Dwellers therein, prepare to be offended.
Last week I spent a full day at the Kansas Leadership Center (one of the very few things Kansas gets right, mainly because it has absolutely no ties to the state government) for professional development. The topic of the day was “use of storytelling to motivate people in order to make progress on daunting challenges.” KLC is a non-profit organization, and works with people in all types of businesses, local governments, other non-profits, and faith-based institutions.
Each attendee spent the day creating, practicing, and telling stories of who we are and challenges we’ve faced. It became apparent pretty quickly that the use of story can be very powerful in situations where we want to work for change.
It also became apparent pretty quickly that the Bible Belt mentality makes me throw up in my mouth
a little a lot.
In my small group of fifteen, half of the people stood up and told V-E-R-Y religious based stories. How Jesus changed my life. How I learned to trust God. How God saved me from disaster. I was there that day with a couple of my favorite colleagues. The three of us were split into separate small groups, and their experience was the same.
Note: My two colleagues and I have all worked together for the same church for many years. Director of Children’s Ministry (me), Director of Youth Ministry, and Contemporary Worship Coordinator.
When person #7 in my group sat down to applause after what was basically a fundamentalist testimony, I had a hard time joining in on the clapping. It wasn’t just that I was uncomfortable with the message. I was, quite simply, shocked by the way the exercise was being hijacked.
And then, I found a new best friend seated immediately to my left. During the time for comments on that particular speaker’s story, she offered this critique:
“You know, I feel I just have to say something here. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the use of faith stories in this setting. I think it’s important when using story that you consider three things. One, that in most business settings it’s entirely inappropriate to share this type of story. Two, you have no idea how such a story might affect someone in the room – some might be really turned off. Three, you can really get yourself into trouble.”
I wish I’d been brave enough to speak my mind in this way. But I’d been burned earlier in the day. I had mentioned within the small group that I rarely introduce myself to people by telling them what my full-time job is – because in this region of the country, people tend to make some assumptions about churches and church workers that are absolutely the antithesis of who I am and what I believe. When I’d dropped that statement, the chorus of crickets was deafening.
My neighbor’s comment was met with silence and blank faces, as well. At the end of that session, I thanked her for speaking up, and we had an excellent conversation.
My colleagues and I, comparing notes on the 2 1/2 hour drive home, were shocked by the direction taken in so many of the stories we heard that day.
Yes, our three jobs and our callings are all about faith. But our faith tradition comes with a couple of basic truths: #1 – There’s a time and a place for everything. Be sensitive to those around you who might be different from you. And #2 – How we live and behave is a hell of a lot more important than what we say. We choose, quite deliberately, not to sneak up on people with conversations about faith.
It’s no small thing that I work closely with people who share my beliefs and my worldview, here in the scripture-thumping Bible Belt.
And if any churches on the east coast are looking for three experienced, progressive lay employees, we’d be interested.