Telling Stories That Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shawna Bowman

Three years ago my congregation began the process of considering what God was calling us to next. Several years had passed since we had been through a major transformation: merging two congregations, closing and selling buildings, saying goodbye to faithful leaders and oversized structures, and starting a new congregation called Friendship Presbyterian Church. In the years since this new beginning, Friendship had fostered a deep sense of community, a thirst for justice, and an attitude of experimentation. Having been through such a radical transition, our capacity for risk was high and our faith that God would continue to guide us was strong.

We knew we needed to think about big questions like space and location as it related to our vision for a deeper connection to the communities we serve and the organizations we partner with. So we hired a consultant. And she came. And the first question she asked my people was: why do you come here?

Oh my goodness, their answers made my heart so happy. They said they came because this is where they are fed. They told stories about being stretched and engaged and invited to participate. They told stories about how they can be their whole selves here, about getting their hands dirty doing good work, about how this space has been a transformative one where they’ve experienced healing and God in new ways. Stories about how this is where they’ve begun to articulate a faith that makes sense, that holds up in the midst of conflict, fear, and doubt. Stories about how they can bring their family, no matter their needs, and feel welcome.

The consultant said, “Wow, you’ve got an amazing thing going here. Outside of these walls, who do you tell these stories to?”

And my people looked at one another, and they looked at the consultant and they said, “No one.”

My people were experiencing enriching worship, transformative conversations about their faith, and growth in their hunger for justice in the world but they did not have the words to articulate this outside the walls of our community. They did not have practice telling stories about their lives that connected to their faith. They did not know where to begin when it came to talking about matters of faith and their spiritual life because we don’t tell stories like that in the kiddo drop off at school or around the break table at work. We don’t often hear or tell stories about how God is working in our lives, softening our hearts or healing old wounds or whispering in our ears because these are brave and vulnerable and mystical stories and we’re way more comfortable with conversations about the weather than risking these revealing stories with friends and strangers.

If we only tell these stories inside our worship spaces and never outside, how can we expect to deepen our relationships with our neighbors? How can we expect to know and be known by organizations we hope to partner with? How can we share the transformative power of our little community if we don’t tell our stories?

And so we began to practice. We began by learning the art of storytelling, and we began to practice on one another in worship. During a series on “Meals With Jesus.” we told stories about our own kitchen tables. We brought place settings and table cloths from our homes and set the communion table each week and told stories about family meals, awkward meals, and last meals. We told stories about gifts during Advent and stories about letting go during Lent.

We also began to tell stories at session meetings that would inform our decision making and mission priorities. When we decide to try new forms of worship, we added a storytelling component to our evaluation process. Instead of simply asking folks what they liked and didn’t like after trying new forms of worship, we gathered together as community and we told stories. We told stories about what we stretched us and what challenged us, about parts of worship that gave us comfort and where we found ourselves disconnected. Hearing one another’s stories deepened our compassion and understanding for one another. It changed worship into the communal experience it’s meant to be, rather than a commodity for each individual.

When we came together to work on the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, we wanted to infuse the process with storytelling. We know we can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t know how to make sense of it or tell the stories of what it means, of how our ministries and mission are having impact, then the data doesn’t do us very much good. As you consider the stories that shape your communities and the lives of your participants you might ask these questions:

What are the stories that get told most often about your community?

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

What are our stories of resilience and our stories of change and transformation?

Many of our communities need practice in telling stories that matter. The good news is that many of us are hungry to hear and tell stories. We just need practice. Our Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry will include a storytelling process and examples from congregations. Our hope is that you will uncover these stories in your communities and that they will help shape your mission and vision. Even more importantly, we hope these stories will feed you when you’re in the midst of change and transformation.

Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-founder of Creation Lab, an art collective and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality and prophetic imagination.