Teaching ministry students to ask beautiful questions

Narrative practice offers an excellent resource for the work of pastoral care.

There’s a case study I often use in my pastoral care courses. Imagine that you are a pastor having a conversation with an elderly parishioner who is angry and dissatisfied with the church. He complains that the church has declined; it is but a shadow of what it used to be. “Years ago, when I was superintendent of the Sunday school, the parking lot was full, the preaching was superb, and the church was thriving. It’s not like that anymore. So much has been lost.” After patiently and non-defensively listening to the parishioner’s story, you recognize that the man has faced many losses. He is talking not only about the decline of the congregation but also indirectly about himself and his sense of his own diminishing vigor. What should you do with this realization? Where does the conversation go next?

I use this scenario to illustrate an approach to pastoral conversation that I’ve been teaching for the last 12 years: narrative spiritual care. More and more, I am persuaded that a narrative focus offers students, chaplains, pastors, and other practitioners one of the best resources available for the meaning-making work of spiritual care. Teaching this approach is a delight. As I watch students try out various practice exercises, I always sense an increase in the energy level in the classroom. Sometimes teaching itself becomes a form of narrative practice, as new stories emerge in our shared conversations.

Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester, early contributors to the development of narrative practice, summarize it well in the title of their 2001 book Telling Our Stories in Ways That Make Us Stronger. As Indigenous Australian women, Wingard and Lester recognize the importance of their people’s history and the power of being able to tell their own stories, wherein they emphasize the links between grief, loss, and injustice. They also note that Aboriginal people have their own healing ways, their own spirituality, and their own wisdom that they need to recall and document for themselves and their communities. Wingard and Lester illustrate a key narrative principle: that people are the experts on their own stories.