What We’re Learning: Creating Space for Stories

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, we’ll continue to share insights we’ve gleaned from Vibrant Faith’s Creating a Culture of Calling Initiative, a Lilly Endowment-Funded Initiative.  

When I was in college and STILL not sure what I wanted to major in, my high school pastor just happened to visit my church over the summer. When he saw me, he told me about a program he was leading that invited young adults to serve as youth workers in a state-wide district of the church. Within a week, I decided “what the heck, I’ll do it.” I left three weeks later for a relational adventure that quite literally launched me into the rest of my adult life. I would not be writing this today had I not jumped out of my typical college experience and into that year of uncertainty and challenge.  

That’s my calling story. But not everyone has one that is so crystal-clear and life-changing. Yet EVERYONE has one or more…  

Dr. Kathleen Cahalan of the Collegeville Institute is director of the Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative, the larger Lilly Endowment-funded work that our Calling grant is under, has studied “calling” as her life’s work. In her book, Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout LIfe’s Seasons, (2017) Cahalan asserts: “Vocation, we contend, is inherently narrative. Its first language is story.”  

She goes on to quote renowned psychologist Dan McAdams, founder of the narrative theory of personality development: “If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am.” 

Cahalan goes on: “We found McAdam’s claim to be true: telling stories about our lives helps each of us to reframe our identity and purposes. But beyond self-insight, we found that telling stories about our callings forged strong bonds of friendship. Once you hear other people’s stories about their callings, you know them in a more full and integral way and can honor and support their discernments and choices.” (p.7)  

So, one of the first things we focused on in our three-year work with churches to help them embed a culture of calling into their life together was this: You can’t talk about calling without listening for stories. 

Our stories matter to our spiritual lives the same way oxygen matters to breathing. Yet when we asked churches to create forums and spaces for people to tell their stories and discover the stories of others, it felt counter-church-cultural to most. Most of our churches were SO BUSY with all their various ministries that they had few intergenerational spaces for their people to tell and hear the stories of God’s movement in their lives. Some churches thought the goal was just to teach ABOUT calling and focus on the calling stories in Scripture to emphasize its theological importance. But “creating a culture of calling” requires intentionally creating forums and spaces in congregational life that are invite and celebrate our life-narratives.

This is how we encouraged churches to embrace this vital truth.  

  • They created space in worship for people to tell the stories of their work and how they sense God’s accompaniment in it—from moms to university professors to health care workers to business owners to retirees.   
  • Created podcasts for people to tell stories of new callings. They helped people embrace the truth that God calls us along all our life trajectory and across the breadth of our life. 
  • Asked people in life transitions to reflect on the changes they’re going through as new callings emerge.
  • Used team meetings and council meetings to tell and hear people’s calling stories.
  • Used programs to help the generations tell calling stories to one another. 

We’re still assessing the power and longterm impact that this practice has had on the life and culture of these churches—we’ll be sharing more of that information as we process the focus groups that we just completed with our 24 calling churches. So far, leaders report that opportunities for people to tell their stories in a variety of ways over three years had great impact on the lives of the people and the church itself. Calling is always about all the ways that God’s story and our stories are intertwined.  

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children. 

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