC archives and to the surviving leaders who led the UCC through the last stages of this transformation. Fascinating reading! And one of the key findings relates to the importance of words and their meanings. The changes at the United Church originated at the top and involved very carefully crafted messages with intended double-meanings. Don’t ever think that words have no power! They do.

Ministries that focus on extending God’s love to the world through compassion and development work that can also be done from a secular perspective face a much higher risk of losing their Christian identity, because superficially at least, it appears faith is nothing more than a motivator for the good works the ministry does. These ministries must be vigilant to ensure their Christian identity and mission are retained and continue to shape their programs and services. This is a lesson we have learned from the experiences of several Christian ministries that are no longer Christian.

Stories protect identity

Two college/seminary presidents recently recommended a book to me, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. It is an analysis of how many Christian higher education institutions lost their Christian identity, and how Calvin College, Wheaton College, University of Notre Dame, St. Olaf College, Valparaiso University and Baylor University kept it. There are a lot of factors related particularly to education, but the main factor that applies to us all is that the Christian colleges and universities that keep their Christian identity alive and vibrant do so by imprinting their stories on students and faculty, so that they know they are part of an ongoing narrative. They have a communal memory of their Christian vision and ethos (the ‘way of life’) that is kept alive by leaders who frequently tell detailed accounts of their story, and who interpret its meaning for the circumstances they face in the present day.

Many of the Christian universities and colleges that became secular did not intend to do so, it just happened gradually because their leaders did not recognize the long term consequences of the many decisions they  made about education philosophy, the role of religion in education, and the content of their communal life. Surprisingly, leaders of Christian higher education institutions were not able to adequately articulate the theology of their identity and mission.

I have to say something here. My dissertation research included a survey of 100 agency leaders that is relevant to this finding. It showed that about one-half of the senior leaders of Christian non-church ministries have had no formal theological training. So if you haven’t had a course in theology, I suggest that you do some continuing education to strengthen your ability to provide theological leadership to your ministry.

Now back to the book’s research. The presidents lacked the necessary theological resources and therefore slowly but increasingly accommodated the surrounding culture and lost their distinctiveness. The faith of the founders became nothing more than their motivation for founding the school. Pietism was another important factor in the secularization of Christian schools because it led to the separation of personal faith and religious practices from the intellectual and professional work of the institution. Without well-developed theological resources to draw upon, the leaders accepted the secular idea that faith is personal and that it should not intrude into public life.

To keep the Christian identity strong, it must be made concrete in the vision, ethos and employee selection criteria.  All of the research in this book is encapsulated in the author’s statement that the Christian tradition must be the organizing principle for the identity and mission of the institution and that the Christian story as a “comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central account of reality must be held strongly and confidently enough to shape the life of the [institution] decisively in all its facets.”

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Leader as Storyteller

The senior staff person is crucial in setting the overall direction of the organization and is therefore crucial to the protection of the ministry’s Christian identity and its transmission to a new generation. He or she must believe that the Christian account of life and reality is publicly relevant to all facets of the organization’s life. Leaders are responsible for articulating a compelling vision of their ministry’s identity and mission to the board, staff and other stakeholders. The leader is not just the senior pastor, superintendent or executive director, the leader is also the ministry’s Chief Keeper of the Story, who needs to be a storyteller par excellence.

Strategic statements such as vision and mission statements are like the theological formulations found in Romans and the so-called ‘teaching’ books of the Bible. They are explicit statements of doctrine. But all scripture is for edification and teaching, and that includes the narrative parts of scripture as well. The creation account, the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus are recorded in scripture because they have just as much theology crafted into them as Paul wrote in Romans, but it is implicit rather than explicit in most cases. Narrative and declaration go together to teach us about God. And your ministry narrative and strategic statements go together to teach us about your ministry. The narrative puts life to the declarations.

So document the stories that illustrate your ministry’s mission, vision, culture and values. Through stories, show how the Christian faith has shaped every aspect of the ministry.

I see it as my responsibility to keep the stories of CCCC alive and meaningful to a new generation of ministry leaders and staff. My hope is that the Christian identity and ethos of CCCC will live on as others keep the stories in circulation and become part of the CCCC story themselves. I rarely (if ever) tell a story just for the sake of telling a story. There is always a point I want to get across. Sometimes I might explain the point explicitly, but that usually takes the fun out of it for the listener. Most often I tell the story and trust that the listener will figure out its point on their own.

So now you know how important your ministry’s stories are. How do you craft and tell your strategic stories? I’ll give you a resource for that in another post when I review a great book on creating stories for the work world.

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