Why Story?

If you’ve just started following the work of the Allender Center, or even if you’ve been around for a while, you may know us as an organization that holds space for healing from trauma and abuse. You may wonder why we place so much emphasis on story.

This continued interview of Dan Allender by his co-host, Rachael Clinton Chen, reveals the history of the inception of the Allender Center, why story is at the core of our work, and the reason we believe each of our stories are the key to discovering real meaning and connection to ourselves, to God, and to others.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, Rachael, I really enjoyed being interviewed. Uh, that was actually fun. And I’m sorry, I’ll just say, I’m sorry for my little defensive beginning talking about your driving, which is worthy of a lot more conversation, but not in that context. So all to say, to jump into what we’re going to engage today, uh, is that question of how the intersection of healing and leading have been played out not only in my work, but in the Allender Center and at least to begin with, healing was not, it was not really the central part of my thinking because my work was as a therapist in, in one realm and as a professor of counseling in another realm. And as crazy as this sounds, I just didn’t see the linkage. And so probably, Larry Crabb and I began a counseling program, in Indiana, at Grace Theological Seminary in 1982, I came or actually 1983 and I came to start my doctoral degree in 1982. So I had a year to teach. And during that year, it became incredibly clear with the students I was interacting with, they didn’t have a clue about some of the factors as to how their lives had been shaped and actually was affecting their ability to work with others. It was a dawning reality.

Rachael: Wow.

Dan: To start with an obvious, but heartbreaking point, very few counseling programs today, but even then almost none had that notion that you needed to engage your own life in order to be able to work with others. And that’s when I came up with the phrase, you cannot take anyone any further than you have gone in your own life. And that was said somewhere in that 1981/1982 basis. And it was really, I don’t know how to say it strong enough eyeopening that we had to deal with their lives to help them learn how to be a therapist. And then not that I’m the brightest bulb in the pack, but it was like, wow, well, if that’s true for them… Maybe it’s true for me. It can’t be. Well, and thankfully, at Michigan state at that point, uh, there was a requirement that you be in therapy and it was like one of the only PhD programs in the country that had that qualification. And, and so I think all that to be able to say was, um, I thought training would be enough, but actually healing and training are so bound together. At least from my standpoint that they are at some level inseparable.

Rachael: When I, you know, it’s interesting because I saw that to be true during my time, studying a master of divinity at the Seattle School, which you were a core part with other people of founding and establishing. And I came to the school, probably what seven, six or seven years after it came into being. And you know what drew me online, at least the way the school talked about itself, wasn’t so much like, oh, I will get to… I will undergo healing in order to help people. But there was a story element and a deeply relational element. And I was working in youth ministry at the time. And I was coming out of a biblical studies degree, loved, loved the Bible, loved ministry, but I was finding so much of how I’d been formed was so cognitive. And I was working with teenagers who had a lot going on and my best attempts to be like, okay, if we can just understand this story of God, that will change and help you. And also during time, like a lot of people who are doing 70, 80 hours of work of ministry, and, you know, I had my own addictions that were getting kicked up my own trauma, my own story, but those were not categories that had been offered to me. Um, and so I was really drawn to the way the school talked about relationships and story. But again, primarily for me, so I can help others. And very quickly learned, oh, I’m gonna have to undergo my own healing, my own engagement with these things, as I am being equipped to journey with others. And that phrase that has become synonymous with me to you, you can only take others as far as you’ve been willing to go yourself, did become very much a formative understanding of why healing is an important part of training and ministry education. Any kind of helping education. And I definitely see that, um, as a core part of our work with Allender Center.

Dan: Yeah. I mean, the, I won’t go into detail, but the very first sermon I ever heard as a young, young, very young and not terribly clear believer was Balaam’s ass. And I remember thinking, okay…

Rachael: I love this story.

