Whenever I work with couples in crisis one of the most important stories to begin with is about how these two people sitting on my office couch (often in tears) met. Before kids, mortgages, fights at Olive Garden and the decision to sleep in separate bedrooms, what drew them to one another? What were they looking for from life that this other person somehow spoke to (or maybe didn’t)? In short, what interrupted them, called out to them and demanded they take a closer look at the person with whom they’re now tolerating life?
Each of these persons has a “call story” or a moment they can remember – with enough prodding, prayer or glasses of wine – when life slowed down long enough for them to see where they fit in the universe or, at the least, what direction to point their car.
Sometimes, in the telling of these relational call stories, couples become warmly nostalgic, as memories of romance and freedom flood the room. As a therapist, I always enjoy the rare opportunity to gently interrupt a couple because they’ve gotten carried away talking about their early life together. Other times, these kinds of stories become suffocating in the ways they hang heavily over a couple who no longer know how to live together without shouting, let alone talk about their hopes for the future, as if they’re actors in some romantic comedy.
It’s almost as if the way they’re now talking (or not talking) about and remembering (or not remembering) the genesis of their relationship is actually what’s crippling their future together.
“The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the only stories that matter.”
When I was a pastor, I found a similar impulse among those of us possessing God’s real email address for a living. Sometimes, when I would inquire as to what drew a colleague “into the business,” call stories would bubble up that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention, or that reminded me of my own early experiences as a young pastor, or that gave the quality of our conversation this soft-edged reverence few other things do. Other times, the stories I heard seemed to suffocate the teller with reminders about how she had strayed from the ideas she had once held about what life would be like when she grew up.
It’s almost as if the way she’s now talking (or not talking) about and remembering (or not remembering) the genesis of her call is actually crippling her future work.
One of the occupational hazards of getting paid to pray is that a minister’s clear sense of calling, these moments of clarity and lucidity about one’s life trajectory, can get commodified into a discussion about one’s fitness for a particular position – like a point on a resume – so that (in the case of a pastorate) a committee of church members might decide to “call” this person to deliver sermons, lead mid-week prayer meetings and make hospital visits. Which is rather confusing, it seems to me. Is God doing the calling, or is it the church, a committee or a few well-placed influencers?
How a pastor ends up in a robe, stole and lapel mic is in many ways incredibly mysterious, scatterplot and even a bit random as far as holy voices, burning bushes and awkward “call weekends” go. What these callings often have in common is the narrative shape this randomness takes. The narrative leads eventfully to the proper and right symphonic conclusion with a swell, an expensive seminary degree and the aforementioned lapel mic.
“Pastors and other ministers, you aren’t the problem; the story is the problem.”
I wonder what kind of impact is left on a person and a profession in a system where pastors fashion their unique work and identity into some sort of product that can be bought and sold on the institutional church market.
According to narrative therapy, a school of postmodern psychotherapy pioneered in the late ’90s by Australians Michael White and David Epston, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the only stories that matter. White and Epston believed these stories about who we are, what we’re called to do and how we’re called to do it are almost always oppressive and a result of the unacknowledged influence of powerful political or market driven forces ruling over our respective lives and contexts. Narrative therapy argues that our ideas about ourselves, our relationships and our work often say far more about the dominant cultural narratives that control the definitions of “normalcy” and “deviancy” than they do about the hard truth of who we are and where we come from.
At its most elemental, White and Epston saw their work as an effort in bearing witness to liberation, as they gave clients permission to stop referring to themselves as the problem and to start referring to the problem (or the worldview that created it) as the problem. Through a process called “externalization,” narrative therapists seek to put flesh and blood on unhelpful stories as a way of giving clients permission to not only deconstruct these stories under which they’ve been living, but to eventually sacrifice these stories on the altar of their newfound freedom. The hope is that once clients are able to climb out from under the thumb of whatever “problem story” had been internalized as some sort of inescapable genetic flaw, or inescapable phone call from the heavens or inescapable idea about what a “happy” marriage looks like, they can then begin the struggle against the forces enslaving them and the rest of us.
“Jesus ain’t ever called nobody to a big church or a big book deal.”
Narrative therapy, in a way, advocates for the incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection of our stories, no matter the unquestioned status they may have played in our lives up to this point.
Outside of pastoral interviews with search committees, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a call story that concludes with the equivalent of an unending desire to resurrect the popularity of Wednesday night meals in an aging fellowship hall. So when our gifts, qualities, education and abilities fail to turn around an ailing budget or dwindling Sunday school program, ministers are faced with a choice: internalize the failure of our pastoral work as a character flaw that can only be solved by “working harder,” or recognize that the story with which we are struggling has been almost entirely informed by a worldview that measures success in terms of numeric growth (both physical and financial).
Pastors and other ministers, you aren’t the problem; the story is the problem. So let’s put this story to death. Because this story, like the one about the quality of your sermons that is keeping you up at night and emailing you in ALL CAPS on the weekend, has nothing to do with what the homeless, crucified, 1st-century rabbi probably invited you to do with the whole of your life. Arguably, the thing to which that rabbi called you, however long ago, was to resist this kind of story with the whole of your being, to sacrifice it (and not you) on the altar of liberation and to invite others into that same kind of resistance.
As one of my pastor friends is fond of saying: “Jesus ain’t ever called nobody to a big church or a big book deal, and he sure as hell ain’t startin’ now.”