Sharing Our Stories
Let Your Light Shine
I love to tell the story...
We tell stories all the time — to recount a recent success, to explain a point of view, to persuade. But do we think of telling stories as a way to gently help folks understand how God is working in the world and taking care of us?
Sometimes sharing our faith is difficult. Perhaps we have been taught that it is impolite to discuss religion (or politics) in public. Or, we don’t know what to say. But simply telling a story is not just talking about religion or God. It is neither proselytizing nor impolite, nor is it necessarily hard to do. Instead, we are recounting something that happened, much as we might tell someone about our Rotary Club's accomplishments, or what the Hospital Guild has done, or how the Boy Scouts worked to improve the community.
Every day, many of us converse with a wide variety of folks: family, friends, coworkers, shopkeepers, or members of social or civic associations. We casually chat with people we may never see again. Every day we have opportunities to share stories about the church's work that might excite, inform, or inspire them. We could tell them how our church is helping, consoling, teaching and striving for social justice, the elimination of poverty and hunger, providing shelter for people who are homeless.
Continuing a Time Honored Tradition
Telling stories follows a centuries-old tradition of sharing God's generosity. The Psalmist (145:4) promises, "One generation shall praise your works to another."
Jesus performed all sorts of good works. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He turned water into wine and fed the multitudes on a handful of loaves and fishes. People learned about these events through stories that spread widely and quickly. We wouldn't know about these deeds unless people told the stories. Moreover, because of the stories, people began to understand Jesus' message of God's love and care for each one of us.
We can do the same thing. We can tell stories of our own church's ministry to people who are sick. Of the ways we console people who are bereaved and feed people who are hungry and thirsty. We can take advantage of casual conversations about issues of the day to recount a story of our church's response to the challenges present in our communities and the world.
Do You Know the Stories?
In order to tell these stories, we need to know them. Often, our churches forget to tell us. Are stories of the ways your congregation is responding to God’s call – and the impact these ministries are having – a regular part of your congregation’s publications, website, or Facebook page? Many times the focus appears to be on upcoming events, invitations to fundraising activities, or the need for volunteers for various tasks. When we don’t share our stories, we miss the opportunity to widely share the good things that happened last week and last month.
Let’s find ways to tell the tales that describe and celebrate our programs and our recent achievements. Tell the congregation how many pounds of vegetables grown in the church garden were donated to the local food pantry and the reaction of the children in the local school when the volunteer tutors from your parish brought in books the children could take home. Talk about how it feels to be part of a community group building a house for a local family or providing assistance to people needing help applying for unemployment or health insurance. Maybe your congregation has a history of advocacy, with stories of the ways your ministries are helping to bring about positive change in your community or the world.
When we share descriptions of what happened, who was helped, the change that occurred, or what the experience felt like, other members of our congregation can then share these stories of the ways we model God’s love for us all through our actions.
But we can't tell any of these stories if we don't know them. Churches simply need to do a better job of reporting the results of their programs - their successes - that give us stories to tell.
A First Step: Sharing Our Stories with Ourselves
This doesn’t have to be difficult. An approach that I recommend is to start by recruiting two volunteers. The first one’s role is to find the stories and write brief vignettes, summarizing the program and its accomplishments after talking with leaders of the various programs. Questions to ask include providing descriptions of who helped (please get their permission to name them) As well as the type of work, service, assistance offered: "The success of our food drive combined with the fresh vegetables from our church garden, provided four hundred families with food to last them for a full week."
The second volunteer's task is to take pictures - lots of pictures - or to encourage others to take, and share, pictures. With cameras built into many mobile devices, there are often several people at any event or activity who could be asked to capture faith in action. Please remember to check your congregation’s policy on taking – and posting – pictures, especially of children and, where necessary, get release forms signed in advance.
The final step is to plan a yearlong schedule of sharing these stories - through articles in church publications, social media, or perhaps by finding opportunities to share these brief stories during worship or at coffee hour or other event.
Creating ‘Sticky’ Memories
"How to Tell a Great Story," an article from Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2014, includes tips to help create the story. In it, Nick Morgan, the author of Power Cues and founder of a communications consulting firm, warns, “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important... actually don’t stick in our minds at all.” But stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. We don't need facts and figures. Those who share good stories have a powerful tool.
And fortunately, everyone has the ability to become a better storyteller. “We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story,” says Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars. “It certainly can be taught and learned. A well-crafted story means you don’t have to demand change or effort,” he says. “People will become your partners in change because they want to be part of the journey. Just telling the story can have immense rewards.
“Stories are the original viral tool. Once you tell a very compelling story, the first thing someone does is think, ‘Who can I can tell this story to?’ For each story you tell, each time, you’re going to see returns that last for months and maybe even years."
St. Francis is reputed to have said "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." Our churches are doing a great job of preaching the Gospel without words through all of our good works. But good works by themselves simply are not enough to get out the message. We need to use words - to tell stories.
In Exodus 10:2, God instructs the Israelites "...tell your children and grandchildren...that you may know that I am the Lord."
Remember the favorite hymn, "Go Tell It on the Mountain"? Let's tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere - with stories that win hearts and minds to God.
Think about the ways your congregation can begin to share its stories with each other. One of the easier ways is to occasionally provide an opportunity during worship for a member of your congregation’s mission or program areas to briefly share a story from a recent event or activity. Groups comfortable with technology might create a short video to share during coffee hour or other social gathering as well as on your website and/or Facebook page.
Sandra Swan is the director of resource development for St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, NC. In this volunteer position she is responsible for coordinating and expanding the use of all of St. Paul's resources: human, physical, capital and financial. Sandra retired as President of Episcopal Relief and Development in 2006, and currently serves as a trustee of Church Pension Fund.
- "How to Tell a Great Story," by Carolyn O’Hara, Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2014
- Invite members of your congregation to practice sharing their faith using the Sharing Faith Dinners program developed by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas
- “Losing Ourselves in a Story” by Jeremiah Sierra, ECF Vital Practices blog post, October 6, 2014
- Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact by Nick Morgan, video
- “Sharing Our Stories” A collection of resources on ECF Vital Practices
- “Sharing Your Story – Making an Impact” a presentation by Melodie Woerman, director of communications, Episcopal Diocese of Kansas for the All Our Children Conference
- “Winning the Story Wars” by Jonah Sachs
- “Witness” by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog post, November 11, 2014
- “Writing Our Stories” by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog post, October 10, 2013