Dan: This is good news. Well, I’m not gonna go into it other than to say the, the good news was, oh my gosh. If God can use Balaam’s ass, I’m okay. I’ve got some, I’ve got some work to do. Uh, but what I never realized was I, I was so much more akin to, you know, the, the prophets who struggled with God, like Jeremiah was when I read Jeremiah. I’m like, yeah, this is the question I have about God. And we talked the other day about Jonah. Like, yeah, Jonah makes perfect sense. Uh, other than he invited people to throw him over, that was the level of righteousness, certainly not true in my life. So all that to say, there was no need for someone to communicate to me, the concept of human depravity felt like I’d lived it long enough to know, oh, it’s true. The heart is broken beyond what seems to be repair. But I think in that slow process, being able to actually say, you know, redemption to me boils down to what do you believe about the resurrection? And I think the labor through some of the early work that I did was why doesn’t the resurrection seem very central to the work of Freud, to the work of Adler, to the work of Young, to, to therapists. Well, because they don’t believe in the resurrection. And I think that passage in 1 Corinthians 15, that we talked about awhile back, um, what became almost one of those cornerstones for me. Like if the resurrection’s not true, we’re all fools. But if it is true, there is something so profoundly transformative that this being called Jesus, the so reality of the, of the Trinity, becoming flesh incarnation, living a life of righteousness, sinlessness, but being willing to take on our brokenness and then not bound to the grave, all that was like, I don’t know how that’s supposed to change me, but it does. And yet I had not begun that hard labor of actually saying, how does it heal, but also how does one live out a sense of the calling of leading others into healing get played out through this process. And I still feel like I’m still coming to know that I don’t think one comes and goes, I know that now that’s what we teach. It’s what we are attempting to engage, which I believe, uh, is, is both a, a vantage point of reality, but also the necessity of humility to say we are just coming to understand more of what it means for the resurrection to be the basis, to look at personal and familial corporate institutional, but collective trauma. And that’s what excites me about the Allender Center is a group of people who believe the resurrection who are asking. So what, so what, how now do we live this into our lives and into others?

Rachael: Yeah. And I wanna go back to that a little bit, ’cause in some ways, you know, what we’re hoping to engage here is why do we do the work we do? And then like what is the work we do at the Allender Center? so I love starting with that sense of really grounding it in the story of Jesus and in the life and death and resurrection and ascension and ministry of Jesus that’s… and ultimately our biggest, why that we believe we’re meant for more. And there is work of evil that has come against our dignity, our personhood, our bodies, our capacity to love our capacity to participate fully in the kingdom of God. And we do believe one of the primary ways that that happens is through harm, abuse and trauma. Um, and obviously we talked a lot in our previous conversation about how such a core of your origin work was primarily around sexual abuse, but certainly many forms of abuse. And as you named so clearly really against the kingdom of evil and what is coming against like God’s creation and what we most meant for, um, and in true fashion, like you named, the Allender Center itself, came into being not because you were like, I wanna create the Center to work with people, but because someone else invited you to this idea, um, use language like, you know, Dr. Keith Anderson, use language like legacy, what’s your legacy, which I also know you’re not fond of. So we don’t have to talk about that, but…

Dan: Good, thank you.

Rachael: Here we are, you know, 10, 10 and a half, almost 11 years later. Um, and obviously so many of our core offerings that we began with were primarily healing offerings that you had been doing long before there was ever this center with your name on it. But there was a growth and a progression that I think in many ways follows what you’ve named. That you’ve always like, it took you a while to catch up that healing was a core part of things. And that training has also been, you know, uh, just a part of who you are and how you’re also gifted to move about the world and, and training others. And so…

Dan: Well, we can blame Keith for a lot and I, I love Keith Anderson and there are times I could just bop him on the head. Initially we were in the middle of changing the name of our school. Our school was named Mars Hill Graduate School. And there was another Mars Hill that was causing some level of complication in the city we lived in. And so there was kind of this movement of changing the name. And I remember the day Keith brought me in and he said, just want you to know we are in this conversation of changing the name of the school. And I’m like, I get it. I’m not for it, but you’re the president, I’ll absolutely go whatever direction you wish. And he said, well, I, I wanna just ask you to think about a possible name. And I’m like, okay. And he said, how about the Allender Seminary? And I looked at him and I, I won’t say what I said, I’ll just say, I said strong language. And he said, I understand you’d be opposed to that, but would you just hold it for a week or two and, and ponder it. And it was one of those moments where I heard the spirit say to me, don’t fight him. And I’m like, internally, I’m going, oh yeah, I will die over this one. There will not be a seminary named after me. Good Lord. I couldn’t even cash a check with my own name on it. So, but I heard the spirit say calm down and just trust me. So, two weeks later I came back in and he said, what are your thoughts? And then before I could speak, he said, let me tell you another idea. And this is when he said, I wanna think about starting an institute that will hold some of your core theory will be there hopefully after you depart this earth, blah, blah, blah. And I’m looking at him. And I said, if I agree to that, is the name, my name attached to a seminary off the table? And he said, yes. I’m like, I’m open now. I think the man set me up. It was one of the best poker moves and, and he denies it to this day. But I, I believe in the depths of my being, he knew exactly what he was doing, enraging me so that I would settle for something that would still offend me, but far less than having a school named after me. And so literally from that moment, I’m in the middle of trying to go, well, what do we do? All right. If we get an Institute, like what, and he said, pick six to eight people that you deeply trust that you look at and say, I would love for them to not just carry my legacy, but evolve and develop some of the core theory and take it further. And there were a number, but let’s just say you were one of those. Having had the privilege to work with you on the Sabbath book, it was so clear that you are a genuinely innovative, creative, passionate, righteous, and fun to fight with human being. And so you and six others, were in that first iteration of let’s just get together and engage the category of the story. I don’t think we had a clue of what was ahead, and certainly, Cathy Loerzel, particularly in terms of developing the infrastructure, we would not be able to have evolved because we weren’t planning on training until almost a year and a half in someone offered for us to come to St. Louis, to do a training on behalf of a number of therapists there. And literally I can remember, uh, like all of us sitting around going, what would we do if we had three or four weekends? Like, I don’t think we have enough material to do one.

