A CRITICAL REVIEW OF
KNOW YOUR STORY AND LEAD WITH IT
Ministers today function in a cultural context that often leads them and their congregations to pursue and expect a type of leadership more associated with corporations than with the Savior they proclaim. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones offer another way, which they call narrative leadership. The authors send ministers back into their memories to discover what God is trying to do in their lives, but they do not send those ministers alone. They promote a journey back into the minister’s own story with the help of clergy peers functioning in a trusting group. And one of the results, the authors maintain, will be a style of leadership that is more like that of their Savior.
Hester and Walker-Jones bring contrasting experiences to the authorship of this book. As the introduction says, Hester is a therapist and former professor, while Walker-Jones is a minister and devoted mother. More specifically, the two of them are co-directors of the Narrative Leadership Project at Triangle Pastoral Counseling (TPC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hester served on the TPC staff 1975-1991 while he was professor of pastoral theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He then left the seminary and TPC to become executive director of the Georgia Association for Pastoral Care in Atlanta before returning to TPC in 1996. Walker-Jones is an ordained United Methodist minister. A minister for more than 25 years, “her experience includes rural church ministry, large church staff ministry and serving on the staff at Duke Divinity School where she worked extensively with ministerial students in recruitment, supervision, and field placement.”
Summary of Contents
The authors set out to “show ministers how to explore their story of reality, how to tell it to other group members, and to consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership.” The book is the result of a “six-year Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project” that explored narrative leadership of clergy peer groups. This leadership approach “promotes a different kind of social power,” which “grows out of appreciation for people’s stories and the often unrecognized resources that reside in those stories.” By “social power,” the authors seem to mean the power of self-understanding that can arise out of small-group relationships.
Hester and Walker-Jones do not simply promote a sharing of stories; they set forth a context for sharing that helps the story’s author see things about his/her life that may have not been self-evident. This approach relies on group participants taking a “non-knowing” position in relation to the story-teller’s story. It involves a process of extracting information that the story’s author may have left out, facts the book refers to as being on “the cutting-room floor” of our memories. This process of sharing and interacting is designed to create “liminal space” in which the minister’s normal activities are suspended and new understanding can be pursued.
There are six “perspectives” to developing narrative leadership via this approach. They are as follows: Knowing your story and leading with it; understanding there is more than one story; taking a not-knowing position to other people’s stories; avoiding fixing, saving, and advising others; seeking transformation, not success; and participating in a group of clergy peers.
After laying out the details of the process, the authors provide direction for readers to form and lead such groups. In other words, the authors have set forth a process for personal enrichment and then provide direction for helping the reader become a means for personal enrichment for others.
Analysis of Content
Hester and Walker-Jones stay true to their purpose throughout the book, helping ministers discover a process for exploring their personal stories, sharing it with a peer group, and using it as a resource for leadership. It could, however, be said that they were less successful in the third of those goals since the bulk of the book is occupied with the first two aspects.
The notion that a minister can gain understanding about his/her life and ministry from what is not remembered is rather counter-intuitive, but that essentially is a major point the authors are making. “This gap between what actually took place and what people can tell of it is the space where a narrative approach does its primary work.” (authors’ italic) The authors’ six-year study showed that “material from the cutting room floor often provides a story about the minister’s strength, courage, and resourcefulness that isn’t in the version being told.” It is interesting that the writers see this only in negative terms; in other words, it says the ministers have only forgotten good things about themselves and their experience. That would be surprising on its face. It seems more likely that ministers are just as likely to have forgotten bad things about themselves as the good—that gathering information from the cutting room floor does not only reveal hidden strengths but hidden weaknesses, as well. The authors’ perspective seems to imply a weakness of ego that is not always obvious in a minister, or anyone else for that matter. If such a one-sided experience was encountered in the study then it would point to an amazingly high level of negative self-understanding on the part of ministers. This oddity, however, does not point to a weakness in the process but in the analysis of what might be expected to be found in analyzing a person’s story.
The authors spent very little time on the theological implications of this process of exploring one’s story, but it was quite profound when explored. “God is continually at work in one’s story,” they write. “A person may or may not discern this activity.” This could probably be said of anyone, but it is strange to hear such words about ministers, whom one would think are more likely to see God at work in their lives. Hester and Walker-Jones say the ability to see God in one’s own story “goes against the grain of a supernaturalistic theology where God is located in another realm above and beyond the world and from which God inserts Godself from outside.” They challenge that notion by saying, “Jesus doesn’t visit a peasant village in order to bring God into it. He tells a parable that calls them to recognize how God is and has been at work in what they are already doing.” The Baptist tradition might both encourage and discourage this mistake. In one sense, Baptists are inclined to stress the sinful or flawed side of their nature, but they also recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit (God) in the believer’s life.
