Narrative Therapy as a Strategy toward Systemic Change? A Response to Teresa Chávez Sauceda – Gail Doering

gail doering_ecclesioWhen Teresa asked me to respond or dialogue with her essay, I was not exactly sure what I was agreeing to do.  The time has come and I have read her offering with rapt interest as change and change in the church, as well as transitional ministry, are all passions of mine.

I’m going to pick up two major points that she has made and “play” with them a bit.  The first is her accurate description of the stronghold that systems theory has had on the church and in her work with anti-racism training and shifting norms, biases and expectations.  When I attended my first introductory interim ministry training session, family systems theory was at least 1/3 of our focus for the week’s session.  While I see value in the theory, it feels a bit old and tired to me.  I am often frustrated that the church’s ideas of change are to take someone else’s 20 year old model that was designed for another discipline (business, psychology, etc) and apply it to our biblical, theological and ecclesiastical context.

I recall one article in all my reading, in which someone from Alban or a contributor to Alban Institute’s journal, wrote about a different approach.  She was a proponent of looking at the foundational principles of Narrative Therapy to address change and challenge in the church.

The Narrative Therapy Centre of Toronto’s website describes narrative therapy as

a collaborative and non-pathologizing approach to counselling and community work which centres people as the experts of their own lives. A narrative approach views problems as separate from people and assumes people as having many skills, abilities, values, commitments, beliefs and competencies that will assist them to change their relationship with the problems influencing their lives. It is a way of working that considers the broader context of people’s lives particularly in the various dimensions of diversity including class, race, gender, sexual orientation and ability.

Stories in a ‘narrative therapy’ context are made up of events, linked by a theme, occurring over time and according to a plot. A story emerges as certain events are privileged and selected out over other events as more important or true. As the story takes shape, it invites the teller to further select only certain information while other events become neglected and thus the same story is continually told….

and concludes that

…within a narrative framework, people’s lives and identities are seen as multi-storied versus single-storied. Moreover the focus is not on ‘experts’ solving problems. It is on people co-discovering through conversations, the hopeful, preferred, and previously unrecognized and hidden possibilities contained within themselves and unseen story-lines. To this end, those interested in narrative practices collaborate with people in ‘re-authoring’ the stories of their lives.


I would say that for me, I do not want to be the diagnostician or the problem solver or the doctor for any individual church’s “problem.”  I would much prefer to be a co-collaborator or creator, a narrative seeker, a story teller or writer, alongside the people who have been living the narrative for much, much longer than I.

If one replaces individual with church in the description, the possibilities seem endless.  So, I would say that to this end, those interested in narrative practices collaborate with the church in ‘re-authoring’ the stories of the life and future of the church.  The approach is then holistic, collaborative and dynamic.  It also seems less “identified patient” centric and more abundant than family systems theory.

My experience in churches is that when we as pastors do all the work and are the resident expert or clinician, we are the ones doing all the analysis, and we perform all the “counseling” then the church is quite happy to make the “problems” and the “solutions” all about us, the pastor.  But my theological and Biblical understanding of the church is that it is communal and relational.  Worship, one of the primary acts of most worshipping communities, is defined literally as the “work of the people,” and not the “work of the pastor.”  So, in my contexts, I look for the health and I seek the energy and start from there, looking to those people and areas for new growth, energy and passion.

Teresa concludes her essay with these words:

“If we want to change the church, we have to confront our own brokenness within the church, the structures of power that create barriers to those we have wittingly and unwittingly defined as “other”.  I have no illusions about it being easy, but my own experience teaches me, this is the path to life and wholeness, to the fullness of life with God and with my neighbor.”

So true.  The question remains, how do we best do so?  I believe we need thinking, practicing and doing groups who are out doing “new things” and who are not so concerned with or afraid of change or even death and loss.  Most recently, I’ve had conversations with colleagues in which we muse about churches just using themselves, spending every dime, allowing their buildings to be used for free or caring less about whether the use is by people “just like us.”  What does it or will it look like, when the church finally decides to live the words of “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” or “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend,” or “behold, I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?”  God only knows!


PCUSA Teaching Elder Gail Doering, describing herself, says:

One of the theological statements of the church, from the Westminster Catechism is “Q: What is the chief end of man (human)?  A: To love God and enjoy God forever.”  I do my best to live by this challenge each and every day.  I truly believe that God created us ALL and that somehow, in some weird and zany way, even when I think it is not possible, every one of us has some amazing gifts to share with the universe.  I also believe that there are all sorts of forces and barriers and destructive tendencies that scare that goodness out of us. 

I grew up in Kansas, moved to California at age 20, married, divorce and remarried to my now husband, David, had two children in the second marriage, had a blossoming high tech career in Silicon Valley when God came a-knockin’ with such a force that He/She could not be ignored.  I graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2001 (at age 42) and have served 4 churches, all in the Bay Area.  I feel that Interim Ministry and entrepreneurial and innovative church expressions are my true calling. 

Outside of my work and calling as a minister in the church of Jesus Christ, I love to sing, walk, take water aerobics classes, read a good book while curled up in a cozy chair and drinking my favorite cup of tea or coffee.    I also can often be found at a baseball game, a high school football game or in front of my TV watching March Madness. 

My favorite quote is, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” 

One thought on “Narrative Therapy as a Strategy toward Systemic Change? A Response to Teresa Chávez Sauceda – Gail Doering

  • October 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    The following article may be of interest.
    Paul O’Grady,Paul Rigby, John Van Den Hengel “Must a hermeneutical psychoanalysis exclude science?” Man and World. April 1995, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 115-128.


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