Rachael: Sounds familiar. Sounds familiar.

Dan: Yes, it does. It does.

Rachael: Well. And I think that’s, you know, the fascinating thing, to me and something you just named, I wanna come back to and talk about story. Um, but I do just wanna name, like how quickly more and more people came and more and more people trained and more, more, and more people wanted to participate and more and more people wanted to be a part of building infrastructure. And, you know, here we are today and we have a team that I think is over 40 plus people playing multiple roles. Um, and, and I’m laughing even for myself, ’cause I was so ambivalent, like why do you want me? I’m like a pastoral. I’m not a… I mean, how many times I said, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a therapist. And I think what I’ve loved is getting to see our audience, just be people from so many different walks of life. So many different vocational places they’re located, with a deep heart for the gospel, a deep heart for healing. Um, a deep understanding that trauma and abuse are real and have impact and they wanna be equipped to help their families to help themselves, to help their communities, to, to bring a trauma informed lens to the work that they do. But here at the Allender Center, you know, we do take trauma and abuse very seriously. We’ve talked about that. We take the gospel very seriously, but we also take story very seriously. And I think that’s a question I would wanna hear more from you, Dan, even though I know this isn’t an interview, but um, like why story? Because there are a lot of different ways and we partner with a lot of those ways to engage trauma and abuse and especially the more we’re learning about the impact of abuse and trauma on the body. Like there’s a lot of companion frameworks to pursue healing from trauma and abuse. Why do we, why do we use story as a primary framework?

Dan: Well, my first response to that is look, theology is story about story. And in that sense, I personally think it is infinitely easier to train theologians, to engage the human condition than it is to change or to train therapists, to think theologically. So that’s why you were chosen girl cause your mind and heart and being thinks the story of story and you had enough insight and enough heartache, but also enough resurrection joy to actually do the work. Now I think there are a lot of our therapists who are great and brilliant theologians. And I, I just can’t imagine having somebody connected to the Allender Center who had a kind of like, oh, theology, uh, so, so far from really being helpful, blah, blah, blah. I mean, if they exist, then let them hide. But, uh, the reality is we are a theological developmental realm. So story, you know, is the essential category for 70% of the Bible. So, you can’t engage biblically the very form in which the Bible is brought to us if you’re gonna avoid the category of story. So, because I have wanted to live within the, the nexus of the Bible and the theological reflection, first and foremost, before I operate within the realm of a biblical anthropology, therefore the categories of how to engage the human heart that became the central category in a way that what could be viewed as a primary psychological viewpoint. I don’t askew. I read lots of literature. I read a lot of books that are psychological in its focus, but I’m always wanting to take it through the lens of the incarnation, the death, and resurrection, the ascension. And then as you put it, the ministry of Jesus, let alone Pentecost and the promise of his return. I I’m a little off base to your question.

Rachael: Well, I think it’s great for people to hear more. I think what you’re saying is part of why story is so primary to our work is because the story of God is primary to our work and we are storied people. So even in our story of the gospel, our story of God’s story of being the people of God, their trauma and abuse are playing out. So we also see what kind of healing we’re meant for. Um, and I think this reality, that story is really dynamic because we are in storied people. So it’s not like, oh, we have a story. It’s like, there is the story of God. We are a part of it, but we are a part of personal stories and familial stories that are playing out and collective stories where, you know, where, where we’re getting into categories of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and, and these multiple dynamic ways in which our personhood and how we relate to the world is shaped. And then when you bring in stories of harm that are woven throughout that dynamic reality, and again, believing that God is, is, you know, the author, the greatest author of our stories and longs to bring redemptive, redemptive movement into our stories that we do not believe death or harm or abuse or the ways in which harm and abuse and the work of evil have distorted our minds or disordered our bodies or brought brokenness to our relationships like that. That never gets to have the final word, but we don’t, we don’t heal and mend by denying our stories or by forgetting our stories or by somehow some way of leaving them behind. Like as if they don’t reveal, right, they’re very revelatory. And again, story is not a disembodied category. It’s so deeply embodied and lived out.