Much of the book is occupied with aspects of sharing with a group in a manner that is healthy and productive. The authors’ study has revealed that many ministers seek to lead from a position “of knowing.” In other words, they see themselves as needing to function as experts. Hester and Walker-Jones offer an alternative approach, one that is modeled in an effective clergy peer group. “The rule of ‘no fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight’ places people in a curious, not-knowing position.” Their definition of not-knowing “means taking a humble stance toward what one knows rather than promoting or validating one’s own knowledge. It means setting aside certainty and being open to learn.” It is about a “desire to understand” rather than to proclaim truth. This approach is contrary to typical cultural images of leaders as “those who know, explain, and command.”
The hoped-for result is transformation—“a change that affects everything we think and do.” There are six signs of transformation, which the authors awkwardly explain through questions related to covenant, self-definition and interpersonal connection, advocacy for justice, observation of the Sabbath, ongoing clergy peer groups, and playfulness. This is, quite simply, the weakest part of the book. It seems intended to connect the story discovery and sharing with the implementation of narrative leadership, but the connection is not clear.
In regard to this approach as being a resource for leadership, the authors said there is a reciprocal relationship between the clergy peer groups they studied and those ministers’ congregational leadership. It produced leadership in at least one minister that was both more authentic and more difficult. “Will bears witness to the fact that narrative leadership goes against the grain of conventional wisdom about leadership, and it often produces resistance.”
The authors then point to the theological changes engendered by this approach. They summed it up by saying the following:
“Not-knowing runs as a thread through these testimonies of theological change. It is in fact at the root of all of these changes. When you take a not-knowing position, you break out of the theology of conventional wisdom, which is a knowing theology. … We hear from these ministers an alternative theological narrative of curiosity that embraces the uncertainty of trusting God.”
The effect of such leadership is that it invites cultural change in human communities, such as congregations. “When clergy know their stories, they become more secure in their own skin. … This gives them the freedom to embrace diversity and enables them to appreciate the authenticity of other people and groups.”
Hester and Walker-Jones lift up Jesus as the role model for narrative leadership. Jesus delivered his message through stories, and he challenged the prevailing narratives of his time that supported the powerful and privileged. Jesus offered stories of hope among the peasants.
“If Jesus’s transformative leadership challenged conventional wisdom with God’s unconventional wisdom, as did the prophets before him, then it follows that clergy today are summoned to an unconventional leadership despite the fact that pursuit of an unconventional wisdom involves greater risks than staying within the safety of conventional thought and practice.”
Thus the authors offer the most theologically profound connection of the book but separate the linkage by about sixty pages.
Analysis of Writing Style
This book has the advantages and disadvantages of most co-authored books. The advantage is that the interplay of writers tends to produce a well-organized presentation of information, and that is the case here. The disadvantage is that such writing tends to lack life and creativity of expression, and that is evident in this book, as well.
Contribution to Peer Group
It is hard to imagine any group of contemporary ministers not benefiting from this book, and that surely would apply to Texas Baptist ministers. In fact, it might help the latter group more than most because they are trained to look primarily at Scripture for seeing the work of God. Christian history has surely shown that God has been at work for centuries, and personal experience should affirm that God is still at work despite our difficulty in seeing that work. Baptist ministers know this, of course, but if they are like the ministers in the study they may have trouble seeing it in their own lives.
Hester and Walker-Jones implore ministers to take a journey into their own thoughts and memories in order to understand how God is at work in their lives. They do this in the desire to help those ministers lead more effectively out of their stories through narrative leadership. They take this approach themselves, connecting their process to the many stories of those ministers who helped them develop it. They set forth an approach that would seem to offer great help to many ministers, but one that also requires much change and courage.
Hester, Richard L. and Walker-Jones, Kelli. Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership. Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2009.
Triangle Pastoral Counseling, “The Narrative Leadership Project,” http://www.tripastoralcounseling.org/narrative-leadership-project.asp (accessed November 5, 2011).
Triangle Pastoral Counseling, “Our Counselors and Staff,” http://www.tripastoralcounseling.org/our-staff.asp (accessed November 5, 2011).
 Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership, (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2009), 1.
 Triangle Pastoral Counseling, “Our Counselors and Staff,” http://www.tripastoralcounseling.org/our-staff.asp (accessed November 5, 2011).
 Hester and Walker-Jones, 3.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 101-102.
 Ibid., 105.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 47.