Parlor and Kitchen Stories

Post Author: Emily Elspeth Mitchell

Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths.

This spring, I took a job in a new church context. There is something so unique and exhausting about the first couple of months of a new job, trying to memorize names, make connections, and meet expectations which may or may not be spelled out. One major aspect of any new job is listening: getting people to open up, and hearing the stories that parishioners choose to tell.

As I listened to all these stories, I was reminded of something I heard at a conference a couple of years ago. The speaker talked about church in terms of parlor stories and kitchen stories. The parlor is the room in a house with immaculate carpet and formal furniture–parlor stories are those stories that cast the church in the most positive light. Parlor stories are the “official” history of the church and feature the content that would belong on a brochure. They are like a grandmother’s pristine furniture covered in plastic. They are the stories that I heard from people serving on the search committee when I was going through the interview process.

A parlor exists as a valid room of a house, and parlor stories are valid, but they are not the only truth about a church. In contrast to the parlor, different narratives emerge when people are busy scrapping food off plates and wiping down counters. Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths.

In the first couple of months of being in my new job, I have been hearing stories of failed leadership, unhealed wounds, and divisive personalities. Not every story I have heard has been told in the literal church kitchen but I identify them as kitchen stories nonetheless. I am grateful that people have confided in me and given me insight into the organization’s history and culture. But, I have felt the tension lately between information gathering and giving an audience to gossip.

Telling stories while doing dishes can be helpful, but at some point, one’s fingers start to prune and the water turns gray and greasy. At that point, it’s time to pull the sink drain plug, dry your hands, and leave the kitchen to go outside and join the party. I sense that some people in the church have had suds up to their elbows for too long; the kitchen stories are a refrain that is stuck on repeat in their minds. A colleague of mine recommended that, if a person has told me a kitchen story multiple times about a past grievance about someone else, I should try to encourage them to reflect on their own feelings about it in the present. I’m also challenging myself to listen to what is not being said, not just to what is said. I want to honor the presence of other people’s pain, and I want to honor the possibility and the hope that God will heal this pain.

Sisters, in your ministry context, you will likely hear your share of parlor stories and kitchen stories. I pray that you are equipped to listen well, not growing cynical about the parlor’s impeccable sofa and not growing weary about the kitchen’s stained linoleum. I pray that you would lead with faith, trusting that there is potential to grow and that there are other rooms to explore.  And as you explore this terrain with courage, may you discover anew that good, redemptive work is being done here and now by the Divine Storyteller.

Emily is a PC(USA) pastor serving in the Seattle area, both at a local church and a regional non-profit ministry dedicated to prayer and spiritual direction. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Whitman College. Emily enjoys reading, cooking, working out, playing trivia, and having good conversation with friends.

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