Dan: And to step further into this, that it’s not just the healing story. It’s also the leading story that our story shapes how we actually see, perceive, interpret, the Bible and every other text. So we have to have, we have to have voices that are not at least when I went to seminary, 98% of the voices were old white men who had been trained in a particular theological tradition, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And again, I’m grateful for my education. But even early on, I’m asking, you know, what does a feminist voice bring to this? What does a voice from another culture bring to the interpretive work? And I’m so grateful that, uh, a lot of my seminary education was hanging out with particularly men, uh, from vastly different cultures. And as we would talk about scripture and then to see there was a contextual lens that enabled us to see scripture from a highly varied, but still core perspective. So I think that notion of story becomes a hermeneutical lens. It becomes a transformative lens. It becomes the category that we begin to say, look, we want you to honor the brokenness of your story, but also trust and begin to celebrate the beauty of your story. And I think that was central along with the thought of this statement of, I believe help my unbelief. I’ve always known I’m an unbeliever, but I also am a believer. I think more than anything, I know I need help. And that’s what a community. And that’s what the Allender Center is meant to be a place where no matter who you are, no matter how long you’ve served, no matter how much knowledge you have, that there is always the beginning point that, you know, you need help. And it’s our story that makes that so abundantly clear. And if it’s not, wow, um, what level of delusion are you living in?

Rachael: And I mean, the reality is, and this, this is gonna get really practical for a minute, which I know as listeners, you’re not always used to us being super practical, but I do wanna take a moment to just talk about like, what is it that we actually do at the Allender Center? Cause we do a lot of different things. And for many people, one of the primary ways they engage with us is here on the podcast, um, and conversations we’re having. So you’re probably familiar again with some of the core ways we engage the world, how we think about healing, but we do have a number of offerings that, you know, range from, you know, online course, participating in online courses to doing a recovery week or a story workshop, which are more intensives that are, are more healing oriented. Again, always to the trajectory of transforming your life. We have trainings for people that are like, I actually wanna get more skills. This would really apply to the work that I’m doing. Um, again, we, we, I’m probably missing a lot of things. If there’s anything you wanna add, Dan, but I’m more just am trying to show that we really do take this call, um, to engage the story of God, to address sexual abuse and trauma from the perspective of the gospel and its intersection with psychology to make spaces for people that wanna pursue healing. To make spaces like this that are just really accessible for people that are like, I’m not ready to step into those waters yet, but I do I do wanna be in community and in conversation to books that are available and resources that are available, we love providing resources, um, for the community. And it has been really incredible to see the ways in which, we are expanding and growing how we engage and whose voice, like who gets to be at the table and, and whose context gets to be a part of the story. And so if you do find yourself interested in wanting to learn more about what is it that you could, how can you participate with the Allender Center? You can always check us out more on the, on the allendercenter.org. Um, but ultimately this intersection of healing and training and healing to lead, uh, is our primary hope that people would come and play with us and participate with us, but that ultimately they’d also be taking what they, what they get and what they have back to their communities. And that there would be that kind of gestational growth that just gets to pour out.

Dan: Yeah, the way I would put it would be this, we are honored that you would want to read us. And, you know, obviously when I use the word read, I can also just say, hear us, but let me use the word read. Um, we’re honored that you’d wanna read us, be it books, be it articles, be it, the podcast, uh, and conferences are a form of taking in reading the reality of what we’re inviting, but what we’re really wanting is to be able to have the privilege of reading you. And that’s the opportunity to actually invite you, to tell, to write or tell, your story. And that can happen in recovery week for sexual abuse. It can happen in story workshop. It can happen in some of our marriage work, but the invitation is until we get to read one another, the, the deepest transformation is in that privilege of being known and having your life read in a way that we, we say often I can see your face in a way that I cannot see my own. So to be able to read your face, your story, and to invite you into a reflection, a kind of exposition of the implications of that story is where the intrigue can actually grow to want to learn how to read other people’s stories. And really that’s what training is, is how do we help you read other people’s stories? But until you have something of the privilege of having your own story read, it will not be the same to be able to read other people’s stories. So that’s why the training is always the intersection of being read and reading others. And then the greatest work of all, which we hope to be doing through the whole process is reading the story of God into each of our lives and into one another learning how to translate the story of God into your own and through your own translating that story into the lives of others. So that’s a pretty simple process, glad to be read would prefer to read you, but to read together in a way in which we learn to read others and invite them into the story of God, it’s a good calling.

Rachael: Amen.