Pastoral Care When Stories Change

June 5th, 2018

All of us are shaped by stories. We communicate who we are through the stories we tell, which are influenced by the stories of our families, friends, and the communities of which we are a part. Our life story is not simply dictated to us; rather, we take an active role in interpreting the events of our lives, assigning meaning. We are not, however, the sole authors of our life stories. Other people, institutions, and cultural forces also shape our stories. And as Christians, we are also shaped by the stories of our faith and affirm that God plays an active role in writing the stories of our lives.

Over time, our stories change. As we grow and encounter new experiences and challenges, our life stories become more complex. The story I held about myself when I first entered ministry is different than the one I tell now forty years later. We are continually restorying, reinterpreting past experiences as we gain new insight and perspective. At times, this restorying process may happen gradually and naturally over our life course, or it may be more dramatic and intentional, triggered by an unexpected life change. In the face of unanticipated change, it can feel as if the plot of our life story takes an unwelcome twist. It is in these moments that we must intentionally restory our lives, which may require us to reinterpret the past as well as reimagine the future.

"Pastoral Care: Telling the Stories of Our Lives" (Abingdon Press, 2016). Order here:

Just as the stories of our lives change over time, so too do the stories of our families and the institutions to which we belong. In 1968 the stories of both the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church changed with the merger that produced The United Methodist Church. This was not the first time the story of the Methodist Church changed due to a division or merger. And just as we must restory our individual life stories, we may also need to engage in intentional restorying for the communities or institutions of which we are a part.

Pastors and thoughtful leaders bring a narrative competence to the work of restorying life in all its frustrating chaos and comforting consistency. While many people are able to engage in an intentional process of restorying by themselves, others may need assistance. In these cases, we might employ one of the following strategies for restorying.

  1. Life Story Review: In its simplest form, this strategy encourages an individual to simply tell her or his life story. An opening question—such as, “Tell me something about your life”—may be all that is required to get the process started. It is important that the listener is attending to the story as a whole and not as a vehicle for conveying information. Underlying this strategy is an assumption that an intentional telling to a focused listener will allow the teller to make new connections between parts of the story and come to new insights or interpretations about the story. Stories convey meaning, and we are listening for the meaning assigned to life events.

  2. Expand or Thicken the Plot: Sudden changes in the plot of our life story are often accompanied by an experience of loss, which can lead to our narratives becoming thin or fixed. New plot material may stir up a story that has become frozen or stuck with little room for an open or expanding future story. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild depicts the narrowing and disintegration of her life narrative following her mother’s death. Only when she initiates a radical new plot direction by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail does she begin to construct a new, life-giving plot line.

  3. Develop a New or Revised Interpretation: Not only are there two or more sides to any story; there are also multiple interpretations and meanings. If we believe the Spirit is moving us—the church and the world—toward the fulfillment of a divine vision, then we are not the only ones writing our future story, and there is a larger one perspective on our stories than we may be able to grasp.

When we find ourselves in the midst of change, turmoil, chaos, or instability, our faith reminds us that even as we plan for the future, God will continue to surprise us. Our faith affirms that God is moving us, the church, and all creations toward divine purpose, which is a larger story than we can see or imagine. If we listen carefully, perhaps we hear the whisper of the Spirit and find the courage to restory our lives and move into a future we could not envision ourselves.

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