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Leading by Story by Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims

08 June 2018

Graham James finds dominant assumptions in the C of E questioned

ONE of the curious features of everyday life is that two people can witness the same event, for example a football match, and while one will tell stories about the experience, the other may have little to report beyond the score.

The author Henry James (as I learned from this book) said that stories happened to people who were able to tell them. The simple occurrence of events isn’t a story in itself. It needs a narrator or an interpreter, well illustrated in a host of different ways in this intriguing contribution to our discussions about leadership in the Church.

One of the more contested reports about church growth a few years ago was given the title From Anecdote from Evidence. The assumption seemed to be that not much reliance could be placed on the telling of stories, but that, if the Church was to grow, there were some well-evidenced prescriptions that could be applied.

Leading by Story, jointly written by an experienced parish priest and a professor of organisational behaviour, contests such an assumption. Instead, the authors believe that the facilitation and telling of stories is essential to a healthy understanding of the character of leadership.

Leading by Story provides a critique of an instrumentalist understanding of leadership which has been dominant in the Church of England in the past decade or two. It is not a lone voice in complaining that the Church of England seems to have become captive to the notion of the “heroic leader” when it has become more suspect in other organisations.

Even potentially creative understandings of the nature of the Church can become subjected to the limitation of measurable outcomes. Vaughan Roberts explores the use of the Natural Church Development (NCD) programme in his own diocese, the diocese of Coventry.

He describes the way in which an understanding of church growth which is organic in character (based on 1 Corinthians 12) became managerial in its application, focusing only on the measurable. This seems inevitable when a theory of growth is thought to be equally applicable to all churches, in whatever situation or location.

In contrast, the contextual character of storytelling leadership may seem unfocused. It is likely, though, to be more reflective of the human condition, and perhaps even of the storytelling of Jesus Christ himself. The authors say that “in Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world and humanity,” but an invitation to be led by his story, to become part of a movement, to join a people.

One of the most striking claims in this book is that “60 years of leadership research have not even produced an agreed definition [of leadership]”. While leadership is frequently treated as a science, the contention of Leading by Story is that it is truly an art, one in which relationship, humility, and generosity may have greater impact than organisational theory.

This should hardly come as a surprise to those of us who believe that it is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in which our lives find meaning, and on which our Church is founded.

The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.

Leading by Story: Rethinking church leadership
Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims
SCM Press £25
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