No topic in pastoral studies is hotter right now that the literature in narrative leadership. The Alban Institute has an interesting collection of new resources on narrative leadership in congregations by Larry Goleman. (Steve Denning is doing the most high-profile work on narrative leadership in the for-profit sector.)
A narrative or story is most simply described as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like a congregation, a theological school has a unique and distinctive history, a saga that is passed down through the generations. Each school has stories of its founding years, charismatic leaders, the golden era, and the dark times. These narratives spark the imagination and help us make meaning of our present times. They provide plausibility structures for future possibilities. Goleman's recent findings on this are particularly compelling.
A good president or dean knows how to frame and re-frame a seminary's activities in the context of the larger institutional saga in order to find new ways forward. When external pressures close a door, a good story can often open a window.
But narrative leadership can also be a useful tool on the governing board. The institution's saga can be more than informative for new board members; it can be normative for newcomers (not to mention old-timers) as they grasp for what the institution is about and their role in its governance. So how does the story get told?
- Invite a retired professor, president, or trustee to a board dinner to recount past successes and challenges, and how the school grew through them.
- Ask a respected alum to visit the board for a celebration.
- Suggest that the dean read excerpts from early catalogs and reflect on the values that are still present in the life of the seminary.
- Be sure that the longest-serving board members have plenty of opportunities to speak about current challenges in light of their experience.
Whatever the technique, constantly infusing the board with the institution's narratives greases the imagination and keeps the wheel's of innovation spinning toward a vitality and vibrancy.