Chris Blumhofer: A sick church in a health- and youth-obsessed culture

Communities need leaders to make sense of their life in story. Sometimes without words.

N. Graham Standish has described the primary role of a pastor as a “narrative leader.” In a fantastic reflection, he wrote essentially this: Congregational leadership requires pastors to discern the story of God’s work in the church. Pastors lead as they interpret and retell the events of everyday life within the story of the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ. Great leaders are both the authors and the interpreters of the stories their churches inhabit. That’s the “narrative leadership” principle (there are many notable parallels with this site’s recent interview with Clyde Edgerton).

A few years ago, my pastor’s wife received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Other members of our body heard similar bad news from their doctors at around the same time. Men and women, many in the prime of life, were suffering. In the course of a few months, everyone in our large church learned to match names and faces when the sick were prayed for.

Then one Sunday our pastor entered for the service and caught every eye. His full head of dark brown hair was gone, replaced by a shaved scalp that reflected the glaring lights above the pulpit. Marie had started radiation. As long as her hair failed to grow, our pastor explained, so would his.

Many of us in the pews knew the events that were unfolding around us: we were becoming a sick church in the midst of a health- and youth-obsessed culture. This we could observe with our eyes. But to frame those events into a coherent story about who we were required something more -- storytelling that we could hear and see.

In an answer to many prayers, Marie’s cancer eventually entered remission, and our pastor stopped bic-ing his head. Maybe it was his genes or the stress of the last year of his life, but he never did get all of his hair back. What did grow was thinner and more gray.

Time passed, and others in the church who had fallen ill went through their courses. Some got a clean bill of health. Some didn’t. After a few months the dominant storyline in our church changed. It never faded entirely, however. A handful of awful situations had been woven together into a story of God’s people suffering with one another. Narrative, embodied leadership had transformed the sufferings of a few into the sufferings of many. “We felt that we had received the sentence of death,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Chris Blumhofer is a student at Duke Divinity School and is pursuing ordination in the PC(USA).