Stories, Metrics and Leadership in Churches

Guest post by The Revd Dr Vaughan S Roberts, alumnus of the House

In his book The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton University Press, 2018) Jerry Z. Muller from the Catholic University of America argues that a ‘metric fixation’ has been counterproductive for many areas in contemporary society. These include higher education, schools, medicine, policing, the military, business and finance, philanthropy and foreign aid. He is a historian with a research interest in public policy and locates the origins of the idea that organizations would be more efficient if they were paid on measured performance in the Victorian English education system.

Having said that, Muller is not wholly against metrics and sees value in them but argues they need to be very carefully assessed. He concludes by saying they are not a silver bullet and certainly ‘no substitute for actually knowing one’s subject and one’s organization, which is partly a matter of experience and partly a matter of unquantifiable skill’ (p 183).

‘A vital part of knowing one’s organization
is understanding its story’

A vital part of knowing one’s organization is understanding its story. In Leading by Story (SCM Press, 2017), Professor David Sims and I explore how organizational storytelling works in churches and identify various forms of narrative commonly found there. 

In particular, Interpretive Narratives; Identity Narratives; and Improvised Narratives.

Interpretive narratives are those which we tell or enact to frame the lives of churches and all who are involved in those communities within the context of the culture and society in which they are set. There are three which are very significant: (i) Theological Stories, (ii) Ecclesial Stories, and (iii) Liturgical Stories.

(i) Theological Stories – are the communal theological narratives being told and rehearsed within churches, which shape how the outside world is perceived as well as framing some of the internal conflicts. Good examples are stories found at denominational levels – for instance the theological stories told by Anglicans and Catholics about the nature of authority in those two churches have similarities but also some significant differences (e.g. the Reformation).

(ii) Ecclesial Stories – something similar is true regarding the stories being told by the different churches about their own organizational autobiographies. So, although Methodism and the Church of England are close siblings – the stories they tell about themselves and each other unavoidably shape their interactions (or lack of them).

(iii) Liturgical Stories – churches and congregations rehearse their theological, ecclesial and other stories through their liturgy. Those churches that have a weekly Eucharist focussed on an altar and those that have a weekly Service of the Word or Praise Service focussed on a screen are saying something very different about their understanding of the Church and its mission.

The second family of stories are the identity narratives, which are those at our core understanding of who we are, and here we start to address local churches themselves. Again there are three narratives that are key: (i) Personal Stories, (ii) Historical Stories, and (iii) Organizational Stories.

(i) Personal Stories – are the autobiographical stories of those presently working at a church (clergy, wardens, volunteers) and those who use the buildings (worshippers, tourists, local stakeholders) but there are also the biographies of previous vicars, past bell ringers, even former animals or pets. One tiny instance I came across at St John the Divine, NY can stand for much bigger examples. In that vast building the symbol for the Anglican Communion, the compass rose, is set into its floor. It was designed by a venerable priest of the Cathedral, Canon Edward West, who is now buried beneath it. In talking to the Canon Precentor she remarked how she would instruct processions to turn right at the compass rose whilst longstanding members of the serving team would relay that instruction in the form of: ‘turn right at Canon West.’

(ii) The Historical Story (which is different from the ecclesial interpretive story) – is the specific historical story relating to a particular place and it’s not unusual for forms of it to appear in literature: Trollope’s Barchester chronicles; Goulding’s novel The Spire, Carver’s short story ‘Cathedral’, Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth and sequel; Howatch’s Starbridge series and Catherine Fox’s Lindchester chronicles. But outside fiction each church tells at least one story (and quite often more, sometimes competing stories) which locate its identity within an historical narrative.

(iii) The Organizational Stories about a church will range from the application of (say) Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church or those metaphors provided more recently in Helen Cameron’s Resourcing Mission to the folk wisdom which amasses around a community, and may say something like: the organization here has always been ‘muddled’ or ‘clear-sighted’ or ‘in need of more business expertise’. Whilst images such as understanding the church as a servant (Dulles) or a public utility (Cameron) will shape the stories being told in that particular place.

Finally, there are the improvised narratives that are regularly being reworked and rewritten through the daily life of a church. We identify eight of these: (i) Finance, (ii) Architecture, (iii) Governance, (iv) Pastoral, (v) Mission, (vi) Education, (vii) Media; (viii) Art. But we would argue there are, in effect, nine of them because we have to take into account those unmanaged narratives such as gossip, jokes and untold stories which are always part of church and organizational life, operating in the narrative gaps.

Significantly, some have queried whether finance is a story given that it’s about figures and data. However, we believe the narrative told about those figures is crucial to how they are understood and put to work in a church’s story. And that brings us back to Muller’s analysis where he points out that metrics always require interpretation. He argues that in organizations generally: that which is easily measured is least transformational and that which is most transformational is least measurable (p 156). David Sims and I argue that which is most transformational is story and that the Church should be focusing more on its stories rather than its metrics.

‘The Church should be focusing more on its stories than its metrics’

The Revd Dr Vaughan S Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick and co-author with David Sims of Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership (SCM Press). You can find him on twitter here.

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