Susan Beaumont writes: “We all preserve memories through story. In organizations, newcomers are told stories of the past as a way of promoting the culture, the values, and the vision of the congregation. But the telling of stories is not just about scripting the past, it’s also about creating our future. The way we understand our past positions us to create futures that are imaginative and hope-filled, or discouraging and binding.”
As a new pastor in a multicultural congregation, there are some often-told stories that are familiar to me already. But there are other stories, particularly from our immigrant communities, that are not heard as often but are just as important. I needed a tool to help all of our leaders examine their stories about our ministry, not just repeat them. With Susan Beaumont’s theory as a foundation, I developed this reflection process and used it with my congregational leaders to begin unpacking and exploring these stories. I hope it will be useful to you.
Examen for Organizations
The Examen is a traditional method of prayerful awareness that is a bedrock in Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit education. It’s a short, easy way to reflect on your day and become more mindful about where you are experiencing grace or goodness and where there is room in your actions and life for growth. In this exercise, we will use the Examen to explore stories related to our organization and listen for how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us through those stories. You may do this exercise personally or guide a group of organizational leaders through the exercise.
Take a moment to settle. Take a deep breath. Get comfortable in your seat. Close your eyes. Like a rock settling on the bottom of a lake after it’s thrown in, let yourself settle.
- Ask for light and insight as you prepare to reflect on your ministry or organization. For some that light may come in the form of a sense of the Divine. For others it’s from a deep sense of your true self. Take a moment and ask for light as you begin to examine the ministry or organization.
- As you begin thinking about the ministry, it may be helpful first to think of a specific story that stands out to you from the past, either recent or distant.
Let that story take shape in your mind. Take a moment to be grateful for it. How do you identify with this story? How do you feel distant or removed from it? What perspectives do you share in common with how this story is told? Where do your perspectives differ?
- Note the emotions you feel when you think of this story, but do not judge or over-analyze. Simply acknowledge the story and pay attention to your emotions.
- How do you feel the organization served Jesus or served others in this story? How did it fail to do so?
- Where in this story did you feel peace, joy, and a sense of integrity?
- Where did you feel frustrated, dissonant, and fragmented?
- Do you feel that you connected to the organization in this story or do you feel disconnected and not valued?
- Are there things you wish would have been different in this story? Are there things that you are proud of
- In your imagination, allow Jesus to speak with you about this story—perhaps with affirmation, perhaps with challenge, perhaps with a revealing silence. How do you feel about what he may be saying to you?
- As feelings and memories of this story surface, pick one that seems important, significant, or is manifesting itself the strongest. Pause and reflect on where you, as a leader, are being invited to grow from that moment or where the organization might be invited to grow from that moment. Take a moment to pray with it.
- Call again to mind the one story that stands out to you, the words that Jesus is saying to you, and the invitation to growth. What is one thing that you would like to resolve to do in this next year so that you can better lead this organization? What do you need to help make this resolution a reality? Is there something particular you hear Jesus calling the organization to do or be in the year ahead?
Take a deep breath, and when you are ready, open your eyes and return to this space.
Reflecting on the Examen
If you are leading the Examen with a group, allow each person five minutes to share their reflections from the practice of Examen. The leader should ring a chime to mark the end of each five minute segment. Each person should share only his or her own reflections without responding to others’ reflections with comments like “I like what you said about . . .” or “I remember Bill’s story a little differently.” The leader should record what is shared for group reflection after everyone has had time to share. If someone does not use the full five minutes, observe silence until the time is up and the chime is rung. If someone is still talking at the end of five minutes when the chime is rung, he should conclude his thought so the next person may begin.
Invite each person to share:
- The particular story that you were reflecting on
- How you felt about that story
- What you heard Jesus saying to you about that story
- What invitations for growth you perceived, either individually or corporately?
Framing and Reframing Our Stories
Depending on how much time is available to your group, you may in this meeting or a future meeting talk more about these stories: how do they describe your past and what kind of future do they move you toward. Discuss whether the stories you tell have a positive or negative impact on the organization. Explore what your stories teach you about the soul and character of the organization. This will help you better understand your identity, a core piece of discerning your vocation. (The other pieces of vocational discernment are our context [who are we called to serve] and our purpose [what are we called to do or become]).
Much of this material on storytelling, soulful organizations, discernment, and identity is developed from Susan Beuamont’s lectures at the 2016 Young Clergy Women Project conference. Visit Susan’s website to learn more.