A CRITICAL REVIEW OF EDWARD P. WIMBERLY’S
RECALLING OUR OWN STORIES
Dr. Edward P. Wimberly offers insight gained from a lifetime of ministry and counseling in his book, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers. The text deals with the personal myths or stories that shape every life, but the author deals specifically with how these myths shape the lives of ministers in varied settings. Wimberly sets forth a process to help the caregiver move beyond negative themes and develop the positive ones. It is a book of both wisdom and practicality, but the reader has to work to discover the former and to understand the latter.
Wimberly has been a United Methodist minister since 1969. When the book was published in 1997, the author was Jarena Lee Professor Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011, Wimberly held the position vice president of academic affairs/provost at ITC. His vocational life has been rooted in the African American church experience, as reflected by his key role at ITC, which is seeking to be a “nationwide resource on the Black Church’s role in the renewal of American society.” Also, most of the author’s “most significant publications” deal with issues related to ministry in the African American church. Wimberly’s background and field of expertise extend more broadly. The author holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Tucson and Boston University. He has served on the faculties of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and Oral Roberts University School of Theology in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Summary of Contents
In Recalling Our Own Stories, Wimberly focuses on the personal mythology that shapes every person’s life and how a caregiver can understand and reshape his/her mythologies. He defines mythology as “the beliefs and convictions that people have about themselves, their relationships with others, their roles in life, and their ministry.” Much of the book focuses on the myths that grow out of a person’s relationship with his/her family of origin and how to “reauthor” or edit those myths and thus change their impact on the caregiver’s life.
Wimberly breaks myths into three categories—personal, marital and family, and ministry. Common themes arise in all of these categories. One theme is perfectionism, and the author places it in contrast to realism, which “refers to performance that is permeated with a grace-filled acceptance of our limitations and flaws (and our strengths). Grace-filled realism enables us to make significant—but not unflawed—contributions to the lives of others.” This movement from perfectionism to realism is a desired product of spiritual renewal.
Connecting spiritual renewal to the calling of the minister is another major theme. Spiritual renewal is a “reorientation process of allowing the original call and its ongoing nature to continually transform our lives in the present.” In the concluding chapter, Wimberly connects this theme to his experience in the African American church. “The components of the model extend back to Scripture and to the African American ‘call tradition.’” The call comes to people in the midst of real life circumstances that have left a deep imprint on the lives of caregivers. The result of a reauthoring process is the potential transformation of the caregiver from being the walking wounded to being a wounded healer.
Analysis of Content
Wimberly sets forth a compelling model for identifying critical underlying factors in the lives of caregivers. These myths or stories are, no doubt, strong and often difficult to identify. By giving the reader a framework for understanding his/her myths and for responding to them is a much needed and potentially helpful process. The process of identifying themes, assessing, discerning, and making plans is helpful. The stories told throughout the book, and especially in the latter portion, illustrate that this has great potential for constructive life change. The story of Suzanne was one of the successes. “Suzanne brought to seminary a personal myth of rejection that caused her to hide her talents for ministry. It was hindering her ability to be effective in relationships and ministry. With the aid of peers, teachers, and supervisors, she was able to enter and carry out the reauthoring process successfully.” But the stories were not all about success. Douglas’s story was one of them. “The sad lesson in Douglas’s outcome is that myths are often resistant to change. They hold on, just like the demon who is cast out but returns with many friends.” But even in the failures, there is something to be learned.
Beyond the book’s basic thesis about myths and the helpful process for responding to them, the book has some shortcomings. As stated above, perfectionism is a key theme, but the author develops the reason for it poorly. “The myth of perfection relates to the domination of the therapeutic model that greatly influences ministry today. . . . In some minds, the increasing influence of psychology and counseling psychology has secularized pastoral conversation.” The author does not adequately make a connection between perfection and the impact of psychological language. Also, throughout the book, Wimberly seems to have made perfectionism an almost universal quality of ministers. For example, in talking about personal myths, he says, “The myth of perfection is the well from which most of us as religious caregivers draw in developing our personal and ministerial myths. Not only is perfectionism the result of attempts to win favor and love despite our unacceptableness; we are urged by cultural expectations to be perfect.” Such statements cry out for documented evidence, and the author provides none even though this is a great subtext of the book.
When Wimberley moves into the chapters about personal, marital and family, and ministry myths, he does not clearly state how one is to determine what stories in life make up the influential myths that shape that life. One is left with the assumption that whatever stories one recalls, those are the ones that are the myths of greatest importance. The questions at the end of chapters two through four are helpful, and the reader can assume from these questions that certain types of stories and facts are the critical ones. For instance, at the end of the chapter on personal myths, the reader is asked to recall the following stories and facts of one’s life—earliest memory, birth narrative, birth order, names and nicknames, peer and sibling relationships, roles, parental/school discipline, parents’ relationship, and favorite fairy tales and Bible stories. The reader is left to assume that there is evidence of some sort that these are the critical aspects of one’s developing years when it comes to personal mythology, and the same can be said for the other two categories.
