Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: What stories should we tell?

Elderly man talking to several young adults

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The stories we tell about ourselves and our institutions form us, as well as future generations. What core values do they convey? wonders a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The stories we tell form us as people. They show us who we are and who we could still become. They form our young people as well.

This past July, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary of my husband’s parents. As a part of the celebration, 75 family members filled a local park for an afternoon of shared food, stories, games, prayer and visiting.

I was captivated by both the first generation and the third -- the surviving Wirzba brothers and their wives, almost all in their 80s now, and the more than 30 young people, ages 13 to 31. Throughout our visit, we listened to stories told in broken voices by the first generation, who had experienced unspeakable suffering and loss in World War II Europe and whose lives were still shaped by those stories.

I had heard the stories for many years, and already had been moved by their power. What was new was the way in which the third generation -- my children and their many cousins -- listened and responded to the stories, now that they were old enough to appreciate them. And they asked for more.

The themes of the stories kept coming back to a kerygma of courage, hard work, endurance, sacrifice, hope, and faith and trust in the grace and mercy of God.

Uncle Emil, the oldest of the remaining brothers, told how, in the last months of the war, he and hundreds of other 16-year-old Germans were forced into the army by the desperate Nazis. Not trained or equipped to fight, they were captured almost immediately by the Allies and confined for three months in an open-air field. Two-thirds of these German teenagers died from exposure and starvation as they stood packed in like cattle through the nightmarish months.

When the war ended, the gates were opened and the young men who were still alive were told to go. Uncle Emil described how, barely alive, he stumbled out of the prison field and walked to the nearest town. He knocked on the first door he found. The family living there took him in, fed and clothed him, and adopted him as their son until, months later, he was able to locate his own family and emigrate to Canada.

The love this family showed to a stranger, no questions asked, provided Uncle Emil with hope and faith in God’s grace and mercy at a desperate time. Against the horror and inhumanity that surrounded them, the family willing to take in a stranger embodied the faith that ultimately helped the Wirzba family survive.

I recently spent a week with a group of young leaders for Foundations of Christian Leadership. We discussed many stories, including the institutional narratives they wrote in preparation for the event, and the stories of how and why they lead.

And we asked many questions:

  • What stories should we tell? What are the core values we convey when we tell them?
  • How do we steward and share our institutional stories?
  • How do we avoid telling just the easy stories? How do we honor the neglected and uncomfortable ones?
  • Are our stories of fear or of hope? Do we root our stories in our faith or in our doubts?
  • What stories do our institutions tell our young people? Are they stories that encourage and sustain? Are they stories of sacrifice, thriving and hope?
  • In what ways might hopeful stories help attract and form that elusive generation of young people who are not interested in the church?
  • How do we choose which story will define us? How do we choose a story that promises “a new start” versus “more of the same”?

Stories of trial and hope abound in my husband’s family, as they do in all families and institutions. Told in the spirit of love and thanksgiving and rooted in an unshakeable faith, those stories have formed us as people. At the reunion, I was acutely aware of the effect our stories are having on our younger generations as well, shaping who they are -- their sense of the past, the present and the future.