Victoria Atkinson White: Storytelling and holy friendship

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Storytelling is a vital part of the practice of “holy friendship.” For both individuals and institutions, stories are how holy friends can speak hard truths in love, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Storytelling has always been crucial to human flourishing. Stories are how people connect, learn about and share with one another. They are the stuff with which we create a common understanding of our shared past, present and future.

Our stories, however, are not always tales of profound joy, triumph and success. As often as not, they are tales of loss and failure.

No wonder, then, that storytelling is a vital part of the practice of “holy friendship.” Stories are how holy friends can speak hard truths in love.

This holds not just for individuals but also for institutions -- especially, I believe, for Christian institutions and those who lead them.

Whether for individuals or institutions, holy friendship is a tall order. As L. Gregory Jones has written, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.” In holy friendship, we open ourselves to an honesty that is critical to our growth but can be uncomfortable for us to hear.

Having others name our sins is painful, of course. So too, for some, is having them affirm our gifts and give voice to our hidden dreams -- especially when that highlights how short we have fallen. Even so, we need to hear difficult truths about ourselves in order to grow into the people God created us to be. When holy friends couch these truths in stories, they make them easier to hear and our need to change easier to accept.

For generations, God’s faithful have had examples of holy friends telling stories that deliver challenging messages and remind loved ones of their place in God’s ongoing story of love, loss, hope, grace and redemption. More than 80 times, the Old and New Testaments recall God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, with each account rooting the original readers and us today in God’s story of love for the world. The same story, told many times and in many ways, tells us who we are, where we have been and where God is leading us.

Holy friends can also help us re-narrate old stories that we need to hear with a new interpretation and fresh ears.

We all have stories that we replay in our heads over and over -- usually, negative stories that reinforce our failures, shortcomings or regrets. Attentive and caring holy friends often sense when we are listening to these old narratives and can re-narrate them in ways that we cannot do for ourselves. Holy friends can help locate these stories within God’s larger ongoing story, opening our eyes to see where we have, in fact, grown and changed. Similarly, they can help us write new stories for the future, of what and who, with God’s help, we can become.

The same is true for institutions. A church or other Christian institution can cling to old stories and become stuck in tragic events, moments of human brokenness that happened generations ago. Though the original events may be difficult even to recall, they still shape the institution’s present and its understanding of itself. Time can certainly bring healing, but so too can holy friends who offer new perspectives and reframe old stories.

Years ago, I served on the staff of a nonprofit that experienced a series of crushing financial blows caused by poor decisions and mismanagement by a string of leaders. Each time, we thought the new leadership would be different, but the same thing always happened again. The staff, while trying to remain faithful to the organization’s mission, found themselves second-guessing everything and everyone. No one knew exactly what was happening; various people held different pieces of the puzzle. With each setback, our situation became more embarrassing and more public.

Finally, a new executive director, appointed from outside the institution, revealed some hard truths. She provided complete financial transparency, giving all the staff and constituents a clear picture of the past and present. She told us again the story of the organization’s history, all the good it had accomplished and the bad it had allowed.

Now, our sins were known. Everything was out in the open. There was nothing more to fear. She reminded us that most organizations live in fear that their secrets might be revealed. (Because we all, individuals and organizations alike, have secrets.) We no longer had anything to hide -- which was a gift that she encouraged us to claim and live into.

Had she only told us the story of what happened in the past, had she only named the sins our organization’s leaders had committed, the impact would have been devastating. But instead, she continued the story, helping us re-narrate a new story of our organization’s future.

Although ghosts from the past still crept up sometimes, we were able to move ahead, dreaming new dreams of hope, honesty and flourishing into the future. And as it turned out, every dream she cast for the once-broken organization came true.

Today, the organization’s numbers and statistics show a thriving and healthy community partner known for its solid and transparent financial stewardship. The numbers tell us what is happening now.

But those who know the whole story -- past, present and future -- delight in the organization’s deeper success. Bad things happened, as they do everywhere. The leadership of a holy friend empowered us to reveal and confront institutional sins that needed to be brought to light, repented of and forgiven. Only then could we consider the possibility of new gifts to be claimed and new dreams to be lived into.

Holy friends, whether for individuals or institutions, use storytelling to speak difficult truths we might otherwise not be able to hear. In so doing, they help us grow and flourish in our unique individual and corporate roles in God’s ongoing story.