To state the obvious: all organizations have life cycles. That is true whether we are thinking about faith communities, businesses, non-profits, schools, etc. We could think of organizations as a collected and sustained series of stories over time. It might be easier to think about the role of stories in our personal lives but our organizations and institutions are also made up of stories. Stories identify who the founders and key thinkers were. They help to name the heroes and villains. They point to the challenges and accomplishments, often told in ways that have climaxes, plot twists and grand conclusions. Do you know what one or two of the main “core stories” are in your community or organization? Think about the common words, phrases, and other points of humor and things we can reference easily with those who are inside the organization. You can also look for places that are avoided or not talked about. All of our communities have their own lexicons. For instance, at the College where I work, I think of the stream of stories that make up our college community, and within that stream, there are certain core stories we tell and retell. Sometimes this is done in a way that brings life to a community, but perhaps there are certain stories that we intentionally shape in one direction or another.
Core stories come in addition to core values. I have found the idea of a core value on its own to be lacking. They are often a common word – kindness – that on their own can be too thin to help with difficult decisions or complex scenarios. I believe that intentionally naming Core stories within a community can be an even more helpful and narrative way to help organizations in decision-making, understand its identity, and adjudicate between competing goods.
Here’s my working definition:
Core stories then are the stories that are true, complex, and point to underlying principles and practices of a community. They help point the way forward, give a sense of groundedness, and are open-ended enough to grow, adapt, add new information to them as we learn more, and offer new insights into the life of the community. Core stories are narrative life-forces that build on the strengths of the organization.
In contrast to a core story, I recently learned about the idea of “racquets” as a way of describing the kinds of stories that limit our mobility and freedom. Racquets are stories that happen secretly behind the scenes and give us some kind of pay off. Racquets keep people, relationships and communities fixed: they are a kind of essentialism embedded within storytelling. These racquets often emerge for a good reason and serve some purpose. Here is an example: A rivalry I have with another started out with friendly competition, pushing each other to work harder and be more creative. Eventually, I see my friend as constantly trying to undermine me and interpret everything they say and do within a context of this particular context. It becomes a racquet when neither that person, nor myself, are any longer dynamic human beings. We become static, two-dimensional versions of ourselves, everything gets read through this one particular, static lens.
An even more personal version of one of my biggest racquets I’ve ever been impacted by was the story I told about my step-father who committed suicide. Ten years after his death, through a series of reflections, I learned that I was holding his memory captive through the stories I would share about him. I used those stories to villainize him and keep him as a static figure in my life. Inadvertently, this also impacted my own emotional health and ability to move through grief. You can read more of that story here.
The other, more insidious side of a racquet, is we use them for a kind of payoff. In this instance, I may be able to gain sympathy from others, pull people to myself, demonize the other person so that I can look good. These kinds of stories fuel our addiction to being right. I find this helpful, if sometimes painful, in helping me be more aware of the racquets I keep alive.
Racquets can become central to communities when they infest our relationships and organizations in such a way that they keep us stuck. When these stories are applied to whole people groups, or applied because of a particular identity or feature that person posses, it is an even more toxic racquet known as sexism, racism, transphobia, etc. But it is important to see that not all racquets are at that level. I can have a racquet with my kids – where I tell you about how my kids never sleep and so I’m always so tired and running late, etc.
Are there stories that you or your community or organization tells that keeps people stuck in a certain place?
- We could never do that
- We are so small as a meeting, church, etc.
- We always have so little resources
- We are always so resistant to change
- They always do make the wrong decisions
- She always acts like that
- He always forgets
- She is always out to get me
- They are so unreliable
Do you see these kinds or other kinds of “racquets” within your groups? These need to be subverted, challenged, in order to help free up a community to live more fully into who and what it is meant to be.
Another way to look at core stories from a more generative perspective would be through an Appreciate Inquiry lens. Appreciative Inquiry is a change model that I have used many times in different organizational settings. I love it as a way to generate conversations within communities that looks specifically at the kinds of memories, stories, and imagines that keep that community going. Appreciative Inquiry is an approach rooted in gratefulness – gratitude as a life force that sustains communities and organizations.
- Remember a time when you were most alive in this community, who were you with, what were you doing, why?
- What is the core of this community?
- What brought you here and what keeps your here?
The underlying philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry here is that when you focus on the life-giving forces of a community, have them shared throughout through a process of storytelling, and lift those threads up as the building blocks for the future, you help to re-energize the community. In Appreciative Inquiry, you grow by building on your strengths on the core things that make you who you are.
- From appreciate Inquiry we learn that there are core stories that when you put your energy into telling them, you can transform the culture of your organization
- That there are stories and images that can help guide your future and those images and stories are already there in your community and need to be drawn out
One community could create a process around these questions and ideas and begin listening deeply for the kinds of core stories that occur frequently. They could look and listen for key themes and images that arise and use those themes and images to build a stronger identity to who they are. They could create a community timeline and begin to trace it out with core stories, key transitions and changes, etc. and use all this to help when thinking about how to revitalize their community.
Finally, there is at least one more way to work with core stories and that follow recognizing your racquets, then digging into the life-giving forces within your community, and that would be through a critical reframing of the stories that emerge. In this part of the process, you want to ask – who is left out? What perspectives are too far underground still? What are the complexities that have been left out, either on purpose or accident, and must be included so that when we tell our stories, this organization is revealed for what it is working towards.
With this last step, one creates a feedback loop. You generate stories, then inspect those stories for how they can be better. Share them out and hear the responses. Continue to hone your stories in a way that can be both life-giving and truthful. Having done this, a community might have 4 or 5 core stories that they find point them back to the guidance of the Spirit, the eternal within, which can become tools for discernment as they move forward in times of uncertainty.