The book shows its age when dealing with some so-called stereotypical social viewpoints. Much has changed in the culture of the United States in the fourteen years since the book was written. For instance, he states that the stereotypical view of women is that the “woman must make her home her domain, care for the relational needs of men and children, be a mother and dependent on her husband, define herself as derivative of the men in her life, deny her autonomy and agency, hide her true feelings” and so on. While those traditional views still hold great sway in many families, they no longer seem stereotypical, especially among younger families.
The book strangely begins to come together in the chapters where the author uses examples to show how the reauthoring process works. In responding to the issues faced by the various individuals, Wimberly reveals some of the unspoken assumptions of the book. For instance, in the chapter on James and Hope, the author gives more helpful information on what he means by the call. “The biblical understanding of the call refers to divine election or commission to take our place in God’s salvation plan.” This biblical understanding may seem self-evident to many ministerial caregivers, but it is such a vague term that this definition would have been helpful earlier in the book. Wimberly then states a key difficulty related to understanding one’s call. “The cases presented here are significant because these two persons are very clear about their call to ministry. However, questions emerge for them whether the call they received has come clearly from God or from their families of origin.” This quote comes late in the book. It finally makes clear a theme Wimberly has been working out throughout the text. The author then follows with greater clarity his understanding of the call and the challenge it presents to the caregiver. James “was not then at the point of awareness that there is no clear or absolute line separating God’s call from that of the family. It is my theology that both are involved: God transforms the family-of-origin experiences into positive tools to be used in ministry.” That position is critical to understanding the theological underpinnings of the book’s thesis.
Wimberly does a similar thing later in the chapter when speaking of how Hope understands her call. She links her theology of God being in control of her life with a theme of self-sacrifice. “For her, the call to ministry locked her into the self-sacrificing mode. She then had very little awareness of a God who calls people with a strong sense of self, so she gave in to ministry feeling that she would lose her true self forever.” The author is illustrating the decisive importance of theology in the shaping of a caregiver’s approach to life, but he has waited until late in the book to make the connection clear. He then adds a key sentence of general understanding that reaches far beyond Hope’s specific circumstances when he says, “Theologically, a true sense of self comes when we are connected to God and we find our sense of self enhanced by the relationship. In relationship to God, we discover a self and gifts that we did not previously know.” The result of the author’s approach is that some gems of understanding are hidden away from the central explanatory portions of the book.
Analysis of Writing Style
When an author has some meaningful and helpful things to say and yet fails to do so adequately, one speculates as to why. One can surmise the answer in this case from the book’s Preface, in which Wimberly said participants in his spiritual renewal retreats “began to ask if the ideas and insights I was developing had been published.” He researched the issue and “did not find any works that approached retreats and spiritual renewal in the same way I did.” This “sparked my interesting in publishing what I was trying to do in the workshops and retreats I was leading.” The stated background and goal of the book is to give more information about the spiritual retreat process the author is using; it is not the author’s goal to make a clear and concise text on personal mythology and reauthoring. The role of the retreat is a key element throughout the book, but it can be assumed that most readers will never attend such a retreat.
The sum of this book’s impact is to leave the reader with a deeper sense that one’s personal stories and favorite stories hold keys to understanding oneself and one’s ministry. Equally important, it provides a process of moving beyond negative themes and developing positive ones. As a book, this text has serious flaws that make it difficult to get to the wisdom that rests within its pages. Wimberly has a sense of how to build a good book when, at the end, he states, “God’s way of working in our lives is very much like the unfolding of a book: it proceeds one chapter at a time. Recalling our own stories as a process, one step at a time, is a good way to renew our lives as religious caregivers.” Those are wise words for ministers and writers, but are not so easy to follow.
International Theological Center. “Full Time Faculty.” International Theological Center web site. http://www.itc.edu/pages/mission_vision.asp (accessed September 4, 2011).
International Theological Center. “ITC Vision.” International Theological Center web site. http://www.itc.edu/pages/mission_vision.asp (accessed September 4, 2011).
Wimberly, Edward P. Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
 Edward P. Wimberly, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), xv.
 Ibid., xv.
 International Theological Center, “Full Time Faculty,” http://www.itc.edu/faculty-staff%20new/faculty_staff_pg2.asp (accessed September 4, 2011).
 International Theological Center, “Full Time Faculty.”
 Wimberly, xv.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 133.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 136.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 29-32.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 101.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., xi.
 Ibid., 142.